Temple bells sound out across the desert, ringing out from the seven spires of Abu Dhabi’s first Hindu mandir that will be inaugurated in a grand opening ceremony on Wednesday.
Artisans complete last-minute polishing of sculptures inside intricately hand-carved pink sandstone spires and white marble pillars.
The architectural marvel built in the emirate’s Abu Mureikhah Cultural District is the Middle East’s first fully handcrafted traditional stone Hindu temple.
The marble and stone temple has been in the making for the past five years, requiring exhaustive work by more than 2,000 sculptors in Indian villages and replicates construction techniques used thousands of years ago.
Artisans, architects, engineers and software experts have worked since 2019 to create a “tribute to harmony” that is also a symbol of the close friendship between the UAE and India.
Built on 11 hectares of land, the temple, constructed for Dh350 million ($95.3 million), will be inaugurated by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday.
Made by hand
Looking over the spectacular temple site that he helped build, sculptor Champalal Swarup is filled with pride.
“We have made this mandir [temple] with our hands,” said the artisan, 66, who picked up the skill watching his father and brothers work in a village in India’s north-western Rajasthan state.
“It takes years and years to learn. When I started there were times when all I could make was one small flower in an entire day.”
He has since travelled to Africa, the US, Canada and across India to build temples and points with pleasure to many pillars he had a hand in building.
He explains the dedication it takes for several sculptors who work for more than a year to complete a single pillar.
“You need patience and peace of mind to create,” he said. “I feel happy that when people come here and see all this, it has been created by families like mine in India.”
The UAE temple is among 1,200 the Baps Swaminarayan Sanstha organisation has built in countries from Australia to the US, supporting a revival of hand sculpting in India.
Sanjay Parikh, Baps head of procurement and design, has led the building of more than 40 Baps temples around the world and outlines the challenges faced.
“When we first started building the temples in the 1990s, there were not so many people available to build these mandirs,” said Mr Parikh who also heads a team of architects and sculptors.
“Many youngsters had stopped doing this work and had moved to the city. We had to work a lot to keep this art alive and to bring people back.”
Mr Parikh has travelled to mines in India and Italy to select the stones and marble for the project and regularly visited the villages to monitor the carving work.
Each stone block was marked with a unique identifying number and sent to the villages where the craftsmen lived.
“We realised that the best thing is for the artists to work near their homes rather than for years on a temple site,” he said.
“It gave them peace of mind, they can take care of their families. We have worked together to build an authentic temple that is inspired by ancient temples.
“Many people who come here may not know anything about Bharat (India) but coming here they will learn about India’s art and architecture.”
Hours-long prayers are being held in the days leading up to the dedication ceremony on Wednesday and colourful carpets have been laid out on paths.
“There are certain things that create history and this is the creation of history here in Abu Dhabi,” said Mr Parikh, a civil engineer. "To be a small part of this makes me proud.
“We are already getting interest from people who want to see this architecture. Tourists will want to come and see the beauty of this mandir.”
Across the temple, elaborate engravings detail famous stories about the lives of gods housed within each dome.
Ageless tales of the victory of good over evil are drawn from Indian epics such as the Ramayan and Mahabahrata.
The engravings show the triumphant return of the Hindu king Rama to his kingdom of Ayodhya and the defeat of a demon king Ravana.
Among the striking features are marble domes of peace and harmony.
An extensive frieze shows the phases of the moon, depicting the full moon at the centre and the crescent by its side to represent Hinduism and Islam.
Hindus consider the full moon as auspicious and for Muslims the crescent moon marks the start and end of Ramadan.
“The moons are together in harmony and this shows Islam and Hinduism in harmony,” Mr Parikh said.
It is just one of several unifying motifs across the temple.
The sculptures bring to life lessons on honesty and virtue from the Arab world, China and North America.
Decorative panels depict oryx and camels of this region along with elephants and peacocks motifs usually seen in traditional Hindu temples.
When entering the temple complex, visitors can ring a series of large brass bells and walk along waterways on either side that symbolise the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in India.
From a symbolic sand dune at the entrance to flights of steps that recreate river banks in India, it incorporates elements drawn from both countries.
“There are so many things that make this temple unique,” said Nishith Raval, senior project manager. “This temple brings both cultures together.”
Merging hi-tech with artistry
Much like ancient Indian shrines, the Abu Dhabi temple does not use steel, iron or reinforced concrete in the construction.
Each carved piece with its specific number code was shipped to the site in Abu Dhabi and placed alongside other units with similar identifying tags.
These were then fitted together like a massive jigsaw puzzle.
Using an age-old compression construction technique, stone and granite is used in the foundation, followed by the carved pink sandstone and topped with the intricate marble work.
More than 100 sensors have been embedded in the structure to monitor any seismic activity and provide live data for research.
This merging of hi-tech with hand carved artistry is another highlight.
“I can tell you that this temple will last a 1,000 years but how can I prove it?” Mr Raval said.
“The science we have used for this construction is based on the shilpa shastra, which means the building of stone structures in ancient times.
“Now with sensors capturing data and the load inside the structures, we hope to better explain this ancient architecture.”
Community halls have been built around the temple with space for a library, food court and the area is being greened for a play area for children.
The land was granted to the Indian community in 2015 by UAE President Sheikh Mohamed, when he was Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
“The Baps Hindu Mandir in Abu Dhabi serves as a spiritual oasis for global harmony that celebrates the past and recalibrates the future,” said Swami Brahmaviharidas, head of international relations for Baps.
“It is a timeless testament to the generosity, sincerity, and friendship of the leaderships of the UAE, India and Baps.”
There are two Hindu temples in Dubai – a small temple inside a building in Bur Dubai and a contemporary temple opened in the Jebel Ali area two years ago.
At the temple, hundreds of volunteers, such as Dr Lina Barot, are ready to welcome visitors.
“This temple will not just attract worshippers but also people who want to feel the peace,” she said.
“There will be people who don’t believe in any of our gods, and will not come to worship. They may not be religious but when they come here they will experience a different sense of peace and spirituality.”
A live telecast of the dedication ceremony by Mr Modi can be viewed at gfrc6.app.goo.gl/UTRq