Big in India

The afterglow of this communion extends into the final, much-anticipated delight: a “cultural boat ride” promising “ten thousand years of Indian Culture in ten minutes.” This air-conditioned funfair ride begins, appropriately enough, on the mythic “banks of the Saraswati” (a now unknown or extinct river celebrated in the Vedas) festooned with tableaux of ten-thousand-year-old “Vedic” agriculture, Vedic universities, Vedic bazaars, Vedic elections and even the “first conference on embryology.” Never mind that the prevailing historical consensus is that the earliest Vedic “texts” (they were originally orally transmitted) are little more than 3,500 years old. Further downriver, things get weirder as we witness the Indic invention of everything from plastic surgery to the airplane.

Hugeness has been one of the more flamboyant features of the Modi government’s tenure

The “Statue of Unity” in Gujarat. Image via Wikimedia.

The “vastness” of Hinduism has become one of the core conceits in the aesthetics of Hindutva, the amorphous Hindu nationalist ideology that binds the government of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to its admittedly huge following of citizens and voters. And hugeness, expressed in grandiloquent structures, has also been one of the more flamboyant features of the Modi government’s tenure. In October 2018 the PM personally inaugurated one of his pet projects, the bronze-clad statue of Sardar Patel (a hard-nosed Gujarati politician and India’s first Home Minister, now mythologized by the BJP as “Lohapurush,” or iron man, and as the first prime minister India should have had instead of Jawaharlal Nehru). The 597-foot colossus, dubbed the “Statue of Unity” and designed and master-planned by the firm of the famous postmodernist Michael Graves, from a maquette by the prolific Indian sculptor Ram Sutar, is currently the tallest free-standing statue in the world. Its construction sparked a flurry of announcements of plans for even taller Indian monuments, notably a 695-foot equestrian statue of the medieval Maratha king Shivaji, to be built on an artificial island off Mumbai, and a 725-foot standing figure of Lord Ram in his legendary birthplace, Ayodhya.

Ayodhya, famously, was the site of a bitter dispute over the possession of a plot of land where a 16th-century mosque was torn down by a mob of Hindutva activists in 1992, at the height of a lengthy campaign led by the BJP to reclaim what they insisted was the birthplace of the god-king Ram. The demolition and its violent aftermath would be a pivotal episode in India’s recent political history, spurring the BJP’s rise to power—and Modi’s political ascent. In November 2019 the Indian Supreme Court settled the 70-year-old court case by granting possession of the site to “the Hindu Party,” even as it acknowledged that the destruction of the mosque had been unlawful. The Modi government struggled to contain its glee at this verdict, but at a campaign rally for provincial elections in Jharkhand in December that year, the PM’s closest lieutenant, Home Minister Amit Shah, promised, with characteristic hyperbole, that “within four months, a sky-high temple of Lord Ram will be built in Ayodhya.” Meanwhile Yogi Adityanath, the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (the state where Ayodhya is located), who had already sanctioned the gargantuan Ram statue, announced ambitious plans for a massive multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Ayodhya, with a thirteen-kilometer “Ram Corridor” connecting the planned temple and statue, and a new township with an airport, five-star hotels, and river cruises that would make it “the biggest religious place in the country.”

The Akshardham temple complex in New Delhi.

The fashion for supersized temples expresses both global and nativist impulses, and is often led by a clutch of sects that have large and wealthy followings in the Hindu diaspora. The thirty-acre Akshardham temple complex in New Delhi, currently the proud holder—with an area of 86,342 square feet—of a Guinness World Record as the “largest comprehensive Hindu temple in the world,” was completed in 2005 by the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, a community of largely Gujarati-origin devotees with sizable congregations in the UK and USA. Meanwhile, two feuding factions of ISKCON (popularly known outside India as the Hare Krishnas) are building rival temples on an even grander scale in Mayapur, West Bengal and Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh. The Mayapur Chandrodaya temple, also known as the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium (TOVP), will be the biggest Hindu temple in the world when complete, or so its promoters (including the billionaire Alfred Ford, a.k.a. Ambarisha Das) claim. Its defining feature, a cupola that has been likened to a supersized Fabergé egg, has been touted as the “the world’s largest dome.”

The competing Vrindavan Chandrodaya Mandir (VCM) is depicted in brochures as the “world’s tallest religious skyscraper,” its glassy spire rising “about seven hundred feet” from a pillared pediment that bears a morbid resemblance to both the Douaumont ossuary near Verdun, France, and the Egyptian mortuary temple of Hatshepsut. As an elaborately corporate prospectus for the tower reveals, it is to be set in a theme-park restaging of the mythical forests and pastures of the cowherd-god Krishna’s arcadia—and encircled by a futurama of modern condominiums.

Rendering of the Vrindavan Chandrodaya Mandir, via Wikimedia.

In Kesariya, Bihar, work has begun on yet another contender for the title of “largest Hindu temple in the world”: the Virat Ramayan Mandir (VRM), which hopes to accommodate twenty thousand worshippers one day. Originally intended as an enlarged replica of Angkor Wat, the “Virat Angkor Wat Ram Temple” (“virat” means enormous) had to alter its design and name after complaints from the Cambodian government in 2015. Following a quick makeover, the plans retain a Khmer inspiration—but while Angkor Wat was famously converted from a Hindu to a Buddhist shrine in the late 12th century, the new temple’s eighteen octangular spires will shelter numerous deities from the Hindu pantheon.

A shrine dedicated to the god Shiva in the VRM will house a Shiva Linga “forty-four feet tall and thirty-three feet in circumference—proposed to be the tallest in the world.” Work on the temple, which began in 2017, has been slow, however, and in 2019 an imposing 111.2-foot Shiva Lingam in Chenkal, Kerala revealed itself as the tallest devotional phallus in the country. But not for long: in February 2021, Home Minister Amit Shah visited the town of Puranigudan in the eastern province of Assam to attend the consecration of a 126-foot tall, phalliform temple, which, as news reports confirmed, “is now quite renowned” as the largest Shiva Linga in the world. Meanwhile, in Nathdwara, Rajasthan, a colossal 350-foot effigy of Shiva seated on a hill is nearing completion and should soon be open to visitors as the tallest statue of a Hindu god—for the moment. Even shrouded in a gauze of steel scaffolding and attended by deferential cranes, it was already an arresting sight.

Such monuments of “Huge Hinduism” can scarcely conceal their magpie borrowings. Collectively, they recall the episodic rash of kitsch monumentalism that has afflicted different parts of the world since the late 1800s, shadowing the slow, rolling epidemic of modernity. The Statue of Unity combines the sententiousness of the Statue of Liberty with the ponderous sentimentality of Mount Rushmore. The elevation of the medieval chieftain Shivaji to a colossal emblem of national valor echoes the 19th-century cult of “Hermann the German” and its Hermannsdenkmal. The ambitions of the Virat Ramayan Mandir follow the Côte d’Ivoirian strongman Houphouët-Boigny’s hometown folly, the basilica of our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, originally intended (like the Mayapur TOVP) to rival St Peter’s in Rome. The images of the Seated Shiva of Nathdwara are uncanny mirrors of an ill-fated statue of Mao demolished in Henan in 2016.1

But we should not lose sight of the authentically Indian aspects of this race for monumentalism. The art historian Kajri Jain points out that South Asia has ancient precedents for gigantic religious statuary, notably the majestic 57-foot Jain statue of Gomateswara at Shravana Belagola in Karnataka—a thousand-year-old rock-cut monolith—or the 6th-century Bamiyan Buddhas lost to the vengeful iconoclasm of the Taliban in 2001. She suggests that both anciently and more recently, giant public statues asserted rebellion against the sequestered rituals of Hindu caste hierarchies by Buddhist, Jain, and Dalit movements—a form of aesthetic subversion that was itself subverted and appropriated by majoritarian Hinduism. Jain identifies the Hindi term sārvajaniktechnically meaning “for all” but slyly connoting a mainstream Hindu public—as key to understanding the significance of the new landscape of majoritarian monuments. “Like the Bourgeois-liberal public sphere, the sārvajanik arena has claimed universality and open-endedness even as participation was premised on exclusionary conditions,” she writes.2

On a recent visit to the Akshardham temple in New Delhi, I was struck by this strange religious theme park’s success in providing its visitors with an immersive experience of a sārvajanik India. There is nothing remarkable, of course, in witnessing an entirely Hindu congregation in a Hindu temple. But this was unlike any temple I have visited. Indeed the “temple” itself—focused on a gilded and bejeweled eleven-foot idol of BAPS founding guru Sahajanand Swami, rather than any popular deity—is possibly the least symbolically charged section of the complex. The real action here (other than the thronging food court) is a trifecta of shows: the first is a series of animatronic restagings of legendary incidents in the life of Sahajanand Swami, the second an IMAX biopic tracing his life’s journey across the sacred geography of India. This was in many ways a boilerplate narrative of a Hindu great man of the kind that is now being projected onto Modi: a precocious and brave child who heads for the Himalayas on a spiritual quest as a youth, then tours the temples of India before settling down to lead society to a better future. Another miracle occurs as the lights come on in the cavernous IMAX auditorium—the dawning realization, in your peripheral vision, that you are part of the real leviathan, a community of believers.

The afterglow of this communion extends into the final, much-anticipated delight: a “cultural boat ride” promising “ten thousand years of Indian Culture in ten minutes.” This air-conditioned funfair ride begins, appropriately enough, on the mythic “banks of the Saraswati” (a now unknown or extinct river celebrated in the Vedas) festooned with tableaux of ten-thousand-year-old “Vedic” agriculture, Vedic universities, Vedic bazaars, Vedic elections and even the “first conference on embryology.” Never mind that the prevailing historical consensus is that the earliest Vedic “texts” (they were originally orally transmitted) are little more than 3,500 years old. Further downriver, things get weirder as we witness the Indic invention of everything from plastic surgery to the airplane. In recent years such hyperbolic nationalist fantasies have proliferated wildly: an Indic QAnon of sorts, often propagated by leading politicians (Modi, famously, cited the legend of the elephant-headed god Ganesha as evidence of ancient Indian skills in cosmetic surgery) and amplified by social media. Temples are frequently used to bolster such fables as the ancient Indian origin of the bicycle or the microscope. These flamboyant fictions are built on another popular falsehood: the repeated claim that historic Hindu temples are thousands of years old. The fact remains that while India is blessed with countless beautiful and stylistically diverse ancient temples, none of them was built before the 4th or 5th century AD. As the historian Manu Devadevan has pointed out, “the temple was not a Vedic institution”; indeed the Buddhist (and, arguably, even Hellenistic or Achaemenid) precedents for Hindu temple architecture are well known. And yet the notion that temples are a timelessly ancient manifestation of a unitary, indigenous, national culture continues to be drilled into the popular imagination. An extravagantly imaginary foundation of deep time persists, anchoring the fantastical spatial scale of the temple complexes now under construction.

Stepping back into daylight it strikes me that, like the thousands who have enjoyed the Akshardham Truman show since 2005, I’ve just spent the past couple of hours absorbing an ethnically cleansed reenactment of Indian history as a Hindu wonderland, with no hint of any Islamic or colonial presence in the subcontinent. It’s only the queerly Indo-Saracenic folly of the temple itself, with its Islamicate domes and Mughal scale, that inadvertently acknowledges a more complex history. But this too is buried in the larger fantasy that the temple represents some sort of return to authentic traditions of temple architecture. Much is made of the claim that it was “based on the principles of indigenous Vastu Shilpa Shastra,” derived from antique Sanskrit texts, ensuring that “no steel was used.”  It is in fact a pneumatic reinvention of the Solanki or Maru-Gurjara style—a regional idiom popular in medieval Gujarat and “revived” by the reconstruction of the Somnath temple on the “iron man” Sardar Patel’s instructions in 1950. Patel assigned the job to a local architect from a clan of traditional temple builders, Prabhashankar Sompura, and the Sompuras now seem to have cornered the market for grand revivalist temples. Delhi’s Akshardham was the work of Veerendra Sompura, the neo-Khmer Virat Ramayan temple was conceived by Piyush Sompura, and the long-awaited Ram Mandir in Ayodhya has been planned by Chandrakant Sompura, a grandson of the Somnath architect.

Rendering of Ram Mandir.

Intriguingly, in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment that cleared the way for the construction of the Ayodhya temple, rumors emerged that Sompura’s aging design for India’s most famous unbuilt temple would now be scrapped. Public tastes had evolved and seemingly demanded yet more novelty and scale—something approximating the grandeur and novelty of the other record-breaking temple projects. Images of the golden dome of ISKCON’s Mayapur TOVP were circulated as representations of the new design for the Ram Mandir, and inevitably went viral.3 Across the border in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, rumored delays in the temple construction at Ayodhya sparked schadenfreude and some magical thinking, as a TV channel reported that occult powers were obstructing earth-moving machinery from disturbing the ground where a mosque once stood. “After all,” the TV anchor said, “we are talking about India, where people set great store by djinns.” In the event, Chandrakant Sompura answered the skeptics by producing a slightly enlarged version of his temple design—adding one floor to make it a three-story structure, increasing the width by one hundred and forty feet and the length by some thirty feet. In an interview, the temple architect was disarmingly candid, explaining that “there are limitations when you are making a stone temple” without cement or steel. Sompura was proud that “we are not going to use foreign technology except, if required, in lighting.”4

Given the historical freight of the Ayodhya temple, built as it will be on the ruins of a five-hundred-year old mosque destroyed in a politically transformative public spectacle, it’s understandable that its builders might choose to sacrifice a little scale in the interests of some claim to historical authenticity. In Ayodhya, as elsewhere on the construction sites of huge Hindutva, it’s hard to ignore the paradox Manu Devadevan first identified with the commercial concupiscence of modern Indian “godmen”: “espousing neoliberal capitalism and lamenting the death of tradition.” This is a theme one could trace back to the Beatles’ controversial guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who may have conceived the first “Hindu skyscraper” (it remains unbuilt, though he did commission Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Centre) and spent his last days in a horizontal palace variously described as the largest wooden structure in the world, or Europe, or at least the Netherlands. It was built without any nails.

Sadly, Hindutva’s reimagining of Indian aesthetics has the ironic effect of diminishing the expansive nature of Hinduism as a community of diverse and regional, often “small,” traditions into an increasingly monolithic caricature that echoes—and often imitates—the aesthetics of Abrahamic monotheism. Still, the fashion for the colossal has also been embraced by Indian minority and subaltern communities. A 450-foot statue of Babasaheb Ambedkar, a Dalit icon who drafted the Indian constitution and famously renounced Hinduism, has been under construction since 2015. While that statue has been endorsed by the government, other attempts at minority monumentalism have encountered resistance, notably in Kapalabetta Karnataka, where a Christian community complained that Hindutva activists were obstructing their plans to construct a 114-foot statue of Jesus on a hill they had legally purchased. A local BJP leader described the planned statue as just “a Yesu erection” to please the Italian-born leader of the opposition Congress party, Sonia Gandhi. It was in any case “a Hindu hill,” he insisted.

Such communal rivalries are a reminder of another—arguably unconscious—competition that animates the hypertrophied architecture of Hindutva today: between PM Modi and the specter of his most famous predecessor. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, is often remembered for his focus on state control of the “commanding heights” of the economy and an enthusiasm for monumental infrastructure projects—particularly mega-dams. According to a popular apocryphal story, it was at the inauguration of the 226-meter-high Bhakra Nangal Dam in 1954 that he pronounced the words “these are the temples of modern India.” As it happens he may never have said this at all, but he is on the record as describing the dam as “worthy of worship” as the product of “the unrelenting toil of man for the benefit of mankind.” Inaugurating another giant dam in Orissa in 1957, he compared it to the historic temples of the region and went on to describe such projects as “modern centers of pilgrimage,” the nation itself as “the biggest temple today,” and “the people of India” as “greater than the gods in the skies.”

Temple of the Vedic Planetarium.

On this evidence Nehru seems to initiate the aesthetics of populist monumentalism, linking gigantic structures to the “the people” and “the nation.” Yet Nehru remains anathema to Hindutva and an irritant to Narendra Modi for fairly obvious reasons. Firstly, his secular-socialist populism was entirely inclusive, in contrast to Hindutva’s winking sectarianism—its appeal to a sarvajanik public. And secondly, Nehru eventually changed his mind about “bigness.” In November 1958, the year after his speech at the Hirakud dam, he expressed his reservations about the “disease of gigantism” in state-sponsored projects and the need for a “balance in our thinking, which has shifted too much towards gigantic schemes.” Finally, one is tempted to speculate about the symbolic rebuke that the huge but immaterial cultural legacy of India’s first PM represents for what Alok Rai has described as “the infantile literalism that characterizes ‘New India’” in which “size is the only way of creating symbolic intensity.”

The architectural consequences of Hindutva’s gargantuan turn are unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Prime Minister Modi seems particularly intent on projecting himself as a great “builder,” and revels in photo ops where he can inaugurate a new colossal statue or don a construction worker’s helmet. Meanwhile, the impulse to reach for tall stories about the antiquity of Hindu temples also shows no signs of abating. The recent news of the fatal shooting of Muslim peasants during a government eviction drive in Assam was followed by an effective social media campaign asserting that the farmers had it coming because they had encroached upon the lands of a five-thousand-year-old temple. (It was most likely built in the 1980s.) In Ayodhya, the news that the PM would attend the consecration of the Ram Mandir building site in August 2020 was accompanied by intriguing reports that a “time capsule” containing a copper plate attesting to the antiquity of the shrine would be buried “two thousand feet” underground. In the wake of criticism that this would amount to an act of retroactive fake news, the temple trust issued a statement5 describing its own functionary’s earlier announcement about the time capsule as inauthentic.

Will the powerful impulses of huge Hindutva produce any architecture of significance or genuine worth? At the moment, with the energies of the state behind it, one might argue that it is already too big to fail. Fake news bots are at work disseminating imaginary numbers to establish, for example, that the Statue of Unity attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal. (The fact that the Taj, an “Islamic” monument, remains India’s most famous building by some distance has long been a sore point for Hindutvists, some of whom swear to this day that it is really a purloined Hindu temple.) Should the subcontinent someday see a constellation of Vedic Pudongs that actually soothe Hindutva’s resentment of the history and architectural heritage of Muslim or colonial conquest, this would be a genuine therapeutic accomplishment. Yet the cavernous majoritarian thirst for affirmation, it seems, can only be endlessly suckled, never sated, by inflationary representations of bigness.

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/09/world/asia/china-mao-statue-henan.html 

  2. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/688696?mobileUi=0+%3F& 

  3. https://www.thequint.com/news/webqoof/photo-rendition-of-iskcon-temple-viral-as-proposed-ram-mandir-in-ayodhya-fact-check 

  4. https://www.theweek.in/theweek/cover/2019/11/14/my-plans-for-the-temple.html 

  5. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/reports-about-time-capsule-being-placed-underground-at-ram-temple-site-are-baseless-champat-rai/articleshow/77223598.cms 

A longer version of this essay will appear in Midnight Sun and the Owl, a reader published as part of the 8th Asian Art Biennial Phantasmapolis by the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts and Wensing Arts Foundation, forthcoming mid-2022.

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