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Yellow fever

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GOLD STANDARD: Members of Gujarat's Vadtal Swaminarayan sect during a special ceremony to mark the gold-plating of the temple's dome

Gujarat's temples are not known for their riches. Indeed, they would stand no comparison to the über-wealthy temple trusts found in south India, and even many in Maharashtra, which are known to have endowments that run into hundreds of crores. That may be about to change though, because what the state's temples don't currently have in material wealth, they apparently make up for in devotion - vast numbers of devotees willing to help out their chosen shrines.

In unprecedented displays of generosity, Gujarat's faithful multitudes appear to be striving to give the state its own 'golden temples'. The Swaminarayan temple at Gadhada in Saurashtra was recently adorned with gold-plated spires and a throne, thanks to the largesse of the sect's devotees, while the Somnath and Ambaji temples are also set to get golden domes and spires. Gujaratis, long stereotyped as 'careful' spenders, have loosened their purse strings considerably, in God's name. And many temple management committees are encouraging everyone - from a simple farmer who can't give more than Rs 5, 000 to fat cat millionaires - to make donations for their 'golden' projects.

The trend was kicked off by the Ambaji temple trust, which gets around 20 lakh devotees over 15 days in September, when the temple celebrates Bhadarvi Poonam with a huge fair. Former district collector R J Patel, who was the temple trust's de facto chief, suggested gold-plating it about two years ago. He then approached people, many of whom were regulars at the temple, which is located 180 km north of Ahmedabad, and they all made initial donations.

But it was Ahmedabad-based builder Mukesh Patel who put the project on a fast-track. Patel, who shuns gold ornaments and jewellery, agreed to donate 25 kg of the precious metal to the Ambaji temple last year, despite the price of gold hovering near the Rs 30 lakh per kilogram mark. Patel is undeterred by the rise in prices and has already paid for seven kg. He will keep paying till he reaches 25 kg no matter what the price may be at that time.

Patel, who is a partner in a township project outside Ahmedabad, is a rags-toriches story. He has seen extreme poverty and even worked as a cashier in a petrol pump with a monthly salary of Rs 700 once. His family had a plot of ancestral land, which he put to good use. Today, he owns 700 bighas and is a partner in prime construction schemes in and around the city. Patel attributes his good tidings to the blessings of Ma Amba.
Ambaji temple's administrator, Girish Patel, says they have received commitments for 37 kg gold so far, of which Patel has made the biggest donation by a single individual. The current Banaskantha collector J B Vora adds, "The temple's spire is 108 feet tall. We will complete work in the next 18 months. "

Devotees also paid for almost all the 60 kg of gold that was used in covering the spires and throne of the 194-year-old Gadhada Swaminarayan temple. "We had schemes for the devotees, " says S P Swami of the temple. "For instance, we were accepting donations of Rs 27, 000 per square foot. The maximum we received from a devotee was Rs 7 lakh. "

This is the first 'golden temple' in the sect. The plating took two years to be completed. Lord Swaminarayan is believed to have lived here for nearly three decades. In fact, the structure had originally been conceived of as a golden temple. For the current round of gold-plating the spires are first made in copper, designs are carved onto it, and it is then coated with a thin sheet of gold.

Gujarat's most famous temple, Somnath, has embarked on an even more ambitious Rs 100 crore project to give its dome a gold veneer, both inside and out. Given the intricate carving involved, this project will take at least another five years to complete. The 14 large pillars in the temple are also being gold-plated, with work on two pillars nearing completion. The main entrance to the temple will also get the same treatment.

Big industrialists and powerful politicians, never types to be left behind, are also believed to have made huge donations, maybe even accounting for maximum shares. But it is small donors, many of whom have given up to Rs 25, 000 each, who appear to be gladdening the hearts of Somnath's temple administrators, as they invariably reach into their pockets when visiting the temple and help push the work forward. As Vijaysinh Chavda, the Somnath trust's deputy general manager, points out, "Close to five lakh people visit the temple only in the month of Shravan between August and September. Work moves forward depending on the donations. "

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