Swamiland

According to the brochure, which could be obtained in about 10 languages, including Dutch, the Swaminarayan Akshardham is ‘a unique complex of Indian culture […]. It beautifully showcases Indian art, wisdom, heritage and values as a tribute to Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830) a torchbearer of Indian culture.’

From what I learned about Baghwan Swaminarayan he started a movement when, as a young boy he walked out of his parents’ house. Dressed in only a loincloth he traversed India by foot from north to south and west to east, all that (including the Himalayas and the monsoon belt) without an umbrella, shoes or a warm sweater.

A friendly guide told me his philosophy would appeal to Christians, Moslems, Buddhists and Hindus alike. I also think Disney enthusiasts will like it a lot, probably more so than the others.

Part of the values is not bringing anything inside the complex. It is the one place in the world, I believe, where there are thousands of people without cellphones or cameras. Everything, including belts (huh?) had to be left in a cloak room. It was actually kind of nice though it also was a pain in the neck to carry my wallet and passport in my hand (purses not allowed either). Transparent water bottles were OK outside the buildings but not inside. A man with a sharpie numbers them so you can pick it up later again. Very clever.

I invited my driver to come along since I wouldn’t be able to call him to pick me up. We joined hundreds of pushy Indians. Before I realized it we got sucked up in a Disney-esque experience that led us from exhibit to exhibit with doors closing behind us and staying locked in front of us until the story was told. There was no escape.

The Baghwan’s life story was played out through multi-media. It’s a great story, especially on an iMax screen that showcased India’s magnificent landscapes as the young child-yogi walks from state to state. There were also dioramas populated with life size manikins that were electronically alive, and therefore looked very real, even their eyelids opened and closed. The manikins were acting out scenes of the young yogi during significant moments of his life.

I recognized some religious themes that are universal – the long walks/waits in the wilderness, the wisdom beyond years, predatory animals lying down peacefully at his feet and the boundless love for even the scariest people who then become meek as lambs.

At the end of hall 2 we were led through two large rooms that demonstrated, in case people had not gotten that message, the wickedness of the world: a family lassoing a pile of suitcases and each trying to pull the pile towards their room, presumably to show the terrible things greed and a pre-occupation with material possessions does to otherwise harmonious families.

There was a glimpse of a fighting couple in their bedroom, various men engaged in combat with a variety of weapons and one whole wall with animals wondering aloud why humans ate them: A mother duck quacking ‘why do humans eat my babies? I don’t eat theirs!” A cow reminding the humans that its milk comes free, how ungrateful to eat the animal, fish, buffaloes, chicken, all with their questions. But most people rushed through this last reminder of our depravity anxious to get on the next ride, a boat ride no less.

This one was the most Disney-esque of them all. We lined up, as one does at theme parks, and were directed into a large boat that took us on a sort of underground river where everything that India had contributed to the world was displayed in elaborate scenes peopled by more life-sized mannikins who practiced arts, science, religion, university, nuclear physics, built planes, rockets, all this thousands of years before we in the West ‘discovered’ these things.

Just before docking and our final exit we rode underneath a bridge full of life-sized and very real looking kids, waving Indian flags. A warm male voice told us that the children of the world should pick flowers and make peace with one another. I had fully expected to hear ‘It’s a small small world,’ but instead we were told that ‘Yes, we can.’ Incredible India indeed!

All the foot traffic went clockwise and in one direction only. This meant a lot of walking if you missed an entrance. There was never any turning back. I wondered whether this was part of the values that were posted everyone. Men employed by the social-spiritual NGO that runs the place, armed with whistles, would call you back if you dared to go against the rules.

And so we walked what felt like miles in the ever increasing humidity to the central building. It can seen from miles around. This is the actual holy place. The architecture is intense, modeled after some of the intricate Mughal carvings, much gold and marble, with more scenes of the Baghwan’s life.

Before the start of the sound and light fountain show, the last point on our very full program, we wolfed down a spicy dhosa bought in a building that looks like a temple or shrine but is actually a food court. The dhosa was spicy and the humidity kept climbing up so much that I was drenched when we arrived at the fountain show.

Having already seen the superior, though colorless, Burj fountains in Dubai I was spoiled. After watching a few minutes we slipped out and reclaimed our cell phones, my camera and purse before the other 1000 people would start pushing in back of me to get their stuff.

Back at the hotel I watched the news and felt instantly jerked back to Afghanistan wondering what the assassination of Karzai’s brother will mean for those staying behind. Tomorrow that will include me again.

1 Response to “Swamiland”


  1. 1 axel July 13, 2011 at 7:19 am

    An amazing piece, about an amazing place, with a jarring shift at the end.


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