Not long ago, Neasden was just another dreary north London suburb. Its only outstanding landmark was a huge IKEA home furnishings store that drew young homeowners from across the capital to its multi-story blue-and-yellow building.
But one day in 1992, on a dingy street in the middle of an unremarkable neighborhood, a structure intended to rival the Taj Mahal began to rise from the ashes of a demolished truck service center. Three years and hundreds of thousands of work hours later, the largest authentic Hindu temple to be built outside India grandly opened. The complex competes for space with houses, apartment blocks, elementary schools, and rental car agencies.
The project cost the local Hindu community about $19 million, much of which came from private donations and fund-raising drives such as aluminum-can recycling schemes and benefit fairs. The incongruous temple, a hand-built shrine, was intended to last for thousands of years..
Today, the Swaminarayan Hindu temple, or Mandir, is not only an architectural masterpiece, but a catalyst that has helped bring London's Hindu community tolerance and respect. This is a huge achievement in a city plagued by racial violence and ethnic tensions often directed toward Asians.
"Neasden was known as a dump. It had nothing going for it. But thanks to the temple, Neasden is now on the map," says Tarun Patel, a volunteer spokesman for the temple who works full time as a financial broker.
"There is obviously going to be some caution amongst the host community when outsiders come into their land, as they feel they have to share what they perceive to be theirs. But as the temple began to take shape, their views and opinions started to change," he adds, walking past a large incense-permeated hall filled with brightly colored prayer mats.
"Not only Hindus, but people from the entire borough now feel the temple is theirs," Mr. Patel says.
Britain is home to more than 410,000 members of the Hindu faith, about 20,000 of whom are followers of the Swaminarayan Hindu movement, who worship the living guru Pramukh Sawmi Maharaj. Many members, originally from India, arrived in Britain in the early 1970s from Uganda, where they had immigrated for commercial reasons and eventually left when the political situation became too dangerous.
The Swaminarayan Hindus have had a temple of their own in Neasden since 1980, but it was simply a converted warehouse. Today, the warehouse, which is adjacent to the new temple, is used as a cafeteria. The new temple has marriage, prayer, and conference halls, a gym, community kitchen, and a permanent English-language religious exhibit. A private day school for children, which enrolls 300 children aged 3 to 18, is across the street.
Building the Mandir, which went up in record time for a monument of its magnitude, was an act of faith, employing mainly volunteer labor. "We never imagined when we were building it that it would turn out so nice," says Rupabhai Debala, a full-time volunteer. "The temple has brought harmony and peace to the community. For many people, it's become the main thing in their lives. It brings people together."
More than 5,000 tons of limestone and marble were shipped from Italy and Bulgaria to be carved by more than 1,500 sculptors in India and eventually reassembled in Neasden. The building has seven pinnacles, six domes, 193 pillars, and 55 ornate marble ceiling designs, incorporating a total of 26,300 pieces of stone. Construction of the Mandir also set the British record for pouring the most concrete in a single day: 4,500 tons.
Rising above London, the temple's glittering domes, delicate marble staircase, and intricately carved gate have now become city landmarks. "It is one of the oddest, but most remarkable London monuments in the late 20th century," the Sunday Telegraph remarked. The Mandir is "on par with the construction of some of the greatest cathedrals of medieval Christendom," said the Independent, and provides "a refreshingly spiritual counter- balance to the vast IKEA furniture store."
Patel, however, says people involved in the Mandir's construction tried not to attract media attention. "We went about doing things in a quiet way. If you didn't live in the immediate area, you wouldn't know the temple was being built," he says. "People here were used to architecture like [supermarkets] Tesco's and Sainsbury's, and they thought the temple would be the same. They didn't know the shape would be unique."
It certainly was a surprise. "When you drive along the road and you suddenly see it, it's quite a place," says health administrator Linda Marshall, who, like many area residents, was visiting the temple on her day off out of curiosity. "It's a shame they had to put it here. It's a shame it's in the middle of a housing estate. It should be in the middle of beautify greenery."
Bus driver Max Halali, who not only drives past the temple daily but prays there twice a week, says, "The community was shocked; they had never seen anything like it before."
Despite some initial reservations, most people in the area have been receptive. The temple initiators had to agree to refrain from building the temple taller than city zoning laws allow (it reaches 70 feet at its highest), and to comply with all standard and disabled access regulations.
They also agreed to eventually convert the warehouse into a parking facility. During religious holidays, traffic is a source of potential friction in the community. On such holidays, the Mandir accommodates up to 3,000 people, while about 1,000 come at least once weekly to pray.
In fact, despite the congestion, the Mandir is one of the most environmentally friendly structures in London. Natural light is used whenever possible, heat-saving pumps conserve fuel, and trees were planted to make up for the ones used in construction. Even the kitchen, where dishes of steaming vegetarian curry are cooked daily, is state-of-the-art.
Jim Devereaux, a consumer advocate who lives in the area, says, "It's fantastic to have such a beautiful building in such a desolate area. There was nothing of interest in Neasden, really. The temple has made the area a lot more well-known, and brought it a lot of prestige."
And for members of the Mandir, its construction not only symbolizes a spiritual and ethnic rebirth, but also signifies an acceptance they never felt before in their adopted country. Hundreds of visitors come to the temple weekly, and almost everyone leaves in awe of such a beautiful expression of religious devotion.
"There is definitely a need for the temple. As a result, the Hindus have become much more confident with themselves," says Patel. "Wherever the Asian goes, he takes his culture with him. When we moved to Africa we built temples and retained our language, culture, and traditions. When we came to Britain ... we also took or traditions, and we built temples."