It was with much curiosity that I accepted an invitation to join our local residents at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, in Neasden, Britain’s first authentic and largest Hindu temple outside of Europe.
We were invited to celebrate a visit from His Holiness Mahant Swami Maharaj, the spiritual head of BAPS Sanstha worldwide. During his residency in Neasden, up to 4500 members attended the daily festivals that were led by him.
Our visit was at the end of a long Sunday on 21 May – a double header at Wembley where we had celebrated the successful Isuzu FA Vase and Isuzu FA Trophy Finals. As the final whistle blew, Dal Darroch, our head of inclusion and diversity and I hot-footed it out from the Wembley crowds, and ten minutes down the road to the Neasden Hindu Temple.
We spotted the turrets of the magnificent building well ahead of the rest of the building and as we approached it, the outstanding beauty of the building was striking – white marble everywhere, which we learnt later was imported from Italy, on a footprint almost as large as Wembley Stadium itself.
These two iconic buildings have much in common – visitors, including international colleagues visit from all over the world, although the many coaches from outside the splendid temple also advertised that many of the worshippers had travelled from across England to visit, Worksop, Huddersfield, Birmingham and Coventry were a few of the towns and cities reflecting the origins of the visitors that day.
As we arrived at the Temple, we got the warmest welcome from Girish Patel, one of the Temple’s trustees, who was such a hospitable and knowledgeable host. The Reception Hall was striking and Girish explained how the Italian marble had been transported to India, carved and made into a giant jigsaw puzzle and then brought back to England to be assembled by more than 3000 volunteers and all with no screws or nails.
Its beauty was surpassed only by an ornate prayer room – where we were welcomed by temple outreach volunteer, Neepa Patel to take part in Abhishek, the ancient Hindu practice of pouring water over a gilded brass image of Shri Nilkanth Varni, to ask for God’s blessings.
We ventured into another majestic reception area where Girish explained the Gods that were represented by the many ornate statues. The beautiful domed roof was covered in more carvings of deities – each representing a profound story relating to the history of Hinduism.
By now, the place was crowded with everyone heading to the Great Hall, queuing to enter for the evening's ceremony. I was struck by the warm welcome from everyone that we met, by the number of families reflecting many generations and particularly by the number of small children who waited patiently for their turn to enter the Grand Hall.
Entering it was breath-taking. It was vast, so vast that there were screens to help the rows and rows of attendees see what was happening on the huge stage at the front. The stage was dominated by a glass screen, behind which sat his holiness, Mahant Swami Maharaj, taking part in a play which told of the importance of good values and kindness.
Dal and I took a seat in our respective parts of the hall and were welcomed individually by a garlanding ceremony, which saw us both presented with the most colourful garland of flowers, a tradition to welcome new visitors to the Temple. It was a profound moment for me to be welcomed in such a way, sealed with a gift of a friendship bracelet and a beautiful glass statue of the temple.
After the ceremony we got the opportunity to have a traditional Hindu meal with several young children and adults who are involved with the temple’s football community. They were friendly, talkative and curious, asking us many questions about football and telling us how football has had such a positive impact on their lives.
It was uplifting to have time with these youngsters, as they explained the significance of their faith and how football plays its part in making them feel included in their communities.
I finished the day feeling more energised than I imagined was possible – uplifted by the majesty of the place, the warmth of the people and more than anything, by the infectious enthusiasm of those young footballers. It was a great reminder for me how football can bring together communities, how it provides a common language across all faiths and how, at its heart, football is a game for all.
Thank you to the community of BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. What a wonderful building you have created. It is not just a testament to the power of human possibility but more importantly, it is a testament to inclusion, and a symbol of hope for a brighter future. I will never forget just how welcome and included you made me feel.