The industrial Neasden neighbourhood is home to one of the most remarkable buildings in London, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, widely known as the Neasden Temple. The magnificent marble structure is one the largest of its kind outside of India and it’s well worth one hour travel from central London to see it. I have visited the Neasden Temple recently and had an awesome guided tour with a Temple volunteer. I also had an exclusive opportunity to take pictures, so you are invited to see what I saw and learned during my visit.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, popularly known as the Neasden Temple, is a Hindu Temple dedicated to the worship of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the millennia-old traditions of the Hindu faith. It is a masterpiece of traditional Hindu design and exquisite Indian workmanship in the Neasden, North London.Neasden Temple is a part of the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) organization and was inaugurated on August 20, 1995, by Pramukh Swami Maharaj.The finished building caused a sensation. Its clean white pinnacles and domes stood proudly above the residential streets of the area. ‘There is the saying that when people come to pray, they forget about the outside world,’ says Yogesh Patel, spokesperson for the Mandir, himself one of the volunteers who helped build the temple. The temple has won several significant awards. It was described as a “modern building of major importance in our multicultural society” by the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England. Time Out London guide in 2007 included Neasden Temple in the list of the capital‘s finest seven man-made marvels. Since its opening, this renowned place of worship has been attracting close to half a million visitors annually.
The Temple is devoted to Swaminarayan Hinduism, one of the rapidly growing and most visible forms of contemporary Hinduism that traces its routes to the Indian state of Gujarat in the first half of the 19th century, and the life and teachings of its founding guru, Swaminarayan. Bhagwan Swaminarayan is worshipped as the supreme Godhead. Also what distinguishes BAPS Hinduism from other forms is its focus on helping the poor and addressing the erosion of moral and spiritual values in society. Followers do not consume alcohol, eat meat, steal or engage in sex outside of marriage, and they maintain a purity of conduct.
Building of Temple
The Mandir was built and funded entirely by the Hindu community. The Mandir complex represents an act of faith and collective effort. Inspired by Pramukh Swami Maharaj, more than 1,000 volunteers worked on the building, and many more contributed their donations or organised different activities. The temple is designed and constructed in the northern Indian style that requires Hindu architecture to “metaphorically represent the different attributes of God” with no structural steel. Building work began in August 1992 on an old used car lot. Using 5,000 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone and Italian and Indian marble, it was first hand-carved in India. More than 1,500 sculptors in Rajasthan and Gujarat worked together for three years to make the required forms. More than 26,300 individually numbered stone pieces then were shipped to London to be assembled in just two and a half years. No iron or steel was used in the construction, a unique feature for a modern building in the UK. The Temple cost £12 million to build.The Temple complex consists of:
● a traditional Hindu temple (mandir), the focal point of the complex,
● a permanent exhibition entitled "Understanding Hinduism"; and
● a cultural centre, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Haveli.
The sanctum sanctorum of the mandir is the focal point of the complex and serves as the centre of worship. A mandir is, in a very literal sense, a house of God. From the conceptual design and vision of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the architect C. B. Sompura and his team created the mandir entirely from stone. According to Mr. Yogesh Patel, the architecture of the temple is evolved from nature. In the old days, wise old men used to go to the mountains to meditate and be at one with God. The peace that they found there, they wanted to bring back to the towns and villages, so they built temples. The shrines represent caves, the pillars, trees and the pinnacles, the mountain peaks. Directly beneath each of the seven pinnacles seen from the outside is a shrine. Each of these seven shrines houses murtis, sacred images of the Deities, within altars. Statues of the sacred deities ‘live’ inside its shrines, ritually fed, bathed and clothed by the resident monks as if they were alive. Photographs of them are posted each day on the temple’s website.
The Abhishek Mandap
The Abhishek has an intricate traditional design. At the chamber’s heart lies the sacred image of Shri Nilkanth Varni in gilded brass. Abhishek is the ancient Hindu practice of pouring water over the sacred image of God to honour him and to attain his blessings. This ceremony is performed there daily.
Understanding Hinduism Exhibition
Beneath the Mandir is the permanent exhibition ‘Understanding Hinduism’. Through visual effects, paintings, tableaux and traditional craftwork, it provides an insight into the wisdom and values of Hinduism. Visitors can learn about the origin, beliefs, and contribution of Hindu seers, and how this ancient religion is being practiced today through traditions such as the BAPS Swaminarayan Sampraday.
Adjoining the Mandir is BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Haveli, a multi-function cultural centre. Whereas the Mandir is carved from stone, the Haveli uses wood: English Oak and Burmese Teak have been fashioned into panels, arches, and screens, all carved by over 150 craftsmen in India with geometric patterns depicting peacocks, elephants and lotus flowers. The cultural centre houses a vast pillarless prayer hall with enough space for 3,000 people, a gymnasium, medical centre, dining facilities, bookstall, conference facilities, and offices. On Saturdays, it hosts 2,000-strong prayer meetings. A souvenir shop sells henna kits, a wide selection of books, postcards, CDs, DVDs and herbal health products.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is located in Neasden, North London close to Neasden and Wembley Park underground stations on the Jubilee Line and Harlesden station on the Bakerloo Line. I came to the Harlesden underground station and then took a short ride by bus number 224 to the Temple. A trip from central London takes about one hour.All visitors to BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Temple are expected to comply with the dress code, meaning no shorts, no skirts shorter than the knee and being respectful to everyday worshippers. All visitors are expected to take off shoes when visiting the Temple. The Mandir is open to people of all faiths and none. Entrance is free, except for the ‘Understanding Hinduism’ exhibition where is a £2 fee. Come and marvel at the intricate carvings, experience a traditional Hindu prayer ceremony, or learn about the world’s oldest living faith.
Special thanks go to Mr Yegesh Patel for organising my visit and granting permission to take photos.
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Author: Anita Sāne
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