By Lianne Kolirin
The creator of the awe-inspiring Neasden Temple lived by the maxim “In the joy of others lies our own”.
As such, the Festival of Inspiration could not have been a more fitting way to celebrate the centennial of the birth of His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, whose vision and dedication gave rise to the majestic white mandir (temple) that towers over northwest London. It is the largest Hindu temple in Europe.
More than 75,000 people poured through the gates of the seven-acre site over 10 days in July. Among them, were not only members of the Hindu community who had come from near and far, but also visitors from all faiths and communities across the country.
“It was a fantastic, a real sight to behold,” Bhavik Depala, a volunteer who worked on the event at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir — as it is formally known — told the Religion Media Centre. BAPS stands for Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, a Hindu denomination.
Years in the planning, a large festival had been scheduled to mark the mandir’s 25th anniversary in 2020 — but, as with so many events worldwide, the pandemic meant plans were put on ice.
Nevertheless, that meant the reinvented occasion would coincide with the 100th birthday of His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj — the fifth spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan — who died in 2016.
Under the leadership of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha flourished into an international spiritual and humanitarian organisation with more than one million members, 55,000 volunteers and 3,850 centres across the world.
“His Holiness inspired so much good in the world and he gave us the gift of the Neasden Temple,” Mr Depala said. “This was our way of paying tribute to him after a very difficult time for our country and the whole world.”
More than 3,000 volunteers pitched in to deliver the free event, which aimed to highlight the values that Pramukh Swami Maharaj fostered throughout his life: harmony, respect, compassion and hard work.
The huge complex, which cost about £12 million to build, houses the stone mandir and the haveli (cultural centre) with its assembly hall, gym, library, classrooms, kitchens, office and more.
Perhaps the focal point of the event was the 27ft golden statue of His Holiness in the temple’s courtyard, where thousands of people gathered each day to take part in the maha-arti (Hindu light ceremony).
The highlight for many was the Island of Heroes, a children’s adventureland which featured musical productions, a shadow play, a 4D immersive experience, an ultra-violet magical jungle, an escape room, an obstacle course, a giant colouring cave, interactive games and more.
Visitors also enjoyed live music and dance from the outdoor stage where some of sought-after artists of Indian music in the UK performed.
The Flavours of India food court served up a wide variety of delicious vegetarian dishes, and visitors were invited to participate in cooking demonstrations, wellbeing workshops, fitness sessions and more laid on by a host of charities and community groups.
A number of politicians and local dignitaries took part in the festival, among them home secretary Priti Patel. Describing it as “incredible”, she said: “It is a festival of inspiration, but the real inspiration lies with the children and the volunteers who made all of this happen.”
Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, was particularly impressed by the Island of Heroes, one element of which was the Mountain of Shravan, a 4D experience that brought to life the climate crisis and the importance of respecting nature, as well as our elders.
Ms Rayner said: “A real joy to take in the sights and sounds of the festival of inspiration at Neasden Temple. Every child in the country needs to listen to that ‘Mountain of Shravan production at the Island of Heroes]. I don’t think I have ever seen a show or production like that.”
Manoj Patel, also a volunteer at the festival, added: “We are humbled by the positive feedback and experiences of the visitors. This was all made possible through a dedicated team of volunteers who have worked tirelessly to share the universal values of Pramukh Swami Maharaj to help make our world a better place.”