Preparations for my great Indian Adventure (London)

Fast running out of time before my departure, I put aside my dilettante ways yesterday and revisited the Shri Swaminarayan temple in Neasden, North London. Recognised as the largest Hindu temple, or Mandir, outside of India, it was opened in 1995 after being painstakingly assembled from thousands of tons of exquisitely carved white limestone and marble, all worked in India by craftsmen using traditional methods. It still has the power to take my breath away, even on a subsequent visit. All the superlatives of the pamphlets and websites (and Indians do love their record book entries) cannot do justice to its magnificence.

This particular sect of Hinduism originated early in the 1800’s in Gujarat and I have to admit to not knowing enough about the subject to know where it stands in the hierarchy of holiness but architecturally it is unsurpassed. The three Shri Swaminarayan (also known as BAPS) temples that I have so far visited are characterised not just by their beauty and opulence but also by their hospitality. Non-Hindus are given a special welcome, there are plenty of volunteer staff who are only too willing to help and the consideration given to people with disabilities is exemplary. A small charge is made for entry to the Exhibition Hall, which provides an excellent foundation to understanding Hinduism and, of course, lists the jaw-dropping specifications of the temple construction.

 In 2006 I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the BAPS temples in Ahmedabad and Delhi, the former still scarred by a recent terrorist attack and the latter barely completed. Photography was not permitted and so I have had to include a couple of reference pictures in an attempt to do them justice. If I tell you that the Akshardham Mandir in Delhi has a pedestal carved of pink Rajasthan sandstone, depicting a hundred and forty eight life-sized elephants (all different) you will begin to get the idea. Gujaratis are business people and conspicuous displays of wealth are not frowned upon; they are proud of the fact that the construction of these temples has brought employment to tens of thousands and reinvigorated a host of traditional styles of craftsmanship.

Of course I am proud to have such a building in London too. There are thousands of BAPS temples worldwide, many of them in less splendid, converted local buildings but all dedicated to welcoming outsiders and spreading an understanding of Hinduism. In Delhi I saw notices specifically welcoming people of all faiths and apologizing for not being being able to admit women wearing the burqa. This was despite tight security following the recent bombing by Muslim extremists which had killed 29 people at the Ahmedabad temple. It struck me a sensitive approach to a very difficult situation and something that showed a genuine concern for the feelings of others.

 Further good news is that the Shri Swaminarayan organisation has built some of its beautifully ornate, traditional temples in such cities as Houston, Chicago, Toronto and Nairobi. I would definitely recommend a visit for anyone who lives close enough to one of them; apart from anything else it may have you re-thinking the possibility of a trip to India. You know who you are.




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