A Winter's Tale: Take a Karma Kab-ride to the Temple

To escape the bleak British weather, head to Neasden for a ray of spiritual sunshine

Neasden is the sort of place that makes your spirits slump. Despite a defiantly cheery display of plants at the local tube station and the shiny lights of the IKEA superstore, the thing that sticks out most is street upon street of shabby brickwork. To the visitor on an overcast October day, it is desperately bleak.

Neasden is the sort of place that makes your spirits slump. Despite a defiantly cheery display of plants at the local tube station and the shiny lights of the IKEA superstore, the thing that sticks out most is street upon street of shabby brickwork. To the visitor on an overcast October day, it is desperately bleak.

Strange, then, that this neglected corner of the capital is also home to one of its most spiritual buildings. The multi-billion rupee Shree Swaminarayan Mandir is apparently the largest Hindu temple outside India and was built in Neasden five years ago. It is a uniquely disorientating structure. Turn a corner off Brentfield Road and suddenly, above the dilapidated shops and leaking rooftops, sweeps a whirl of milky white domes and fluttering flags.

Inside, it is no less impressive. Slip your shoes off at the entrance and look up. The upper reaches of the temple foyer are an extravaganza of warmly coloured and delicately carved wood. Among the swirling patterns are the shapes of dancing peacocks, blossoming lotus flowers and royal elephants. Beneath all this, the temple's visitors' shop sells books, cards and posters in technicolour glory. Next week, on the 26 October, it is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and in the run-up to the celebrations, the foyer appears even more spectacular. For those bemoaning the onset of a gloomy British winter, this is an instant escape route to the glitter of India.

Having paid £2, I watched the temple's introductory video and strolled through a lavish exhibition on Hinduism. Among other things, these told me that the temple's 2,800 tons of carved limestone and 2,000 tons of carved marble were assembled in only three years. At the end of the exhibition, a sign expressed the organisation's hope that it had helped me "feel and understand the warmth of the Hindu experience".

The warmth of the Hindu experience was more radiant in the temple itself. A staircase drew me into a marble-pillared space, its pure white fabric hurling the light from curve to curve. Marble idols "infused with the divine presence of God" were on display there and, since nobody was taking much notice of the "Please Observe Silence" signs, the sounds swishing around the space appeared to be coming from the statues.

At that point my escape to India seemed a little too close for comfort. But I was having too good a time for my trip to be over so I booked a "Karma Kab" to take me back to town. Each of the ambassador cars the company runs is decorated in flamboyant, Indian-themed style. Mine was decked out bumper-to-bumper in bright, plastic flowers and, inside, every inch of space was used - from the mirrored mosaics on the ceiling to the flashing lights of the Hindu god on the dashboard and the pink sequinned seat covers. In Neasden it wasn't hard to find.

I ran through the drizzling rain and climbed in. "I normally play Indian music but the weather's so bad I think I'll go for Cuban," said Jesse, who was in the driving seat. The Karma Kabs idea, in accordance with Zen, is that the journey is more important than arriving. As we trundled off into the traffic in a bubble of foreign sunshine, I was converted.

Shree Swaminarayan Mandir is at 105-119 Brentfield Road, London NW10 (020-8965 2651). Entrance to the temple itself is free. Karma Kabs cost £40 per hour and can be contacted on 020-7598 0132 or, from Diwali, at: www.karmakabs.com

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