The city of Dudley, in the former industrial heartlands of England‘s West Midlands, will become the home of Europe’s largest Hindu temple (mandir) this Sunday. The Sri Venkateswara Balaji temple, built and consecrated on land purchased from the local district council, is expected to attract 10,000 devotees and visitors per day for its special inauguration festival which ends after five days of celebrations this Sunday (2 February 2014). While the temple has been in existence for some years, the festival will celebrate its expansion which includes a £500,000 building opened in April 2013 for the blessing of babies in the ‘yagashala’ ceremony.
The mandir, located in Tividale, a town near Dudley, cost £6.5 million to construct on 12.5 acres of former wasteland in an industrial area adjacent to the M5 motorway, a major traffic route running through the West Midlands. As is standard with major Hindu temples in the British Isles, the temple is based on traditional Vedic architectural designs and was built with the help of Indian artisans. Its style is reminiscent of the glorious and ancient Sri Venkateswara mandir located in the sacred city of Tirupati in India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh. It can accommodate 400 worshippers for arati and prayers at any one time. In addition, visitors seeking solace or a place for holy contemplation and meditation will be able to make use of an artistically-landscaped Indian-style garden in the mandir’s grounds, which will consist of a meadow with shrubs and woodland, sourced with trees and shrubs endemic to the local area. Inspired by the seven hills of the temple’s spiritual progenitor in south India, there are seven ‘faith hills’. One is dedicated to Buddhism, with a murti of Lord Buddha carved from wood by a local artist already installed there. Another hill has been set aside for Britain’s largest faith community, the Christians belonging to the Church of England, with former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams visiting the smaller predecessor temple in 2008 where he laid a plaque with quotes from his religion’s holy scripture, the Bible. The reaching out to other faith communities by the Balaji Temple’s trust was intended to provide greater multi-faith understanding of Hinduism. Both the mandir and its community centre will be open to all, regardless of religion, ethnicity or place of origin.
The current temple buildings of the Sri Venkateswara mandir in Tividale. The place of worship is undergoing a massive expansion including new buildings and an adjacent garden and nature reserve with seven religiously themed hills.
In addition to donations from Telugus living in Europe, the mandir authority also received a £3.3 million grant of lottery money to aid construction costs. The money, awarded by the Millennium Commission, helped put to an end a three-decade long search by local worshippers for a large enough temple to serve their spiritual and cultural needs. Since 1974, Hindu West Midlanders have struggled to find a suitable location as their numbers grew. The vast majority of British Hindus live in the south of the country which has a few notable temples suitable for community-wide worship. One of the most well-known are the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north-east London, which mainly serves Gujaratis of the Swaminarayan sect, and the sprawling old English country house and farms of Bhaktivedanta Manor in Watford, Hertfordshire, an important pilgrimage place for Vaishnavas (devotees of Lord Vishnu as Krishna). Until recently though, there was no comparable Hindu place of worship for the central parts of England. While the organisers and supporters behind Europe’s newest and largest temple has previously worshipped at another temple, a growing congregation and lack of space, as well as internal conflicts, prompted them to seek out spiritual space of their own.
By 1994, the land was set aside by the then Black Country Development Corporation who assured the local community that the land would be donated to them for a nominal fee. Fundraising began in earnest and by 1996, lottery funding and planning permission were both guaranteed for the Venkateswara temple. With the temple’s existence now a certainty, work began on the foundations in 1999 and by the end of that year the first of three shrines were completed by a team of 600 builders.
The concrete, granite and class structure was built in stages in the subcontinent before being shipped to Britain to be put together on site. A team of 30 highly-skilled craftsmen and stonemasons travelled over from India to work on the intricate carvings of Hindu deities that now adorn the mahogany doors, stone pillars, walls and ceilings inside the temple.
A murti, or statue, of the presiding main deity at the newly-expanded Tividale temple. Lord Venkateswara is a rebirth of the senior deity Vishnu, popular in southern India.
Two days ago, as part of the marking of establishment of Lord Venkateswara Balaji’s new larger residence in the centre of England, a festival was already well under way with tents erected and Indian dance programmes in full swing. Visitors were also treated to Andhra renditions of religious songs. Priests were specially flown in from India, Mauritius and the United States to officiate over the religious ceremonies. A group of fifteen pandits will invite God into the new temple with special invocation before a twelve-foot murti (idol) of Lord Krishna is installed to finalise the consecration of the Balaji mandir. The priests will also pour sanctified water over the entirety of the mandir premises as part of the consecration.
According to the Daily Mail newspaper, Britain is home to 600,000 Hindus but the temple is expected to attract worshippers from across Europe and the rest of the world. The Hindu section of British society is growing steadily as more people from countries such as Mauritius and India arrive here and as more indigenous Britons are attracted to Hinduism. Results from the last UK Census in 2011 state that the West Midlands county is home to about 72,000 Hindus out of a total population of 5.6 million residents.
Lord Venkateswara (also known as Sri Venkateshwar in northern India) is a reincarnation (avatar) of Lord Vishnu, who is one of the main deities of the Trimurti (a Hindu version of the Trinity) – one of the most popular and important aspects of Hindu divinity. The Lord’s name comes from the ancient language of Sanskrit and consists of the words “vem” (sin), “kata” (destruction) and “ishwara” (divine or supreme lord). Put together, Lord Venkateswara’s name translates as the God who destroys sinful deeds. He is analogous with Lord Krishna, also an avatar of Lord Vishnu.
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“Europe’s largest Hindu temple opens its doors in the Midlands” – via Daily Mail/Forum for Hindu Awakening, Forum for Hindu Awakening Inc. (30 January 2014) LINK
“Census gives insights into characteristics of the West Midlands’ population” – Office for National Statistics (11 December 2012) LINK
“HISTORY OF THE TEMPLE” – Shri Venkateswara (Balaji) Temple of U.K. LINK
“Europe’s largest Hindu temple in Tividale will expand” – Express & Star (17 April 2013) LINK
“Europe’s largest Hindu temple opens its doors in the Midlands” – Mail Online News, Associated Newspapers Ltd. LINK