This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 edition of Living Intown.
Drive down Rockbridge Road in Lilburn, and you’ll pass by clusters of ranch-style homes, pine trees galore, a few strip malls and other features typical of suburban Atlanta.
And then the largest Hindu temple in North America looms into view. Across the street from a chain grocery store and retail center stands a structure that seems to belong in distant Mumbai, complete with Turkish limestone, Italian marble and towering spires adorned with flags.
Opened in August 2007, the BAPS (Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Atlanta sits on 30 acres and brings a little bit — or maybe a lot — of India to the religion’s adherents in Gwinnett County, as well as the more than 2 million visitors who have passed through its doors.
“It’s a very meaningful place,” says Dr. Jigar Patel, a medical doctor who handles media inquiries for the all-volunteer BAPS organization. “It’s a place where our devotees develop a bond and a unity which is important in our communities and our lives.”
Not only a local landmark but a community gathering place and architectural showcase, the 30,000-square-foot mandir recently celebrated its 10th anniversary with a visit from guru Mahant Swami Maharaj, the worldwide leader of BAPS, who tours the world with no permanent residence. Families drove in from across the southeast for his first trip to North America as a guru.
“The guru is the spiritual leader of BAPS and it’s a tremendously important time and opportunity for our devotees to see him and listen to his message,” Patel says.
Hindu worship centers can be found throughout the United States, but many are relatively simple structures that might not stand out in a typical American landscape. The large, marble mandirs are reserved for regional capitals like Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Toronto.
Until 2007, that list didn’t include Atlanta. Since 1988, local BAPS adherents had gathered in a converted skating rink in Clarkston. When it came time to expand, Lilburn seemed a natural choice thanks to its location and easy highway access. According to the Atlanta Regional Commission, an estimated 6,600 residents of Indian descent live in Gwinnett County, the most of any county in metro Atlanta.
The mandir’s completion took 1.3 million volunteer hours, along with work by construction professionals. Volunteer Sheetal Desai had moved to Atlanta from Chicago just before construction began. The local attorney was honored to devote her time to the project, washing some of the 34,000-plus stone pieces before they became a permanent part of the structure.
“It’s awesome to say to your kids, ‘I helped polish that stone over there, I was here when this was flat and I saw the building rise,’” the mother of three says. “The years have gone by like the blink of an eye, but I remember like it was yesterday.”
Desai was present for both the opening and 10-year anniversary celebrations. Though she considers it a magnificent piece of architecture, it’s much more than just a building to her.
“Completing the temple was a dream come true,” she says. “A lot of us have roots in India. It felt like a piece of India had been transported here to Gwinnett County.”
Construction took 17 months as the building pieces were carved in India and shipped across three continents to the United States. It involved 2,000 unique carvings, 391 columns and 13 spires, the tallest of which soars to a height of 84 feet.
The exterior of Turkish limestone is not only pristine visually, but well suited to the humidity and heat of Atlanta. Because it’s easier to carve, Italian marble primarily makes up the interior, etched in extraordinary detail throughout the building.
The mandir will lose its distinction as the largest in North America sometime in 2020, when a facility in New Jersey takes over the title. But for regular worshippers, it’s not about square footage anyway.
“The mandir is a representation of God’s body,” Desai said. “The older ones in India bring a different kind of charm just because they are so much older. But we are creating our own history.”
The mandir is open for free tours daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Visitors do not need to book tours in advance, but for $5 an audio tour is available in English, Spanish, Chinese and German. 460 Rockbridge Road, Lilburn. 678-906-2277.