Nagrik Dialogue

The First of its Kind

On 20th August 1995, the revered 5th spiritual successor of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, gave London its greatest gift in the form of a magnificent Hindu Mandir. Today, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir stands majestically as Europe’s first traditional Hindu masterpiece of exquisite Indian craftsmanship. It is the biggest traditionally built temple outside India. Popularly known as the ‘Neasden Temple’, the Mandir is a traditional place of Hindu worship designed and constructed entirely according to ancient Vedic architectural texts – using no structural steel whatsoever. Never in modern times had a traditional stone mandir of this scale and intricacy been created outside of India. It was the first time ever in the western world.Presented here is the fascinating account of its creation – from conception to consecration. 

The Vision 

The Mandir was first envisioned by His Holiness Yogiji Maharaj, the predecessor of His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj. On his visit to England in 1970, Yogiji Maharaj consecrated a small Swaminarayan Mandir at the site of a disused church on 77 Elmore Street in Islington, north London. It was the first such Hindu Mandir in the UK. During his stay in London, on 26 May 1970, Yogiji Maharaj expressed his vision that a traditional mandir be built in London in the future. After the passing away of Yogiji Maharaj the following year, Pramukh Swami Maharaj took it upon himself to materialise his guru’s vision. 

Planning, Research & Design 

A traditional stone mandir of this size and intricacy in London posed its own unique set of challenges. Architects, engineers and scholars from BAPS – both in the UK and India – teamed up with Sompuras (traditional temple architects) in India along with experts and consultants from London to create a project team. 

The Mandir had to conform to India’s ancient architectural texts, the Vastu Shastras, and yet also meet the requirements of Britain’s stringent building code. For further insights on how to satisfy both, members of the project team embarked on an 18-day study tour of Swaminarayan mandirs and other traditional Hindu temples in India in late 1991. After much research, consultation, deliberation, testing, and guidance from Pramukh Swami Maharaj, detailed plans were drawn up for the Mandir and submitted in early 1992. 

The Stone 

A key question for the engineers was that of material. While it was granted that the Mandir would be made of stone, which type would be able to withstand the harsh, wet and wintry British climate? Added to this was the Vastu Shastra tradition of temple masonry being self-load-bearing – with no steel reinforcements or structural support. But while it had to be durable and sturdy, the stone also needed to be receptive to intricate carving. Many worthy candidates were considered – from various types of marble to Rajasthani pink sandstone and Portland limestone. 

Eventually, after much travelling around Europe and rigorous testing in the UK – tests included checking against atmospheric pollutants and for density, compression, flexure, rupture, water absorption, abrasion, freeze-thaw reaction and cement compatibility – it was decided to opt for a combination: Bulgarian limestone on the outside, and Italian and Indian marble on the inside. 

Bulgarian limestone was selected after stone experts made numerous trips to the remote town of Vratza in the Balkan Mountains foothills in north-west Bulgaria. They studied the stone in quarries, and examined old buildings made from the Vratza limestone to assess long-term effects of the environment. Finding it to be remarkably impervious to the country’s harsh weather – temperatures range there from -15°C to 30°C – and with minimal degradation of exposed carvings, the dense, creamy-white and finely grained stone was deemed ideal for the Mandir’s exterior. 

For the interior with its intricate carvings, marble was the preferred choice. It is relatively soft and easy to work, refine and polish, and is said to become harder and more durable as the sculpted stone ages. And with marble’s notable surface translucency, figurative works would be given a certain visual depth and realism not possible with other materials. 

Ambaji marble from northern Gujarat, India was chosen for its snow-white colour and pure, vein-free finishing. But with the large quantity required within the tight construction schedule, marble also had to be sourced from Italy’s popular stone-city of Carrara in Tuscany. Famed for its consistent white colouration, smooth texture and considerable strength, it proved ideal for load-bearing columns, beams, walls, and internal flooring. 

Crafting 

Architectural designs of the Mandir now had to be transferred from paper onto stone. For each carved piece, a full-scale drawing was created, from which a metal stencil was prepared. Based on the metal stencil, the designs for each piece were etched onto the stone with approximate contours. 

Now the specialised craftsmen took over. With their innate skill, concentration and patience, they diligently chipped away to create the intricate designs and figures. Although pneumatic hammers and other power tools were available, they mostly preferred their generations-old chisel and mallet. 

To get an idea of the work involved: a deep-carved column would take 4 full-time craftsmen each working on one side of the column about 60 days to complete.  

Shipment to England 

From each of the 14 workshop sites around Gujarat and Rajasthan, the boxes of stone would make their way to the port at Kandla, before being loaded onto ships destined for England over 6,300 miles away. The 26,300 pieces were transported in about 40 consignments to Southampton and occasionally Felixstowe. The first consignment left the dock on 15 April 1993; the last on 16 June 1995. 

Construction & Assembly 

Meanwhile on the site in London, demolition of the old garage and warehouse had begun in August 1992 soon after detailed planning permission had been granted by the local authorities. Now the foundations needed to be laid before the winter freeze. In October, work on the mass piling began. A total of 194 piles – each 2 feet in diameter – were driven between 23 to 36 feet into the ground. 

At 6.30am on 24 November 1992, work started on laying the foundation. A 6 feet-thick concrete raft covering 240 feet by 80 feet was laid layer by layer as 11 tipper trucks made 225 trips, incessantly pouring 4,500 tonnes of concrete in 24 hours. It was one of the UK’s largest concrete pours in a single day. 

Once the deep concrete foundation had set, the building blocks could be assembled. 

On 12 June 1993, the first granite stone was ceremoniously laid. A further 1,500 cubic feet of granite was laid across the base as water-proofing for the lower layers of limestone. 

Earlier, the first consignment of carved stones had arrived. After unpacking the boxes and preparing the base, the first carved stone was placed on 29 September 1993. 

Over the next two years, the Mandir began to rise from the ground – piece by piece, layer by layer – as each successive consignment of carved stones arrived from India. 

Remarkably, of the 26,300 pieces, not one had been missing, damaged or delayed; they all arrived intact, in order, on time to make a mandir – the first of its kind. 

Paresh Rughani
Lead Volunteer – BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir / Neasden Temple

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