How artistry and technology are bringing to life a hand-carved Hindu temple in UAE

The striking structure is on track to open for worship in Abu Dhabi next February

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On a dusty construction site off the Dubai-Abu Dhabi motorway, artisans watch closely as a snow-white marble pillar is carefully lowered into a space being transformed into the country’s first traditional hand-carved Hindu temple.

The group of men in blue overalls shut out the noisy hum of whirring cranes as they guide the cords that hold the carved frame to drop gently on to a waiting column.

Work on Abu Dhabi’s historic Hindu temple in Abu Mureikha area is now past the halfway mark and elaborate marble columns are being fitted in the main prayer hall.

By this time next year, the scaffolding and makeshift staircases will be removed.

UAE’s first traditional Hindu temple on track to open in 2024

BAPS Hindu Mandir, Abu Dhabi. The first marble carvings being placed in the main area of the temple. Victor Besa / The National

When the two-storey temple opens in February next year, worshippers will walk past pink sandstone exterior walls and file into the cool, white marble interior that will house Hindu deities worshipped across India.

It has taken more than four years of in-depth research, sculptures painstakingly carved by hand and skilled artistry for the temple to reach this key phase.

Hi-tech spiritual oasis

Modern technology is being deployed to bring alive ancient scriptures.

More than 300 sensors are placed at different levels to provide live data and monitor seismic activity.

Detailed information of work completed and pillars added is uploaded daily into a 3D digital model for engineers to monitor progress.

“The Baps Hindu mandir [temple] will be considered a spiritual oasis for global harmony,” Swami Brahmavihari, head of international relations for Baps Swaminarayan Sanstha, the organisation building the temple, told The National.

“We are planning to open in February 2024.

“The first part, which is the stone traditional mandir, is almost 55 per cent completed.

“Visitors will [soon] be able to see the shape of the temple which is in the shape of summits and pinnacles and see the beautiful intricate work from the outside.”

Waterways to symbolise Indian rivers

In the months ahead, seven towering shikhars — or spires — will be built on top of the stone murals currently being fitted.

The number seven is key as it represents the emirates of the UAE.

The temple’s granite foundation that is now visible will be filled and canals dug in the surrounding sandy area.

Space has been set aside for people to sit on flights of steps leading to the water in an amphitheatre section that will resemble ghats in India — passages leading to a river.

Water from Indian rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati will be added to the canals, with one waterway illuminated.

“We will bring water from Indian rivers but as water in the river Sarasvati has dried up, we will have a river of light that will go under the temple and emerge on the other side,” said Pranav Desai, director of the temple project.

A visitor’s centre, two parks named harmony and faith, a community hall for 3,000 people, a majlis or welcome area, an amphitheatre and a food court will be ready by next February.

Readying for tens of thousands of visitors

About 2,000 worshippers can pray in the temple at any given time, and temple organisers expect to welcome up to 40,000 people daily across the site during festivals.

The temple complex is spread over 5.4 hectares of land gifted to the Indian community in 2015 by President Sheikh Mohamed, when he was Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

A parking zone of the same size will accommodate 1,200 cars, 30 buses and two helipads.

As people walk into the main prayer hall, they will see carvings that chronicle ageless stories, such as the jubilation of people celebrating the return of the Hindu god Ram to the ancient kingdom of Ayodhya and his coronation.

There will be a section with sculptures from other ancient civilisations, including the Arab world and Africa.

“Most temples have carvings of elephants but we made sure to have horses and camels to represent the UAE,” Mr Desai said.

“Each horse and camel is uniquely carved, as none of the designs are repeated.

“So, the movement of each horse or the action of the person sitting on the camel will be different.”

Join in temple construction

Sculptors in India’s northern states of Rajasthan and Gujarat have captured likenesses of musicians playing the flute, people stringing up lights for the Diwali festival, riders on horses and men on top of garlanded elephants.

It takes a sculptor up to a year to complete one pillar.

Tall columns are being fitted on site by 70 skilled artisans from Rajasthan and Gujarat, and from the eastern state of Odisha.

They will be joined by 50 more sculptors as the work gathers pace to pull together the mammoth project.

At the site, there is a steady trickle of visitors throughout the week, with people laying flowers on earthen bricks later used in the construction.

More than two million hand-made bricks have been used in the temple that once complete will have 200 pillars and reach a height of 32m.

A total of 20,000 tonnes of stone — 5,500 tonnes of white marble and 14,500 tonnes of pink sandstone — are being used.

Architectural marvel

In keeping with ancient Hindu temples, the Abu Dhabi structure has been constructed without steel reinforcements.

A compression technique uses multiple layers of stone to add strength, with granite at the foundation, followed by pink sandstone, and finally the marble work.

Each column carved in India has a specific number code linked to numbers marked on the Abu Dhabi site.

Once the material arrives, artisans chisel grooves that allow the stone to be fitted on to its matching section.

“It’s all carved and hand-pieced together like a giant jigsaw without using any steel — this itself is a wonder using traditional architecture that is 10,000 years old,” Swami Brahmavihari said.

“The temple stands for ancient Indian values of love and harmony.

“It’s in a place — the UAE — which values love, harmony and tolerance.

“This is the time to tell the world that there is harmony among religions, cultures, countries and civilisations.”

Another Hindu temple opened in Jebel Ali in Dubai in October last year.

Visitors from all faiths can visit the site, view the exhibition or participate in the brick ceremony. Details on mandir.ae

Updated: February 11, 2023, 7:16 AM