Spread over seven acres, Shri Lakshmi Narain temple, popularly called Birla Mandir, is a dense neighbourhood of gods. A world in itself, it is a land of plenty. It has shops, phone booths, photo studios, a dispensary and a dharamshala (guesthouse). It has streams, fountains, bridges and rocks. It has papaya, cheer, mango, ashoka, ber, tamarind, guava and neem trees. It has a lion, elephant, crocodile, camel and hippopotamus. But it’s the brick-red temple tower (165-feet high) that takes the breath away.
While the presiding deity is Vishnu, Birla Mandir advocates the philosophy of monotheism and is open to all faiths. Built by the industrialist family, the Birlas, it was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1939 in the presence of Jugal Kishoreji Birla, whose statue stands in a hedged garden.
The chief prayer hall is airy, tranquil and beautiful. Pigeons tip-tap around the large chandelier. Nearby on the floor is a giant globe and a huge bell. The marble walls are etched with figures of gods and inscribed with shlokas. Elephant heads are sculptured on the ceiling. The path of parikrama — the anti-clockwise circumambulation around the deity — passes through a mirror-lined gallery. The latticework on the walls is a mix of the sun’s image and swastika symbol (don’t confuse it with the Nazi swastika, which was laterally reversed).
The temple’s backyard is landscaped with statues of gods and kings, holy men and animals. Artificial caves can be entered through the open jaws of a crocodile and a lion. Sheshnag, the serpent god, stands in the centre of a pond. A stone pillar is carved with images of historical warriors Rani Lakshmi Bai and Maharana Pratap.
To see the crowd, try your luck at Sai Baba’s shrine within the temple complex. If you are a bird-watcher, stand at the bridge and wait for pigeons to soar around the towers. If you want to be alone, lie down next to the dried pond. Surrounded by mankind, birds and beasts (so what if they are in stone), you feel yourself to be a part of the world and yet removed from it. The more worldly can scavenge the souvenir stores for postcards, bangles, statues and religious music. There’s a special reception hall for foreigners. Cameras are not allowed inside the main temple.
Timings: 4.30 am to 1.30 pm and 2.30 pm to 9 pm
Where: Mandir Marg, near Gole Market Note. The temple could be very crowded during festival days.