This week's adventure is one which I have been hoping would come up. It's another of those which is almost shameful to admit that I haven't yet experienced, especially given that I live in North West London.
A visit to the Neasden Temple, or the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir to give it it's full name. This is the largest Hindu temple outside of India, and belies it's humble location of Neasden. I remembered a connection I had made whilst working at Unicef where a colleague of mine, Shilpa Patel had revealed her connection to the Temple and so lI ooked her up as my perfect guide. Shilpa and her family live in Dollis Hill, a mere 10 minute walk away from me where their home has a strong significance with the background to this temple and the Hindu community. I thought a visit to her home first seemed fitting. Here she told me how in 1970, Yogiji Maharaj had stayed at their home for 6 weeks, where every morning the puja (ritual prayers) were held. This was where the seeds were sown of the idea to build a manir in North London to serve the expanding Hindu community. Sadly Yogiji Maharaj passed away the following year, but was succeeded by His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj. It was to take 20 years of continued efforts of the community before the final plot in Neasden was bought. In 1991 the foundation stone was laid and in 1992 work began. To truly appreciate the story in the same way that I did, firstly you should look at this magnificent building in all of it's glory below and then marvel at how it was accomplished....
As someone who works in the business of fundraising, how this building came into being blew me away.
Five thousand tonnes of Italian Carrara, Indian Ambani marble and Bulgarian limestone, was carved and shipped to London where it was carefully put in place by the work of 3,000 volunteers. This magnificent building was, and continues to be, funded entirely by worshippers and well-wishers - something which any charity would be in awe of. Also, incredibly, this was created within 2 years .....meanwhile the builders on the flat next door to me have taken 18 months and still aren't finished!
As we went inside, observing the tradition of removing footwear, I was soon aware of the cold marble beneath my feet. Although we followed several school groups into the maha-mandap (‘Great Hall’, or nave) upstairs, there was a wonderful respectful silence as we sat on the floor ready for the arti, This is a form of prayer offered in greeting and thanksgiving to God, The Rajbhog Arti which we attended, happens after the Deities have been offered their midday meal. Often called the ‘ceremony of light’, the arti involves waving lighted wicks before the sacred images to infuse the flames with the Deities’ love, energy and blessings. It is performed by sadhus (Hindu monks) and pujaris (attendants to the Deities) sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments.
I have never considered myself a religious person (I usually tick the 'agnostic' or even 'atheist' box on forms) but this whole ritual and setting blew me away. It was so uplifting. After the arti, Shilpa and I walked around the Deities where we could read about the significance of them all. Afterwards she explained to me that they are all changed into new robes and clothes each morning. Again, all of these are made by volunteers, and to even further demonstrate this commitment, none of these handmade clothes are worn again by the Deities. More costume changes than Beyonce!
Downstairs we went into the exhibition 'Understanding Hinduism'. This was a really well laid out exhibition which really led even the uninitiated through the origin, beliefs and values of this fascinating religion. This also featured a film of the making of the mandir which is truly amazing. And yet there was even more to see..... Shilpa showed me the exquisite carving of the Haveli which led us to the main assembly hall. This hall spans 50 metres by 45 metres with no supporting columns, and can accommodate up to 2,500 people when fully opened. Again, from an events perspective alone, where else can you find that kind of space in London? I was still marvelling at the fact that this magnificent building is run by volunteers, the utility bills alone must be huge! As it neared 1pm I was aware of some wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen where even more volunteers were hard at work. Shilpa directed us, however, to the another final gem in this magnificent crown. Back to the car park where we visited the Shayona restaurant and shop. A trip around this shop reminded me to never buy Indian ingredients anywhere else. Very much like your first visit to a Chinese supermarket in China town, the shelves were heaving with delights. I was truly like a kid in a sweetshop and bought myself probably the best Bombay mix ever, along with some less run of the mill delicacies. This is where my 'foodie friend' Dawn will be reading this and saying 'I want to go there, not to Voga!' You will, Dawn, and in fact, we will also go back to the Shayona restautant where I enjoyed a great buffet. Not your run of the mill menu, but featuring some great street food, and deserving of it's Time Out recommendation proudly displayed at the entrance. I am so pleased to have finished my year with a Secret Life adventure which is so poignant and the thought provoking.
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.