The English sense of wonder is certainly understandable. The sheer facts of the construction are staggering: a stone temple consisting of nearly 3,000 tons of limestone from Bulgaria, 2,000 tons of Carrara marble from Italy, which has come via Kandla in western India, where for two years more than 1,500 sculptors chipped away at it making fantastic designs, the whole thing assembled here in a matter of weeks like a gigantic Lego set. What is more, the construction is an assertion of the vanished Hindu past of temple glory: no steel or lead (it was feared such material might interfere with divine vibrations) has been used, perhaps the first cantilevered construction in Europe not to do so. Though the organisers are coy about the cost, it was probably pounds 10 million. Nothing like this has been seen outside India for 1,000 years. And all this on a road whose most imposing building until now has been an IKEA store.
Park Lane, which in the recent past has reverberated to anger and denunciation from Islamics, saw sweet processions and introduction to His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the gentle 75-year-old spiritual guide of the Swaminarayan sect and fifth in succession to the founder of the sect Lord Swaminarayan, sat enthroned in splendour in Piccadilly Circus.
Contemporary churches, mosques, and even temples, are largely built by rich men keen to advertise their spirituality who, probably, hope it will wash away their sins. But Neasden, taking us back to medieval times, has been the voluntary effort of Swaminarayan devotees driven to fulfil the desire of Pramukh Swami Maharaj. Twenty years ago, he had a vision of a temple in London and now his followers, working long hours in their spare time, have made the vision a reality. This amazing Hindu DIY has led one writer to speak of a miracle in Wembley, a phrase often used to herald footballing exploits but never before as a hosanna for a Hindu temple.
The devotees of Swaminarayan have shrewdly built on this, providing perhaps the slickest public relations any Hindu organisation has ever had and presenting their Lord Swaminarayan, not only as a god but a great social reformer, who would be quite comfortable both with modern feminists and animal rights activists.
Unlike the ancient Hindu gods I was brought up to worship, the Swaminarayan legend is little more than 200 years old. Born in 1781, his story is part of the Raj when, as the British influence convulsed India, many religious leaders emerged. As his devotees tell the story, he renounced the world at the age of 11 and travelled the length of India barefoot wearing a single loincloth. He put a stop to yagnas, fire sacrifices which involved killing animals, sati, the burning of widows, and dudhputi, the drowning of baby girls in milk.
The English may be amazed by a beautiful temple amidst the downbeat ordinariness of the North Circular. But I am not. Hindus grow up stumbling across riches amidst muck. The greatest Hindu flower, the lotus, blooms in splendour but its roots lie in the dirt. At first sight, Hindu temples anywhere always startle, always appear extraordinary. Their very point is to defy their surroundings, throwing out a challenge to other man-made structures.
For a Hindu brought up in India, it is the Englishness of the Swaminarayan temple that strikes. No noise, tumult, dust, dirt or chaos. The greatest contemporary temple in India is the Tirupathi temple, where the magical powers of the god Venkatesa reigns. It draws 30,000 pilgrims a day, who trek up to the hilltop in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Far from being a reflective theological trip, it is more like a walk along Olympic Way after a riotous Wembley Cup final with the added dimension that it has to be done in bare feet and every few yards you are waylaid by a priest promising salvation for a few rupees.
The Neasden temple offers quite the most orderly and civilised arrangement for taking off your shoes I have ever come across in any temple: neat little alcoves with separate ones for men and women, disproving JK Galbraith's notion that Hindus are instinctive anarchists, no free-booting priests waylay devotees.
And then there is Lord Swaminarayan himself. Even for me, brought up on all the lore and mythical tales of Hindu gods and goddesses, Swaminarayan is a new name in the supermarket of gods from which every Hindu can make his choice. The temple has other murtis (idols) and all the old favourites of the Hindus are there: Rama, his consort Sita, Ganesh, the elephant god, Hanuman, the monkey god, but Swaminarayan has pride of place. And for most Hindus who are not devotees, he will be very much a niche product, one to be cultivated while the other gods are celebrated.
In time, this will not be a problem for Hindus. Hindus, like the ancient Romans, have always worshipped a multitude of gods, and when pressed by Christians affecting superiority because they believed in one God hastily pointed out that the godhead is one and that the trinity of Brahma, creator, Vishnu, preserver, Shiva, destroyer, is not that different to the Christian Trinity. A Hindu priest mercilessly taunted by a Christian missionary about the superiority of Christ to the Hindu god Krishna once replied, "You talk about your god Christ. But can he, like our Lord Krishna, make love to 400 women in one night. Your face would have looked like a baked apple if you had to make love to ten women, let alone 400."
I was reminded of this robust response as I approached the steps of the temple. There on the grass was, perhaps, the most evocative sculpture of this complex: Krishna playing his flute while his darling gopis (cowgirls) are so arranged round him that he seems to be draped in them. I did not count 400 but there were enough to make any man's face into a baked apple should he have had anything like Krishna's nocturnal appetite.
I was tempted to ask His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj about Krishna and Christ. But as I reached him at the end of a patient line, he looked so gentle and peaceful in the saffron robes casually draped round him, and was answering questions with such calmness in his native Gujerati, that I did not feel it was appropriate.
The guru was about to leave for South Africa and the devotion of his followers on the Thursday morning I visited - they were largely middle- aged - was awe-inspiring. All of them wanted to touch his feet and some, unable to do so, were content to touch the ground near to him. What he whispered to them was hard to say although, judging by one story told to me, he is fond of the sort of elliptical utterances Hindu sages specialise in. The story goes as follows. A father brings his teenaged son to the guru. The son will not accept God and the father fears he has been corrupted by the secular West. Pramukh Swami Maharaj questions him about the evils of the West: drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, and when the teenager answered no to each of them he turns to the father and says, "There, you see, he follows all the paths laid down by God. Therefore he believes in God. You do not have to proclaim God to worship him, there are various ways of worshipping."
Make of this reply what you will, but the sadhu (priest) who told me this story clearly saw in it the guru's great wisdom and ability to find divinity almost anywhere. The sadhu himself is a good illustration of the power of this faith. As a Swaminarayan priest he has taken the strictest of vows: no greed, no desire, not only no animals or their products, but no garlic, no onions, water added to food to make it tasteless and no sex. He had grown up in this country and seemed just the sort of Asian boy who might have renounced God and found the West irrestistible. Arriving from Muranza, in East Africa, as a child, he took 11 O-levels, was studying for 5 A-levels when, instead, he renounced the West and found his Hindu god. In 1981, at the age of 16, he decided to become a sadhu, which meant going to India, changing his name and doing a year's training in various Swaminarayan missions in India.
It included, for a time, looking after bulls. "I had been studying for A-levels in politics and economics and there I was in India looking after bulls. But this is what the Pramukh wanted." His renunciation of his past is so total that should he meet his father now he will not acknowledge him. "He means no more to me than anyone else. My past life no longer exists as far as I am concerned." The only clue that we are in 1995 comes when the sadhu reaches inside his saffron robe and pulls out a mobile phone.
He was not the only one with a mobile phone in Neasden. Almost everybody seems to carry one. They were much in use properly to regulate the flow of the 200 or so devotees in and out of the temple's various buildings.
To point to this is not to suggest anything strange. It sums up both a rather English style of running this Hindu temple, and this Indian community clearly shaped by its twin periods of exile; once from Gujerat in western India to east Africa and then in the Sixties and Seventies from there to this country. So, although the followers of Swaminarayan number no more than 20,000 in this country, and worldwide are no more than a million, it is a shrewd business community drawn from Gujerati Lohanas, Patels, Shahs who clearly find Swaminarayan's teachings answer all the questions.
But even here among the devotees of Swaminarayan there is a divide. A mile-and-a-half away, not far from the Willesden synagogue, there is another Swaminarayan temple belonging to another sect of the movement. The temple is much smaller; in the prayer hall, men are segregated from women and the sweets are not as good. The priest, Mr Halai, said no, he had no plans to go to the Neasden one.
So while the architecture of the temple may represent the first and most fantastic spread of Hinduism since the heyday of the religion, more than a 1,000 years ago when it reached out to Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia - of this only the temples in Cambodia and the small community in Bali remain - it is a temple of a small sect. It will dominate the north London landscape, but it may never come to be as symbolic as Canterbury is for AnglicansReuse content