How Temple Facades Tell the Story of Hindus in London

Ranging from adapted historic buildings to ornate cultural centers, London’s Hindu temples tell of waves of immigration to Britain and increasing visibility.

I’m still several blocks away when the white towers of BAPS Sri Swaminarayan Temple come into view, gleaming in the sunshine I’m lucky to have coincide with my visit. Completed in 1995 in Neasden, a district of London, the structure is the first purpose-built Hindu temple in the U.K. and describes itself as the first “authentic” Hindu temple in all of Europe. At the time of its construction, it was also the largest Hindu temple outside of India, requiring almost 5,000 tons of limestone and marble for its ornate carvings.

Today, over half of the United Kingdom’s more than 800,000 Hindus live in London, and there are especially sizable communities in the northwest of the city (where the BAPS Sri Swaminarayan Temple is located). Walking or taking the bus around my neighborhood there, it’s not uncommon to come upon a temple unexpectedly. They range from plain brick buildings to lofty-towered structures in traditional Indian architectural idioms.

In examining the history of these temples—and why their appearances can differ so radically—we can also trace the history of Hindus in the U.K.

Although the Indian community in Britain dates back to the 1600s, the first major wave of South Asian immigration to the U.K. did not come until after World War II. The countries of South Asia remained part of the Commonwealth after independence, meaning that the 1948 British Nationality Act, which bestowed British citizenship and the right to settle in the U.K. upon Commonwealth nationals, applied to people from modern-day India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Between the peak immigration years of 1955 and 1975, tens of thousands of people from the subcontinent, especially the Punjab and Gujarat, traveled to Britain to pursue economic opportunity at a time when the U.K. was facing major labor shortages.

Hindu immigrants to Britain at this time would have been hard-pressed to find a place to worship. London in the 1950s had no official Hindu temples, and prejudices against South Asian art and architectural styles remained. (Until the 1960s, the British Museum maintained a secret room for works it deemed “obscene,” the most prominent among them a Sri Lankan statue of the bare-breasted Hindu-Buddhist deity Tara.) As a result, Hindu immigrants at this time often had to improvise spaces of worship in private, converting homes and offices into temporary worship halls.London in the 1950s had no official Hindu temples, and prejudices against South Asian art and architectural styles remained.

While South Asian immigrants to the U.K. had difficulty getting an official house of worship going, Western counterculture figures who became enamored of Indic religion faced fewer obstacles. In the 1960s, popular fascination with a romanticized notion of “the East” led in part to the rise of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas. Their Radha Krishna Temple, the lease of which was co-signed by George Harrison, opened in the 1960s near busy Oxford Street, a location chosen for optimum proselytizing.

Radha Krishna Temple was housed not in a specially built structure but a repurposed one, a strategy that many communities would employ to secure larger sites of worship beginning in the 1980s. Shree Ghanapathy in Wimbledon, a temple devoted to Ganesha, looks from the exterior like the Presbyterian church it once was before becoming Europe’s first fully consecrated Hindu temple in 1981.

In other cases, an English skeleton was overlaid with Indian decorative elements. Willesden’s Shree Swaminarayan, for example, opened in the 1970s in a former church before constructing its own purpose-designed complex in the 1980s. The new temple has a red-brick, classical base, combined with a tower, domes, and bright plaster bands with pastel blue and pink accents. It was built to cater to London’s growing community of Hindus from East Africa: Thousands of South Asians came to the U.K. from Uganda in 1972 following Idi Amin’s expulsion of the community on xenophobic accusations of economic sabotage, and discriminatory laws in Kenya pushed many from that country to the U.K. as well. Together, these new immigrants formed the second major wave of South Asian immigrants to the U.K.

The third wave, which would occur at the end of the 20th century, consisted largely of people in the professional class such as medical and IT professionals. This influx of relatively wealthier residents would coincide with the beginning of the construction of purpose-built temples executed entirely in a traditional style.

In 2015, the Shree Ghanapathy Temple completed a major renovation that built an ornate southern or dravida-style temple that is inside the preexisting church interior. The pyramidal structure in which the main image sits echoes in miniature the shikhara (or tower) constructed above such temples’ primary icons, which are housed in a special room known as the garbhagriha, or “womb chamber.”

While the inner temple at Shree Ghanapathy exemplifies the southern style of Hindu temple architecture,BAPS Sri Swaminarayan Temple’s design derives from the nagara (Sanskrit for “town” or “city”) style most associated with northern India. Its multiple towers are typical of that style, as are the amalakas (ridged finials) that top each one.

The entire worship hall, a temple guide explained to me on my visit, was constructed without the use of nails or other metal implements. Instead, the stone structure is held together by precise joinery. Reviving the highly technical skills required both for the carving and the engineering of such a structure––crafts that had largely fallen by the wayside with the mechanization of the construction industry––was one of the goals of the building project.

There are attempts to incorporate modern technology at BAPS Sri Swaminarayanas well. A discreet collection box in the worship hall invites contactless donations, a nod to the U.K.’s increasingly cashless economy (and also possibly a response to the central bank’s announcement that redesigned banknotes contained animal fat, a move that led some Hindu temples to ban them).

The temple complex also testifies to the growing use of Hindu temples not only as religious spaces but as community centers in a broader sense. The Neasden temple contains a South Asian grocery store, a vegetarian restaurant, a gymnasium, and a number of classrooms. The entry area takes its cues from architecture outside of the religious tradition—ornate manor houses known as havelis, for which Rajasthan is famed. The intricate design work functions to draw the eye upward to the skylights through which the sun (when British skies permit) pours in, a clever turning of secular design elements to sacred purpose.

Today, the temple, which was named one of London’s “seven wonders” by Time Out, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year—a figure that would probably be unthinkable to the small congregations meeting in the living rooms of crowded flats a century ago.

About the Author: Erica Eisen has written for The New InquiryElectric LiteratureHyperallergic, and other publications. She received her bachelor’s degree in History of Art & Architecture from Harvard and her master’s from the Courtauld Institute of Art.