DIVINE PERFECTION IN NEASDEN

THE BROADER PICTURE
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The Independent Culture
AT LAST something big is happening in Neasden. For many years the butt of Private Eye jokes and a mecca for budget home furnishings, the featureless sprawl of Thirties and Forties housing beside the North Circular in London, NW10, is now witnessing the rise of the largest Hindu temple ever to be built outside India.

The construction of the mandir (temple) is seen by Hindus as the fulfilment of a prophecy of His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, guru of the 200-year-old Swaminarayan Hindu Mission and the fifth spiritual reincarnation of its founder, Lord Swaminarayan. Around 15 years ago, Pramukh Swami decreed that two new temples, "to last 1,000 years", should be built as spiritual centres for his followers. One, in Gujerat, has been completed; the other, in Neasden, will open in August, four years after work began.

Building the temple has been a painstaking act of faith, arguably on a par with the construction of some of the greatest cathedrals of medieval Christendom. Pramukh Swami declared that if the completed mandir could represent perfection, then perfection would reign in the universe. So far, the cost of building perfection on earth has reached around pounds 2m, an amount raised largely by donations from Britain's Hindu community. The final bill is expected to be substantially higher.

An Indian architect, CB Sompura, was chosen for the daunting task of creating the perfect temple. His design was for a traditional mandir, combining a variety of different strands of ancient Hindu architecture. No expense was spared in converting his vision into reality. First, marble from Carrara in Italy and limestone from Bulgaria were shipped to India, where a small army of village craftsmen set about fashioning the intricate carvings that adorn each slab and pillar. The completed pieces of this giant, shimmering jigsaw were then brought to Britain, where they were assembled on the Neasden site by a workforce of volunteers. This assembly work was shielded from the inquisitive gaze of passing north Londoners by an ornate "ring" of wood carved in the romantic Haveli style.

When the temple is finally exposed in all its glory, it will dominate the Neasden townscape, visible from as far afield as Wembley stadium, and providing a refreshingly spiritual counterbalance to the vast IKEA furniture store across the road. Its creators hope that it will provide the local Hindu community with a social and cultural centre, providing not just halls for prayer which can accommodate up to 2,000 people, but rooms for conferences, exhibitions and marriages as well. The 11-acre site will also house an extensive library, health clinic and kitchens, plus parking for 550 cars.

The Swaminarayan Mission sees the temple as an attempt by an immigrant community to hold on to its culture, but also a celebration of Hindu values. "A mandir," according to Hindu philosophy, "is man's attempt to re-create nature wherever he settles in villages, towns or cities, where he can revive peace and tranquillity and worship of God in silent serenity." Building a temple shows that, for Asians, spiritual values still hold sway over politics and materialism - while Neasden finally has a building it can be proud of. !

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