Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. I know, you won’t be able to pronounce the name, so just refer to it as the Neasden Temple. Yes, you read that right. Neasden. This divine temple, which you would expect to see in Agra, actually resides in north west London. It’s a masterpiece in Indian craftsmanship and it shimmers in that Taj-Mahalesque way. Here’s what you need to know about this architectural curiosity, known as one of the seven man-made wonders of London (and which anyone is free to visit).
It’s a labour of love, art and design
This was Europe’s first traditional Hindu stone temple funded entirely by the Hindu community. It is dedicated to the worship of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the Hindu faith. It’s the brainchild of Pramukh Swami, the spiritual leader of BAPS (the organisation behind the temple). The Neasden Temple was constructed using traditional Hindu architectural methods which means no structural steel whatsoever was used. Gulp.
It was made in India
The temple is an act of faith on another level. Building work began in 1992 when 1200 tons of Italian Carrara and 3000 tons of Bulgarian limestone were shipped to India. Some 900 tons of Indian marble was added to the sacred mix, whereupon 1500 Rajasthani and Gujarati sculptors carved away for 3 years to create 26,300 individually numbered stone pieces. This is where all those years of Lego-building come in handy: the pieces were all shipped to London where the intricate three-dimensional jigsaw was re-assembled by 1000 volunteers over the space of two and a half years. Children raised money for the effort by collecting 7 million aluminium cans for recycling (that’s a heck of a lot of Coca-Cola).
You don’t need to be a Hindu to visit
Anyone is welcome to visit Neasden Temple. Just remember this is a place of worship, so you need to play by the house rules. You will need to remove your shoes (there are lockers for storage), and do wear appropriate clothing. For more visitor information, click here.
If you need some brushing up on your Hindu history, there’s a handy museum on the lower ground floor of the Mandir. Spread over 3000 square feet, the exhibition provides an overview of Hinduism using 3D displays and craftwork. There’s also an 11-minute video which documents the history of the Mandir from conception to completion.
It’s the sum of two divine parts
Neasden Temple consists of the Mandir (the stone temple) and the Haveli (the wooden cultural centre). Visitors enter via the ornate wooden Haveli, built in traditional Gujarati style. This is where you can pick up an audio guide, or you could join one of the tours. There’s a souvenir shop where you can take away some incense or a Hindu deity for your home (I have a good 15 of these beauties dotted around my home). The Haveli leads into the Mandir which is the space used for worship.
You are welcome to participate
At the beating heart of the Mandir temple is the Maha-Mandap (the Great Hall) found on the upper floor. Look up at the eye-popping cantilever dome, but also take time to look at the deities around you, as well as the exquisite carvings.
When we visited, the shrines were open for prayer, and we witnessed the ancient Hindu Arti ceremony (performed daily at 11.45am.) You can wander around the hall or just sit in quiet contemplation.
Head downstairs and participate in the Abhishek ritual, an ancient Hindu practice of pouring water over a sacred deity. The ritual takes approximately 15 minutes. More information here.
You can visit Neasden Temple any time of the year
Come rain, snow or sun, there’s never a bad time to visit the temple, although the gardens do close if the weather is particularly bad.
Take some time out to wander around the ornamental gardens, a marriage of Hindu-influenced lotus-shaped beds and ponds and classical British azaleas, begonias, roses and boxed hedges.
During Diwali, the temple really puts on a flaming good show with a fireworks display to mark the Hindu New Year. It’s also a good idea to visit during Open House in September when the temple organises tours.
Entrance to the Neasden Temple is free except for the museum which charges £2. There are free public tours, and audio guides are also available. There is a free car park across the road from the temple with a restaurant adjacent where you can spice it up with some traditional Indian vegetarian fare. For those with a sweet tooth, there’s a deli selling Indian sweets and a shop selling Indian groceries. Please note, you cannot take photos inside, but you are free to take photos outside.
More information on opening hours here.