The largest Hindu temple in the U.S. opens its doors Sunday in New Jersey. Built in the small township of Robbinsville, the 183-acre BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham, named for its founding Hindu spiritual organization, rivals major Hindu temples on the subcontinent.
“I wake up every morning and scratch my eyes thinking, ‘Am I still in central New Jersey?’” said Yogi Trivedi, a temple volunteer and a scholar of religion at Columbia University. “It’s like being transported to another world, specifically to India.”
The temple will be officially inaugurated on Oct. 8, and on the 18th, it will be accessible to the general public. For Indian Americans and Hindu Americans, this represents a massive milestone, Trivedi said.
“This is the American Dream,” he said. “The sacred geography of India and beyond is here in this one place and you can experience, witness and admire it all here in New Jersey. I anticipate, as a scholar of religion, that this will become a popular place of pilgrimage for Hindus from across the world.”
Built by 12,500 volunteers from all over the world, the Akshardham has been in the works since 2011. But it made headlines a decade later, when a group of immigrant laborers sued global organization Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, known as BAPS, which has temples around the world. The lawsuit alleged “shocking” conditions, including forced labor, grueling work hours, inhospitable living conditions and caste discrimination.
“For these long and difficult hours of work, the workers were paid an astonishing $450 per month, and even less when Defendants took illegal deductions,” the initial complaint said. “Their hourly pay rate came to approximately $1.20 per hour.”
But a spokesperson for BAPS said there’s a distinction between employment and religious volunteer service, known as seva.
“The artisans who helped to build our mandir came to the U.S. as volunteers, not as employees,” spokesperson Ronak Patel said in a statement. “...We took care of the artisans’ needs in the U.S., including travel, lodging, food, medical care, and internet and prepaid phone cards so they could stay in touch with their families in India. BAPS India also supported the artisans’ families in India so they did not suffer financial hardship as a result of the artisans’ seva in the U.S.”
Many of the manual laborers involved in the temple’s construction came to New Jersey from India on religious visas and were Dalits, meaning they fell into historically marginalized groups in South Asia’s caste system. The lawsuit alleges temple leadership enforced that caste hierarchy at work.
But the lawsuit has now been put on hold, with 12 of the original 21 plaintiffs moving to dismiss their claims, and BAPS Akshardham spokespeople assure that the temple will be a place for people of all creeds and castes to gather in community.
Along the temple walls are carvings of historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, said Trivedi.
“When you come to the mandir, you will see people of all genders ... all castes and social backgrounds living, eating, praying, loving and serving together,” he said.
Activists say the allegations still raise questions about the line between religious service and work exploitation, which Dalit communities are especially vulnerable to.
As a caste-privileged Hindu, civil rights activist Sunita Viswanath says this fact weighs heavily for her.
“A place of worship, a temple, is such an important space, especially for an immigrant community who’s making home in a new country,” said Viswanath, a co-founder of the civil rights group Hindus for Human Rights. I would want anybody who goes to the temple to really ask themselves, really do some soul searching, about going to a temple where there are such serious allegations of labor and human rights violations.”
Toeing the line between modern Jersey and ancient India
Placing 2 million cubic feet of stone in Robbinsville Township was no small feat, Trivedi said, and the temple itself is a cultural mixture, with materials sourced from all over the world and nods to American history throughout.
There were some concerns from local residents, including about the height of the temple, but BAPS worked with community members and officials to make accommodations, Trivedi said.
“What came of it was this new hybrid community,” he said.
To withstand cold New Jersey winters, the outside of the temple was built with non-traditional Bulgarian limestone, Trivedi said. The inside features stone sourced from all over the world, including Greece, Italy and India, and a traditional Indian stepwell contains waters from 300 bodies in India and all 50 U.S. states. Women also occupied key roles in running the project, he said, which is something rarely seen in temple construction.
“Now people who visit here from the American community will realize that the brown family two houses away from them is not all that different,” he said.
Trivedi says he sees the design as reminiscent of the community that will form in the temple — a mix of cultures with something for all people.
“That kind of inclusivity is not just talked about, it’s actually seen on the walls,” he said.
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