Located in Robbinsville, New Jersey, the enormous Akshardham Mahamandir, adorned with intricate stone carvings of deities etched into the ceilings, is allegedly built by bonded labour (artisans) with decorative minerals sourced from around the globe.
After 15 years in the making, it is believed to be the largest in the Western Hemisphere and is expected to draw religious pilgrims and tourists from all over the world.
Constructed with more than 1.9 million cubic feet of rare and decorative minerals sourced from around the globe, the temple construction has long been in contention because of Federal law enforcement which charged the stakeholders with various delicacies like forced labor, low wages and poor working conditions.
According to a federal lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey in 2021, “Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) recruited more than 200 Indian nationals from the lowest Dalit caste “to come to the United States with ‘R-1’ religious visas to do stonework and other construction work in New Jersey.”
Load-bearing stone—granite, limestone, marble, sandstone, and other decorative minerals from countries including Bulgaria, China, Greece, India, Italy, and Turkey—the temple complex casts an impressive massing on its low-lying site.
As per Yogi Trivedi, a volunteer spokesperson for (BAPS) and media and religion scholar at Columbia University, “Almost all aspects of the structural measurements, ratios, direction, and layout, and aesthetic designs of the Mahamandir structure are rooted in the ancient architectural treatises of India called the Shilpa and Sthapathya Shastras.
The BAPS organization has built more than 100 mandirs across the United States, and this record-breaking one just outside of Princeton can accommodate up to 25,000 visitors inside, and many more across its extensive grounds.
The campus includes the Akshardham (meaning “divine abode of God”) with a main shrine and 12 sub-shrines with “sacred images of deities from across the Indian subcontinent,” says Trivedi; a canopy plaza with a 49-foot-tall bronze statue of the chief deity Bhagwan Swaminarayan.
Keeping the environment sustainability in mind as the area is surrounded by wetlands, the complex runs on a solar panel farm that produces about one gigawatt of power daily as informed by Trivedi.
The natural hot marble floors offer a cosy interior environment in the winter, under the largest elliptical dome in any mandir (Hindu temple). Eighteen shikhar towers, some spire-like, some pyramidal, announce the temple to the sky.
Every carving is intentional and shares a universal message of harmony, service, and inclusion,” says Trivedi. But how those carvings were assembled in New Jersey is the root of the temple’s legal woes.
Quotes from the lives of Sikh, Hindu, Christian, and Sufi thinkers and leaders, as well as from Socrates, Martin Luther King Jr., President Abraham Lincoln, and Albert Einstein are included in the temple design, a gesture meant to welcome visitors of any and all faiths.
BAPS spokesperson Ronak Patel confirms that this work falls under the umbrella of its religious culture of volunteerism, which prompted 12,500 other North Americans to volunteer millions of hours of their own time to a variety of tasks at the complex, including design, landscaping, transportation, cleaning, and food service.