Stone dge

The Architectural Milestone
Editor & Publishing Partner – StonEdge

- Kamal Khokhani


“The spirit behind Akshardham is to inspire people for the betterment of lives and to serve mankind. This temple has not been constructed to show our strength or to be number one. It has been done because, it is natural and spontaneous and God has given us the guidance.’
- HDH Pramukh Swami Maharaj


Stonedge February 2007

Stone dge

When the American architect John Arzarian visited Swaminarayan Akshardham built at New Delhi recently, he said“It is difficult to express the beauty of spirituality that exists here. The English language does not have words that could express the emotions that one feels”… After visiting Akshardham, I also experienced almost the same feeling-in fact, I was speechless ! Because, Akshardham- a US$ 44 million project, not only demonstrates the superiority of spiritual power, but amply displays as to what a sociospiritual NGO like Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) can achieve. It also demonstrates the clarity of thoughts, integrity of vision and unity of efforts, put in by His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, for creating this magnificent monument. Much before writing this story, I had visited Akshardham site about five years back and I thought, it will take at least a decade to fill the vast canvas on the banks of river Yamuna. But I was wrong ! Perhaps, I had underestimated the spiritual power, let me confess !! To understand this unbelievable construction phenomenon and also to understand the back-office story, I went through many documents. Some of the very important and valuable inputs were made by Pujya Brahmavihari Swami, who is one of the core members of the group of sadhus (saints), involved from concept to completion of this mega project. Spread in a piece of land, admeasuring 104 acres or roughly


4.5 million sq ft, Akshardham is a 141 feet high, 316 feet wide and 356 feet long structure. It has 234 intricately carved pillars, 9 magnificent domes, 20 pinnacles and in all, about 20,000 sculpted murtis (figures) spread all over the complex. But according to me, these are merely physical dimensions of the structure or merely, statistics for anybody related to construction business… But what makes one astonished or awe-struck are the other details, which needs to be superimposed on these physical dimensions – • The carving on marble and other stones took place at 40 sites, simultaneously to convert hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of dimensional stone, into beautiful artefacts… About 7,000 sculptors have worked almost on 24 x 7 basis, to cope-up with deadlines. The moving spirit, of course, was spiritual commitment rather than financial consideration… Keeping the traditional ancient Indian architecture as a base, this complex is built without using steel, anywhere ! About 11,000 followers of BAPS, have put in about 300 million man hours in making this monument as seva (service) without charging anything… The construction of this huge complex started on 8th November 2000 and it was inaugurated by His Excellency Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, the

President of India on 06 th November 2005. That means, the whole complex was constructed in just FIVE years ! I am sure, these points, superimposed on the physical dimensions of the complex, are more than sufficient to compel any construction company or project manager or an architect to have a great introspection or soul-searching as to whether they can imagine, conceptualize and execute such an architectural milestone in such a time-bound manner, without any compromise, anywhere ? And that is the reason, I remembered what John Ruskin had once said- “When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for and let us think as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them and the men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them- see, this our fathers did for us”… Almost similar were the thoughts of Pramukh Swami Maharaj when he said-”We want to build Akshardham in such a way so that, it survives for thousands of years”, while he was talking to the Akshardham project team of sadhus, engineers and architects. It is with his blessings and guidance, only, this monolith milestone, made out of stone is created ! Since this architectural marvel is conceived and executed without using steel anywhere, stone is used extensively. And that is why,

I thought of writing this piece for the StonEdge because it revolves around the eternal materialdimensional stone ! This colossal monument is a fusion of pink stone and pure white marble where pink stone is a symbol of bhakti (worship) in eternal bloom and white marble that of absolute purity and peace ! This baseline philosophy of using shades of stone in itself, has created a poetry of stoneAkshardham ! That is the reason, Akshardham is the saga of transformation of raw, unsculpted stones into an eternal creation- a monument that lives and breathes life into us ! That is the reason, captains of construction industry have opined,” It is easier to build concrete cities, but extremely arduous to sculpt stones into beautiful architecture that will last for thousands of years.” … As is well known, India is a land of wonders. It’s quintessential mandir tradition - temple architecture has provided the nucleus of faith and culture to its people for more than 10,000 years. Over the millennia, this has spawned unparalleled talent, art, architecture and devotion to the divine and Akshardham is a mega-revival of India’s ancient tradition, in all its cultural and spiritual facets, insights and experiences… In 1994, even prior to the acquisition of land in New Delhi, Pramukh Swami Maharaj had initiated the preliminary discussions and plans for the Akshardham project as to what should be the architectural style of the monument ? What type of stone should be used ? In how many years, it should be completed ? With such an


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advanced planning and through the blessings of Swamishri, the Akshardham team of seven sadhus, co-ordinated by Ishwarcharan Swami, spent hours discussing and planning the complex. The principal theme which was decided upon was to style the monument in accordance with the ancient, pristine architecture of India. For this, the Akshardham team visited famous temples such as the Vishnu Mandir in Angkor Vat in Cambodia, the Kailas Mandir in Ellora, among many others. They studied Indian architecture in the period from the 8th to 12th century Subsequently, the Akshardham complex was designed accordingly, with unique additions and changes to the ghummats (large and small domes), samvarans (stone crowns), sthambhs (pillars), mandovar (outer wall), peeth (plinth), up-pith (additional plinth) and other parts. It was also decided to adopt the Nagradi style of mandir architecture with nine domes, 20 samvarans , four entrance doors, a profusely carved mandovar and two peeths (plinths). The monument, surrounded by a two-storey parikrama, which is about two kilometres long with 1,160 pillars, 155 samvarnas, 145 windows and 580 carved stone screens, togetherwith three exhibition halls, a 90,000 sq. ft Yagnapurush Kund, Mayur Dwar, Bhakti Dwar, Premvati Food Court and other construction was a challenge in itself. In the proposed five year’s time span, it seemed an impossible task to mine so much stone, and then get it carved and assembled. However, with Swamishri’s blessings, guidance and

motivation, BAPS sadhus and volunteers resolved to do the impossible. Shri Harshadbhai Chavda, a devotee and an expert in stone work in Pindvada (Rajasthan) was assigned the task of acquiring stones and getting them carved. He organized 24 workshops for carving the mined stones in villages around Sikandra. Apart from this, the sheer logistics and setting up of the infrastructures: for getting quality stones quarried from several mines, transporting them to Pindavada, cutting them and getting them carved at the different workshops through an army of sculptors, and their lodging and boarding etc was not an easy task. But, Harshadbhai concentrated all his skills and efforts in setting up the system and successfully completed the task, within the set time-frame. Pink sandstone of Rajasthan was selected for building the monument and red stone was chosen for its parikrama. Both type of stones were quarried from the mines of Bharatpur in the district of Bansipahadpur, 400 km from Delhi. The first step was the process of acquisition of stones. Because, it was difficult to get stone of the same hue and quality in large quantities. Apart from this, it was a challenge to mine 20ft long by 4ft wide and 20 tons chunks of stones for carving the elephant designs. But, the sadhus and volunteers took great care that no stone went to waste, and that they were sculpted at the earliest, without compromising on quality. The factories at Pindvada and Sikandra were equipped with giant stone cutting machines, cranes, pneumatic drills and other



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equipment. Through the skills of 7000 sculptors, the stones started taking beautiful shapes as the craftsmen chipped and carved in with precision. The stone designs of Akshardham are the result of detailed research by BAPS sadhus on India’s eight century old ancient architecture style. The nine ghummats (domes) and the murtis were all carved according to the canons of ancient shilpa shastras of India. Once the stone were carved, they were marked to denote their position in the structure and transported to Delhi by road. There on site, the stones were meticulously assembled in the gigantic jigsaw puzzle. The entire stone carving activity was divided, through computerized planning and drawings, into 3,00,000 stones pieces. To carve 3,00,000 stones in a span of only 4 years was a daunting task. But through the blessings of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, meticulous planning and dedicated efforts of volunteers and craftsmen, the colossal task was accomplished. The journey of the stones quarried from the mines to the craftsmen and then its fixing in Akshardham was planned and executed with an unparalleled precision. First, the large blocks of pink stone and marble extracted from Bansipahadpur were numbered. Then what part of the monument is to be sculpted from which stone was decided and the stone was cut accordingly so that, the least amount of stone was wasted when the artisans worked on it. As is well known, about 30-40 percent of stone is wasted while it is cut, chipped and sculpted. But the BAPS volunteers supervised the


artisans’ method of working to save a lot of stone and time. As an example, the huge mandovar of Akshardham is created by sculpting about 12,000 stones. And yet, when the task was over, only a nine inch piece of stone was incorrectly carved ! The resultant outcome of such a meticulous planning and relentless efforts is creation of some of fabulous stone creation. Here they areMANDOVAR The ornate external wall of the Akshardham is known as the mandovar. This is the largest, most intricately carved mandovar built in India in the last 800 years. It is 611ft long and 25 ft high and features 200 sculptured stone figures of India’s great rishis, sadhus, devotees, acharyas and divine incarnations. The mandovar comprises different levels with a total of 12,000 carved stones. GAJENDRA PEETH The Gajendra Peeth, the lower pradakshina, is a unique, captivating feature of Akshardham. It pays tribute to elephants, the chosen representatives of the animal kingdom. It is carved in pink stone and is 1,070 ft long and features narratives and legends of elephants involving nature, man and the divine. The Gajendra Peeth, weighing around 3,000 tons, has vivid life like sculptures of 148 full-sized elephants, 42 birds & animals, 125 human figures, as well as decorative stone backdrops of trees, creepers and royal palaces.

PILLARS Inside Akshardham monument, the pillars are embellished with 248 murtis of divine incarnations, rishis, devotees and 500 paramhansas of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. The pillars also have 3 feet high carvings of 108 distinguished sadhus and devotees of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. The stone pillars of the main entrance door have the murtis (figures) of 10 avatars (incarnations) and nine grahas. There are a total of 20,000 murtis in the domes, ceilings and outer wall of Akshardham. In the history of India’s stone architecture, there is no record of such a large number of murtis and stone carvings displayed at one place, anywhere else. The murtis established in Akshardham speak a language of their own thanks to the beautiful workmanship. YAGNAPURUSH KUND The Yagnapurush Kund is a fascinating combination of a Vedic yagna kund and a musical fountain. It is named after the founder of the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha and the third successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Swami Yagnapurushdasji (Brahmaswarup Shastriji Maharaj). It is the world’s largest yagna kund, measuring 300’x300’, and has 2,870 steps and 108 small shrines. In its centre lies an 8petalled stone lotus that springs to life at night with a colourful, dancing musical water fountain that echoes the Vedic sentiments of India. I am afraid, if I am to write on all the aspects of Akshardham stonecarvings, it might need 100 plus

pages. And hence, I have tried to concentrate only on the main aspects of making this magnificent monument. That is the reason, I can’t provide minute details of each and every aspect, obviously because of the spaceconstraints. But, I have tried to provide a glimpse of what has gone into creating this construction marvel in just five years flat, which encompasses and engulfs 10,000 years old tradition, culture, wisdom, heritage and value of India, in its breathtaking grandeur. My idea of writing this piece is also to highlight the beautiful back office story behind the creation of this beautiful master piece. Because of this beautiful concept and an excellent execution only, Akshardham has become an extraordinary creation. That is the reason, while inaugurating the complex, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, His Excellency the President of India has rightly observed - “His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj and his team of dedicated disciples have recreated the ancient civilizational heritage, which we have seen only in theory so far in reality with technology. It brings a new dimension of the entire ancient Indian cultural heritage under one roof. Pramukh Swami ji Maharaj has inspired thousands of people across the country and abroad and brought together the best of minds for creating this beautiful cultural complex.”… Thrilled by the beauty of this magnificent creation, Dr. Manmohan Singh, Hon’ble Prime Minister of India also rightly said that - “This beautiful complex will become the number one monument of Delhi where hundreds and thousands of devotees and visitors will come to visit it from


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all four corners of the earth. They will all be impressed by the attractive murtis, and the peaceful and devout atmosphere. Also, they will certainly return with increased spirituality and peace of mind.” I can say that Akshardham is a completely unbelievable project – be it from construction point of view or beautification point of view… That is the reason, world renowned artist and architect, Padma Vibhushan Satish Gujral uttered these words, when he saw Akshardham – “If someone asked me that as an artist what I felt, my feeling would be that it can put many an artist to shame these days, when they see how devoted artists work. Every pillar, every canopy is a masterpiece and made with such craftsmanship that is incomparable. I think, this will become the most important piece of architecture as well as of faith for the City. I do not think, any other monument will match it within a few years. It will draw more people to Delhi, than anything before.” Pujya Brahmavihari Swami, who was involved with the project from day one, told me about the views of yet another globally known architect – Padmashree B V Doshi. When Mr. Doshi saw Akshardham, his observation was very spontaneous. He said that such an excellence in design, architecture and construction can flow as a ‘force of life’ only if it has divine blessings – the Chaitanya Flow. Because, it is conceptualized, designed and executed without the help of any professionals in building design or project management company or a large construction company ! But what has fascinated and touched me is one more thing that Brahmavihari Swami told me. While talking to me, he mentioned that – “Every Indian takes pride of the Taj Mahal and

considers it as a national monument, as one of the seven wonders of the world. But, we must not forget that “it was, the personal property and a dream of Emperor Shah Jahan. No commoner was allowed to enter, after it was built ! Whereas, Akshardham, after its inauguration on 6th November 2005 was dedicated to the people of world on 8th November 2005. And in that case, this is something which can be truly described as ‘people’s pride”… While talking about the execution strategy and style, Brahmavihari Swami also told me a very peculiar philosophy. He told me, “It has many things but there were few things, which were not present at all in the execution. One can say, it was many things ‘less’ ! Because, it was an Egoless Teamwork (no stalling or stalemates)… It was a Noiseless Construction (no shouting, no mishaps) … And it was almost an Effortless Execution (as if divinely guided).” He also adds while concluding that, “all this could happen because, it was a ‘Creditfree success (no one is ready to take any credit)…” It is in this context only, I remember a famous quote by Martin Luther King – “The means by which we live have outdistanced the end, for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men !”. But after seeing the Akshardham and knowing the background story, I can say that HDH Pramukh Swami Maharaj has shown to the world, by creating this mega monument that he has, hundreds of thousands of `guided men’ who can work as a `guided missile’ for creating something, which is simply beyond imagination and simply beyond words… Yes, I am referring to an Architectural Milestone- Akshardham.



Stonedge February 2007