The story of Airport Road Shiva Temple

shiva_temple

(Image source)

The statue at Shiva Temple (Old Airport Road, Bangalore), with a height of 65 feet is one of the tallest statues of Shiva which witnesses thousands of devotees everyday (lakhs during festivals) and is one of the “must visit” destinations for tourists as well.

It would come as a surprise for first time visitors that such a magnificent statue is hidden behind a large shopping mall and the path to the temple is through the basement & stinky parking lots of the mall. Let me narrate the real story behind the inception of this statue which explains why the temple has been hidden behind a mall and the way in which it has transformed a businessman into a philanthropist.

shiva_temple_map

Anyone who has visited the temple and interested in its history would have come across its “official” story as follows:

“In 1993, Ravi Melwani heard God speaking to him in his dream and told him to build a temple that can make people’s dreams come true. Ravi Melwani was just 27 years old then, neither had any land nor the money but his perseverance finally made it possible. After earning sufficient money through hard work, he purchased land & hired a sculptor in 1994 who made the dream a reality in a matter of months. The temple was inaugurated in 1995 and has become a spiritual destination, not only for devotees in Bangalore but also from all across the country and the world”

ravi_melwani

Ravi V Melwani

That is the official version. But the reality is different. Ravi’s father, Vashi Melwani was a successful retail businessman who had gained prominence through his innovative retail stores like Kids Kemp at KG road and Big Kids Kempat MG road in Bangalore during the 80s and early 90s.

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1990 report on Big Kids Kemp

Link:
http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/shopping-paradise-for-youngsters-opens-in-bangalore/1/315990.html

As with any ambitious bussinessman, he had set his sights high and after the success of Big Kids Kemp at MG road catering to the luxury clothing needs of rich families, he wanted to setup a new retail chain customized for rich kids in the form of a huge toy store designed along the lines of the American model as a fort.

Based on the demographics of his customerbase for Big Kids Kemp, he had realized that his business would thrive if it is based closer to the Airport (majority of his customers being tourists and business travellers) and hence Airport Road was his next destination. The Airport road had begun to witness sharp rise in real estate prices in early 90s due to the software boom and mushrooming of several offices around the Airport. Most of the plots were marked as revenue land which were available for relatively lesser price but were not to be used for commercial purposes as per law. Also, the bustling activity in Bangalore (due to software boom) led to a rise in flights which required an expansion of the Airport and hence land allocation around the Airport region was stalled by the authorities. This was the background till 1993. Lets see what happened in 1994-95.

shiva_temple_1995

Construction during 1994-95

Within a short span of 3-4 months, a huge statue (65 feet tall) of Lord Shiva was constructed deep within a large plot of revenue land and was open to public in Feb 1995 by the Melwanis. It came as a surprise to Bangaloreans because Melwani was notorious for his cut-throat business tactics and nobody had expected him to build a religious idol of this magnitude. Skeptics still suspected some foul-play but most of them thought that he had indeed changed & become a philanthropist. Devotees thronged in thousands everyday to get a glimpse of the large deity and busy commuters plying on the road were happy to see such a big statue clearly visible on the way to work everyday.

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Kemp Fort inaugurated in 1998

Two years later, as some of his critics had expected, a foundation was being laid by Ravi Melwani at the land in front of the statue. The revenue land which was converted into temple premises had begun to witness a major transformation. Due to the availability of a large empty land in front and still unused by Melwani, devotees were expecting an expansion of temple premises with amenities like meditation halls, auditorium etc, but Melwani had something else in mind. His masterplan had began to unfold and by 1998, a whole retail toy showroom called “Kemp Fort” had risen in that large plot literally pushing the statue into a state of obscurity. Devotees felt betrayed and skeptics objected but Melwani countered them by claiming that the statue was originally constructed only for his employees who worked or were supposed to work at Kemp Fort. And hence the public, instead of complaining, must be happy for having been let to worship into his private temple!!

This was taken up as a case in the court (occupying a revenue land in the pretext of constructing a temple, getting control of it and later converting it into a commercial land). The case lasted for years with the Govt finally budging and Melwani won it on the grounds of religious sentiments and also by defending it as an initiative which would boost tourism due to its proximity to the Airport.

From 1998 to 2007, Kemp Fort remained just a landmark with hardly any success inspite of millions of window shoppers. Visitors preferred to check out the store for fun but the primary intention was to visit the temple. Frustrated with this inability of converting devotees into shoppers who were seen as a liability to the store, Melwani began to charge shoppers with an entry fees to Kemp Fort which did not go down well with public and this in turn witnessed a sharp decline even among prospective shoppers. The loss making vivid store was finally shut down in 2008, handed over (rented out) to Total Mall which seems to be doing brisk business these days. The vivid, fort-like appearance of Kemp Fort has been renovated to appear more conservative with a narrow path at the left side leading to the Shiva Temple.

TotalMall

Kemp Fort renovated into Total Mall.

While devotees still throng the temple in thousands everyday (and lakhs during festivals), the showroom (Kemp Fort) which was seen as a symbol of greed is no more and the irony being that the creator of both the temple & showroom was the same person (Ravi Melwani) who has turned into a full time philanthropist and spends most of his time preaching & singing in the temple premises which is now behind the Total Mall.

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Ravi Melwani preaching & singing bhajans

One of the biggest takeaways from this story is about how a businessman who tried to commercialize Lord Shiva was eventually transformed into one of the biggest philanthropist of Bangalore and devotee of Lord Shiva.

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