13 October 2023
The largest Hindu religious site outside India in modern times opens to the public Monday in the American state of New Jersey. Its creators began planning the BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham 12 years ago.
Artisans and volunteers spent 4.7 million hours carving by hand the temple's two million cubic feet of rock. The rock material includes marble from Italy and limestone from Bulgaria. The material was sent to India for the carving work.
Then, the finished pieces arrived in New Jersey. Workers fitted them together in the city of Robbinsville to build the temple. The building stands on a 51-hectare property.
The largest Hindu temple in the world is in Cambodia. The Ankgor Wat was built in the 12th century during the Khmer Empire.
It is now described as a Hindu-Buddhist temple, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Robbinsville temple is one of many built by BAPS, a worldwide religious and civic organization within the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism.
The organization has built two other Akshardhams, or houses of the divine. One is in the capital of New Delhi and the other is in the Gujarat state, where BAPS is based. The sect operates more than 1,200 temples and 3,850 centers around the world. It will celebrate its 50th year in North America next year.
BAPS faced criticism in recent years after workers launched a legal action against the group in 2021. The action accused BAPS of carrying out policies including forced labor, low wages and bad working conditions.
Twelve of the 19 plaintiffs have now withdrawn their accusations and the legal action is suspended while an investigation continues.
The legal action claimed that Dalits, or members of the lowest caste in India, were being abused. Caste is an ancient system of social standing based on ancestry.
Yogi Trivedi is an expert on Hinduism at Columbia University, and a member of the religion. He said these accusations weighed heavily on community members because their religion has always taught them "to see the divine in all..."
"Caste and class do not divide us," Trivedi said.
He said the temple would not have been possible without the service of thousands of volunteers. Many of them took time off school and work to serve in different areas. This might be the first Hindu temple where women were involved in building it, Trivedi added.
This week, families from across the country, have been going to the site to see it from the outside.
Nikita Patel and her husband were among the volunteers who gave their time to create the temple.
"All religions, all communities are welcome here," she said, "And here, they will feel the peace."
Trivedi holds a similar opinion. To him, the temple stands for universal values that can be found in writings and ideas of all religions.
"It's not even just Indian or Indian American," Trivedi said. "What we've tried to do is express these universal values in a way that relate to all visitors."
I'm Dan Novak.
Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.
Words in This Story
carve — v. to make by cutting off pieces of the material it is made of
sect — n. a religious group that is a smaller part of a larger group and whose members all share similar beliefs
divine — adj. relating to or coming from God or a god