I’ve been to UK Hindu temples before, those converted community-hall type of temples you find in most urban population centres, where the shrines are modest and the furnishings sometimes a little frayed around the edges. I’d occasionally wondered if all such temples outside of India were the same.
Last weekend I discovered that this is categorically not the case, as I accompanied my longest-standing friend and her family to Neasden Temple in north-west London. I knew nothing about it in advance and if I’m honest my expectations weren’t high, but it didn’t matter, because our purpose was to bestow marriage blessings on my friend’s son and his wife-to-be, prior to their wedding in August.
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As it turned out, the temple proved to be intricately beautiful, and an intriguing and sobering vessel for faith, tradition and reflection.
Prayers and Purchases
Access to the grounds is carefully controlled, with security guards diligently screening the crowds and guiding them through the main entrance of the haveli – the large hall connected to the main temple, or mandir.
Here visitors de-shoe themselves and perhaps sit on one of the carpeted areas, to pray or just take in the calm ambience amid the beautifully decorative English Oak and Burmese Teak carvings. Importantly, the wood is from sustainable sources – ten saplings were planted for each tree used. In the centre, there’s the obligatory souvenir shop, which to its credit offers more than just the mass-produced plastic trinkets you’d expect to find. I bought myself a booklet about eyecare, containing a rather sweet mix of modern physiology and traditional wisdom. A logical purchase for someone who is never far from a screen!
In time, we were ready to make our way through the connecting corridor into the cluster of domes forming the main temple – the mandir.
Made in India, Built In London
Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha (BAPS) Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, to give it its full name, is Europe’s first traditional Hindu temple, and follows the teachings of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya branch of Hinduism. Built in accordance with ancient architectural texts (the Sanskrit Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest scriptures), the temple components were constructed in India using natural materials such as Bulgarian limestone and both Indian and Italian marble, before being shipped to their permanent home in the London and assembled.
An incredible labour of love, the creation of the mandir and haveli required thousands of volunteers, among which were hundreds of skilled craftsmen. The intricate carvings are not just beautiful to look at – run your hand along any wooden handrail as you descend one of the staircases and your sense of touch will kick into play, following the spiralled grooves all the way along.
Honouring a Young Pilgrim
Our first stop in the Mandir is the Abhishek Mandap, a marble chamber featuring a gilded brass statue (murti) of Nilkanth Varni.
Murti: the image, statue or idol of a deity in Indian culture; the sacred embodiment of such a deity
Nilkanth Varni is a younger child-form of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the founder of the Swaminarayan Sampradaya tradition. His 7-year, 7000-mile, barefooted pilgrimage from the age of 11 is considered the root of the tradition, and is celebrated here.
Abhishek is an ancient ritual where water is poured over the murti of gods to honour them and attain their blessings. I found the visitors encircling the murti in a clockwise direction, so I joined in and followed the process. Several devotees prostrated themselves on the floor in reverence, a common practice, more among the men than the women.
We followed the Abhishek with our main mission for the day – a visit to inner sanctum on the first floor.
Fruitful Wishes for a Happy Marriage
The hall is the most impressive and elaborate area of all, a feast of elaborate carvings and sculpted beauty. Its shrines feature several images of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and his spiritual successors over the years, plus representations of many revered Hindu gods. Offerings to these divinities can be either fruit, sweets or money, and I confess to having a strong preference for fruit, as it represents the bounty of the earth and the cycles of nature.
There are people from all walks here, but all with a common attitude of respect. It’s quiet and calming, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re here out of faith or curiosity.
Our group puts the prasad down (make their offerings) to the chosen deities, including Lord Shiva, one of the key deities of Hinduism, and Shri Ganapti – commonly also known as Ganesha. Shri Ganapti, with his easily identifiable elephant head, is the god of beginnings and the remover of obstacles, and as such often features in rituals when a wedding or other major occasion is approaching.
Appreciating Yesterday’s Values in Today’s World
To complete our afternoon, we visited the ‘Understanding Hinduism’ exhibition, a tranquil and thought-provoking passage through the origins and principles of the Hindu faith.
Through a series of exhibits and plaques, its ancient wisdoms and a vast array of early achievements in astronomy, mathematics and other disciplines are brought to your awareness. In the ceiling, concave domes have been hollowed out, and images of the stars painted to represent this knowledge and love of the wider cosmos.
For a few moments, I sat and leaned against one of the marble and wood pillars, listening to the background music and wondering why we seem to have lost sight of the core values of this, and most major faiths.
We are birds of the same nest.
We may wear different skins, We may speak in different tongues,
We may believe in different religions, We may belong to different cultures,
Yet we share the same home – Our Earth.
Born on the same planet, covered by the same skies,
Gazing at the same stars, breathing the same air,
We must learn to happily progress together or miserably perish together.
For humans can live individually, but can only survive collectively.
(attributed to the Atharva Veda but probably a more recent interpretation of its message)
It was now time to re-shoe ourselves and make for home. Outside, a ritual was taking place. We lingered on the periphery of the crowd for a few minutes, but none of us were any the wiser. It turns out (thanks to some online research!) this was a celebration of Rath Yatra, the Hindu festival of chariots.
But I can’t say I’ve managed to get a grip on what it means!
There’s a lot to take in with Hinduism, but it has some beautiful concepts and is a fascinating collection of values and wisdom. I can fully understand why many westerners have been drawn to it over the years, and thanks to Neasden Temple, I’ve taken a little step closer to appreciating it more myself.
Disclosure and Information: This was a private visit. Please note only small bags are allowed into the building and no cameras. Mobile phones are permitted but the taking of photographs is strictly prohibited. The temple is open every day from 9am until 6pm. Entry to the Haveli and Mandir is free, the Understanding Hinduism exhibition carries a charge of £2 for adults (children and seniors at £1.50).