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There are few places in London that are so of the city and at the same time so utterly otherworldly, but Neasden Hindu Temple (BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, to give it its proper name) is definitely such a place. On a sunny day especially, gazing up at the seven beautifully carved pinnacles, you’d be forgiven for thinking you weren’t in England at all.
Then you'll look round at the small park and the rows of suburban terraces and hear the faint hum of the permanently congested North Circular Road. But ignore all that and soak up the magic of the incredible architectural achievement in front of you. Built by a thousand volunteers and opened in 1995, this near-miracle of marble and limestone is the largest Hindu temple in Europe.
A New Landmark
While the temple is a beautiful anomaly, eclipsing its surroundings with its exotic appearance, it really does belong here, representing as it does north-west London’s sizeable Hindu community. But more than a simple local place of worship, it's become something of a monument to multicultural London, which will one day surely be mentioned in the same breath as St Paul's.
As you would expect, this is a place of complete tranquillity and serenity, making it a welcome addition to any tour of the hectic capital. Just walking up to the beautifully carved wooden doorways and arches of the Haveli cultural centre, which adjoins the Mandir, prompts a wave of calm (despite the strict security checks on the way). This is the intention of the building of course, which was built according to ancient traditional principles and inspired by nature as much divinity.
Inside: The Heart of the Temple
It's the Mandir itself that warrants the real 'wows' however, though you'll have to keep them to yourself as silence is definitely golden here. If you think the dome and pinnacles appear impressive from outside, inside (where photography is forbidden) brings a whole new set of revelations, whether you're spiritually inclined or not. Here is where the murti (statues of deities) live, encased within their gold shrines, dressed in silks and cared for daily by the temple's sadhus (monks) and venerated by the faithful. If you come at the right time you can even witness the offering of food (11-11:45am) or lights (11:45-12:15).
Still, for the outsider the most impressive aspect will probably be the dome and Pillars of Divinity, which give the space its special ambience. Fashioned with intricate patterns and figures of Vishnu, Shiva et al, every centimetre was evidently carved with devotion and exquisite attention to detail. I’m pretty sure there is nowhere else quite like this east of India.
A Touch of Enlightenment
If you want to find out exactly how this incredible construction came into being – thousands of pieces individually sculpted in Gujarat before being shipped to London - it's well worth checking out the video inside the Understanding Hinduism exhibition downstairs. It costs just £2 and though the exhibition itself is enlightening, for my money the story of the temple’s beginnings is the best bit. For those who prefer the human touch, free guided tours of the Mandir can be also be arranged.
Oh, and when you’re done marvelling, pop across the road for some seriously good authentic vegetarian South Asian cuisine at the temple’s own Shayona restaurant.
Have you ever visited the temple? What were your impressions of it? Share your experiences and suggestions in the comments below.
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About the author: andrewAndrew Bowman
Andrew is an occasional contributor to the Virgin Atlantic blog. He lived in the Japanese countryside for two years until he could no longer resist the pull of London's galleries, pubs and clubs. He likes to pretend he can speak Japanese and also sometimes writes about music.