Off to India by London Tube: BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
January 1, 1970
As Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights is going to be celebrated at the end of the month, I have decided to dedicate my first article to the magnificent and mesmerising Hindu temple in north-west London. I have found out about it by accident while planning one of my trips to the capital of United Kingdom. As I had visited all main touristic attractions during my earlier visits, I was doing a research on the internet to find places which are not so touristic but are worth seeing.
I have discovered many hidden gems of London for which, when you would actually see them, would think that they are in some other country. One of these gems is for sure BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. Situated in Neasden, an area in Borough of Brent, this Hindu temple is first of its kind in Europe and is also one of the biggest traditional temples outside of the India.
History & Architecture
Facts related to its construction are astonishing. It was built out of almost 5,000 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone and Italian and Indian marble that were shipped to India for further treatment. Type of stone used for the building had to be carefully selected. It needed to endure harsh British weather, be soft enough for carving, but also strong enough to be self-load-bearing without any steel support as recommended by ancient Vedic architectural texts. These instructions were used for designing more than 26,300 pieces that have been carved by 1,500 skilful Indian artisans. Carved pieces were shipped back to London where they were assembled like a colossal jigsaw puzzle by over 3,000 volunteers. After 3 years of hard work, the opening ceremony of the Mandir took place on 20 August 1995.
You might be wondering what is the Mandir, same as I did before. Well, the word mandir could be translated as a temple, but it has much deeper meaning. In Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language, „mandir“ means a place where the mind becomes still and the soul floats freely to seek the source of life, bliss and meaning. It is such a beautiful word to describe a place of worship, isn’t it?
The central part of the Mandir is inner sanctum on the first floor. No matter how captivating and amazing carvings and ornaments on the facade are, the ones inside of the sanctum are hundred times more amazing. You might be thinking that I am exaggerating, but detailed carvings of pillars, ceilings and central dome are just breathtaking. I really couldn’t take my eyes off of them. Unfortunately, I cannot share any photos of the sanctum with you as it was forbidden to take any photos inside. Maybe it is even better like this because photos usually spoil the pleasure of discovering a new place-just image how cool it was to be a tourist hundred years ago when pictures of other cities and countries weren’t so common in public.
Inside of the sanctum, there are murtis-sacred images, objects of worship of Hindus. For worshipers, they don’t just symbolise physical representation of God, but they are actually infused by the presence of God.
“Understanding Hinduism” exhibition
If you would like to learn more about the history of Hinduism and its philosophy, you should certainly visit the ground floor exhibition „Understanding Hinduism“. With the help of 3D dioramas, paintings and traditional craftwork accompanied by the explanations, this exhibition will give you insight into one of the world’s oldest living religions. You would also become knowledgeable about Swaminarayan tradition and Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the manifestation of Supreme God, to whom the Mandir is dedicated. Opposite to the exhibition area, there is the Abhishek Mandap, a marble chamber with a sacred image of the teenage form of Bhagwan Swaminarayan in its middle.
Apart from the Mandir that represents the focal point of the complex, there is also the Haveli, multi-function cultural centre. Unlike the Mandir, the Haveli was crafted out of wood following traditional Indian haveli architecture (haveli is a common word used for townhouses and mansions in India and some neighbouring countries). This haveli was the first one to be built after 100 years, so the making of it was a challenging venture as it was hard to find craftsmen who could do it (more detailed information about its architecture can be found on the official website of London’s BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir). Within the haveli, there is the assembly hall, where weekly assemblies, celebrations, but also presentations for school and group visits take place. I was lucky enough to meet a friendly staff member who allowed me to roam around the assembly hall. In the central part of the entrance hall is the shop filled with the wide selection of memorabilia, books, postcards, spices, natural cosmetic and other traditional Indian products.
In case you get hungry during the tour, you can restore your energy in the Shayona, the vegetarian restaurant on the ground floor of the complex. Unfortunately, I cannot give any comments about the food as I haven’t eaten it this restaurant. Usually, when I am visiting some city, my sightseeing schedule is so tight that I have no time to eat properly, so I usually buy something in the street and eat while I am on my way to next destination. However, all information regarding the menu is available online on the official website.
It is good to know
- BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is opened every day from 9:00 till 18:00, however, if you want to see the Deities, you should visit from 9:00 to 12:15 and from 16:00 to 18:00.
- Not many tourists visit the temple. Most of the visitors are actually locals who came to pray in the sanctum. In general, it is not crowded with people, but still, I would recommend you to do a tour on working day if possible.
- The entry is free as well as parking, but if you want to see the exhibition, you have to pay £2, which is totally worth it.
- You are only allowed to take photos from the outside, even in that case, there are some restrictions. It is not allowed to take bags and cameras inside of the complex, so when you are done with taking photos, you should take your belongings to the storage, which is on the other side of the road, next to the parking.
- Footwear has to be removed at the entrance and when it comes to the clothing, shorts and skirts above the knee are forbidden.
If you are enthusiastic about India and its culture, but you still haven’t had an opportunity to visit the country itself, then take the tube and go for your Indian experience in north London.