Yesterday I did something that I’ve been meaning to do for nearly twenty years, and revisited the Neasden Temple (the full name of which, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Hindu Mandir, I keep forgetting).
I first went there on a school RS trip when I was in year 8 and it made a huge impression on me, although I defy anyone who visits to walk out without lifelong memories of that place. The mandir is stunning, the architecture gorgeous, the construction awe-inspiring, and the feeling of peace and beauty and the Divine in the maha-mandap where the murti shrines are covers you as soon as you walk in. The memories that stand out for me from my first visit (aside from my periods deciding to start that day) were my first sight of this huge white building rising out from suburban houses, parts of the film in the permanent exhibition where they showed craftsmen carving the intricate pillars, the fact that (at the time) it was the biggest Hindu temple outside of India, of sitting in the sanctuary as flames were offered to us to receive blessings, and this impression of beautiful statues covered in gold and jewel-coloured fabric surrounded by pure white carved marble. Ever since that day I’ve always wanted to go back, but never got round to it. It didn’t help that I live less than an hour away and the mandir is always open – the same problem my friend Ian has, only in the other direction from me. It’s close enough that we don’t need to make a special trip, so we never planned one. But as I’m staying over at theirs this weekend and we had nothing planned, we made the trip.
It was everything I remembered and more.
I’d forgotten how impressive the haveli building was, and had indeed forgotten about its existence. It’s a cultural centre attached to the mandir, and is the entranceway to the temple complex and as intricately carved in wood as the mandir is in stone, both inside and out. There’s such a feeling of light and space inside, and warmth. Walking through to the mandir the light and space feelings continue with warmth replaced by coolness, almost like cold water on a hot day. But walking up to the sanctuary for the first time was almost magical for me. It’s hard to describe, the feeling of standing there amid the intricate columns carved with figures and words inlaid with gold, looking at the murti statues again after so many years. Back when I first visited I was still soundly Methodist, but the impact on me then, though profound and long-lasting, was nothing compared to the impact on me now – since my first visit I’ve started practicing yoga, become more polytheistic in my personal devotions, learned more about different religions and people’s attitudes towards Deity, and I’m also no longer a thirteen-year-old on a school trip, so I’m not being taught and having to learn at the same time as experiencing the mandir trip, I could just experience, and it was wonderful. I walked round looking at each of the shrines, reading the information on each of the murtis housed inside and the aspects of Deity they embodied, and taking in the visual richness of it all. I also performed reverence at each of the shrines, bowing my head over hands held at the prayer position although I didn’t say any prayers.
We then went round the permanent exhibition on Hinduism, which is very informative, well-presented, and only costs £2, before heading back upstairs for the midday arti ceremony. Now if walking into the maha-mandap the first time that day was a powerful experience, it was nothing to how the arti ceremony made me feel. It’s one of five ceremonies performed every day where prayers are offered and lighted wicks are waved in front of the statues before being offered to the congregation as a blessing. We went up maybe five minutes before it was due to start, so the doors to the shrines were still closed. As a result, when the doors were opened there was an immense visual impact from the plain wood to the bright fabric and jewels and gold of the statues, and almost as soon as the music and singing started I felt my eyes welling up. It was a very powerful and moving experience, and something I intend to do again, preferably without waiting another seventeen years.
Afterwards we headed out to the restaurant over the road (the building used as the mandir before the current one was built) for a meal of vegetarian Indian cuisine as it was lunchtime and we were hungry. We didn’t realize how big the portions were going to be when ordering, and all ended up very full. The food was lovely, but there was just. So. Much. Food. We then popped back to the mandir as I wanted to go back to the shrines for devotional purposes, and we both wanted to go round the shop in the haveli. Alas, I had to make do with photographs of the shrine’s interiors as the doors were shut until late afternoon – in Hindu theology Deity is present within the statues, so that when someone is looking at the Divine in the image the Divine is also looking back at the person, so the statues and the Deities within are given a rest (which I had forgotten about).
I had an amazing time there, and I strongly recommend visiting if you ever get the chance – it really is worth it.