“ The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is a Hindu temple in Neasden, in the London Borough of Brent in north-west London. It was Europe's first traditional Hindu temple (as distinct from converted secular buildings), and according to Guinness Book of World Records it is believed to be the largest outside India, although this distinction may now be taken by the Balaji Temple in Tividale, West Midlands. „
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The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is the largest Hindu temple outside of India. This fact alone made me want to go and see it. It was completed in 1995 and was funded entirely by the Hindu community. I was taken by my Hindu friend, who lived in the area and regularly attended the temple. The temple is in Neasden, a rather run down area of northwest London. To get there you have to either get the bus or walk there from a nearby station. This is a nice way to get to the Temple as suddenly, out of the gloomy, grey Neasden streets, rises a stunning, white marble building.
THE TEMPLE FROM THE OUTSIDE AND THE ADJOINING BUILDING
From the outside the Temple looks very impressive with its many domes and pinnacles and the grand steps leading up to it. I was disappointed to find out that we wouldn't be entering the temple via the steps; I believe that entrance is reserved for VIPs. We were to enter through a set of less impressive doors to the left of the Temple, that led us into an open are that contained areas for depositing shoes and coats, doors to the toilets, a reception area, an area for sitting (an open space on the carpet) and a small shop selling products to do with the faith such as stickers and pictures of various Gods, books on the faith and on various Indian languages, trinkets, incense and key rings. Perusing around the shop after my visit into the actual temple, I found it was very cheap and had a good array of informative books on Hindi and in English. There is also a lot of information on the walls about the Temple and about the Hindu faith.
ENTERING THE TEMPLE
On entering the actual Temple part of the complex, I have to say I was actually surprised at how small it was, considering I knew it to be the largest Hindu Temple outside of India. It is nothing like the size of a grand church, it is more like the size of maybe two classrooms. But it is still amazing when you consider that it was funded entirely by the Hindu community and is made entirely out of Bulgarian limestone, Sardinian granite and Indian and Italian marble. The Temple was constructed without the use of any steel.
INDISE THE TEMPLE
Inside the Temple, you forget about the size as its beauty simply overcomes you. All stunning white marble and intricate carving, combined with the quiet and calm atmosphere, makes you feel somewhat awed. It is quiet inside the Temple as just whispers are allowed. There are beautifully carved statues of many of the Hindu Gods along with plaques that inform you of their story and reason for being worshipped. Our wonder around the Temple ended with my friend taping me on the shoulder and pointing upwards. I looked up to see the inside of the largest dome visible from the outside of the Temple. It was absolutely stunning. It is extremely carved with a symmetrical nature. To be honest I forget what exactly the carved design was of but I remember that I couldn't take my eyes off it. The Temple itself was beautiful, but this was on another level. I walked out of the Temple with my head back and my eyes raised trying to catch one last glimpse of the interior of the dome.
EVERYONE IS WELCOME
People inside the Temple were worshipping and paying us, as obvious outsiders, no attention. Visitors are very welcome in the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir and I believe you can even get guided tours. We just went along in our own time but you can also go for an actual service at certain times of the day.
A FUN, EDUCATIONAL DAY OUT
It only took us about 20-30 minutes to actually go around the Temple. We spent more time in the shop afterwards. But you really can make a day of it if you visit the Temple and then visiting one of the nearby Indian restaurants for a meal. Many of these places are very cheap and you can try a very different kind of Indian food than you might be used to. For example, we went to a place that sold Dosas, a south Indian food similar to a crepe, which that came with a variety of fillings. Very different to your usual curry house offerings of Chicken Tikka Masala.
Some years ago I read a newspaper article about a Hindu temple (Mandir) in a suburb of London. It is the greatest outside India, and it is made of white marble. The description was so enticing that I knew at once: I had to go and see it.
It so happens that for some years I've only been to London when I organize an educational trip for my German A level students who have chosen English as their main subject. I had to decide whether I wanted to go to the Mandir alone in my spare time or whether I wanted to include the visit into our sightseeing programme. I did the latter, because multicultural Britain is one of the subjects of our curriculum. It was a great experience for my students, especially for two of them. More of that later.
THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE MANDIR
The trip by tube to Neasden, a grim suburb in the north west of London, was already part of the educational aspect as the German students haven't got an idea how British people (can) live when they only do the sights in the centre. The 15 minute walk took us through 'a very cheap neighbourhood with concrete flyovers and the most hideous old and new factories in a treeless area of mud spattered junk yards' (I'm quoting a nameless internet author).
And suddenly we saw something foreign, strange, exotic, a snow white building straight out of an oriental fairy tale, by some called The Eighth Wonder of the World: the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. It covers 1.5 acres, is 75 feet high, has one big dome, five smaller ones, seven pinnacles with golden tops and many carved pillars.
Every information makes us gape in wonderment: no steel was used, the reason being that steel sets up magnetic fields which would interfere with mediation, 2.800 tonnes of cream coloured limestone from Bulgaria was taken for the exterior, 2.000 tonnes of Italian (and Indian) marble and 127 tonnes of granite. The stones were first shipped to India, where more th
an 1.500 craftsmen and artisans carved out the 26.300 parts of the Mandir, each piece was given a computer code and then shipped back to London where the 'puzzle' was put together from 1992-1995.
The guide told us that only Indian marble was completely white and that the Italian marble from Carrara had fine dark veins. I asked him why they hadn't only taken the Indian variety then, and he said, "EC marble is cheaper." I can't say what kind of answer I expected, certainly not such a prosaic one. Strange, too, what with the high wages in Europe and the shipping costs to and fro, but who am I to argue?
How could the craftsmen and artisans in India know what to carve and how could they be sure that all the parts would fit together in London? The explanation is: The architect followed the ancient laws for building mandirs which have been valid for more than a millenium, everything we see now could have been made a thousand years ago, if the building weren't (still) so white, it could have been built in the Middle Ages. In fact, the craftsmen and artisans didn't need any instructions, they knew how to carve the figures and ornaments by heart. New is only what serves the comfort of the visitors of today, such as a heating system, lifts for the handicapped and indirect lighting.
If this architectural concept were transferred to our part of the world, it would mean that the European Christians would have built only Romanesque churches for one thousand years, that there wouldn't have been a Gothic, a Renaissance, a Baroque period.
(in a very small nutshell) On the ground floor of the Mandir is an exhibition 'Understanding Hinduism' which informs the visitors about the origin, growth and glory of this religion and what Hindu values can contribute to the individual, the society and the world at large. (I'm quoting from the booklet I got there)
Hinduism is the world's oldest living religion, over 8.500 years old. Presently, Hindus comprise 13.7% of the world's population residing in over 150 countries. Its roots lie in the Indus Valley, the people living there came to be known as the Hindus. No single founder is known. Through penance and prayers, intuition and introspection, seers gained the ultimate experience of God, which they put down in the writings of the Veda (knowledge/wisdom), written in Sanskrit, the oldest language of the world.
Egypt inherited much of its sacred knowledge from India, then passed it on to Greece, from where it became the foundation of European philosophy and religion.
What makes the Hindus special is that they honour the whole of Creation, see the presence of God in everything. To them there are no heathens or enemies, everyone has the right to evolve spiritually, and shall, at some time realise the Truth. Hinduism is liberal, it does not set man a limit of one life, but offers many lives. At the same time, it is strict, it makes man feel responsible for every action he performs. (The booklet isn't PC, it's always only 'man').
THE SWAMINARAYAN FAITH
Guru Swaminarayan lived from 1781-1830 and was worshipped as a God already during his lifetime. Our guided tour began with a video film informing us about the founder of this denomination. Our guide talked about him as well, some of the aspects: the belief in its pure form, the stress of the essential thoughts without a hue of hypocrisy suddenly reminded me of Martin Luther and the Reformation (rightly or wrongly I can't say). When I asked the guide if he knew Martin Luther, he looked at me a bit miffed (or so it seemed) and said, "Of course, I know Martin Luther King." I said, "No, I'm talking about the real 'thing', our German Martin Luther, after whom Martin Luther King was named." He was in
trigued and begged me to send him information. Shall I comply? I'm going to visit the Mandir again in July, I could take something with me. But no, I think, I won't do it. The Hindus don't do missionary work, if you aren't born as a Hindu, you can't become one, a concept I appreciate highly. A text about Martin Luther wouldn't be missionary work, of course, but obviously they have lived contently for nearly 500 years without the information and can very well go on doing so.
Pujya Pramukh Swami Maharaj is the fifth spiritual successor of Lord Swaminarayan and the present leader of the Swaminarayan faith.
THE INDIANS IN GREAT BRITAIN
Swaminarayan was active mainly in what is now Gujarat in the North of the Indian West coast. People from that region have built Mandirs wherever in the world they happen to live, in other parts of India, in Africa, the USA and Great Britain. In the whole of GB there are about 20.000 Gujarati, in London about 2.000. They have donated money not only for the Mandir, which is already incredible enough, but also for socio-religious projects adjoining the Mandir, such as a library, a meeting room, a mensa with kitchen, a gymnasium, a kindergarten and a school for Indian children.
About 3 million British subjects, 6% of the population, come from the former colonies, among which the immigrants from the Caribbean Islands form the biggest group. Only about 900.000 people come from former British India, but economically speaking they are the most successful, there are hundreds of Indian millionaires in GB. So the Mandir is also a symbol for what the Indian immigrants have achieved in their new home country, although discrimination against them has not completely ended yet.
When we had booked our guided tour we got a leaflet telling us how to get to the Mandir. If you ever think of visiting it, forget three of the suggested possi
bilities, use only the tube to Neasden and then walk for 15 minutes. We had told our students to meet in front of the Mandir, not knowing the location we hadn't told them which route to take. About 40 minutes after the appointed time all but two had arrived and we went in. We stayed in the Mandir for over an hour, the service was to begin then; we were invited to take part, but declined. We had seen what we wanted to see, and for the evening we had other plans.
Before returning to the city we went to the cafeteria to conclude our visit in proper style with Indian titbits, when our two lost sheep appeared. They had chosen the silliest possibility, but we couldn't scold them, as we all had had problems, the teachers included. I discussed what had happened with the man at the entrance, he admitted that they had already got many complaints and promised that they would update the information. I don't know any Indians personally, in Germany there are hardly any, our immigrants come from other parts of the world, anyway, it sounded very southern European/Balkanese to me, I'm sure nothing will be changed in the near or far future.
We told the two students to just pop in and have a quick look, we would wait for them in the cafeteria. We drank one spiced tea after the other, but they didn't return, at last I was sent to fetch them. They had got into the service! I spotted them at once among the dark skinned, black haired Indians: the boy with a very white complexion and flaming red hair was sitting among the men, and the girl, pale and blonde among the women. Standing at the walls were praying men who every now and then threw themselves headlong onto the floor, a women was walking through the rows with a plate full of burning candles fanning the smoke onto the heads of the sitting people, thus transferring the spirit of the deity. I was fascinated and very glad that I had the chance of watching this ceremony. But I had to f
etch my students, the service would last for hours.
Oh God/ Oh Gods, respectively, how utterly embarrassing! I stalked like a stork through the rows, my students were sitting right in the middle, of course, and tapped them on the shoulder, they were already in a trance like state. All the people I disturbed were very friendly, I'm imagining the scene in a Christian service, an Indian disturbing the congregation to fetch two fellow Indians, and I can see the angry glances and hear the hissing.
If you've done the sights, even been to the Bramah Tea%Coffee Museum (see my op 'Tea, please!') and have some time left, go to the Mandir. The afore mentioned unknown author writes: "One cannot leave the Mandir without feeling a nicer person." If that isn't worth a try!
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
105-119 Brentfield Road, Neasden
London NW10 8JP
The visit of the Mandir is free, the exhibition costs: Adults 2.00, OAP's and children 1.50
Group and school parties should contact: (020) 8965 2651
Visiting times: 9am - 6 pm, daily, throughout the year