Neasden: a new home for the gods

The drab, suburban face of a corner of London is about to be changed forever by a Hindu temple. Andrew Brown reports
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The Independent Online
Neasden is already home to one modern centre of pilgrimage for the struggling middle classes: the IKEA store. As from tomorrow, Neasden, once famous solely as the butt of a million Private Eye jokes, will be distinguished by a building even more unlikely than a Swedish furniture store, much more revered, and incomparably more beautiful.

The Swaminarayan temple is set in the suburb's suburb, a swathe of non- descript ugliness south of Wembley Stadium, where the North Circular Road bends south towards the Thames. It is faced with 2,000 tons of Italian marble, carved until it seems to froth like the milk on a cappuccino. In the hard light of this extraordinary summer, it glitters as if in the tropics. What is not marble is grey limestone from Bulgaria, or teak, also carved until the hard wood looks like a tapestry. It is the first temple in this style to have been built for at least 100 years, anywhere in the world. It would, I think, appear unlikely and wonderful wherever it was. But in Neasden, it is like an epiphany. As the blurb says, it is a place "where time stops and the Mind becomes still", just for a moment, beside the North Circular Road.

We owe it, as much as to anyone, to Idi Amin. Many of the Asians he expelled to this country were Gujerati followers of Shri Swaminarayan, a 19th century guru revered as an incarnation of God by two million followers. There were already some followers of Swaminarayan here: the sect's teachings became popular among some Europeans in the early 20th century, and other Gujeratis had migrated directly to Britain. But the East African influx was important in giving the sect wealth and self-confidence. The money for the temple was raised entirely in Britain, and almost entirely from Gujeratis.

Lord Swaminarayan is believed by his followers to have been reincarnated five times, most recently in Swami Pramukh, who has led the sect since 1971. The sect has prospered considerably. In 1985, they revived a traditional ceremony in which Swami Pramukh was placed on a pair of scales, and sugar piled on the other side until they balanced. Then the Swami climbed down (for he may not touch meat or metal) and gold was piled in his place until it balanced the sugar.

The cost of the present temple is unknown, and in some sense incalculable, since almost all the labour involved has been voluntary. But the materials alone are estimated to have cost pounds 3 million. The method of construction is almost unique. The marble and limestone were quarried in Italy and Bulgaria, then shipped to Gujerat to be worked on. An untold army of craftsmen laboured on the traditional carvings, which cover even the pillars high up in the skylights of the prayer hall. Then the 26,300 parts were shipped to England, where they were re-assembled under the direction of C B Sompura, the architect.

The work has taken two and a half years. In that time, an entire complex has arisen, as well as the main temple or Mandir. The Mandir itself, the frothing marble topped with an extravagance of domes, is only a small part of the whole, though 70 feet high and 195 feet long. To one side is the community's already established school, the only independent Hindu school in Britain. To the other is a brand new building which functions as community centre, prayer hall, and gymnasium. This cultural centre will also be used for marriages and as a centre for the community. In the old temple across the street, there is already a remarkable atmosphere of relaxation among the shoeless worshippers. Children rush around in front of the deities and the whole place feels far more like a community centre than a temple. But the two functions cannot be lightly intertwined. Religion is what defines most human communities (just ask the Yugoslavs) and it is clear that one of the functions of the new temple and community complex is to strengthen the community's values against Western anomie. Much is made of the struggle against drug addiction by the sect. The cultural centre will be used to hold classes in all forms of Hindu culture.

The prayer hall is a huge square chamber - 22,000 square feet - with no echo at all. The walls, where they are not carved or prepared for the advent of carved deities, are covered in acoustic carpet. Vast speakers hang from the roof and the atmosphere of somewhere ready for devotion is only slightly spoiled by the glass-walled control rooms in the walls beside where the idols will be installed.

The new temple complex will have 17 idols in all, which are to be installed on Sunday. The Hindus' statues partake of the divine nature of the gods (or people) they represent. At the same time, there is an extraordinary, almost catholic lack of reverence for the deities. They are simply integrated into every day life, offered food and flowers every day.

The priests of the Swaminarayan sect are known as Saints, which can make introductions slightly complex. "This is one of our saints," said my guide, introducing me to a saffron-robed man whose head was closely cropped except for a single inch-long pigtail at the back. My guide bowed reverently, but a small boy, running up, addressed the saint with as much warmth and informality as if he had been an uncle.

The Swaminarayan sect is almost confined to Gujeratis and their descendants. It has 350 temples in India, and 20 outside, of which this is the grandest. Others are found in Johannesburg, Nairobi, New York, and even Atlanta, Georgia. This temple, say observers, will be an important step towards raising the morale of the Hindu community in Britain. Beneath the small room where most of the idols will be housed is a startlingly modern exhibition centre, designed to promote all aspects of Hinduism. This, like the rest of the complex, makes use of a great deal of modern technology: there are lifts for the disabled; the carved woodwork has been treated with a fire-retardant coating and the marble floors are heated from underfoot. But there is no steel and no lead in the central dome itself.

Girish Patel, my guide, said "This is because steel emanates certain magnetic waves which impede tranquillity when you are meditating. Besides, what are the oldest structures in Europe? They are things like Stonehenge, and they were built without steel, too. We want this to stand for 1,000 years, so we build without steel."

Martin Palmer, the director of Icorec, a consultancy on world faiths on the environment, says: "This is the Hindus' answer to the Catholic cathedral in Liverpool, the Paddy's wigwam, which was also to some extent the statement of an immigrant community that it had arrived. The Gujeratis involved came mostly from East Africa, often as refugees; the ability to create something of their own is an enormous statement. There is another parallel with the Jains in Leicester, who also built a huge temple to say they had arrived."

The new temple, he predicts, will take some of the pressure of Bakhtivedanta manor, the most famous Hindu temple in Britain. This, once a country house in a quiet village bought by musician George Harrison, was turned over by him to the Hindu sect known as the Hare Krishnas, who installed their own deities and so turned it into a centre of pilgrimage. Thousands of people choke the quiet country lanes on great festivals, and the local council has made repeated attempts to close it down. At present, the fate of Bakhtivedanta Manor is in the hands of the Environment Minister, John Gummer, who must determine the result of a public enquiry held over the Manor's scheme to build its own slip road from the nearby main road which would bypass the village altogether.

The next flashpoint would come tomorrow, which is celebrated as Janmashtimi, the birthday of Lord Krishna. Bakhtivedanta Manor has not advertised the festival this year: it is still being prosecuted after 20,000 pilgrims turned up for the last celebration. But it expects a fair number of pilgrims to attend. However, the new temple will provide a considerable counter- attraction. The 17 idols will be paraded from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square to acquaint them with their new home town. Then there will be festivities at the temple through the evening before it is inaugurated with a further five days of conferences and celebrations.

At present, none of this can be gleaned form the site, which is a hive of chaos. Workmen cover almost every part of the floor, some still fitting carved marble panels into the walls, some hoovering the panels already been fitted. During most days of construction, there were between 80 and 90 volunteers, but now the work is almost finished, it seems that every Hindu in Wembley has turned up to help and to say they have helped.

The profusion of the carving, so startling at first sight, is even more startling close up. There are gods and goddesses around every column in the inner sanctum; a frieze of elephants' heads runs around the ceiling. The temple is careful to point out that for every tree felled to decorate the temple, ten were planted.

One of the most prominent messages displayed around the temple, both in the publicity material and in banners hanging down all around the perimeter, is a green one. The light bulbs are of an energy-saving type, and are supplemented by skylights wherever possible. The publicity claims that the temple architecture is a form of nature mysticism, symbolising the "precious atmosphere of the mystic mountains, calm caves, inspiring flora and fauna". No wonder it looks so out of place in Neasden.

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