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Magazine Web Edition > July/August/September 2009 > Feature Story: Siva's Sanctuary in Tropical Hawaii
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Building as Directed by God

Deva and Gayatri Rajan of Canyon, California, have been devotees of Gurudeva for four decades. Deva emphasizes the divine origins of the temple: "Through the vision, Gods and devas were directly communicating with Gurudeva, directing him to have this temple built, and specifying how. The architect is one of India's most revered builders of traditional Hindu temples. His plan follows the rules of the shastras, creating the perfect conditions for the mystical, inner workings of a Hindu temple to happen."

Gurudeva directed that all aspects of the construction should be engineered to last a thousand years--an ambitious goal by Western standards, though many millennia-old temples persist in India today. The first challenge was to create a foundation that would last ten centuries and withstand earthquakes. The innovative expert Dr. Kumar Mehta, professor of engineering at the University of California, designed an amazingly dense 7,000-psi formula using fly ash, a coal by-product, reviving technology used in 2,000-year-old concrete Roman monuments. The result--a crack-free, 4-million-pound base using an auspicious 108 truckloads of concrete, and no rebar--was so successful that the project was showcased in Concrete Today, inspiring others, including the Swaminarayan Fellowship, to adopt the technology.

Having heard from Ganapati Sthapati that dynamite shatters the molecular matrix of the quartz in the granite and "kills the stone's song," Gurudeva made another decision: to use no explosives to quarry the stone, and no power tools for the carving, so as not to disturb the life force, or prana, in the stone. Therefore, only chisels--tens of thousands of them--and hammers are used for quarrying and sculpting. It is a laborious process. The chisels are made of relatively soft iron, because any harder metal would transfer the unbuffered impact of the hammer's blow into the stones, causing unpredictable fractures. Chisels must be re-sharpened and re-tempered after just a few minutes of use. A blazing hot forge is used by the skilled silpis for the sharpening, and one gazing at their dexterous pounding on red-hot iron can feel transported to another age--for this was exactly how the grand temples of old were built.

The "chip-chip-chip" of chisels hitting hard granite that pilgrims hear around the temple site is the melody of a house for God being carved. When Gurudeva began negotiations for carving the stones in India, he heard murmurs that this song could be in its last notes. Nowadays, due to time and budget constraints, temples are, with rare exceptions, constructed of concrete and brick. A few use granite for the main sanctum, but even these employ machines for the main shaping, and hand chisels for the sculpting. Yes, even in India builders of holy places are asked to work cheaper and faster--hence to produce less elegant, less durable structures. Gurudeva understood that a temple carved by hand would be expensive and time-consuming. But he also knew that the most gracious work of the stone craftsman flows from his heart and his hands. Who could imagine Michelangelo's David carved by power tools? And, in one very real sense, Iraivan Temple is a three-million-pound stone sculpture.

When Iraivan began, stone cutting was a dying art in India. Silpis were few and almost forgotten. But in recent years, there has arisen a new appetite for elaborate stonework in both temples and homes. This means that with the small pool of available talent, there is a constant struggle to obtain and keep the best silpis. Another managerial challenge in bringing this ancient craft to the modern age was the need to build the temple 8,000 miles away from the stone-carving site--usually the temple and the carving site are side by side. Coordinating such a ramified project has required expertise, patience, dedication--and no small amount of faith.

The expert and master builder in charge of the project is Selvanathan Sthapati, a fourth-generation temple architect from the family of Ganapati Sthapati. Selvanathan was given the responsibility to prepare detailed drawings and execute the site markings for the silpis to carve the stones at Bengaluru, as well as the technical markings for the jointing work by carvers on Kauai. For Selvanathan, working on Iraivan Temple is a mystical experience. He likes to quote Gurudeva's original intent: "From the beginning, the temple was conceived to be as rare as the vision that birthed it."

Selvanathan remembers,"Many years ago, Gurudeva gently took my hands into his and blessed me to be a sthapati of this project. Ancient scriptures of our craft say that 'a silpa (sculpture) exists inside the silpi (sculptor), and then silpi turns into silpa,' evoking how a silpi experiences the Divine form within himself as he carves it on the outside."

Such mastery in all details has a tangible effect. "More and more I am seeing the temple not as a building as much as a gigantic sculptural masterpiece," says Paramacharya Palaniswami, editor-in-chief of Hinduism Today. "It is more art than architecture, more spirit than matter, more heavenly than earthly--though it is all those things. It is about art as devotion, art as technical craft, art as skilled energy, art as sacrifice, art as vision."

A unique touch, he adds, are 240 bas-relief stone panels on the pillars, telling in pictures and potent aphorisms the temple's story and the essence of Saivism. It is a library forever set in stone. A walk through the temple is a walk through India's great spiritual and cultural ideals, touching upon Hinduism, karma, reincarnation, states of consciousness and the yogas. Carvings teach about the various forms of Siva, about medicinal and sacred plants from India and Hawaii, meditation maps and so much more. Sheela Rahavendran dreams, "I can hardly wait to see pilgrims walking with their children from pillar to pillar, explaining a great many beautiful things about this temple, about its founder, and about Hinduism in general."

Palaniswami explains that the team in Kauai is now working on the final stages of the main temple: installing the rose-colored granite flooring stones and the lotus hand rails. In India, carving is underway on the Nandi Mandapam, a relatively small, but exquisitely elaborate, 16-pillared pavilion which will be the home for Nandi the bull, Siva's mount. The final stone works remaining to be done are the outer courtyard wall and steps down to the Wailua River.

"Since Iraivan Temple has been designed to last for so long," explains Deva Rajan, "utmost care is being taken to use the finest and most durable stone and materials. Workers are advised to 'slow down' and 'do the very best work that you can ever do'--advice seldom given to artisans on a worldly project. Where else on Earth do we find such goals as these?"

Alluring as the job might be, hiring is not easy. One doesn't find traditional Hindu stone carvers for hire in America, without whom the temple construction would be impossible. Bringing silpi talent to America has been difficult, especially with post-9/11 security and visa issues. When visas for the sculptors were repeatedly and wrongfully denied in 2007, threatening the closure of this and other US projects, the swamis in Hawaii led the American Hindu community in pressing for regulation changes to reflect America's growing religious diversity, acknowledging silpis and other occupations related to Hindu practice as qualified for the Religious Worker visa program. Palma Yanni, a prominent, expert immigration attorney in Washington, D.C. was hired, and other Hindu organizations engaged. The Hawaii swamis traveled to Washington to press their case with Senators and Representatives, orange-clad renunciates laboring in the halls of temporal power. They succeeded, and the resulting immigration policies reflect their concerns and are broad enough to accommodate most Hindu needs. Happily, the masterful, graceful carving of Iraivan Temple can continue.

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