Initially, after taking off your shoes and walking up the white marble staircase to enter the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey, you may notice the floor is a little dusty.
Once you enter, though, it’s nearly impossible to look down as you take in how much detail is carved into every inch of the temple’s Italian white marble surface. The scene is overwhelming
“There’s definitely an awe factor,” said Yogi Trivedi, a volunteer at the temple complex about 10 miles from Trenton. “The devotees are obviously coming for their devotion, they’re coming to see the sacred images. But as soon as you walk in, what hits you the first time is the aesthetic appeal, the beauty.”
The Robbinsville mandir, or Hindu house of worship, is one of only six traditional stone mandirs that exist in North America And it’s the only one carved completely of marble.
The temple sits inside of a larger building to protect its surface from New Jersey’s harsh winter weather. That shield could help it last more than 1,000 years.
Pieces of the structure were hand-carved by 2,000 artisans in India and shipped over individually, where they were assembled in layers. The entire process, from the choice of stone to the completion of construction, has taken about five years.
“This takes more than just perfection, it takes a certain amount of passion and dedication from each artisan involved,” said Trivedi, describing a large field of marble stones where the artisans work in India.
“I’ve been there, you just hear this constant sound of the chisel, and they have this sort of one-track mind, ‘How are we going to finish this project?’ and ‘How can we make each set of carvings as beautiful as the one before it?'” Trivedi said.
Some of the most detailed carvings in the temple’s surface feature peacocks and elephants — which represent purity and strength – and the lotus flower, which represents purity for its ability to grow in water yet manage to stay dry.
Several LED lights embedded into the floor accent the stone structures brilliantly, and provide depth to the carvings.
“Modern architects often come here to view it, and they have difficulty understanding,” said Trivedi. “They gasp, not only at the beauty of the design, but at how the entire structure is able to stay standing and support itself because it’s so heavy.”
‘We don’t have to go all the way to India’
Roughly 40,000 practicing Hindus live in the Central and South Jersey area, with several hundred thousand more in the tri-state area.
Although there are other mandirs in the area, the growing size of the congregation was enough to support construction of a traditional stone temple, one that can host special rituals.
An assembly hall adjoining the mandir structure will host weekly rituals. Plans to build a second, larger limestone mandir are already in place with completion expected in about 10 years. The entire complex sits on about 140 acres of land.
Iva Patel, another volunteer at the mandir complex, said what’s unique for her is how closely the marble temple reflects the Hindu traditions typically found in the other ancient Indian temples she has seen.
“To see that tradition kept alive, I think, to me that’s just most impressive and precious,” said Patel. “I can come back 10 or 20 years from now and bring my kids here and point out that this is something you would find in India. But we don’t have to go all the way to India, it’s here also.”
This weekend, an inauguration ritual called the Murti Pratishtha will welcome deity spirits into the marble images inside the temple’s central shrine or sanctorum.
The 92-year-old Guru Pramukh Swami Maharaj of India, one of the most respected spiritual leaders in the Hindu religion, will attend the ceremony.
On Monday, the mandir will be open to the general public for viewing. Those of all faiths are welcome.