With the exotic spice of incense, a bevy of beautiful Hindu gods playing instruments along the filigree walls of Neasden Temple welcomes visitors down an unassuming North London residential street, to a slice of India.
Tucked in amongst terraces of British semi-detatched two-up two-downs, the Neasden Temple rises like a beacon amongst steady red brick and aluminum windows. It is utterly beautiful, and even more so in consideration of the surprising setting – just look.
We’ve meant to visit for years, one of those ‘must-do’s’ that never quite seem to make it onto the planned schedules of fun, so a grey Sunday recently we decided on a roll-out-of-bed-and-seize-the-day kind of approach.
Constructed by 3,000 volunteers, the building is the “humble tribute to the inexpressible beauty, majesty and glory of the Divine” of the Hindu congregation, the Italian Carrera marble interior was shipped to India for hand carving, before being assembled on site back in the UK. You enter to the side of the intricate Mandir, through a modern, wood carved building (and security system) where the smiling greeters ask that you remove your shoes. We popped to the information desk (where you can get audio guides!) and upon asking if there were any volunteer tours, we were swiftly sent over to join another couple speaking with the sweetest, daintiest Hindu lady.
She showed us and explained about the many figures lining the external walls, before telling us that owing to exceptional timing, they were about to begin one of the ceremonies of worship in the Mandir itself.
Kindly inviting us along with her, we found ourselves a few minutes later cross-legged on the marble floor of the ornate temple (the Mandir), being blessed with incense smoke asking for wisdom and bowing our heads respectfully to many of the deities that line the shrine. We sat, men at the front, women at the back, in profound silence broken only by the strains of chanting and childrens chatter.
I can’t even begin to describe the incredible lotus rosettes, dancing gods and swirling columns of hand-carved Italian Carrera marble that line the interior, making my camera fingers itch. Every inch of the shrines are covered in delicate carvings, ever leading the eye upwards to the 2.5 tone keystone encircled with celestial beings.
“As Mayamata the ancient Vastu Shastra text proclaims:
If there is perfection in the mandir, there will be perfection in the world.”
Having visited many, many visitor welcoming places of worship over the years, we couldn’t get over how friendly everyone we spoke to was. Completely community and volunteer led, the temple was full of sari’d families (with the occasionally rebelliously jean-clad teenager) and clumps of wonder-struck visitors. Groups of elderly friends gathered to chat, a small shop sold smaller home statues of deities and tiny kids ran a little amok along the perfect-for-sliding-fun polished floors. Many of the corridor walls contained volunteer awards, signed cricket bats and photos of their international sibling temples (plus a few of the more famous visitors – sadly they didn’t ask for ours, but hey it was a pretty busy day).
It brought back my one greatest regret hurrying to begin exploring the UK – not staying longer in Asia. Mostly due to inexperience, a rush to touch history and being a scaredy cat, I broke my globetrotting flight to London with (only) a week in Singapore, as Asia was never really on my (at that point) short country list, but I soon realised my silly omission. If you’ve never
been to the island kingdom, honestly go. The city is broken into areas that represent many of the main Asian cultures in a small, easy to navigate way – especially for a young, first-time travelling Kiwi. Lucking in, and meeting up with one of my second cousins who turns out lived there (I have an enormous, sprawling family) we ventured off the tourist trail, and explored several of the temples.
Luckily, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (known to many as the Neasden Temple) doesn’t necessitate a 12-hour flight. Only a 20-minute tube ride (plus 10 or so minute walk or bus) from Baker Street, at the end of our short journey we felt like we had stepped into another world. The visit is totally free – from entering the building, to borrowing an audio guide (we didn’t need to because of our lovely guide(ss?)) but they do appreciate a small donation if you can. An exhibition on Hinduism was on offer in another section of the building, but we were too busy exploring their daily shrine – an enormous auditorium where visitors aren’t normally permitted without a guide.
On the recommendation of our guide we took our famished selves to Shayona, a deceptively simple looking vegetarian restaurant just across the car park, for some of the tastiest spicing we’ve tried in a very long time for a feast bringing back so many memories. It is worth a visit alone for the crispy Kumth, “mushrooms stuffed with paneer and cauliflower and
deep fried to perfect crispness”. They were so delicious Mr Kiwi ate with his eyes closed – there aren’t many dishes that get that accolade.
tips: dress respectfully (long sleeves, no navels and below the knees), go with easily shuckable shoes as you will be asked to remove them and be warned that you can only take photos from the outside. You’ll also be asked to leave any bags over purse-sized (and cameras) outside in your car, or with the car park security across the road.
Visiting is free (though donations are gratefully accepted) and there is free car parking for the automobile minded – the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir website is a fascinating read even if you can’t visit. And believe me, you should. We caught a 10-minute bus from Wembley station – it was easy peasy.