BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Chicago

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a monumental Hindu temple on 27 acres in suburban Bartlett, Ill., is less than 10 miles from where I’ve lived for most of the 21st century so far. How is it that I never knew about it until a few weeks ago? You imagine that you know your part of the world pretty well, but it’s just a conceit.

BAPS, incidentally, stands for Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha, so the full name of the site would be the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Chicago. I can see why it’s abbreviated. I can’t pretend to know how the group that built the temple fits into the galaxy of Hinduism, though I’ve read that it’s a relatively modern movement, originating in Gujarat state. I wouldn’t mind knowing more, but whatever knowledge I take away from reading about the details of Hinduism tends to evaporate in a short time, sorry to say.

The suburban Chicago temple is just one of a half-dozen such in North America. The others are in metro Atlanta, Houston, LA, and Toronto, and in central New Jersey. Judging by their pictures, each is about as monumental as the metro Chicago temple, though Chicago’s supposed to be the largest. In fact, it’s the largest Hindu temple in North America, at least according to one source. Even if that’s not so important, the place does impress with its size.

On a sunny but not exactly warm day recently, I drove to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir for a look. The structure, finished only in 2004, is stunning.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir ChicagoBAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir ChicagoThe exterior is limestone, the interior marble and granite. The temple’s web site has a sketch of the structure’s creation, which I’ve edited a bit.

The Carrara marble was quarried in Italy and the limestone was quarried in Turkey.
From there it was shipped to Kandla in western India.

The material was then transported to Rajasthan, where it was hand-carved by more than 3,000 craftsman over a period of 22 months.

The finished pieces were then shipped to a final location for polishing, packaging and numbering before being shipped back to the port in Kandla.

It took two months for a container ship to journey from India to the US.

Upon reaching Virginia, the containers were put on a train to Chicago and then transported to the project site.

Upon arrival at the site, the stones were grouped and classified based on a detailed database of each piece.

The pieces were then assembled together like a massive, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

The finished products of rich carvings are a testimony to the exquisite skills of craftsmen, aided by superb logistics and engineering.

I’ll go along with that last sentence. Even though I didn’t understand the details of what I was looking at, I admire the artistic and engineering skill it must have taken to create the thing.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir ChicagoBAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir ChicagoBAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Chicago

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Chicago

Next to the mandir is the haveli, a fine building in its own right, featuring some exceptionally intricate wood carving. It serves a number of functions. For my purposes, it included a visitors center, gift shop (with a few postcards) and the entrance to the mandir, which is open to the public.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir ChicagoBAPS Shri Swaminarayan Haveli ChicagoThe mandir is accessible via an underground tunnel from the haveli. Exhibits about Hinduism line the wall of the tunnel. The inside of the mandir, marbled and quiet, is an astonishing forest of carved columns and sculpted walls. No photography allowed, but of course pictures do exist.

I might not ever make to India. Can’t go everywhere. Fortunately, a striking piece of India is within easy driving distance.

Mail From the Patel Brothers

Something new in the mail the other day: a circular from Patel Brothers. The grocery stores of theirs that I’ve seen have the appearance of being local — tucked away in strip centers — but in fact Patel Brothers is a national chain, with about 50 stores. The brand did start in Chicago, however, with its first store on Devon Ave., hub of the city’s East Indian population, in the 1970s.

Patel BrothersThe four-page circular has one of our names on it, so it’s more than a blind mass mailing. Chinese New Year is mentioned on the front page. Guess the Patels are looking to expand their market a bit.

On the back page, various East Asian items are offered, such as Ichiban Tofu, Sriracha sauce, TYJ spring roll pastry and Chaokoh coconut water. Looking up that last one further, I learned that the Thai product is the “Official Coconut Water Partner of Liverpool Football Club.”

Inside the circular, the products are more South Asian. From it I learn that Swad brand is popular. Apparently that’s an Indian food distributor headquartered in Kerala, but its web site is less than helpful when it comes to offering much information about the company.

The About Us page says, all sic: “Catering to gods own people is no mean task. We embraced this challenge with great enthusiasm and with Swad Food Products, a well known house hold brand name in India. We make available premium Wheat & Rice Products all over the world. Our products are available all over the world through more than hundred strong distributors. Our Product Quality agreed internationally by getting orders from Middle East, Europe and USA.”

Anyway, at Patel Brothers, you can buy Swad peanuts, cashews, salt, moong dal, whole moong, kidney beans, kabuli chana, turmeric powder, ghee, rice flour and canola oil.

The Noah Bell on My Nightstand

Ted Striker: Mayday! Mayday!

Steve McCroskey: What the hell is that?

Johnny: Why, that’s the Russian New Year. We can have a parade and serve hot hors d’oeuvres…

April ended with heavy rains and chilly air. May Day passed under gray skies, with equally chilly air. Yet the grass is long, buds are everywhere, and birds are noisy in their pursuit of making baby birds.

Sometime in the spring of 1986 (probably), I bought a noah bell at a Wicca gift shop in Austin. Strictly speaking, I don’t think Wicca had anything to do with the store, which was stocked with crystals and incense and other esoteric-flavored knickknacks, but that’s how I referred to it later. Maybe that’s gross insensitivity to Wicca, but even my enlightened Austin friends got a chuckle out of the description. Things were different in the ’80s, I guess.

In our time, naturally, one doesn’t even have to go out to find Wicca supplies.

Thirty years later, this is my noah bell.

noah bellThis is what it sounds like, struck with a stainless steel spoon: Noah bell rung three times.

Interestingly enough, it sounds about the same when struck with a plastic pen. Note that there’s no clapper. There used to be one, which was made of wood, but it disappeared sometime over the last three decades. It wasn’t made of copper, so I know it wasn’t stolen.

My bell is about 4¾ inches (12.5 cm) tall, not counting the ring on top, and 3 to 3½ inches (up to 9 cm) in diameter, since it’s more oval than circular. A smaller noah bell with a clapper sounds like this.

I still have the large tag that came with my noah bell, because of course I do.

Noah Bell FrontSo it’s not just a noah bell, but a Maharani brand noah bell. A maharani is the wife of a maharajah, so I suppose that’s like naming your brand Queen or Empress.

Noah Bell BackOLD INDIAN BELIEF needs to be all caps? That’s told of other bells as well, and I have to wonder what kind of lily-livered devil or evil spirit would be scared off by the sound of a bell. Don’t they cover that in evil spirit training? Then again, I ring it around here sometimes, and we’re not bothered by evil spirits that I know of.

The company that imports these bells from India is called Maharani Imports. According to its web site, “Maharani Imports specializes in whimsically themed wind chimes and mobiles made with recycled iron, handmade fused glass beads, and Noah Bells all assembled together in Mumbai. We also have many costume and semi-precious necklaces, earrings, and bracelets…

“We are based outside of Dallas in a small rural town called Bartonville. The company has been in that location since 1980 and we are located on a 30 acre ranch property with many rescued animals. Namely we have about 6 donkeys and 9 llamas, which we welcome you to come visit by appointment if you are nearby!”

Bartonville’s just south of Denton, and I’m not so sure that it’s particularly rural any more. But I can see how the good folks at Maharani Imports might have discovered Austin early as a solid market for their products. My own noah bell now spends most of its time on the nightstand near my bed, along with a lamp, a stack of books, a small statue of Lincoln, and some other bibelots.

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton

I’m about halfway through Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1990) by Edward Rice, subtitled in its Amazon entry, “The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra, and Brought the Arabian Nights to the West” (but that phrase isn’t on the cover of the book). At the halfway point, Burton’s already been an agent for Gen. Napier in Sind and other places, daringly visited Mecca, and done a lot more, and now — around the time he met Speke — he’s preparing to venture into Africa for a date with a spear through his cheeks.

Wiki (to borrow only one sentence) describes Burton as a “British explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat.” Rice’s biography, I’m happy to say, does him justice.

“Burton was unique in any gathering except when he was deliberately working in disguise as an agent among peoples of the lands being absorbed by his country,” Rice writes. “An impressive six feet tall, broad chested and wiry, ‘gypsy-eyed,’ darkly handsome, he was fiercely imposing, his face scarred by a savage spear wound received in a battle with Somali marauders. He spoke twenty-nine languages and many dialects and when necessary, he could pass as a native of several eastern lands — as an Afghan when he made his famous pilgrimage to Mecca, as a Gypsy laborer among the work gangs on the canals of the Indus River, as a nondescript peddler of trinkets and as a dervish, a wandering holy man, when exploring the wilder parts of Sind, Baluchistan, and the Punjab for his general. He was the first European to enter Harar, a sacred city in East Africa, though some thirty whites had earlier been driven off or killed. He was also the first European to lead an expedition into Central Africa to search for the sources of the Nile…

“His opinions on various subjects — English ‘misrule’ of the new colonies, the low quality and stodginess of university education, the need for the sexual emancipation of the English woman, the failure on the part of the Government to see that the conquered peoples of the empire were perpetually on the edge of revolt — were not likely to make him popular at home. Nor did his condemnation of infanticide and the slave trade endear him to Orientals and Africans. His scholarly interests often infuriated the Victorians, for he wrote openly about sexual matters they thought better left unmentioned — aphrodisiacs, circumcision, infibulation, eunuchism, and homosexuality…

“Burton’s adult life was passed in a ceaseless quest for the kind of secret knowledge he labeled broadly ‘Gnosis’… This search led him to investigate the Kabbalah, alchemy, Roman Catholicism, a Hindu snake caste of the most archaic type, and the erotic Way called Tantra, after which he looked into Sikhism and passed through several forms of Islam before settling on Sufism, a mystical discipline that defies simple labels. He remained a more or less faithful practitioner of Sufi teachings for the rest of his life…

Wow. Previously I only knew about his career in the broadest terms, colored by reading Mountains of the Moon by William Harrison in Japan in the early ’90s (published as Burton and Speke in 1982), an exceptionally fine work of historical fiction, and seeing the movie Mountains of the Moon, which is a good adaptation.

Never mind the fellow who hawks Mexican beer. Even though he’s been dead for over 125 years, I’d say Richard Burton would still be a strong contender for status as The Most Interesting Man in the World.