ROBBINSVILLE, N.J. (RNS) — After 12 years of planning and construction, the largest Hindu temple outside of India will open to the public this October.
The BAPS Akshardham in Robbinsville, New Jersey, will be the third Akshardham, or abode of the Divine, after the temples in Gujurat and New Delhi — the latter of which is the largest Hindu temple complex in the world.
Attempting to combine ancient scriptural codes and New Jersey zoning laws, the Akshardham, which encompasses a Maha Mandir, a traditional temple, welcome center, museum and event space, sits on a vast 183-acre plot of land.
“Having this Akshardham here on American soil is not just the triumph of a community or the triumph of the diaspora — it is the triumph of the nation,” said Chaitali Inamdar, a devotee.
The New Jersey Akshardham, which has been highly anticipated from the Hindu American community for more than a decade, has made national headlines since 2021— when a lawsuit alleging forced labor hit the BAPS organization. Though the lawsuit has since been put on hold, the trademark volunteerism of the BAPS denomination has sparked questions about what constitutes unpaid work and what is selfless service to the Divine.
Members of the BAPS community are largely known for their selfless service, or seva, which they see as an act of devotion to God. Through their seva, BAPS has opened 100 temples across the United States alone. Next year, the sampradaya, or Hindu sect, will celebrate 50 years of history in North America.
Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, commonly known by its acronym BAPS, is a tradition under Hinduism that follows the teachings of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who is said to be present on earth through six spiritual leaders — the current of whom is Mahant Swami Maharaj.
According to devotees, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the fifth spiritual successor who helped build over 1,000 temples around the world, envisioned a majestic spiritual campus in the United States when he became the guru of BAPS in 1971.
“Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s ultimate singular vision [was] that, no matter which belief, which background you come from, this place is here to enrich everybody and allow everybody to feel peace and inspiration,” said Inamdar, who works as a chemical engineer. “The Akshardham is truly allowing the world to be one family.”
Devotees and visitors will enter the New Jersey Akshardham through the Nilkanth Plaza, named for the teenage form of Swaminarayan, who is said to have traveled throughout India to reestablish the ideals of Sanātana Dharma, or Hinduism. A 49-foot statue of Nilkanth Varni, which represents his 49 years on earth, stands at the front of the massive temple campus.
Aiming to give visitors a taste of Indian celebrations and artistry, thousands of diyas, or lights, fill the walls of The Welcome Center, which connects to the vegetarian Shayona Cafe. The smell of incense and the sound of Sanskrit chanting fills the area around the Brahm Kund pond, a tribute to the holy bodies of water that flow through India, but with an American twist — waters from the rivers that touch all 50 states brought to New Jersey by volunteers themselves.
Over 12,500 volunteers came from all over North America and the world, from different cultural backgrounds, languages and even expressions of faith, to help construct the Maha Mandir out of white sandstone, limestone, marble and granite that was intricately carved by temple artisans in India. Nine shikharas, or spires, sit on top of the four characteristic domes of the mandir — each one themed with a different aspect of the Hindu scriptures, like Vedic astrology.
Statues of dancers, musicians and musical instruments fill the Mandir entrance, reminding temple goers of the importance of song and dance in Hindu traditions. This is also the first time all 108 poses of the ancient Hindu dance form Bharatanatyam will be showcased in one structure.
Some volunteers stayed for two weeks, and some, like 27-year-old Arjun Pandya, felt called to stay for two years.
“To have an opportunity to build something not only for my family and my community, but for the world, and to make something greater than myself, was very attractive,” said Pandya.
Pandya put a pause on his job in corporate finance at Amazon to perform seva in Robbinsville. He notes that it is bittersweet for the journey to come to an end, but that it is “invaluable” to have played a part of a legacy that will stand for millennia.
“I thought I’d be giving time, but I’m now realizing how much I’ve gained, not only in the friendships that I’ve built, but the values that are foundational to me that I’ll take with me forever,” said Pandya.
The values put forth by Bhagwan Swaminarayan, devotees say, are those of humility, compassion and harmony. Akshardham will house not only the Swamis of the BAPS faith, but also the deities that are worshipped across the wider Hindu umbrella.
“Any practicing Hindu, anyone who wants to know more about Hinduism, or even just a friend in my community, I have a place to bring them,” said Yagnesh Patel, a devotee originally from Kenya, where the BAPS community proliferated following Indian migration patterns during British colonial rule.
Patel was present with his children 12 years ago when BAPS broke ground in Robbinsville, helping perform the Bhumi Pujan ritual — the tradition of offering prayers to Mother Earth and God before beginning construction work. Now, his son and daughter are in their early 20s and have both devoted time to the Akshardham’s construction.
“Both my kids are ideal American citizens, born in America, but they can raise their heads and say, ‘I am an American Hindu and I am so proud that I was part of a place that many can visit as they come to this country,'” said Patel. “That has been my proudest moment.”
For the thousands of volunteers who came to build the temple, some of whom came to the country on an R-1 religious visa, the 12-year process was no easy feat, as they were living and working on the mandir campus around the clock.
“It’s nonstop seva,” one worker was overheard saying in passing to another worker in mid-September, a few weeks before the opening.
In 2017 and in 2022, two devotees passed away while working on construction for reasons the organization says were “unrelated to safety conditions.” As recently as March 2023, the police department of Robbinsville Township descended on an offsite BAPS housing unit due to high levels of carbon monoxide.
And in an event that made headlines in May of 2021, several volunteers originally from India filed a class-action lawsuit against BAPS for charges including wage theft, unsafe working conditions and mistreatment of workers. Just this year, however, the laborers withdrew the lawsuit.
“The parties agreed to put the lawsuit on hold pending an investigation with which BAPS continues to cooperate fully,” said Ronak Patel, BAPS Temple Organization’s spokesperson. “When the facts emerge, BAPS believes that they will reflect BAPS’ principles of kindness, equity, and respect for all human beings. BAPS continues to pray for all involved.”
As for the charges around unpaid labor, BAPS emphasized that worship through seva is the fundamental essence of the BAPS community, and that the workers came to the U.S. as volunteers, not as employees.
“Because BAPS traditions emphasize serving those who serve, we took care of the artisans’ needs in the U.S., including travel, lodging, food, medical care, and internet and pre-paid phone cards so they could stay in touch with their families in India,” Patel added. “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.”
For many in the BAPS community, October’s opening is a chance to show the world what happens when devotees from around the world connect through the common thread of devotion.
“The ability to come together in volunteership, in selfless service, it created a sense of comfort and commonality,” said Ashini Parikh, a devotee from Atlanta. “We just had an immediate kinship.”
For Parikh, who has seen the American awareness of Hinduism increase exponentially from when she was a first-generation kid, playing a role in Hindu American history is nothing less than humbling.
“I am so proud that we as a community can come together from all walks of life, and we’ve all been able to be a part of this one thing that is going to have ripple effects for so many generations to come,” she said. “We all want to leave the planet a better place, and my contributions towards Akshardham allows me to leave the planet a better place well beyond my time.”