The Swaminarayan Akshardham, touted as the largest Hindu temple outside Asia, is set to open its doors to the public in New Jersey on October 18. This monumental structure surpasses the size of both the Bridgewater Lord Venkateshwara temple and the Pittsburgh temple, both in New Jersey.
Located on a sprawling 185-acre site in Robbinsville County, New Jersey, the temple was a labour of love constructed by 12,500 dedicated volunteers from across the globe. Although the project had been in progress since 2011, it gained significant attention a decade later, albeit for controversial reasons.
Constructed using an impressive 2 million cubic feet of stone, the temple showcases a unique blend of materials sourced worldwide. Noteworthy is its incorporation of historical references to American figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln in its architectural motifs.
This achievement is seen as a monumental milestone for Indian Americans. The temple’s inclusive ethos is reflected in its depictions of people from various backgrounds engaging in communal activities such as eating, praying, loving, and serving together.
Yet, the temple’s construction has not been without controversy. The labour force that built it raised questions about the fine line between religious service and potential labour exploitation. This led to a lawsuit, currently on hold, highlighting alleged challenging work conditions, extended hours, and caste-based discrimination.
Despite this controversy, the temple is poised to become a significant pilgrimage site for Hindus worldwide, offering a unique blend of cultures and a space for reflection and inclusivity. It is equipped to withstand New Jersey’s cold winters, with non-traditional Bulgarian limestone used for its exterior.
Inside, visitors will find stones sourced from around the globe, including Greece, Italy, and India. A traditional Indian stepwell houses waters from 300 sacred rivers in India and all 50 US states.
This project also stood out for its active involvement of women in key roles, a departure from traditional temple construction practices. It is anticipated that the temple’s design and inclusive vision will serve as a testament to the diverse community that gathers within its walls.
Despite the labour-related controversy, proponents argue that the project operated on the principles of voluntary religious service, or “seva,” and assert that artisans were cared for during their time in the US. Nevertheless, the allegations have sparked a broader conversation about the intersection of religious service and labour exploitation, particularly within vulnerable communities like the Dalits. As the temple prepares to open its doors, visitors are encouraged to consider these issues while making their pilgrimage.