The 'India Perspective' magazine is a monthly published for the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, by Nirupama Rao, Joint Secretary, External Publicity Division. It is published in 10 languages (English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Bahasa Indonesia and German) and has a large circulation. It features articles on Indian culture, history, traditions and current events.
In the March 2002 issue, the High Commissioner for India in Kenya, H.E. Raju K. Bhatia has written an article on the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Nairobi. It is published here in full.
Temple with a Message
Text: Rajiv Bhatia
Photographs: L.J. Bharadia
Blending architectural styles of ancient India: Swaminarayan Temple, Nairobi, KenyaWherever in the world it went, the Indian diaspora carried with it a slice of India - its cuisine and customs, culture and spirituality. An ongoing process, this enables people of Indian origin to remain connected with the land of their ancestors. In East Africa, where the pioneers among Indian settlers arrived over one hundred years ago, a new thirst for linkage with India is clearly noticeable. One of its best manifestations is the BAPS Swaminarayan Temple at the Forest Road in Nairobi.
Inaugurated in August 1999, it is a temple with a difference. The uniqueness stems from the temple's innovative mix of religious and spiritual aspects with social, cultural and educational dimensions - all rooted in the soil of India and presented to the world under the inspiration of an outstanding sage of the modern times, His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj.
Kenya has some beautiful Indian temples - the Jain temple in Mombasa, the SSD temple in Nairobi and the Lakshminarayan temple in Kisumu. The Swaminarayan temple complex is one of the newest and largest temples in Kenya and in much of Africa.
Blending architectural styles of ancient India: Swaminarayan Temple, Nairobi, KenyaThe temple is situated in the largely Indian-inhabited section of Nairobi. Its architecture is an attraction by itself. As a national daily put it, "The Mandir is an architectural gem". And the temple construction has an interesting tale behind it. Those in charge of the project decided quite early that the temple be built in the traditional architectural style of ancient India, complete with shikhars (pinnacles), sthambhas (pillars) and ghummats (domes). A team from Kenya visited some of the famous temples and monuments in Rajasthan, Kerala and elsewhere in India before the temple design was finalised.
For the ground-breaking ceremony, consecrated water from a variety of sources, the Ganga, Narmada, Sabarmati, Gomati, Ghela, Nile, Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean - was used. The planners also took pains to collect and lay in the foundation, coins in current circulation from 151 countries around the world. For generations to come this will be a reminder of the cosmopolitan views of the builders, who form a living link between the people of India and the people of East Africa.
The temple is a veritable Indo-Kenyan/African enterprise. Its yellow sandstone, mined in Jaisalmer (Rajasthan), was transported 400 kilometres away to a village called Pindwada. There, 150 skilled sculptors and others worked on it to cut and design it, an art that dates back to centuries. Stone pieces and carvings were thereafter shipped to Mombasa and then taken by road to Nairobi, to be assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
On the other hand, wood used in the construction originated in East Africa. At least 15 container-loads of wood - Elgon Teak, Mvuli, Mahogony and White Oak - were shipped to India. Craftsmen in 32 different locations in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan worked to sculpt the wood. The carvings were then taken back and assembled and fitted as per the overall design. The entire main dome of the temple, the pillars under the main dome and the walls of the dome are all crafted in wood. The temple's interior is thus a statement of India's superb craftsmanship. Admirers of the temple have aptly depicted it as "a wonder in wood."
Another part of the temple complex is the Haveli. It comprises a prayer hall, kitchen, dining hall, concourse, assembly hall, administrative offices, gymnasium, dispensary, youth hall and a centre of social services. The main assembly hall, equipped with a modern public address system, is increasingly being put to use for the benefit of the larger community. It has been the venue of major social and cultural events organized in collaboration with the High Commission of India in Nairobi. Perhaps the most memorable of them all was the classical music recital by Pandit Jasraj on March 31, 2001. Over one thousand persons attended it, setting a record of its own.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the temple complex is 'The Exhibition - Glorious India' laid out over an area of 6000 sq. ft, just below the temple. The Exhibition is a paean to the glories and achievements of ancient India. It presents the diversities of the people, historical monuments, flora and fauna of our land. It emphasises the relevance of our religious teachings and philosophy to the problems of modern age - conflict, environmental degradation, AIDS and intolerance - to name but a few.
The exhibition has been designed and presented in a highly innovative and attractive style. It has used a variety of media - panels, translites, photographs, dioramas, fibreglass figures, wood carvings, paper-craft, glass and mirror work. There are at least five distinct sections: Understanding Hinduism; India's Contributions: Human Values; Living Culture - Swaminarayan Sampraday; and Global Values and Global Crises. Each section is packed with information and visual images fascinate the viewer even as they compel him to pause and reflect.
Blending architectural styles of ancient India: Swaminarayan Temple, Nairobi, KenyaSeveral visitors to the exhibition, who had never been to India, told this author of their desire to see India "now that", as one of them put it, "I have got the preview!" Others who knew India felt that the exhibition added to their knowledge as well as their pride (if they were Indians) or their amazement (if they were foreigners). A famous cardiologist, on a visit from Mumbai, confessed publicly to have been mesmerised by the display on the Ayurveda and the ancient Indians' knowledge of surgery.
Designers of the exhibition have been remarkably successful in compiling comments on India by well-known scholars and others through history. To quote only one of them - Mark Twain: "In religion and culture, India is the only millionaire! There is only one India, the land of dreams and romance, the land all men desire to see, and having seen once, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined".
Writing this essay, I cannot help but ponder over the essence of this extraordinary temple - the mandir with a message. Perhaps it was reflected in the following lines of age-old wisdom, displayed prominently in the exhibition hall:
Take away missiles, man shall fight
Take away guns, man shall fight
Take away knives, man shall fight
Take away sticks, man shall fight
with his hands
Take away his hands, man shall fight
with his head
So long as there is a desire to kill
We shall never know peace!
"Hurt no one through Thought, Word and Deed"