When Chaitali Inamdar walks through the ornamented pillars of Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville on a weekday evening, the stress of the workday melts away. “That experience of peace is available to anyone, irrespective of their ideological or religious preferences,” she says about being in the space.
The space is an imposing addition to the Robbinsville landscape: it encompasses 12,000 square feet, stands 42 feet tall, and has been reported to be one of the largest in North America, although organization representatives dispute the claim. It attracts an estimated 1,000 people per week, including out-of-state visitors.
Mandir is a Sanskrit word for a place where the mind becomes still and experiences inner peace. It is also a sanctuary for sustaining Indian culture and heritage through art, language, music, and spiritual learning. Designed to enhance and improve people’s lives, the Robbinsville mandir is open to people of all faiths or backgrounds and provides an inviting space for community events.
Made entirely of Italian marble, the Robbinsville mandir carvings appeal to visitors and devotees for their beauty and meaning. For example, the 98 pillars depict the lives of the great paramhansas (spiritually evolved aspirants) and devotees of the Indian spiritual leader, Bhagwan Swaminarayan. Their stories, as well as Swaminarayan’s key messages, are an integral part of the mandir.
Inamdar has been involved with the group that built the Robbinsville mandir since she was a child growing up in West India. She now lives in Bordentown.
A volunteer-driven Hindu organization with roots in the Vedas, the group’s title, BAPS, is an abbreviation for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha. The designation includes the town where the group’s first mandir was built, signifies the worship of god and his ideal devotee, and names the incarnated god (the person who inspired the formation of BAPS). The last word, sanstha, means organization. The Robbinsville complex is one among 3,850 centers built by the group.
Inamdar says she was 11 when her family moved to California and became involved with the local mandir in the evenings and on weekends. During weekdays her mother, who had ran a homeopathic practice in India, worked as a pharmacy technician, and her father continued his career as a civil engineer.
She says at the time she didn’t realize the significance the BAPS community would have on her life within a few years. “When I was young, I didn’t appreciate ideas like social obligations. As I grew older, I learned more about BAPS’ [community involvement] and its spiritual aspects. As you grow older, you see more challenges in life around you and have more personal experiences. It makes you realize there is something greater than what you are surrounded by.”
In 2007 her family moved to Edison, where Inamdar attended school and her parents resumed their careers. In that same year she attended an assembly in Florida led by the spiritual leader Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the person who planned the Robbinsville mandir and inspired the artisans, professionals, and volunteers whose combined efforts made the mandir a reality. The experience in Florida had a profound effect on Inamdar.
“That encounter, seeing him in assembly when I was about 15, having the background that I did, being surrounded by that atmosphere, being in the presence of fellow teens and friends, and hearing the conversations that were taking place, it just opened a connection. I knew that I was in it now for my own self, not just because my parents were driving me there every week.”
Pramukh Swami Maharaj was fifth spiritual successor to Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the person who founded the Swaminarayan faith. Before his earthly death in 1830, the spiritual leader promised to be ever-present through a divine lineage of successors. BAPS was formally established in 1907, founded on the pillars of practical spirituality and Swaminarayan’s teachings. Today there are an estimated 1 million followers.
Pramukh Swami — as he was affectionately called — presided over BAPS from 1971 until his death in 2016, guiding its spiritual, cultural, and personal growth and humanitarian activities.
Construction of the Robbinsville mandir began in 2010 and was inaugurated in 2014, the same year that Inamdar graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in chemical engineering. Today she works as a process engineer for MEL Chemicals in Flemington, lives in Bordentown with her husband, and continues to volunteer and participate in weekly activities and special events at the mandir.
‘The mandir allows people to indulge in a diverse experience and learn more about the values of other faiths, like tolerance and compassion, and serving others.’
Inamdar enjoys talking with visitors about their experience at the mandir. “The mandir allows people to indulge in a diverse experience and learn more about the values of other faiths, like tolerance and compassion, and serving others. It allows others to learn about what inspires us,” she says.
For Hindus and people of Indian descent living in America, Inamdar finds value in having a center with a connection to India, especially for children. The mandir offers assemblies, cooking lessons, a variety of classes, and events for youth and children, allowing people to experience the richness of Indian culture on a personal level. “We bring India to them,” she says.
When you visit the mandir, you have the option of taking a tour with a personal guide or an audio program created by the center.
Both guides explain various features of the mandir, including the story of how it was built, the significance of various Hindu rituals, architectural designs, and meanings behind the sacred images. For instance, elephants symbolize royalty, strength, divinity, fertility, intelligence, and power. The souls of elephants are said to be highly evolved. Peacocks, the national bird of India, are associated with wisdom, wealth, psychic protection, and joy.
One of the highlights of a visit to the mandir is the midday arti ceremony, an ancient Hindu offering made by waving lighted wicks before the sacred images to the accompaniment of a musical prayer. The ritual symbolizes the removal of darkness through spiritual enlightenment.
The BAPS literature states that arti is a tradition dating back thousands of years. In ancient times, there was little light inside the mandirs, and even less light reached the inner sanctum where the murtis (sacred images of deities and gurus) were located. The only way to have darshan (seeing or being seen with reverence) with the murtis was from the light cast from a divo (a clay lamp with a cotton wick dipped in ghee).
Other rituals and activities include morning and evening arti, thal (offering food to the murtis), and weekly assemblies. The center includes a cafe and store, which features authentic Indian, vegetarian cuisine.
The center offers weekend events throughout the year, many of which reflect the organization’s commitment to community and charitable causes. The Robbinsville center has hosted events for the Mercer County Boys and Girls Clubs, the Robbinsville Education Foundation, and the American Cancer Society, to name a few.
Recently BAPS Charities hosted a green walk to raise funds for the Robbinsville Police, Sharon School Green Team, and the Nature Conservancy. This year BAPS is supporting the conservancy’s efforts to plant and restore more than 1.6 million acres of land by planting one billion trees by 2025.
And while visitors are enjoying the mandir today, construction for additional facilities is also underway. That includes a visitor center to house small exhibitions on Indian history and culture. The final phase of the project entails a larger mandir (Mahamandir), with an expected completion date of 2021.
The entire complex will encompass more than 160 acres. The mandirs are built to last 1,000 years.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, 112 North Main Street, Robbinsville. Open daily. Free. Spiritual leader Mahant Swami Maharaj is visiting Robbinsville through September 20. A complete calendar of events is available online. 609-918-1212 or baps.org/robbinsville.
Mandir at a glance
The construction of the BAPS mandir began in Rajasthan India with marble quarried and shipped from Italy. Hundreds of artisans carved the stones, which were assembled in workshops to ensure they fit together properly before being shipped in pieces to America and reassembled using ball and socket joints.
The construction followed temple-building tradition based on ancient Hindu architectural texts.
The mandir includes 13,499 individual carved stone pieces, stands 42 feet high, 87 feet wide, and 133 feet in length. It includes 40 spires, 10 domes, 98 carved pillars, carvings of elephants and Ganesh murtis, peacock style arches, sacred figures, and ceiling and floor designs. For protection from weather, a decorative structure called a mandap encases the mandir.
The main gate is ornamented with 236 carved peacocks, various elephants, devotees and paramhansas. A work in progress and expected to be completed in 2021, final cost estimates vary with some media reports saying it could top $150 million.