London newspapers highlight the death of a Hindu priest – Pramukh Swami Maharaj who built a timeless Shri Swaminarayan Hindu Temple or simply as Neasden Temple in London. He was born on December 7 1921 and died on August 13 2016 at the age of 95. This was the largest traditional Hindu temple built outside India at that time in 1995; though since 2007 that honour has gone to Shri Swaminarayan Temple in Atlanta, Georgia, America.
This white marble temple is dubbed as London’s answer to the Taj Mahal in Agra. It is situated at Neasden in northwest London, just outside the North circular Road. It is one of 1,100 temples around the world, which this spiritual head of the Hindu Swaminarayan sect had founded. Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple complex in New Delhi, near the 2010 Commonwealth Games Village on the banks of Yamuna is one of them. It was opened on November 6 2005 by Abdul Kalam.
The Neasden Temple is uniquely magnificent. This takes me be back to Dayal Bagh in Agra where there is a stunning Radha Swami Temple made in white marble, built to excel the Taj Mahal. Its construction was about 50 years old when I was a medical student in 1957. It is now over 100 years and the construction work is still going on. It belongs to the Radha Swami faith, one sect of Hinduism.
The Neasden Temple apart from its splendor, shows indomitable human spirit in how a handful of Indian immigrants to London in the 1950s, keeping their Hindu faith, worked hard, collected money, bought land, materials and skills to build something which is so glorious and eye catching. It is the hub of the present half a million Indian Hindus who mostly live in west London.
Hinduism has many sects, such as Meitei Vaishnav Hindu sampradaya (tradition). The Swaminarayan sect is also one is the offshoots of Hindu sampradaya in Gujarat, founded in 1907 by Guru Swaminarayan, an aesthetic proponent of devout religion. The members of Swaminarayan sect focus on safeguarding the moral values in the society and actively engage in projects aimed at spirituality, character building, and human welfare.
The distinctive feature of this sect, though remaining firmly within mainstream Hinduism, is the worship of its founder and subsequent gurus as manifestations of God. It’s similar to the philosophical view of Meitei Gouranga (Chaitainya) Hinduism that regards Chaitainya as the avatar of Krishna. My father used to hang a framed colour poster of Gouranga Mahaprabhu above the front door of his house.
No caste or creed is barred from entering the temple. It has been visited by millions every year including the British prime ministers. Prince Charles and his wife Camilla visited it in 2009 and complimented how the Hindu community has integrated into the fabric of Britain. They also toured classrooms at the Swaminarayan School, founded in 1991 by Shri Pramukh Swami Maharaj international Hindu organisation known as Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS), situated across the road. In May 2016 London’s Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan visited the temple. He was honoured by the chief priest with garlands, a red Hindu mark on his forehead and tying holy red strings around his right wrist.
The Swaminarayan movement in London started in 1970s when a handful of members inaugurated London’s first Hindu mandir In Islington, north London, with the blessings of their spiritual head Yogi Maharaj in India. His first visit to London on May 23 1970 included a procession through Oxford Street. He unveiled one of Britain’s first Hindu mandirs at 77 Elmore Street, Islington, North London.
For clarity of meaning: Maharaj, Swami, Pandit or Guru means the same thing. They are honorific titles appended to Hindu priests. Yogi (or Jogi) is a practitioner of Yoga (from the root ‘yuj’, meaning to unite) – a physical exercise. Pramukh means president.
In 1972, as ill-luck would have it for Indians in Uganda, and a stroke of luck for Pramukh swami, the autocrat Idi Amin (Muslim) in Uganda was visited by Allah in a dream, and was commanded
to throw out all Indians, mostly Gujaratis in 90 days. India wouldn’t have them as they held British passports. Thousands who arrived in London helped the new leader Pramukh Swami to build a temple, which they did in 1992 on an old used car lot in Neasden. It was completed in 1995 by sheer faith.
The construction involved 1,500 dedicated, faithful and skilled village stonemasons in Rajasthan and Gujarat, who worked round the clock to fashion almost 2,820 tons of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tons of Italian Carrara marble, shipped to the Indian port of Kandla in Kutch, from where they were taken to workshops across Gujarat and Rajasthan, to be carved into the required forms, and then shipped to London for building.
The temple is a structural marvel. The central dome is cantilevered and profusely carved, and the white pinnacles stand proudly in the dry hard streets of old downtown London, It was designed and constructed in the northern Indian ‘Nagara’ style – like temples in Bhubaneswar – of Hindu architecture prescribed in the Vedic Shilpa shastras with no structural steel – representing different attributes of gods.
The traditional Hindu mandir architecture is described in the ancient ‘Vastu Shastra’ or the ‘Discipline of Sacred Architecture’. Its aim is to create a spiritually charged place to bring together a communion of the divine dweller and the worshipper. The Vastu Shastra provide precise guidelines about each aspect of mandir building, incorporating the art and science in structural engineering, with a study of astrology, geology, ecology, sculpture and mathematics – all blending into a spiritual discipline.
Not surprisingly, the temple was to win several awards, including the “Most enterprising Building” award of the Royal Fine Arts Commission. It was described as a “modern Building’ of major importance in our multicultural society” by the Royal Commission on the historical Monuments of England. It came top in a 2007 nationwide “Pride of Place” poll conducted by local authorities across England. It was originally estimated to cost £50 million but due to the devotion of the Hindu community it cost only £12 million in all.
A few years ago my wife and I visited the temple. The temple complex is divided into two parts: (1) the marble and the limestone temple based on shilpashatra architecture; and (2) conventionally built prayer Hall and community centre. As we approached the front of the mandir the strains of devotional Sanskrit music and smell of incense burning were all around us.
Once inside the mandir we felt its sheer serenity. Every vertical surface of the white marble is carved with stories from the Vedas, as Taj Mahal is with ayats from the Koran. A huge number of pillars soar from floor to the central dome. The soft and sensory lighting provides a calming safe place, just to sit and relax.
There are statues of sacred deities inside its shrines. They are “living”, ritually fed, bathed, clothed and garlanded by resident priests. A chamber behind the shrines houses statues of the gurus of this sampradya, sitting cross-legged and dressed in saffron robes, with prayer beads in their right hands. They number five beginning with Bhagawan Swaminarayan, up to the fifth guru Pramukh Swami Maharaj. The door of the temple is closed at 12.15 pm for a short period for the gods to have siesta. It is open every day from 9 am till 7.30 pm except Sunday – 10am to 5 pm.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj was a son of a small farmer. He was born on December 7 1921 in the village of Chansad, near Vodora in Gujarat. His original name was Shantilal Patel. His parents Motibhai and Diwaliben were disciples of Shashtri Maharaj, the third spiritual successor of Swaminarayan and founder of BAPS.
Shantilal Patel was initiated to this faith, when in 1036 he had an inner call to religious asceticism. He renounced his home at the age of 18 to become a sadhu (holy man). He was tutored by Shashtri Maharaj and named sadhu Narayanswarupdas. He studied Sanskrit and Vedas, which he completed in 1946 when he was appointed head sadhu of the BAPS’ Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Sarangpur, Gujarat. He was later appointed in 1950 by by Shastri Maharaj to serve as the organisation’s administrative head under Yogi Maharaj, the fourth spiritual successor. Then when Yogi Maharaj died in 1971 in Mumbai, he succeeded him as the fifth guru of BAPS.
Pramukh Swami Maharaj was a very learned and highly revered guru of Hindus worldwide. During his first visit to the UK in 1974, he met with Dr Michael Ramsay, the Archbishop of Canterbury. When he came again in 1980 to host World Religion Conference at the Wembley Conference Centre, he was given a warm reception at the Royal Albert Hall after a procession on the streets of London. On 20 August 1995 he performed the opening ceremony of Shri Swaminarayan Hindu Temple.
Hinduism called the “oldest religion” and without a founder, is simply a way of life with rich philosophy of life, known as Eastern philosophy – a synthesis of Vedic roots with various Indian cultures and traditions. Meitei Vaishnavism is such a way of life.