Thousands of worshippers gathered in Abu Dhabi on Saturday to take part in the foundation stone-laying ceremony for the first Hindu temple in the UAE.
Senior government ministers, ambassadors and religious devotees from around the world joined priests in a mahapuja – or grand prayer – to mark the occasion.
Once completed, the impressive structure – sculpted from pink sandstone and marble – will further symbolise the country’s continuing openness to religious freedom.
Its seven distinctive spires representing each emirate will soar skywards, creating a unique landmark embodying the virtues of peace and acceptance.
“It will represent the harmony and tolerance of the country,” said Mugheer Khamis Al Khaili, chairman of the UAE’s Department of Community Development.
“The people of India are essential to this country. This shows our long years of friendship.”
The decision to build the temple in the nation’s capital came after Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed agreed to provide the 10.9-hectare site as a gift.
Organisers have said its construction reflected the spirit of the founding father Sheikh Zayed.
On Saturday, some 5,000 worshippers turned out to witness the foundation ceremony, known in Hindu as shilanyas vidhi.
Priests chanted verses in Sanskrit while devotees performed an elaborate ritual from inside a large, white tent.
Initially, sages poured a mixture of water, yogurt, honey and ghee over a small, gold-plated deity.
Water and flower petals were then sprinkled onto thousands of small, brick-sized foundation stones as they were blessed.
Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment, Ahmed Al Falasi, Minister of State for Higher Education, Mr Al Khaili and billionaire Indian businessman BR Shetty, also sprinkled water brought from the Indian rivers of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati before the main foundation stone, known as the shila, was laid in the ground.
“The stone ceremony is a community event that symbolises the spiritual harmony that exists within the UAE,” said Swami Brahmavihari, a senior Hindu priest handling international relations for Baps Swaminarayan Sanstha, the organisation building the temple.
“The ceremony also illustrates that the rulers of the UAE view every soul living within the country as equal and who are free to practice their faith freely and openly.”
Carved largely from pink sandstone blocks by craftsmen in India, the elaborate temple could be completed as soon as next year.
Swami Brahmavihari said its doors would be open for traditional wedding ceremonies for Hindu couples as well as for celebrations and festivities of other faiths.
“The significance is tremendous as it will provide a community home to Hindus and Non-Hindus alike,” he said.
“We have thousands of Hindus living within the UAE that have settled from countries all over the world who can now celebrate their faith in a temple that is of similar stature to that of their home countries.”
Swami Brahmavihari went on to recall a visit to the presidential palace last year when Sheikh Mohamed was shown two potential designs for the project.
“The Crown Prince chose the traditional temple with carved pinnacles because that is the openness of this nation,” said Swami Brahmavihari.
“The other design was a closed structure that looked like a normal building and the temple would be inside.”
Swami Brahmavihari described the two-hour foundation ceremony as immensely special – one which Indians would remember for generations to come.
“This is an auspicious day because this is the beginning of a dream of the Indian community to have a temple in the UAE,” he said.
“It has sent a signal of global inclusiveness across the world.”
After the stones were laid, a short video was played to the crowd showing a virtual tour of the completed temple.
Footage revealed vast, arched domes, striking columns and etched pillars, all surrounded by trees and intricate water channels representing Indian rivers.
Swami Brahmavihari said the project truly reflected the UAE’s continued commitment to multiculturalism.
“Imagine a Muslim country donating land for a Hindu temple in which the lead designer is a Christian and it will be built by a Singaporean company,” he said.
"This is the spirit of the mandir [temple]. It will be a spiritual oasis. It will be a universal area that belongs to all those who use it."
Other dignitaries at the event also expressed thanks to the UAE for agreeing to the temple’s construction in the Abu Mureikha area of Abu Dhabi.
“There is clear vision and leadership to promote a spirit of tolerance and you see multiple manifestations of this,” said Navdeep Suri, the Indian ambassador to the country.
He pointed to the recent visit of Pope Francis and the subsequent signing of the declaration of fraternity for peace between nations with Dr Ahmed Al Tayed, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.
“I see the temple as a continuum of the tolerance in this Year of Tolerance,” Mr Suri said.
“It will be a visual symbol of what the UAE is trying to inculcate. This will be the eternal bridge of friendship between our nations, our cultures and civilisations.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s contribution to the temple was also acknowledged. Mr Modi announced plans for the temple four years ago during his first visit to the UAE as Prime Minister.
Mr Suri read out a message from Mr Modi focusing on the values shared by both nations.
“This temple is an expression of the UAE’s love, friendship and faith in India and the Indian community,” Mr Modi said in his message.
“The temple will reflect India’s timeless values of faith, harmony and love, and will be a source of inspiration for Indians residing in the UAE and for people of all communities.”
Thousands more worshippers gathered within a second tent at the ceremony to watch the prayers on large screens. Many had travelled long distances to bear witness to the historic occasion.
“This will be a unique temple and we wanted to be here on the first day it came into being,” said Alka Patel, from Chicago, USA.
“This is not only for spirituality but it is a historic message that we can all live in peace and harmony.