I Became A Stone Mason For 30 Days!
How I Helped Build a Unique Hindu Temple in the United States — Swaminarayan Akshardham, North America!
*In my head* Okay I got this... Don’t mess up this cut… Keep going… Push… Almost there… SUCCESS!
The sounds of machines buzzing. The smell of your sweat under the mask. The dust that flies on your goggles. I was surrounded by an unknown environment, yet constantly filled with a known feeling of deep satisfaction. All in all, these emotions and experiences are what defined what was the first major construction project of my life.
In every way, the experience was more than I could have ever imagined.
I did not work with a screwdriver or a drill — I worked with a hammer-chisel and grinders (high-powered stone cutting tools).
I did not put up wood beams — I had to cut marble and limestone and cement them into the stone wall.
I did not affix a picture frame to a wall — I cemented stone sculptures into a stone wall.
Clearly, this is not your typical HGTV “Property Brothers” DIY project.
Between my graduation and starting my career in accounting, I had the opportunity to volunteer in building one of the most unique structures in North America —
The Hindu American Religious Center, or more commonly known as Swaminarayan Akshardham North America in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
A Tale of Volunteerism | The Foundation of Akshardham
Within the Hindu tradition, a fundamental principle across the various traditions and denominations is seva. Seva literally means ‘service’ in Sanskrit, but that only scratches the surface.
Many volunteers often say, “I volunteer with BAPS.” But in my opinion, volunteering is not a justifiable term. Volunteerism is freely offering to perform a service or do something without an exchange (typically monetary).
I do not feel as if I am providing my time or energy towards a cause, rather it is a natural part of my being. Hindus believe that service to other and to humanity is akin to the service of the Divine.
BAPS is known for its volunteer force, which is especially shown in the younger generations. All BAPS activities are run on the value of seva by numerous volunteers. One recent example was in 2022, when BAPS hosted the Pramukh Swami Maharaj Centennial Celebrations in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The 30-day celebrations were held on a temporary festival ground, which was transformed by over 80,000 volunteers.
For those of the BAPS Swaminarayan Hindu tradition, seva provides a bi-fold incentive:
- To serve God and one’s guru with humility
- To emulate the ideal from the lives of God and guru.
God and the guru are the basis in all spiritual endeavors for those of the tradition. The guru embodies the ideal of what a spiritual aspirant should strive to achieve in the tradition — Worshipping God with humility and love through becoming an ideal disciple of God, through emulating the values and virtues of the ideal guru (who is understood to be the ideal disciple).
While talking to Professor Hannah Kim, in the words of Neetaben, who is an active volunteer of BAPS, seva is “to serve my guru, and to take my example from how he is serving God” (Kim, Hannah).
This natural element of seva is what makes it engaging and exciting for participants. Whether it be washing dishes or planning a grand program, the goal of seva is not to complete a task but to develop the ideals, values and virtues shown set by God and exemplified by the guru.
Seva offers a sense of fulfillment, satisfaction and purpose in my life.
This is why I spend numerous hours during the week towards the North American Children’s Activities. This is why I spend time in mentoring and teaching the next generation. This is why I spend time writing articles like this one.
This is also why over a thousand youths spent a total of 1.5 million volunteer hours in building Akshardham in the last year. This is why hundreds of youths, adults and families are voluntarily offering their services full-time in seva. This is why thousands of volunteers rushed to offer their services — small or large — on the behest of their guru, His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj. This is Swaminarayan Akshardham.
My Goal | Swaminarayan Akshardham North America
I had the opportunity to volunteer for a month in building the Swaminarayan Akshardham — which is part of the larger BAPS Hindu American Religious Center — in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
Akshardham is the name of the eternal divine abode of God according to the Swaminarayan Hindu tradition. To translate this spiritual goal into a tangible experience is an unfathomable feat. Bringing this tangible and spiritual experience to all those who visit, however, is the very goal of Akshardham.
Akshardham provides a sacred space for all who visit to reflect and introspect on one’s personal journey through life and walk away with a sense of bliss in one’s heart and resolution in one’s life.
For some, Akshardham may seem like a religious structure or an education center, but the significance is quite greater than what may be tangible. For many in the BAPS Swaminarayan Hindu tradition, it is a tangible connection to God and our guru. It is a sacred space where all are welcome to come, learn and introspect. It is an embodiment of the highest spiritual qualities, ideal devotion and ultimate bliss.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj — the spiritual leader of BAPS from 1971 to 2016 and a beloved luminary who was an ambassador of love, harmony and faith — inspired and built two Swaminarayan Akshardham complexes in Gandhinagar (1992) and New Delhi (2005).
“The reason of build Akshardham, as inspired my guru Yogiji Maharaj, is to inspire values, feel inner-peace and develop harmony with one’s family, country and society… Akshardham is for the liberation and peace of all.” — Pramukh Swami Maharaj
To cater to the needs of the growing BAPS community, as well as seeing a need of educating the wider international community, Pramukh Swami Maharaj inspired a third complex in the United States of America. Today, His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj — Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s spiritual successor — continues his guru’s vision of completing Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s final wish.
Before moving forward, I highly suggest reading my article to gain a background of Swaminarayan Akshardham to provide further context:
This significance of Akshardham was experienced throughout the construction process. During the one-month that I offered my services to constructing Akshardham, I began to understand that Akshardham is not something that can be keenly described in words (and it may sound cheesy), but an emotion that is felt. The internal dialogue and reflection that I had allowed me to expand my view on spirituality and how people interact with their spirituality.
My Work | Exterior Wall of the Mahamandir
I had the opportunity to serve as a part of the Stone Placement Team.
On the mandovar — external edifice of the Maha-Mandir — over 130 murtis of deities, devotees, sages and seekers of Hinduism are installed. It is common on the outside walls of a Hindu temple to showcase the stories and values from the Hindu scriptures and ancient India. The stories and values highlight one’s spiritual journey towards the highest ideal.
These murtis at Akshardham range from:
- Rushis (Sages) and Kings of Ancient India
- Ideals from the Upanishad
- Ideals from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Purana
- Foundational Hindu Acharyas and Scholars
- Bhakta-kavis — Devotional Poets and Artists
- Contemporary Figures and Sages
As the stones came onto the platform of the Mahamandir, it would be our responsibility to put those murtis into the exterior walls of the Mahamandir.
Placing the murti into the wall of the mandir uses a lock-and-key system.
The “key” is a thin 2-inch pillar which stands behind the murti and the “lock” is the hole into the wall of the Mahamandir. The art is to perfectly match the supporting structure of the murti into the wall of the mandir, so those who view the murtis do not see the installation. This system allows for the murti to never fall out of place and ensures that it remains locked into the mandir for thousands of years.
The process that our team took was the following:
- Labelling Team — Writing the name and number of the murti on the base to ensure it does not get lost
- Measuring Team — The team measures the excess stone from around the murti to cut off
- Large Cut Team — Large cuts are made with an electric stone circular saw
- Fine Tune Team — Smaller cuts are made to cut off all of the excess stone from around the murti, except for the base and a 2-inch pillar that supports the back of the murti
- Wall Team — The team cuts a hole in the wall of the mandir in the size of the 2-inch pillar
- Installation Team — Through careful trial-and error, the team would install the murti into the hole and make adjustment cuts as needed
The final step was to put the special cement mixture and seal the murti into the wall for generations to come.
While I performed the seva, many thoughts had occurred to me, some of which I have captured below.
People I Met
During the summer, over 500 volunteers from different backgrounds and regions came together. Students, doctors, engineers, artisans, retired, unemployed, business owners, housekeepers — the list goes on.
Many have not worked in construction, let alone have experience with placing stone, pouring concrete, building structures or even making simple mixtures.
During my time at Akshardham, there were many people I met from different backgrounds. People from all around the world have come together to help build this complex. Many have voluntarily left their jobs or have adjusted their professional and family lifestyles in order to take the opportunity to offer seva full-time. Students have taken a gap year to offer seva without letting go of their education. Families have found apartments or are living with other volunteers to offer their service.
During each of the four meals that were provided to us (which were made by local volunteers), I was able to interact with a new volunteer and learn about their backstory. Below are some of their stories I want to share with you. Only their first initial has been provided.
- J spent three and a half days to perfectly carve out one murti in order to ensure there was not a single crack.
- M is from the United Kingdom and came to volunteer just for 15 days. On his last day, he cried thanking his children for allowing him to come to offer his selfless service.
- A is from Kenya and is volunteering for a month.
- Dr. C is a director at his hospital and yet humbly volunteers.
- A willingly quit his summer internship and is spending the summer to volunteer.
- M would sometimes skip the afternoon snack break to continue with seva.
- D and M would wake up early to attend the mangala aarti and shangar aarti rituals, which occur at 6:00 am and 7:30 am, respectfully. They would perform yoga and morning puja (morning rituals) in between the rituals in front of the 49-foot Tapomurti Shri Nilkanth Varni.
- A was trying to find a full-time job in computer science, but upon hearing the opportunity, he decided to become a full-time volunteer for the past year. He felt that this was the best way to thank his guru, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, for all that he has done.
1. True Meaning of Harmony
Although many of us were not knowledgeable on how to construct such a structure, everyone came together and learned from one another.
Our guides and mentors would slowly guide us through using the various tools, monitoring our work and ensuring that safety is a priority. Peers learned from one another on how to work efficiently while striving for perfection in our work. It was the ideal example of how mentoring and continuous learning can strengthen not only a team, but the whole unit.
It was not only about learning the skill, but also about enjoying the seva that we were offering. We would often make jokes, share our life experiences, and dream about the future we aim for. We would bond over midnight ice cream, binge watching TV shows, playing Frisbee and even take time to visit The Big Apple! We would speak on our personal spiritual journey, how Pramukh Swami Maharaj has impacted our lives, and aspects that we are currently developing on.
There was never an instance of discord or bitterness. No doubt, there would be times where one may scold another if a task was incorrectly performed or if there was a risk in compromising safety. However, there was never any hatred or bitter words spoken on the site. I have never witnessed a single moment where worldly distinctions were created. At the end of the day, all of our stresses and anxieties would be washed away, and everyone would become friends before dinner. The atmosphere was divine — something that can only be understood by those who have visited the site. In every sense of the word, the divinity felt on site was a matter of pure personal experience.
2. Praise of Art & Architecture
As soon as I started, I realized the difficulty of performing such a meticulous task of cutting excess stone from a murti. It is not easy to cut marble or limestone, let alone cut around a murti and not break it. I must admit, there were times where I made mistakes. Thankfully, those mistakes were easily fixable.
Additionally, the intricate detail hand-carved into the murtis by the artisans can only be described when you view the murti up close. The murtis looked so lifelike and realistic. But even more astonishing is that they would capture the beauty and essence of the person with such accuracy — the posture, expression, and pose.
Learning first-hand from those who possess the craft was a surreal experience. I felt inept to be a part of building a part of the Divine. But the artisans opened their arms wholeheartedly to teaching second-generation Hindu Americans a piece of their magic. The artisans, sculptors and builders, who have learned the art for generations, welcomed us with open arms to assist in building the home of the Divine.
I praise the artisans, builders and sculptors who have not only learned this knowledge from their forefathers, but graciously passed this knowledge down to numerous volunteers to sustain this art in the future.
This reminds me of a documentary on how the Neasden Temple was being built, titled The First of Its Kind.
In Episodes 4 (A Thousand Years)and Episode 9 (Shoulder to Shoulder), Pramukh Swami Maharaj would often ask about the health and wellness of the artisans that were carving the stone in India. He would frequently ask, “What have you provided for lunch and dinner this week?” If a regional festival is coming up, as many sculptors were from various regions around India, Pramukh Swami Maharaj ensured that those festivals were celebrated. Inspired by Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s meticulous care, even the volunteers would ask the artisans if they were comfortable and how they can assist their work and their family. Pramukh Swami Maharaj personally visited the artisans in Pindwara and Kandla in 1994.
Due to Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s support and respect of the artisans, this ancient form of art and architecture was preserved, and is thriving today through projects like Swaminarayan Akshardham in North America. Even today, Mahant Swami Maharaj continues to show his care and respect for the artisans who will preserve the craft for generations to come.
3. Being a Small Part of Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s Vision
In 2005, Pramukh Swami Maharaj wrote blessings to the youth of North America to offer their service towards the fulfillment of Akshardham. Only when I went to Akshardham did I feel that I am giving back to my guru Pramukh Swami Maharaj…
When I was 5 years old, I had the opportunity to visit Swaminarayan Akshardham in New Delhi with my family. One evening, following the evening ritual of aarti, one devotee asked if I wanted to meet Pramukh Swami Maharaj. Who could pass up the offer!
I was taken to his room, where he finished eating dinner. I was quite shy, so mu father first approached Swamiji. Upon meeting Pramukh Swami Maharaj, I innocently asked “Can I have your Harikrishna Maharaj?” (Harikrishna Maharaj was a murti, or sacred image, of Bhagwan Swaminarayan that Pramukh Swami Maharaj always kept beside him for the past three decades.)
Everyone in the room let out a chuckle, replying, “You can’t have this murti as it is Pramukh Swami Maharaj’s personal murti.”
Pramukh Swami Maharaj simply smiled and said, “Do not worry. I will make sure you get something special.”
I didn’t know what this meant but just smiled and ran off, not thinking much of it. A few weeks later, after my family returned from India, the head swami of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Chicago contacted my father saying that there was a special gift for me. When I arrived at the mandir, the swami said, “Pramukh Swami Maharaj lovingly instructed me to give this gift to you on his behalf.”
It was a murti of Nilkanth Varni, the sacred image of Bhagwan Swaminarayan in his teenage years! Pramukh Swami Maharaj kept his promise!
Looking up at the 49-foot Nilkanth Varni standing tall on one foot in front of Akshardham, I broke a small tear as I reminisced of this incident.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj — the president of BAPS and spiritual leader of million — remembered of a 5-year-old boy halfway across the world. One might argue that he personally did not gift the murti. However, I beg to differ. Being one of the most admired and revered Hindu spiritual leaders at the time, he remembered to fulfill my wish in a unique regard. He did not need to keep a promise to a young boy, as he would forget that he even posed such a question. But Pramukh Swami Maharaj did not see any distinctions when it came to keeping a promise.
My relationship with Pramukh Swami Maharaj, however, goes beyond just this one gift. Pramukh Swami Maharaj has gifted me a lifetime of service and purpose through his mandirs (such as the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandirs in Chicago and Bloomington). These mandirs and the community that surrounds them have molded my entire life and given me an identity that I am proud of. They have helped make me into the person I am today.
Contributing to Swaminarayan Akshardham was a once-in-a-lifetime experience has allowed me to become closer to my guru, community and the Divine. It has given me pride that the sacrifice and seva that went into this structure will not go unnoticed. When I become 50 and I show my children Robbinsville Akshardham, I can tell them, “I was part of a team in putting up these murtis. And it is only because of Pramukh Swami Maharaj and Mahant Swami Maharaj.”
Truely, the imperfections in Akshardham (being built by volunteers) is what makes it perfect.