Worshippers from the UAE and across the world have told of their joy at helping prepare Abu Dhabi's first Hindu temple for its much-anticipated opening next month.
Teenagers, businesswomen, budding designers and retired expatriates from Africa, the Gulf, the UK, US and India have been spending weekends and evenings cleaning the site, decorating the area with plants and art work, or helping to organise the February 14 launch.
The community has come together as planning reaches fever pitch ahead of the dedication ceremony that will be attended by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
For worshippers this is part of seva, or devotional service, and adds to their excitement of being part of a project they describe as historic.
Shashikant Depala, 74, says he visits most evenings to see how he can help.
“Whatever work I get, I feel lucky to be part of. This can be filling trash bags or checking furniture being assembled,” said Mr Depala, called Kaka, or uncle, by people on site.
“When I’m trying to help, the youngsters always say, “Kaka, leave that,” but I cannot miss the opportunity to do seva for the mandir (temple).
“There is no value that can be attached to how important this is for us.”
When Mr Depala came to Abu Dhabi in 1979 looking for a job, he found work at a bank and made the country his home.
At that time, people met in their friends' homes to pray and celebrate festivals as the capital did not have a Hindu temple.
The community gathered at two small shrines – among the oldest in the country – built inside buildings in the Bur Dubai area of Dubai.
A Hindu temple that opened in Dubai’s Jebel Ali two years ago is drawing thousands of worshippers daily.
Worshippers say the new Abu Dhabi temple, in the Abu Mureikha area off the highway to Dubai, will bring the community closer.
“I was so overwhelmed when I heard a temple was being built in Abu Dhabi – that was the most wonderful moment for me,” said Mr Depala, who retired five years ago.
“Praying at home and in a temple is a different thing altogether.
“I’m very fortunate to be part of this historic temple.”
Learning every day
Built by BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, the temple opens to the public on February 18, four days after a ceremony when deities will be consecrated and blessed.
In the meantime, devotees pick up brooms to sweep the marble floors at the site.
Others check arrangements for a week-long Festival of Harmony to be celebrated after the temple opens.
Young worshipper Suraj Parmar has gained invaluable experience tracking container-loads of carved stone from India.
The 24-year-old interior designer from Oman had completed a bachelor’s degree in India when he heard of an opportunity to assist at the Abu Dhabi temple.
He is part of a team involved in logistics, civil work and making sure the stone pillars and marble slabs were placed in the correct place for installation.
“There is no school that teaches you to build a temple,” he said.
“Leaving spirituality aside, in my career, I don’t think I ever will get the chance to build something on this scale or find a bigger project to learn from.”
The stunning sandstone and marble structure is the only fully hand-carved Hindu temple in the Gulf region constructed following the same principles as temples in ancient India – without using steel or iron reinforcements.
“I got to learn something new every day. People are astonished when they see the scale of the carvings – you see this in temples in India but this has not been seen before in this part of the world,” Mr Parmar said.
He is now supervising paint touch-ups in the community halls and checking furnishings being added to buildings surrounding the temple.
Giving back to community
Over the weekend, families bring children to paint stone and rock chunks that will decorate the area.
Niyanta Patel is among the teenagers who accompany their parents on Sundays keen to help with dusting and cleaning.
“To me, it’s an act of devotion. It helps me feel connected to the temple,” the 17-year-old said.
“It’s also a way to say thank you to God, a way to give back to our community.”
Her parents and family volunteered when the BAPS organisation built a temple in London in 1995.
“My mum, dad, aunts and uncles have stories they tell that make them feel personally connected to the London temple.
“So being part of this mandir in Abu Dhabi really means a lot to me.
“Not only is it strengthening my faith but it also helps me to connect with other people like me,” Ms Patel said.
“Some of the greatest memories I have are in the temple in London.
“I would sit and talk with my friends. It’s not only about building up my faith but being part of the society here.
“There is such a big community and everyone can pray together and it also helps understand each other.”
Family away from home
The brass-topped spires and delicately carved pink stone building welcomes all nationalities, religions and cultures.
The temple has drawn enthusiastic devotees from overseas.
Priyanka Lodhia, a businesswoman from Tanzania, was also at the opening of the largest temple in the US, in New Jersey, in October last year,
“I was committed to doing seva in Abu Dhabi and it comes from a very true place in my heart,” said the 29-year-old, who is part of the media relations and administration teams.
“What we learn is that in the service of others, we find happiness.
“It is an incredible feeling to have a family away from home – people from different backgrounds who come together with one purpose.
“There is so much excitement and happiness in the atmosphere.”
The temple has been built on land given to the Indian community in 2015 by President Sheikh Mohamed when he was the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
The temple will hold about 2,000 worshippers, with capacity to welcome more than 40,000 people during religious festivals.