Sarah Pulliam Bailey, New York Times, October 21, 2023
The recent opening of Akshardham Mahamandir in Robbinsville, N.J., was a historic moment for Hindus in New Jersey and beyond. The temple, about 15 years in the making, is believed to be the largest in the Western Hemisphere and is expected to draw religious pilgrims and tourists from all over the world.
It has also been clouded in controversy.
Federal law enforcement agents raided the temple construction site in 2021 after workers accused the builders, a prominent Hindu sect with ties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and his ruling party, of forced labor, low wages and poor working conditions. Their lawyers said workers who were Dalit, the lowest rung in India’s caste system, were specifically targeted. A federal criminal investigation is ongoing, as is a wage claim lawsuit.
A spokesman for the temple, Ronak Patel, said the workers came to the United States as volunteers, not as employees, and that volunteerism is a core part of their faith tradition. He said that temple officials were cooperating with the investigation.
In the meantime, the temple, which sits on 180 acres and includes 10,000 statues and spires nearly 200 feet tall, is attracting visitors by the thousands, some there to view the elaborate architecture and design, others for a more spiritual experience.
The Hindu sect Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, known as BAPS, dedicated the temple earlier this month and opened it fully to the public on Wednesday. Pilgrims visiting for the first time were asked to refrain from photography and remain silent, but many giddy devotees whispered to each other, pointed to intricate carvings and some snapped a quick photo.
One of the first sights visitors see when they approach the temple is a 49-foot gold statue of the sect’s chief deity, Nilkanth Varni, the child-yogi form of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, balanced on one leg in a yogic posture. Though the temple is intended for Hindu worship, organizers wanted to make parts of the building more accessible to non-Hindus. That’s why it includes representations of figures who would be familiar to Muslims, Sikhs and Jains. There are also quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein.
For Hindus, the temple is the heart of religious life and where they believe God resides in sacred images of deities, said Yogi Trivedi, a scholar of religion at Columbia University, who served as a volunteer spokesman for the temple during its dedication weekend. Temples, he said, are used for rituals such as the waving of a sacred lamp, communicating with the divine, music and chanting, and the bathing of the sacred image of a deity.
New Jersey has the highest concentration of Hindus of any state, at 3 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Mr. Trivedi’s research estimates that more than 400,000 Hindus live in New Jersey, and more than 400,000 reside in New York.