Off the tourist track: Swaminarayan Mandir

Sunday, October 22, 2017

There are a lot of things you expect to find in the suburbs of northwest London: Wembley Stadium. Ikea. The North Circular. Street after street of mostly unremarkable houses. What you emphatically don’t expect to find is a huge, opulent Hindu temple made from white marble.

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Swaminarayan Mandir - at the time of its construction in 1995 it was the largest Hindu Temple outside of India. (Photo credit: original uploader was Nikkul at English Wikipedia)

I’d been vaguely aware of the existence of the temple, but only because I’d walked past it on the long trek to Ikea (Of course.) It’s surrounded by high walls so while might have thought, “Hmmm, that’s quite large” not much more than that really sunk in to my brain. For me to really stop and appreciate the site I needed the assistance of The Intrepid Raul who Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will remember from various Bakuvian adventures, including frozen waterfalls and mountains on fire. Raul recently returned to UK soil after a three year exile contract in Azerbaijan and suggested the visit when we were catching up over a curry. I was keen on this idea partly because Raul is a pleasant companion, but also because he’s got the distinct advantage of growing up in a bi-cultural household where he might spend Sunday mornings at church then proceed to temple for the afternoon, which he claims seemed perfectly normal. In any case, I was not going to pass up the chance to see the temple with a somewhat native guide, so we agreed to meet one Tuesday at Stonebridge Park Underground for the short walk to the site.

And now, a little terminology and history. “Mandir” simply means temple, and this particular temple was the first traditional Hindu temple in Europe (being the first purpose-built traditional stone building, as opposed to an adapted pre-existing structure.) The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir - to give it its full name - is part of the BAPS organisation. (And BAPS stands for Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha so let’s continue to use the abbreviation, shall we?) BAPS is a global Hindu organisation within the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism, based, unsurprisingly, on the teachings of Swaminarayan. And here, with great relief, I revert to Wikipedia:
"Swaminarayan (3 April 1781 – 1 June 1830), also known as Sahajanand Swami, was a yogi, and an ascetic whose life and teachings brought a revival of central Hindu practices of dharma, ahimsa and brahmacharya. He is believed by followers as a manifestation of God.”
The temple is London is remarkable for many reasons. It was, as I’ve mentioned, the first purpose-built Hindu Temple in Europe. More remarkably, it was built according to “ancient Vedic Architectural texts” meaning that no structural steel was used. The main temple building is constructed from almost 5,000 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone, Italian Carrara and Indian marble. All the stone was cut and shipped first to India, where it was hand-carved by more than 1,500 different artisans. Then each stone was numbered and carefully packed and shipped to the site in London where each of the more than 26,000 pieces was assembled. Like I said - remarkable.

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A close-up of some of the stone carving outside. And this is just a relatively restrained bit on the sort of “church hall” building called a Haveli, not the temple itself.

But it gets better! The construction of the temple was accomplished largely with volunteer labour. Volunteers. 3,000 of them. Assembling huge chunks of stone. And they finished the building in just 3 years. There was a quite long explanatory video in the basement museum area that showed miles of footage of the construction including lots and lots of presumably unskilled people manoeuvring 26,300 one-of-a-kind chunks of richly carved marble into position. That wasn’t a disaster waiting to happen at all. Luckily, the video didn’t mention any horrific crushing injuries or disfiguring tragedies. Not even a single shot of someone scratching their head over a plan in front of a vast field of almost identical bits of stone and shouting despairingly in Hindi something like, “Sanjay! Check that one over there! Is that 21,335 or 21,334?"

Raul and I fetched up at the temple complex on a grey Tuesday afternoon, where I checked my bag across the street in a poratkabin and we went through the mandatory metal detector. First we visited the Haveli, the community centre sort of building I mentioned earlier.

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Raul and the Haveli from the outside. The decorations above the door were in preparation for Diwali;, the annual Hindu Festival of Light, crudely analogous with Christmas.

Housing a large prayer hall, gymnasium, library, day care, office and gift shop (with all the incense you could ever need) the Haveli is also ornately carved but made mostly from English oak and sustainably harvested Burmese teak.

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Here's a close up of some of the carved wood on the outside. Understated it is not. Apparently for every oak tree they cut down in construction they planted ten oak saplings somewhere in Devon. Nice.

No photos are allowed inside the buildings of the temple complex, but I did manage to sneak this one after I took my shoes off, a requirement of visiting.

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Guess which ones are mine?

We had a quick look around the Haveli, though the largest rooms weren’t open to the public. Then we walked the long corridor linking the Haveli with the actual Mandir. And as impressive as the mandir is from the outside, it’s much much more impressive on the inside.

Temple Interior
Here’s an interior picture I scooped up from Google that shows the room with candles lit for Diwali. The roof is a huge dome, supported by the columns and the serpentine supports between the columns. It really is amazing.

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And here you can see a close up of some of the carvings on the support columns. The depth and detail is astonishing. Every column is carved like this.

The upper sanctum houses seven shrines that contain sacred figures of Deities that are normally hidden behind large doors. At appointed times through the day the doors are opened and the figures -  called murti - are revealed so that worshippers can pray, meditate and participate in devotional ceremonies. (We didn’t see that happen, though I recall I did see this in a temple in India.) I had a lot of questions, and it would have been great to consult with Raul about the meaning and purpose of a lot of the things in the room, but there was a very strict NO TALKING policy, with a stern looking elderly gentleman there to keep order, so we just padded around quietly in our sock feet and I itched to take photos, and I didn’t.

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Here are the mandir's murtis shown in my photo of a photo from a pamphlet

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And a close up of another set of murti from the mandir. 

I did find one thing funny. Throughout the temple complex there were donation boxes; that’s not unusual in any religious institution. However, the BAPS gang are savvy and modern enough that they actually had contactless payment systems set up at some boxes! Want to donate at the murti of Ganesh? Embarrassingly out of change or small bills? No problem. Just tap your phone! £1 per tap. For some reason I found this funny and disturbing at the same time.

Once we finished in the sanctum I elected to pay £2 to visit the exhibition on Understanding Hinduism in the lower level of the mandir. This was a small but extensive and densely informative look at the history and tenets of Hinduism, and at the Swaminarayans and this mandir in particular. Hinduism is an ancient and diverse religion. I was surprised to learn that it's generally considered the oldest major religion in the world that's still practised, predating not just the Roman Empire, but even Ancient Egypt. Sanskrit, the primary language of Hinduism, is the oldest Indo-European language, and Hinduism claims the world's first university (from 700 BC, a teaching subjects as diverse as logic, grammar, medicine, astronomy, commerce, music and dance). The exhibit also credits Hinduism, or ancient Indian culture in general, with inventing the zero, geometry, and the Pythagorean Theorem (before Pythagorus), and with discovering the heliocentric nature of the solar system and gravity, and developing plastic surgery. Busy beavers.

The Swaminarayan Mandir really is remarkable. Raul and my visit was not long, but the whole time I kept hearing him muttering, "You could be in India." It was a bit like someone had lifted up the Great Pyramid at Cheops and settled it gently in a carpark in Swindon. Coming back out into the grey Tuesdayness of north London after visiting was a bit of a shock. Which made my next destination all the more jarring. Where did I go? After being deeply immersed in ancient eastern culture and architectural wonder?

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Time for some meatballs!

Tourist Stuff: Hampton Court Palace

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

It seemed like a good idea at the time: a sunny Sunday afternoon with my visiting Mom and her husband, coupled with a lovely and significant historic palace and gardens in a picturesque suburban setting. What could possibly go wrong? Well, for starters you could be trying to get to a relatively untraveled spur line station which was inevitably going to involve a bit of faff. Then you could consult your most trusted app for London Life, Citymapper, and discover that trains to that particular station were curiously absent from the myriad of suggested routes. And you could also consult the helpful concierge at the Mom's hotel who would suggest going backwards to central London only to travel back west again on a train that seemed - according to Citymapper - not to exist. Then you could get slightly mixed up between Twickenham and Teddington. (Twickenham being much easier to get to and great if you're trying to see a rugby match, and Teddington being sort of tricker to get to and also curiously absent of trains, but actually much much closer to your intended destination.) Then you could stride forth anyways and make your way to Wimbledon, which is at least in roughly the correct southwesterly direction and expect to find a train when you got there only to be told by local station staff that there were no trains whatsoever from Wimbledon that day, and certainly none to any station within striking distance of where you were going, but you were welcome to sit for an hour or so on a Bus On Rail Replacement Service (five of the saddest words known to Londoners). And you could resign yourself to the dreaded B.O.R.R.S and go out to find absolutely no sign of buses or where to get them. And then you could just give up and get a fucking Uber. And then, after a still surprisingly long ride, you would, dear readers, end up at Hampton Court Palace.

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Here it is, Hampton Court Palace. (Ironic quote from the Wikipedia page for Hampton Court Palace: "Today, the palace is open to the public and is a major tourist attraction, easily reached by train from Waterloo station in central London and served by Hampton Court railway station in East Molesey")

Construction of Hampton Court Palace was started by Cardinal Wolsey in 1515 but ended up being a favourite of the Tudor King Henry VIII, who seized it from Wolsey in 1529 and enlarged it. The Baroque era King WIlliam III also enlarged it a bunch, so the palace shows both Tudor and Baroque architectural styles. But we didn't want to see any boring Baroque stuff so we mostly stuck to the Tudor bits the building and to the gardens, which is where we started, because they're the site of the famous Hampton Court maze.

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Mom and Bill in the Maze

The maze was laid out and the hedges planted in the late 17th century, and was the first proper multicursal hedge maze in England. It was originally all hornbeam bushes but was later replanted with yew. And here I will remind less Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers of the different between a maze - as in Hampton Court - and a labyrinth, as in our recent blog post. A labyrinth is unicursal, having only one path to the centre, being intended not as a challenge but a route for contemplation. A maze is multicursal - a puzzle with dead ends and forks and wrong turnings, which is much of the fun. However, as our party was comprised of a science teacher, an astro-physicist and one who might sometimes be described as just a tad on the methodical and rigid side, we entered and immediately implemented the "only turn one way" system which is a simple method of cracking any maze. This means we took every left turn available and therefore covered a lot of technically unnecessary ground but easily made it to the centre of the maze, where there was a mandatory photo op.

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Two thirds of the triumphantly systematic team

Having ticked off the maze, we continued to explore some more of the massive grounds of the palace, which includes 60 acres of formal gardens set in 750 acres of surrounding parkland. The Kitchen Garden was the next stop, originally planted in 1689 during the reign of William and Mary, using some of Henry VIII's old tilting grounds. It originally supplied fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs for the entire household but fell into disuse when Victoria consolidated all royal kitchen gardens at Windsor Castle, and was converted to a pleasure garden in the 1930s. The present garden is a recreation of the original 17th century garden and was just opened in 2014. It was looking a bit sparse when we were there but we were still able to identify a lot of familiar species. The yield of the garden is sold to the public at a weekly market stall from June until the end of the season, for those who prefer to get their Brussels sprouts with a tinge of faded royal glory instead of just nipping out to Tesco for stuff any commoner can get.

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A bit scruffy these days, as I said

After a quick glance at the Rose Garden (lots of roses), we headed for the palace itself. Being more interested in the Tudor bits, we first headed to the kitchens. When the palace was a royal household, between about 1530 and 1730, the kitchens catered for up to 400 people each day, though not for the King himself - he had a separate Privy Kitchen. The main kitchens were there to feed to staff of the estate, and were a massive operation divided among several rooms. The first rooms showed some of the crockery and utensils used, and there was a staff member explaining things.

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Explanation of something in progress, possibly involving stirring small pots of something? Or is that a shirt on the right? And I think that's a whisk...

More interesting was the roasting kitchen, where huge fireplaces were used for roasting whole beasts on a turning spit. They had one fire going when we were there, though all they were cooking was two (relatively) little joints of beef. Back in the day they got through 1,240 oxen, 8,200 sheep, 2,330 deer, 760 calves, 1,870 pigs and 53 wild boar in a year, meaning that operating fires like this took an enormous amount of firewood. I took notes as I listened to the guide, but I wonder if I actually wrote it down wrong because my note says each fire took one ton of wood per day. And there are six fireplace just in the roasting kitchen. Imagine how many others there were in the rest of the kitchens for cooking and in the rest of the palace for heat. No wonder there’s no forest left.

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Members of the public were invited to have a go at turning the spit. This little guy looked like he would have fit right in as a bedraggled kitchen boy. Also, charmingly, each time they do a roast like this they hold a raffle among the staff working that day to see who gets to take home the joint! Mmmmm... historic meat!

After the kitchens we went through the Great Hall, with its impressive hammerbeam roof and hung with a famous set of tapestries depicting the story of Abraham. Hammerbeam is a method of supporting wide ceilings with timber shorter than the overall span. The short projecting beams coupled with the longer vertical post are meant to look like a hammer and support the ends of the centre arches that in turn support the highest section of the roof. Very clever. It was actually kind of Hammerbeam Roof Week, since we also visited Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament the next day. Hammer-rama!

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It’s also got nice windows and an impressive collection of dead animal heads.

Continuing along the tour we started to hear the sounds of choral music when approaching the Chapel Royal, with its impressive vaulted ceiling and ornate gold and blue paintwork. It seemed to be a recording playing to set the mood but it turned out to be the actual choir of the Chapel Royal rehearsing for the afternoon service, complete with angelic boy sopranos in red choir gowns. (No photography allowed, so thanks Google). It was an unexpected treat.

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The Chapel is still in use for religious services today and if we’d been so inclined we could have attended the 3:30pm Choral Evensong. As it happened we were not thus inclined, because we had to go see more sumptuous rooms and ornate gardens and possibly find ice cream and souvenirs.

Along the way we visited the Chocolate Kitchen which was not a kitchen made of chocolate but a separate kitchen for the preparation of hot drinking chocolate. Its existence was known about from palace records, but its exact location in the palace grounds was lost until 2013, and its now been restored. The Chocolate Kitchen is where the  king’s specialist Chocolate Chef would start with raw cacao beans, roast them, crush and process them, and add sugar, milk and spices before personally serving the cup of chocolate to the King. Records show that aniseed and even chili were used as flavouring, which I guess means that the trendy chili flavoured chocolate you see now is hopelessly old fashioned.

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This is the chocolate crushing thingammy in action. Not only was this kitchen not made of chocolate, there was also no actual chocolate available to be consumed, which seems like a ridiculous oversight.

Skipping further along we ducked out into the gardens again and strolled through the large and formal Privy Garden, which is overlooked by the William & Mary era east front of the palace, a much more modern looking affair. The garden itself is a very accurate reproduction of the 1702 design for William III. Its accuracy is due to the very detailed records kept by the gardeners and workmen involved in the project, making it a simple matter for the modern palace staff to restore the gardens exactly. Amusingly, those records are so complete not because of the consummate professionalism of those 18th century workers, but because the king died before the garden was completed and they were afraid they might not be paid, hence kept very robust records of their work.

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Privy Gardens

More interesting was the glass house enclosing the Great Vine - the longest grapevine in the world. Planted in 1768 by the famous landscape architect Capability Brown, the vine is now 13’ around the base with the longest branch extending 120 feet. It still produces sweet black table grapes (for eating, not wine-making) with each season’s crop averaging about 600 pounds in total. Originally the fruit of the vine would have been reserved for the royal inhabitants of the palace. Queen Victoria had them sent to royal residences at Windsor Castle and the Isle of Wight. But during the reign of Edward VII, the king decided they could be distributed to the masses so now the grapes are carefully harvested in early September, packaged by volunteers, and sold in the gift shops of the palace. We must have just missed them!

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This is the latest of six or seven glasshouses that have contained the vine. This one was built in 1969 and completely encloses the 1900s era steel framework that had become so entwined with the vine that it was impossible to remove.

By the time we’d made it through the Privy Gardens and the grapevine we all agreed we’d pretty much sated our desire for gold leaf, stained glass, broad avenues of topiary, perky costumed staff and gift shops. So there was really only one thing to do.

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Ice Cream. Of course.

This was followed by another Uber ride to Richmond, and a walk along the river, and a tasty full roast dinner at a very agreeable pub, including a positively transcendent sticky toffee pudding. Then there was a quiet journey back to central London on the slow but steady District Line. I'm generally irked by the District Line (really TFL, how can you possible argue that it's ONE line? It's got three different termini in the west. THREE. It's almost as bad as the Northern Line...). But on that day it had one great advantage over mainline trains in that it was actually running trains. Radical.