“ Recently opened enormous temple in New Delhi, next to the Commowealth Games village. „
~ Never assume you've seen it all ~
I thought I knew all the big attractions in Delhi. I've been so many times that my guidebook has been thoroughly thumbed through and I didn't think it was possible for anything major to have passed me by, but I was wrong because I'd missed the Akshardham Temple. I only 'found' it when I glanced over my sister's shoulder on the flight back to Delhi from Aurangabad and saw an amazing looking building. I grabbed my copy of the in-flight magazine, ripped out the pages and the Akshardham Temple went onto my 'to do' list.
I'm ashamed to say that I hadn't even heard of the place although I recognized it as the name of a Metro station. The Akshardham Temple looks set to become one of the biggest attractions in the city. Step aside Lotus Temple, there's a new kid in town and it's a big, brash, place that looks like Walt Disney decided to create a 'Templeworld' theme park. I don't wish to sound so disrespectful but this place is completely crazy.
We took the Metro to the Akshardham Temple. This is an interesting Metro journey because you get to cross the Yamuna river and the views are great. Our visit was less than two weeks after the end of the Commonwealth Games last November and due to the proximity of the athletes' village to the temple, the security was absolutely crazy. I'm not sure if this is normal but the main blocker to us ever going there again would be the extreme security.
The Metro station is almost finished in the way that things in India can stay almost finished for many years. I fear they got it to 'near enough' in time for the Games and might well get distracted and forget to finish the job. If you want to take photos of the temple, do it from here the upper level of the station because no photography is allowed inside the complex.
~ First hurdle - getting inside ~
The walk to the temple is short but unshaded. Getting in requires you to jump through all the hoops that are put in your way. Almost everything has to be left at the left-luggage place and only a very small handbag approximately 6 inches by 4 inches is allowed to go in with you. All electrical items have to be surrendered along with any food. I think we got away with taking a water bottle but I'm not sure if that's standard of if they took pity on us. Dress 'modestly' - so long trousers for men, long skirts or trousers for ladies and keep those cleavages and shoulders under wraps - remember it's a temple. Alcohol, tobacco and of course any explosives or weapons won't be allowed inside either.
I was glad that I'd brought my small camera and not my SLR because I was nervous enough about handing over that and my smart phone. I don't distrust the staff any more than I would anywhere in the world, but it's quite a lot to take on trust as you hand over some valuable gear. Annoyingly you have to fill in a list of what you're leaving - I guess so they can avoid any disputes caused by people claiming they left a laptop and not finding it on their return.
The next irritation was the holding 'pen' for waiting to enter. I went for the ladies line, my husband to the gents and I found myself behind a party of several hundred school girls whilst he had a dozen or so people ahead of him. I hate to jump a queue. It's genetically programmed into all Brits that you wait your turn but there was one of me and several hundred of them and I was probably going to have to conduct the same 'Hello, my name is...., I come from England....blah blah blah' to every single one of them. I apologised to their teacher and sent my mind to another place where I could imagine I was a Russian tourist who had abandoned all qualms about queue hopping many years ago and pushed through to the front. Yes, I'm ashamed and I felt a bit like someone crossing the road without waiting for the lights in front of a bunch of mums with small children but I would probably still be standing there many months later waiting to get to the front.
The security search was more rigorous than most airports and more time consuming. Anyone infringing the rules on what you can take in was sent back to the cloakroom to deposit their items and join the queue again. I gave my best non-threatening tourist smile and eventually made it through to the other side.
~ So why are all these people lining up to get inside? ~
The Akshardham temple had been open for about 5 years when we visited - all the more remarkable that we'd missed it on each of our previous visits. It aims to represent the best of 10 000 years of Indian culture and is a Hindu temple. Akshardham means (and I'm quoting from their website) "the eternal, divine abode of the supreme God, the abode of eternal values and virtues of Akshar as defined in the Vedas and Upanishads where divine bhakti, purity and peace forever pervades"
Most of the important things to see are completely free but those seeking to spend longer at the temple and to spend some money have some optional add-ons on offer. I think you need to be REALLY interested to get through all of them since they include a 40 minute film shown on a giant screen, a 15 minute boat tour and an hour long 'performance' in the 'Hall of Values'. This lot will set you back 170 rupees per person (about £3) which is quite a lot by local terms. You may also have to be surrounded by enormous school parties whilst doing those things. We decided not to bother.
Talking of school parties, you can expect to have to say hello and shake hands with several hundred school kids. The only good thing is that the ban on cameras means you won't have to get your photo taken with every one of them. Whenever we got spotted by a school party my husband ran off to hide and left me surrounded by little people. Ladies, you don't have to look like the Duchess of Cambridge to get swamped by little girls.
The main mandir or temple building is like a giant pink and white wedding cake. It is enormous, covered with fine carvings, has nine domes and over 200 pillars and was built in just 5 years by more than 11 000 workers and volunteers. It stands on top of a spectacular elephant platform with a hand carved frieze covered in life sized elephants and other animals. There are a total of 148 elephants including cute little babies and the frieze is completely charming. The temple stands on the plinth which in turn is surrounded by a square lake of sacred water.
Visitors can go into the mandir but have to leave their shoes outside. Passing through the black and gold doors you'll find a white marble interior stuffed full with carvings. There are some very ugly bright paintings and statues and the inner sanctum is gold in colour. It's clearly all very well done to the highest standards but it's a bit brash for western tastes.
Surrounding the lake and the temple is a pink covered walkway which is Moghul in style which for those unfamiliar with the term means typical of the style that was popular when this part of India was ruled by Muslim emperors who invaded from the north bringing lots of Persian architectural influences. Think Taj Mahal, lots of carved screens, lots of swirly bits and you'll be in the right direction. To the other side is an enormous step-well which is allegedly the world's largest, though I have to say I'm not aware of too many such step-wells outside India. You can also visit the enormous 'Garden of India' though I have to confess that we skipped that in favour of going for lunch.
~ Feed your tummy and your soul ~
Lunch is served in a very large cafeteria-like building based on the caves at Ajanta and Ellora. We'd just returned from seeing the real thing and found this quite funny. They operate a strange system for ordering food. You go inside, check out what's on offer and then have to go back outside to buy a ticket for your chosen food and drinks. All the food is vegetarian (what they call 'pure veg' so no eggs as well as no meat) and is excellent value. We paid 105 rupees (less than £2) for an enormous thali which included 4 curries, rice, papads, 3 half rotis, gulab jamun, an onion bhaji and a yoghurt lassi. This was the 'standard' cheaper thali - another luxury one offered even more. We bought just one and shared it, impressed to see the food servers using disposable gloves and wearing hairnets.
After our very tasty lunch we took a trip to the souvenir shop where we couldn't help but buy sheets of fridge magnets with pictures of the temple and its swami. The shop offers some serious items as well as lots of rather tacky memorabilia and the prices are inexpensive.
~ Recommendation ~
I found the temple to be lacking in a sense of Indian character despite its claim to represent the best of 10 000 years of culture and architecture. The extreme cleanliness, the sterility of the buildings and the 'Disneyfication' of India that it represented left me oddly dissatisfied and whilst the architecture is exceptional, there's such a feeling of 'fakery' about everything that I couldn't entirely like the place. I was certainly impressed but it left me feeling rather 'untouched' by the experience. If you want to see something clean and new or you've been so many times that you've already done all the more 'obvious' attractions then add the Akshardham Temple to your list. If you're on a first or second visit, I would say there are many other things to see ahead of this.