On the eastern edge of metro Atlanta are three unexpected but extraordinary religious sites: a Hindu mandir in Lilburn, a Trappist monastery in Conyers and a Buddhist shrine in Conley. The drive between them takes just over an hour, though you’ll feel like you’re crossing continents. Each temple shows its faith in a different way, as apparent in the architecture as in the rites and rituals, and all welcome visitors, making a trip worthwhile for seekers and art-lovers alike.
It looks almost like a palace at first glance, presiding over landscaped grounds that include a reflecting pool with fountains and a courtyard facing parallel colonnades. Two miles west of downtown Lilburn, the BAPS (Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is one of the largest mandir outside India. Atop two flights of steps, the Hindu temple appears regal with its crown of more than a dozen domes and towers. Delicate, lace-like open arches hang between the columns on its front porch, the roopchoki.
Like all mandirs, guidance for the design comes from ancient Sanskrit scriptures. The temple has no structural metal, using a system of interlocking stones that lends an effect of seamlessness, as though it was carved from one piece. In reality, it’s a composite of thousands of individual stones cut from Turkish limestone, Indian Pink sandstone and Italian Carrara marble, handmade in India, then shipped piecemeal to Georgia. Nearly every surface is carved with figures or abstract motifs.
“Art and design have an importance place in Hinduism,” says Dr. Jigar Patel, a BAPS volunteer and longtime member of the congregation. “As you walk around the mandir, you see figures … sages, saints, composers. The figures represent important spiritual, musical and philosophical people in the history of Hinduism and India.”
To enter the mandir, visitors stow their shoes in a small anteroom. Inside, white stone is everywhere, cool under foot and luminescent in the dim light. On the third floor, the mandir level unfolds into view, a large marble room filled with so many columns that at first glance you might think some are reflections. Murtis, idols in lavish costumes, are ensconced in recesses within the wall, bordered by columns and intricate carvings. Above, a stone chandelier features richly patterned concentric circles.
All told, the mandir has 86 decorative ceilings, 391 columns and an astounding 2,143 figures — too much to take in on a single visit. There’s so much carved into the building, Patel says he still finds something new every time he goes. But the abundance of detail, if extravagant, remains consistent, reflecting a symmetry and order that keeps the whole pleasantly harmonious.
9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Free admission. 460 Rockbridge Road NW, Lilburn. 678-906-2277. www.baps.org/atlanta
Spanning some 2,300 acres, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers is an unusual destination. Both a self-supporting community of 28 monks and a popular tourist attraction, the complex includes a gift shop, cafe, museum, lake and natural cemetery. Here, the Cistercian monks spend their days in prayer and contemplation, their calm surroundings designed to underscore and enhance that purpose. This is evident nowhere so much as in the abbey church.
Completed in 1961, the building could be called modified Gothic, though it has little in common with the cathedrals of Europe. There are no flying buttresses, gargoyles or soaring pinnacles. The vaulted ceiling, gently sloping toward the pointed arch, still draws the eye upward in classic style, but without ostentation. It’s a ceiling of straightforward, almost stark, concrete arches, interspersed with exposed wood. The walls aren’t crowded with carvings but hung at intervals with plain crosses. The lintels at the top of the columns are square rather than arched.
The stained glass follows the same theme. Instead of elaborate scenes and portraits, the windows form geometric patterns. Cooler tones dominate the nave, suffusing the pews in blue light. Near the altar, the colors shift to amber, red and gold.
The lack of decoration means a lack of distraction, and that’s intentional, says Father Methodius Telnack, who arrived at the monastery in 1949 and helped create some of the original stained glass.
“The abbey church is the center of our liturgical prayer life,” said Telnack. “The simple lines and lack of ornamentation give us a concrete model of how our prayer should be. That plainness is a part of its beauty.”
Similar principles are used through the property: in the sacristy, refectory, chapter room, library. Even in the bonsai garden and the courtyard outside the visitor center, clean lines and simple shapes blend in with the scenery. The simplicity of the architectural design beautifully echoes the clarity and quietude at the heart of monastic life.
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Free admission. 2625 Highway 212 SW, Conyers. 770-483-8705. www.trappist.net.
Located in the suburb of Conley, six miles east of the Atlanta airport, on a plot of land marked by power lines and a faded billboard, sits a small jewel-toned shrine surrounded by 38 golden Buddhas. It’s an incongruous setting for the temple, which looks like it was plucked from East Asia but is close enough to I-675 that you can see it from the interstate. The hum of traffic, constant except when drowned out by airplanes overhead, somehow doesn’t disturb the tranquility of the scene.
The Wat Lao Buddha Phothisaram is typical of the type found throughout Laos and Thailand: gold-trimmed roof, decorated gables, vivid murals depicting religious scenes. Loosely translated, the name means Laotian Buddhist temple under the Bodhi trees, an allusion to the ancient fig tree where the Buddha attained enlightenment. In Laotian style, the temple includes three buildings: one for the monk to live in, another for congregation ceremonies and a third where monks are ordained and worshippers can meditate and pray. This last, the Buddha Sima, outshines the others.
Volunteers and monks worked side by side to build this one-room building, completed in 2006. The result is far from understated, brilliant in red and gold with touches of turquoise, set on a platform and guarded by three-headed dragons that balance on the railings. The central doors and four narrow windows that flank each side, gilded and etched with figures, were brought from Laos in an effort to keep the wat as authentic as possible.
“It’s a sacred place,” says Xay Soviravong, a temple member since 2007. “It’s not only beautiful, but every detail tells a story.”
Soviravong points to the tear-shaped fringe below each Buddha statue, representing the lotus flower often associated with enlightenment. Similarly, the flame-like edge along the triple roof, a mainstay of wat architecture, symbolizes wisdom.
Inside, the room is largely empty, save for the far wall where a huge, gold-plated Buddha is surrounded by dozens of smaller Buddhas. They vary in style and material, depending on their countries of origin: Laos, Japan, China, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The floor is lined with rugs for guests, who leave their shoes on the steps before entering, to kneel and pray. In the glory of this inner sanctum, it’s easy to forget the world outside, traffic, billboards and all.
That is, after all, the purpose of a temple. It’s a place in the physical world that allows visitors to focus on the spiritual, an outward space so inspiring, whether with carvings, stained glass or gilding, that one turns their gaze inward.
10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Free admission. 4443 E. Conley Road, Conley. 404-631-7805, www.watphothisaram.org
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.