Situated in the midst of a busy intersection, behind a Walgreens pharmacy and a gas station, a mesmerizing structure rises from the ground. Cars abruptly stop and passengers stare, trying to take in the captivating site before them. This worldly, elegant structure is not what you'd expect to see along the cluttered stretch of Lawrenceville Highway.
The intricate, if somewhat out of place, building is the new temple for a local Hindu community.
Called the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, the temple has been in the making for some seven years. The 29 acres of land on which the temple is built were purchased in 2000, and construction began in March 2006.
On Aug. 25, the mandir will officially open as home to local followers of a Hindu sect called Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha, or BAPS.
Every detail of the temple has been examined and expertly executed. Three types of stone are included in the structure.
The temple's base layer is created from pink Indian sandstone, to symbolize the Indian roots of the temple, said Mitish Patel, media relations director for the temple. The sandstone is also strong - it will work well in the Georgia red clay and be able to hold up in the region's climate, he said.
Turkish limestone, exported from Turkey and carved in India, was used for the mandir's exterior. For the interior and the temple's columns, Italian Carrara marble was used, exported from Italy and also carved in India.
"Putting this temple together was like doing a big, 3-D Lego puzzle," Patel said. "All the materials came from around the world, and when they got to Georgia, we pieced them into one big temple."
More than 500 detailed carvings, such as peacocks, the state bird of India; elephants, to symbolize strength; and other significant symbols adorn the temple's interior. Every etching in the building was hand-carved and is truly a piece of art, Patel said.
"We hoped to create something that would bring a bit of India here. Outside, the temple is intricately created and is beautiful, just like you would see in India," he said. "And if you think the outside is amazing, then the inside will just blow you away."
While the mandir is undoubtedly an awe-inspiring structure, its location has raised some eyebrows.
"It is a beautiful temple, but to be honest, I was amazed that they would select Lilburn as the place to have it," said Jack Bolton, mayor of Lilburn. "It's not really the place you would expect to see just an amazing temple. But they have very good reasons for it, and we're glad it's here."
Convenience was a key factor for the temple's location. Lilburn's close proximity to the greater metro Atlanta area was attractive, and because Gwinnett is the most diverse county in the state, including a rising Hindu population, the location was ideal, Patel said.
"It made very good sense for us to put the mandir here," he said. "This area fits our needs, with the land available at a fair price and the growing diversity of the community. The city has been very gracious in helping us with our efforts."
To create such an extraordinary temple, the efforts of the BAPS congregation were many. Hundreds of volunteers, both from the area BAPS community and other communities throughout the Southeast, have helped in creating the massive structure.
Volunteers have been involved in everything from clean-up crews to engineering and media relations managers, such as Patel. One BAPS devotee quit his high-profile engineering job to spend his days handling the temple's construction. Another follower has set aside his business of owning and operating 16 hotels across the country to lend a hand in the temple's creation.
"The majority of all the work done has been volunteer-based. This project could not be done without volunteers, it just would not have been possible," Patel said. "This is very much a labor of love."
Expected attendance at the temple is difficult to estimate, Patel said. The mandir does not have members, and it does not have weekly scheduled worship services. Instead, in accordance with the Hindu faith, the temple offers a place for individuals to pray and meditate on an as-needed basis.
"We're not like in the Christian faith, where we are all there at one time, one day a week," Patel said. "People come and go as they need."
There have been few qualms regarding the addition of the temple in Lilburn, but Bolton did voice concern over parking, particularly during the mandir's 16-day opening ceremony.
"I just don't know where they are gonna park all the cars, but they seem to have that pretty figured out, too," he said.
The temple offers about 750 on-site parking spaces, which Patel said should be ample for the community. During the temple's opening ceremonies, parking will be available at satellite locations and attendees will be shuttled to the campus.
"Given the fact that we are not all there at the same time, we have enough parking to go around," Patel said. "That shouldn't be an issue. Actually, we've been very fortunate in that we really haven't run across many challenges and issues, other than Mother Nature, of course."
The learning curve
Neither Bolton nor Patel said they have felt any resistance from the community regarding the temple's presence, though they have found there's a general confusion about what Hinduism means.
Since the mandir's construction began, Bolton has fielded a range of questions. Commonly, he finds that the general public is misinformed about the Hindu faith and its belief system.
"A lot of people are calling the temple a mosque, which is part of the Muslim faith, not the Hindu faith," he said. "A lot of people really don't seem to know what the Hindu faith is all about. A lot of people lump the Hindu faith in with the Muslim faith, but they are very different. I have tried to inform them and clear up those common misconceptions."
Hinduism, the world's oldest religion, originated in India. About one billion people worldwide follow the religion.
Education will be a vital part of the mandir's role in the community, Patel said. There are plans for an exhibition hall to be implemented in the lower portion of the temple to educate school groups and individuals on the core values and concepts of the Hindu faith and the achievements therein.
"We are an extremely peaceful religion, and we strive for interfaith harmony," said Patel. "Whatever religion you are, we want you to be the best that you can be. We're hoping that the temple will be a vehicle to teach people what Hinduism is all about. Certainly, the public is welcome to come and explore."