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When a Hindu temple northeast of Atlanta was expanded last August to include a gym and 18 classrooms, a craftsman across the world must've been smiling.
Inaugurated in 2007, the BAPS Swaminarayan mandir has become a landmark in the city of Lilburn, a symbol of Indian culture and a specific sect of Hinduism that counts more than 1 million adherents around the world.
Only a half-hour drive northeast of Georgia's gold-domed capital, the mandir's pristine white spires rise toward the heavens above strata of ornately carved stone.
Composed of Turkish limestone on the outside and Italian marble inside, the structure fits together in a lock-and-key system with a bit of mortar but no structural metal. Pink sandstone is used for cladding on surrounding buildings, including the family activity center opened last year on the mandir's fifth anniversary. Adherents say the mandir is built to last a millennium.
While the faithful from around the Southeast logged more than 1.3 million volunteer hours to get it assembled and running in Atlanta six years ago, each mandir's story begins in India.
Trained craftsmen are given dimensions and instructions, then use chisels to create swirling designs and Indian symbols like elephants, lions and peacocks, along with murthys, depictions of Hindu holy men and deities. Gurus offer pujas, or prayers, to breathe spiritual life into the stone. Before shipping, blocks are numbered with codes that correspond to one of the 830-plus mandirs built or under construction worldwide. More than 34,000 pieces have been shipped to Atlanta from India in more than 300 container loads through the Port of Savannah.
During a 2012 visit to a carving site in the village of Sikandara in Rajasthan state, Global Atlanta talked with the craftsmen over the clink of chisels and the whine of saws to learn that carving is more than a job; it's an act of spiritual devotion.
The BAPS community believes, much like Christians, that God came into the world in the form of a man to teach people how to reach him. Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the incarnate deity, was born in 1781 and died in 1830, but he is believed to have passed down his spiritual presence through designated successors. The current leader, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, is the fifth to embody his ideals, which include morality, service to others and devotion to God.
One stone carving expert interviewed in Sikandara, who didn't give a name, learned residential masonry from his father but eventually sought a more meaningful life. After receiving approval from the BAPS leaders, he started carving and has continued for 35 years.
Now responsible for teaching new recruits, he sometimes finds it tough to communicate the more complex designs. There's no room for practice blocks, and any errors are felt personally, as the funds for mandir construction come from devotees who have sacrificed their wealth for the good of the community. Even with this pressure, he can't envision any more satisfying work.
"As long as Swami allows me and I'm able to work, I'll continue to work," he told Global Atlanta.
Khadaksinh Jatan, a 20-year-old craftsman, has been working with stone since the age of 14. He aspires to find a teacher who will teach him the most intricate designs, so he can pass the knowledge along.
"Generations of my family have been doing this. This is what I know. This is what I like to do. This is what I'm going to do," he said through a translator, adding that he's happy knowing that he contributes to the beauty and diversity of cities like Atlanta.
"I'm very excited about the fact that people come from all over the world to see my work."
While the craftsmen aren't required to be believers, many of them must sacrifice their time and resources to do the job, said Rakesh Patel, who oversees hundreds of workers on multiple sites around northwest India.
They get paid on a month-to-month basis, only as money comes in, said Mr. Patel, who 19 years ago left the Indian Institute of Technology for what was meant to be a six-month stint with BAPS but never went back.
Although he said workers are benefiting from a "never-ending" stream of work as mandir construction plows ahead globally, the craftsmen are ingrained with a deep sense of responsibility to their fellow members of the faith.
"Every penny that's wasted is that of God and that of the devotee who gave up so much to make sure these things happen," he said.
For the Atlanta faithful, seeing the beauty of the mandir is a reminder that all are connected in pursuit of tolerance and beauty.
"It's one thing to see the finished product and it's another thing to see the spirit with which the finished product is being made," said Ritesh Desai, an Atlanta entrepreneur who has volunteered in public affairs for the mandir in Lilburn. He arranged Global Atlanta's visit to Sikandara.
Jigar Patel, who currently heads up the mandir's media relations, said that the faith community, like the mandir, is made up of individuals who have their own unique beauty but coalesce to form an even more stunning whole, woven together by their inspiration and spiritual leader, Pramukh Swami Maharaj.
"I think the whole community appreciates the work that everybody puts in, the artisans, the volunteers and the folks that still put in time each day," he said.
Mr. Desai added that the mandir, which he called a "hidden jewel of Atlanta," is open for guided tours for groups of 10 or more. There is no charge to visit, and audio tours are also available.
"The neighboring county (Dekalb) is known for its Stone Mountain; soon Gwinnett will be known for its mountain of stone," Mr. Desai said.
To learn more about the Atlanta mandir, visit http://atlanta.baps.org.