The Life of a Murti: The Global Journey of a Hindu Sacred Image

A version of this story was published by the Robbinsville Advance

GANDHINAGAR – In the shadow of a pale green canopy at the Swaminarayan Akshardham, outside the capital city of Gandhinagar in western India, about a dozen craftmen are hard at work.

Tink, tink, tink.

The steady beat of hammers on chisels sound like insects on a summer night, an effect intensified by the quiet conversations in Marwari among the Rajasthani carvers.

They’re carving metal and stone murtis, or embodiments of Hindu deities.

Even though it’s still spring, the heat is intense. A few electric fans swirl dry, hot air around the room. On the walls hang partially translucent fiber reliefs—scenes from the life of Swaminarayan, an 18th-century figure venerated as a deity by some Hindus. Along the edge of the workshop, three apprentices hunch over practice murtis made of gypsum plaster. In another corner one carver sits cross-legged on the floor in a dust of reddish-gold curlicues. He uses a sharp metal nail to finish the fine details on a small copper figurine. In the back of the room at least a dozen three-foot tall, nearly-finished marble murtis covered in plastic await final touches.

The murti workshop is filling orders that can come from temples halfway around the world. This is the chronicle of a hand-carved white marble murti, now worshipped in the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam (BAPS) Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville, N.J. It’s a global odyssey, tracing the Indian diaspora from South Asia to suburban New Jersey. Along its journey, the murti changes from an anonymous block of cold, metamorphic stone into a divine form recognized, celebrated, and worshipped by millions of devotees.

As the population of Indian immigrants and Indian Americans grows in the United States, Hindu mandirs, or temples, are increasingly common in cities across the country.

Inside the mandirs—and even the homes of some Hindus—are consecrated Hindu murtis. Some of them are painted images, others are statues made of stone or metal, but all of them are essential to Hindu worship: after priests ritually consecrate murtis, they are cared for and worshipped as divine manifestations.

Surprisingly, a murti’s journey doesn’t always begin in India. Hari Patel knows that well. He moves murtis. “I’m the link between the people who actually carve the murtis,” he said, “the team at the port in India, and the Newark Port and custom clearance.” Since 2005 he has volunteered with the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in Robbinsville and he estimated coordinating some 500 shipments between India and his home temple in New Jersey.

Patel said there’s very little high-quality marble available in the western reaches of India—where most of the carving takes place—so it must be imported from quarries in Italy and Greece. When a mandir is ready to be constructed, or a murti is to be made, he said the marble is purchased in bulk and shipped to the subcontinent. From the veins of Europe it’s taken to carving workshops like the one in Gandhinagar.

The rapid expansion of BAPS mandirs around the world created new demands in the murti trade, according to Cynthia Packert, Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Middlebury College. She’s been studying Indian art since 1985 and said that contemporary workshops “had to recruit a number of artists” and teach them to sculpt. Traditionally, artists learned their craft from their parents, she said. “If you want to make a sculpture correctly, you have to be trained properly.”

A murti worthy of worship has to be perfect. After all, thousands of faithful will view it over its lifetime, which can span for centuries. “There are specific descriptions of each deity,” said Sadhu Aksharvatsaldas, a monk in the BAPS temple in Ahmedabad, India, and researcher of Indian scripture and temple architecture. There are texts outlining “how it should be carved; how it should be designed,” noting that proportionality between body parts was particularly important. “Naturally people like to see lifelike murtis,” Aksharvatsaldas explained, “but according to tradition, the divinity is going to remain the same” as long as the tenets of the scriptures are followed.

When a murti is finished in India, it is nestled inside a custom-made wooden box matching the size of the sculpture and padded with rigid polystyrene, said Hari Patel. Wooden blocks or chips are placed around fragile areas like the neck and then the rest of the remaining space is filled with quick-hardening liquid foam that forms a protective insulation. “It basically becomes a cast,” he said.

The murtis arrive at the Robbinsville mandir wedged inside a steel shipping container, strapped atop a truck coming from the Port Newark Container Terminal. They have already traveled thousands of miles by that point, having embarked on the final leg of their journey from the port of Mundra, in western India.

The fragile murtis, which come in a variety of sizes, are vital to Hindu religious and ritual life. To become truly divine, they must first be consecrated. When a murti is ready for consecration, it is carried through the community where it will reside. Then it is taken to the inner sanctum of the mandir and placed on its pedestal. The next day, the murti is bathed and the consecration rites begin.

Aksharvatsaldas knows the rituals surrounding the birth of divinity within a murti, but has never done the full rites himself. In the BAPS tradition that role is reserved for the guru Pramukh Swami Maharaj, who Aksharvatsaldas called “a God-realized saint.” “When the murti passes through the consecration rites, all [the] past is over,” he said.

Ideally a murti is sanctified at its final destination. However, the rapid expansion of Hinduism around the globe can present a dilemma for gurus who live in India, like Pramukh Swami, or others who are unable to travel. In those instances the murti is consecrated in India and placed in a type of spiritual suspended animation for its journey.

Sadhu Amrutvijaydas, a monk at the BAPS temple in Ahmedabad, India, explained that if a murti is consecrated and can’t receive daily care, “for that period of time the murti is sort of requested to rest. And when it’s placed in its final location, the divinity is revived again by the performing priest.”

Other extenuating circumstances can befall a murti during the production process. Even years of training and practice cannot make up for the imperfections that naturally occur in the finest marble or the occasional accident that might damage a murti.

Outside the workshop in Gandhinagar were two nearly-finished murtis standing upright among a dusty pile of scrap stone. They were “canceled” murtis, the workers explained. One had a dark band running across its calf and another had a patch of plaster at its feet, apparently covering a crack.

Although blemishes and nicks were grounds for scrapping a murti, several devotees said that imperfect murtis could be used for decoration or whittled into a smaller piece. If the flaws were too severe, however, it would be laid to rest. “If there is a murti which is defective in some way, or it’s broken,” Amrutvijaydas explained, “the process is to place it in water—a body of water.” It receives a burial at sea.

Perfectly-formed consecrated murtis are cared for daily. Priests change the deities’ clothes, bathe them, and offer them food. In the mornings and evenings devotees sing and peer intently into the eyes of the murtis, part of the holy ritual of darshan. Some Hindus may form intense personal connections with murtis over years of meditation, service, and prayer.

Jay Patel, a resident physician and Swaminarayan devotee living in Weehawken, N.J., said he wasn’t sure how he would practice his religion without a murti. On Sundays he attends a mandir in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., where he performs darshan of the gleaming marble murtis in the temple’s inner sanctum.

“Murtis are one of the cornerstones of a Hindu mandir,” he said. They are a portal to contemplating the divine. “What would you focus your mind on?” he asked. He can recall the details of the murtis in the shrine of his childhood home and he said he even remembers the details of murtis he’s seen from past trips to temples in India.

For those born in America, murtis represent tradition and provide a spiritual keel, explained Jay Patel. But in the diaspora, murtis take on a special cultural significance for Hindu immigrants. For them, murtis are a reminder of the people and places they left behind.

Hindu devotees don’t travel unaccompanied on their journey through life. Murtis follow them around the world: embarking on the same long, uncertain voyages, arriving at destinations far from their origins, and undergoing transformations, reborn at the hands of artists and priests. When viewed in that light, the murti and the devotee are not so different. They’re both pilgrims, embodying a rich collection of places and forms.

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