Every day, bus-loads of tourists arrive in Gorai, a sea-front suburb of Mumbai, and head to Esselworld and Water Kingdom, two popular theme parks built by Indian billionaire Subhash Chandra’s Essel Group. Since 2008 the traffic to Gorai has jumped several-fold. Around 10,000 of those people are seeking something other than a ride down a water slide. They are going to the giant golden pagoda. You can see it from miles around rising from the trees in a sharp finger-like spire aimed at the clouds. The people are going to the pagoda to sit in Vipassana, an ancient Buddhist meditation style seeing a revival in India.
His name is not anywhere on the pagoda, but the landmark’s great patron is none other than Chandra, who made a $1.8 billion fortune off television network Zee TV, watched by 500 million viewers a day. He largely credits meditation for his business success. His teacher for going on two decades is Satya Narayan Goenka, the 86-year-old guru who spearheads the Vipassana movement. In 1997 Chandra gifted the 13-acre plot on which the temple stands. It was worth an estimated $5 million when he parted with it and is probably worth twice as much today.
The Global Vipassana Pagoda took 11 years to build. It is 325 feet tall and painted bright gold, a replica of Myanmar’s 2,000-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. It has the distinction of being the world’s largest hollow stone dome constructed without any supporting pillars. It was made using traditional techniques, with interlocking blocks of red sandstone, each weighing up to 1,540 pounds and bonded together with lime mortar. Around 2.5 million tonnes of sandstone was hauled 620 miles from Rajasthan, the desert state in northern India that is famous for this particular variety.
“This is a unique structure. It’s been built to last 2,000 years,” says Chandra, a youthful-looking 61-year-old, in his office at Essel’s headquarters in Mumbai. He appears as serene as the Buddha in the painting that hangs behind his desk. “I had benefited so much from Vipassana, I felt it was important for many more people to be able to share the experience.”
Chandra personally supervised every aspect of the pagoda’s construction, insisting on daily reports and making the two-hour drive in traffic from his headquarters twice a week to review the site. When there was a money crunch Chandra would dip into his pocket to ensure that work didn’t stop. While Chandra won’t disclose exactly how much he personally contributed, he acknowledges that the project cost ten times as much as the initial estimate of $2 million.
When the monument finally opened four years ago, Chandra played a central role in the enshrinement ceremony, carrying a jade stone container with original bone relics of the Buddha on his head and placing it near the top of the first dome. “Vipassana taught me how to maintain equanimity in all situations of life. This has helped me tremendously in business, more so in the tough times,” he says.
Chandra is well acquainted with how perilous financial problems can be. He was born into a trading family and grew up in a small village in northern India. As he relates it, the extended family, which numbered as many as 86 people, slipped into debt and split up. He had to drop out of college and start working. With less than a dollar in his pocket he moved to Delhi to find a way to pay off the family’s debt. He eventually made decent money in rice trading and moved to Mumbai, where he set up a packaging unit making laminated tubes. Today his Essel Propack claims to be the world’s largest producer of such tubes.
Inspired by CNN’s coverage of the Gulf war, Chandra took a gamble and started Zee TV, India’s first satellite television channel, in 1992. His family fretted that he would lose the modest pile he’d made. Ashok Kurien, his pal and Zee’s cofounder, says it was like walking into the valley of death.