London has quite a few temples that serve its pan-asian (though mostly S. Asian) population.
Suryamukhi masi, Geeta aunty, Beena aunty, Devika and I decide to go temple hopping to see how many
we can fit in the course of a single evening.
The first stop is the Thai Buddhist temple in Wimbledon. Built on a multi-acre estate, the rather small temple makes up for size with content. The interior walls are ornately painted with scenes from Buddhist lore, the colors ramped up like Tibetan art. The ceiling is continously painted with the walls, creating a sense that you enter a whole new mini-world when you step inside the place. At the front of the temple, there are dozens of multi-sized golden Buddhas that form a veritable Buddha mountain whose over-powering reflectivity is broken up with jade and other semi-precious idols. The place is pretty empty, so we pay our respects and prepare to depart. On the way out, we learn that its the King’s birthday the following day complete with big celebration and tons of food. You better believe we were coming back!
Next stop, the Ganesh/Sai Baba/S. Indian temple. The place clearly serves as more of a community center as even the Ganesh temple is host to a pantheon carefully selected to serve a the widest possible range of S. Indian religious constituencies. Geeta aunty decides to pay for a special puja for me that I start to participate in before I know what its for. Turns out that it’s to get married quickly. I secretly send off a prayer asking God to ignore everything that the barely twenty-two year old recent Tamil-transplant pujari drawls out in his nasal, auctioneer-like Sanskrit.
Found it funny that Geeta aunty wanted me to touch his feet at the conclusion of it. I obliged, but it struck me that though this kid was a pujari, he wasn’t a sannyasi, and probably wasn’t even a yogi, yet somehow people assume he’s more holy. My perspective on sincere pujaris and monastics is that they simply are more committed to putting in greater effort to find Truth, not that they necessarily succeed more often than the rest of us. As we leave, I silently pray that the young
pujari finds the Truth that people think he possesses.
On the way out, we venture into the Sai Baba section of the temple complex. Bad idea. THere was a lecture in progress so it was jam-packed and poorly ventilated to match. These people must have not had any olfactory sensation left because they were calmly sitting in a humid, oppressively stanky environment not tolerable for mere mortals. Moments after fleeing to more pleasant airs, it strikes me that these folks are engaging in some serious yogic discipline by just being in that room. I mentally tranfer my bow from the kid to the crowd.
Next stop is the Swaminaryan Temple aka Neasden temple. Consistently ranked as one of London’s most beautiful architectural specimens, the authentic N. Indian temple attracts more that just Gujaratis to its opulents halls. The Swaminaryans have actually taken over many square blocks of city around the temple, building a private school, grocery store, restaurant, and housing. They probably own lots of the housing inhabited by the non-Indians around the temple as well.
I’m more than a little shocked to discover that the airport-style security is installed and that not only do my bags have to be scanned, but I have to go through a metal detector and
body sweep before entering the temple. In Gujarati, I ask the dude why they’re so paranoid only to learn that its because of terrorism. More on that later.
The temple complex is huge and its Guju-backed wealth readily apparent. The interior of the main temple is all white marble with deities carved into the pillars. In five thousand years when future Britons excavate that site, there will be interesting anthpological speculations about
why Hindu deities had inscriptions carved in English beneath them. On the way out, I stop by a display proudly showcasing the exploits of Pramukh Swami and the fancy people he’s met. The photos
include the likes of Tony Blair, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Nelson Mandela, and several other international political luminaries, all bowing before or being blessed by Pramukh Swami. The cynic in me immediately acts up, critical of the impression conveyed that these folks are doing anything more than what is customarily appropriate, and further, that their presence does something to add to the legitimacy of the Swaminarayan sampradaya or Sahajanand as a holy figure. I think of how Ammachhi also routinely gets photographed with international hotshots, and how even Yogananda had his fare share of famous power-players. Just as something starts to stink about it for me, I think, “Why not?” Pramukh Swami, Ammachhi, and Yogananda never incited people towards anything less than turning their minds toward the divine, and if seeing powerful people photographed with these guys makes some people able to be more receptive to good messages, then I suppose its ok.
Rolled into the masala evening, we drive through South Hall to get a feel for what the streets of Ludhiana and Jalandhar are like. Bumpin’ bhangra, juicy jelabis, and other aliteration that escapes me were everywhere for the 10 block or so stretch. Pioneer Blvd in Artesia or Devon St. in Chicago aren’t nearly as unhooked as this place. Somehow, I don’t think Ludiana and Jalandhar are either… and don’t think I’ll get a chance to check out Punjab on this trip to validate
my suspicion. Just another reason to come back!
Over all, it was quite nice to experience India inside England, and was a pleasant twist on experiencing western elements inside India. Raj reversed!