Prabhas Patan, Gujarat: When twilight descends, the voice of Bollywood actor Amrish Puri rises over the waves from the nearby sea, and the show begins. Tracing back several millennia, Puri narrates the story of Somnath, the temple that houses the oldest Shiva lingam in India.
Hundreds gather daily for this sound-and-light show, some travelling days, others just a bus ride from nearby villages in search of an evening out on wooden benches in an open amphitheatre. When it all ends, the audience makes a beeline for another darshan, or viewing, of Somnath.
The temple’s trust hopes that as the devotees go through the mix of ancient and mode-rn, they will leave behind a donation in the boxes scattered about the temple grounds.
India’s rising affluence and real estate boom is transforming this sleepy town in southern Gujarat into a religious amusement park. And it is by no means an isolated example. From the veteran Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams in Andhra Pradesh to upstarts such as New Delhi’s Akshardham, temples across India, flush with donations and growing real estate assets, are expanding their influence and reasserting their traditional role in society as places of social interaction, learning, cultural assimilation, and, increasingly, entertainment steeped in religion.
The site of a proposed beach garden near Somnath temple in Gujarat. The temple has added roads, a Sanskrit university, Vedic library, hotels and fountains in its aim to create a?“divine India” (Picture by: Priyanka P. Narain/Mint)
Consider the Somnath temple. Within five years, the temple’s revenue has grown from Rs2 crore to Rs10 crore, and the number of visitors from 100,000 to 500,000. And so is Somnath’s sphere and reach growing, expanding steadily into the likes of a city revolving around a religious economy.
The trust has hired artisans to carve intricate sculptures on the temple pillars and then gild the art in gold. It has added new roads, a Sanskrit university, Vedic library, entertainment centres, hotels, bus stands, gardens, fountains and covered stone walkways. Its goal: to create a “divine India,” a recreation of miniatures of every spiritual place in the country.
“So that when you come here to Somnath, you can also simultaneously visit every other spiritual place in India,” says Ashok Sharma, secretary to Somnath Trust, in charge of the expansion projects for the temple. “You will not recognize this place in 10 years’ time.”
Already, in a shorter period, the temple and town have been made over. Significantly, temples, traditionally landowners, have gained from the real estate explosion across the country. They also have benefited from Indians at once becoming richer and more religious, and expressing their faith and gratitude through temple donations.
Somnath Trust’s land assets have increased in worth four times from Rs468.42 crore to Rs1,639.14 crore in six years. The fixed deposits of the Somnath Trust have increased from Rs780 crore to Rs1,218 crore.
Perhaps in the ultimate testament to the new role of temple as economic stimuli, versus the spiritual, consider that more than half of this town is Muslim—and most depend on the temple for a living. They work as coconut sellers, flower salesmen and auto rickshaw drivers. Yunus Kasam, 28, has been ferrying pilgrims from one holy spot to another in the area since he was 8.
The Akshardham temple, spread over 30 acres on the banks of the Yamuna river in New Delhi, is seen against the site for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, construction for which is in full swing (in the foreground). Real estate and donations have helped the mega temple expand its influence (Picture by:Ramesh Pathania)
“I know the entire history of Somnath,” says Kasam. “I know the place where Krishna died and how he died. I have been telling that story to tourists for the last 20 years. I hope more people come. I like telling stories.”
While Tirupati has drawn large crowds for decades, the more modern trend of manufacturing religious entertainment began at Akshardham, founded by the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), which began construction in 2000.
The temple, on 30 acres on the banks of the Yamuna river, boasts of India’s tallest Imax screen showing only one movie—about the sect’s founder; a boat ride through India’s history; an evening sound-and-light show and a special walk-through show that uses sets and statues to tell the history of the BAPS sect, which is a socio-spiritual Hindu organization with roots in the Vedas.
It was founded by Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830) in the late 18th century and established in 1907 by Shastriji Maharaj (1865-1951).
In December, Akshardham became India’s first mega temple, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, recognized under two categories: most Hindu temples consecrated by a single person, and secondly, the world’s largest comprehensive Hindu temple.
Seeing its success, besides Somnath, temples such as Ambaji, Jagannath Puri and Dwarikadheesh have followed Akshardham’s lead in undertaking similar renovation and beautification plans to attract more tourists.
Chennai-based Shirdi Sai Trust plans to construct a Rs100 crore hotel in Shirdi, Maharashtra. The hotel, built over 14 acres of Shri Saibaba Sansthan Trust land, will have 1,500 rooms and 200 dormitories capable of housing 14,000 devotees at a time. Private donors, such as K.V. Ramani, managing director of software firm Future Software Ltd, will spend Rs80 crore to help the public trust construct the hotel.
“The two Sai trusts had a memorandum of understanding where one will undertake the actual construction and the other will provide the land,” says Ramani. “The motive is simple. We have been blessed with all this wealth that we don’t need and this is an attempt to give back and share what we have.”
At Ambaji, in remote Gujarat, the Arasuri Ambaji Mata Devasthanam Trust is also co-nstructing hotels and hospitals and has undertaken civil works such as building flyovers, streetlights and fountains.
According to Girish Patel, chief engineer of Ambaji’s expansion: “We are widening and improving the state highway approaching Ambaji temple. There will be covered passages, service roads and fountains as the devotees come to the temple. Recently, we completed a Rs5 crore water pipeline project that has improved water supply to the town of Ambaji.”
Over in Tirupati, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, one of the world’s richest temples, already runs 20 schools and colleges, a forest conservation project, hospitals, hotels in the area and sustains the local economy.
While it has already undertaken beautification and expansion plans long before other Indian temples—indeed, the hill town where the temple is located has long been a family vacation resort as well—it employs local artisans by renovating and upgrading architecture of the temple and inside the temple complex.
In many ways, India’s experience mirrors the Christian revivalist movements sweeping the world. Church sizes have been increasing in the US, South America, South Asia and Africa for the last few decades; the world’s largest mega church, the Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea, boasts 830,000 members. And just as the temples of India are now beginning to offer, these religious centres boast something for everyone: big buildings, entertainment, grocery stores, day care centres and multi-level parking lots.
Notes Scott Thuma, a professor at the US-based Hartford Institute for Religious Research: “The mega church functions like the mall owner, providing stability and a common roof under which diverse ministries, seen as specialized boutiques, can operate.”
While the mega church is loosening boundaries between different sects of Christianity, India’s temples seem to link Hinduism with nationalism: good Hindus make good Indians.
Markand Patel, the public relations officer at Akshardham, goes as far as to say the building is actually not a temple. “It is a monument. It is a tribute to India’s heritage and history.”
Similarly, in Somnath, orange board signs, pictures and tourist books encourage Indians to embrace the national heritage of Somnath. The temple has succeeded in attracting larger crowds, including young people from other religions. On a recent day, Rudy D’silva, 27, a Christian, sat in the side garden at Akshardham with his Hindu girlfriend. He says, “It’s calm and quiet and we can spend time alone. We come every other weekend.”
The temple of Somnath, the oldest jyotirling of India, sits on the shores of the Arabian Sea in Gujarat and when the heavy, wooden doors are parted, they open to the sand and the waves. Perfectly manicured lawns and walkways surround the complex.
Of all the work planned, Sharma says, “It is all going on simultaneously. We need donations to keep all this going. When the money comes, we promptly channel it to one of the projects.”
BAPS is the fastest expanding Hindu sect in the world. In just 35 years, it has constructed 713 temples worldwide.
“Swamisri wanted to construct a temple on the banks of the Yamuna, and through divine grace, we bought the land from the government,” says Harishbhai Kumawat, a volunteer from Rajasthan who has taken leave of absence from work and will spend a year offering services at the New Delhi temple. By Swamisri, he is talking about the spiritual head of the organization, Pramukh Swamy.
The Rs200 crore temple is reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia: expansive lawns, reflecting pools and a kilometre-long walkway with elaborate murals depicting stories from religious scriptures and a magnificent elephant terrace.
The similarities are intentional. A team of seven sadhus travelled to Cambodia before designing Akshardham. About 11,000 workers in Rajasthan and New Delhi carved several thousand tonnes of Italian marble and local sandstone. Statues of the sect’s founder, Swaminarayan, at different ages, weighing as much as 4,500kg, were imported from Thailand and Indonesia. A special Garden of India is strewn with bronze statues—images of India’s greatest heroes and heroines from Ram’s wife Sita to Rana Pratap, the Rajasthani maharaja.
Swamy, the spiritual head of BAPS, declined to be interviewed by Mint, citing rules prohibiting contact with women. When asked if a man could conduct the interview, the request was also declined.
At Somnath, Sharma says he believes that expanding the temple will bring in more tourists and more wealth into the town of Prabhas Patan and lift the standard of living. “People here deserve better lives and this is the way to do both,” he says, as he sat making a paan in his mud hut near the temple complex. “Spread faith and improve lives.”