Chino Hills, California is best known as a wealthy enclave in southern California’s Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles. And for Lavar Ball, outspoken father of Lonzo, LiAngelo and Lamelo, NBA brothers. It isn’t exactly the kind of place one expects to find a stunningly beautiful Hindu temple. And yet, that is exactly where just such a place exists.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan mandir (temple) was built in 2012 amid plenty of controversy. Residents of the upper middle class city expressed worry that building the temple would turn Chino Hills into “a third world city” and many held up the process of approval for nearly a decade. Debates over the height of the construction also caused issue, as many believed the temple would be gaudy. However, despite this opposition, the project moved forward, giving a growing Indian Hindu population of the Inland Empire a larger and more centrally located temple complex than the smaller Whittier mandir built in 1984.
Today, visitors to the complex will be awed by one of the most beautiful buildings Southern California has to offer. Hand-carved sandstone, wood, and marble ornamentation, spires and pagodas, and golden altars greet both worshippers and curious outsiders. Each part of the complex was created by artisans in India, and shipped here to Chino Hills where it was assembled into the magnificent building one can explore. And photos do not do the craftsmanship justice. Carved columns contain figures that are all unique, while geometric patterns dazzle the eye.
BAPS, Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, is a Hindu denomination relatively new to the party. Founded in 1907 by Shastriji Maharaj, it maintains that Swaminarayan (lived 1781-1830) was a god, and would maintain an earthly presence through an unbroken chain of gurus that continues to this day, with each past one equally worshipped as a deity. (To give a comparison, Hinduism itself dates as far back as 2300 BCE.) Today, BAPS has more than 1200 mandirs worldwide, where murtis (idols) of Swaminarayan and the gurus sit side by side with those of the more well known Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma.
The murtis themselves sit in the mandir, a room built entirely of white Italian marble located at the top of the main spired building. Golden, wearing ornate headwear, they are stunning representations of the Hindu deities. Worshippers make a circuit around the room, stopping at any murti they choose, to pray. Unlike Catholicism, where worshippers have their own personal patron Saint, no such preference exists in BAPS Hinduism, with each person free to choose any or all gods to reach out to in prayer. (Sadly, photography is not allowed inside any of the buildings at the complex, so you’ll just have to take my word about the beauty, or come visit for yourself.)
The complex itself is made of two main buildings. The visitors center is where one enters first, and features elaborate wood-carved surfaces reminiscent of the Alhambra, at least to me. Make sure to gaze up at the ceiling from the center of the room; it is mesmerizing. Across a courtyard lined with pagodas is the mandir itself.
The mandir building features five pinnacles reaching 78 feet in height. The outside is done in (again hand-carved) pink sandstone, while the inside is decorated in white marble. On the first floor, below the room with the murtis, is the abishek mandap, a smaller room with a statue of Swaminarayan in it. Worshippers – and visitors if they so desire – are given an ornate cup of water to pour over the statue while praying. The belief is that the mystical and divine energy of Swaminarayan will be drawn out through this process. Elsewhere in the room, worshippers prostrate themselves on the floor toward the statue, pressing their arms, legs, head, and heart to the ground as a sign of devotion and submission. I participated in the water-pouring ritual, and even as a Jew, found it to be meaningful. After all, all religions teach the value of prayer, and any opportunity to connect with any sort of divine presence or spiritual centering is a positive, and I am grateful that the mandir allowed me to have this experience.
Back outside in the courtyard, robed monks prepare for what seems to be an upcoming wedding, while others go about their various duties in areas not open to the public. Volunteers also help in each building, and answer questions from those who, like me, know very little about Hindu ritual, and nothing about the BAPS denomination. At all points, I was made to feel welcome, and each of my questions was answered respectfully and diligently, regardless of how stupid it may have seemed.
If you, like me, are interested in religion and ritual, and love to experience things outside your immediate familiarity, I cannot recommend highly enough a visit to BAPS Shri Swaminarayan mandir in Chino Hills, California. It promises an enlightening and educational experience in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable.
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