If you are one of those people who are stuck in the daily rut of Delhi life working 24x7 and dying for a break, the Swaminarayan Akshardham Complex is the place to head for. And contrary to clichéd perceptions, it is not so much a temple as it is a monument.
For those used to the never-ending ring of their mobile phones and Blackberries, a visit to Akshardham might just come as a culture shock. You are not permitted to carry anything besides your wallet. Mobile phones, cameras, handbags and everthing else must be deposited at special counters before you can go through to the security check.
The first thing that strikes you is he assembly of 10 gates, which represent the 10 principal directions of Indian culture: music, dance, literature etc. The gates have been created to invite goodness from all directions.
As you cross the gates, you see the Bhakti Dwar and the twin Mayur Dwars. The first is a 'Gate of Devotion' seeking to celebrate the vedic tradition of dual worship where devotees worship both God and His chosen devotee. The Mayur Dwars are the twin peacock gats, each adorned with 869 sculpted peacocks.
Between these two dwars are the holy footprints of Bhagwan Swaminarayan carved out of white marble, on which water is continuously showered from four large conch shells.
The focal point of the complex is the grand Akshardham monument built of pint sandstone and white marble. An impressive 141 feet high, it features 234 intricately carved pillars, nine domes, 20 pinnacles and over 20,000 sculpted figures. The monument authorities announce with pride that the entire monument has been built with no steel to revive an ancient Indian architectural tradition.
Ensconced at the center of the monument is the 11-feet high gold-plated idol of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, and several Hindu deities. Visitors to the main monument could take a careful look at the domes and 20 quadrangle pinnacles that are a perfect example of ancient India's engineering technology.
Amid this ambience of the ancient, the Akshardham authorities have also brought in the best elements of the modern: there are perfectly clean toilets at every 51 yards; almost all te staff are volunteer workers so all enquiries are met with willing assistance rather then the surly countenances one encounters at most other Indian monuments. There is also a food court where one can get a vegetarian Gujarati thali and snacks and refreshments.
Entry to the monument, the complex and the lawns are free of charge. There are, however, some sections where entry carries a fee. For example, a ticket of Rs. 20 is required to see the musical fountain - at the center of an ancient India style replica Yagnapurush Kund - which is a 15-minute show each evening at 6:45 p.m.
There is also a Rs. 125 charge to visit halls1, 2 and 3 - a small price to pay for the quality of displays put up in these. Hall 1 o the Sahajanand Darshan or hall of Values includes a 50-minute sound and light show with robotic figures about universal values for humanity. Hall Number 2 or Neelkanth Darshan screens a 40-minute film at India's only large format screen portraying the story of a child yogi.
The highlight of the visit to the complex, however, is a trip to Hall 3 or Sanskruti Vihar where you can take a spectacular boat ride through a representation of 10,000 years on Indian culture that once flourished on he banks of the river Saraswati. Visitors are taken through the world's oldest vedic village and bazaar, Takshila the world's first university and even a tableaux of just how people cooked in the vedic era.
Clearly, one visit or one day is not really sufficient to explore all of Akshardham but if you keep in mind that entry is free and it is an in city escape from daily life you may well be tempted to go back.