LONDON. We always hear about it. It’s one of the globe’s greatest cities. It’s a city that represents refined English culture and royalty. In the minds of the world, London often conjures images of Princess Diana, high tea, red double decker buses, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, to name a few.
But wait a minute….there’s just one small part that’s missing in this picture. The truth is that around FORTY PERCENT of Londoners come from ethnic minorities. So who are these forty percent and why don’t we hear more about them?
That’s exactly the question I was asking myself as I headed towards the Hindu festival of Diwali at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temple in a northern suburb of London. The Mandir is the biggest Hindu temple in the world outside of India. London’s Indian community is one of its largest ethnic minorities. And Indian immigrants are only the beginning of the story; London is also home to large communities of Arabs, Kurds, Vietnamese, Poles, Jamaicans, and pretty much every other nationality and ethnicity under the sun. On my visit to London, I was determined to unearth the hearts and souls of these communities, and attending Diwali was the first step.
I made my way towards the temple with an open mind. As I neared the temple, the smell of food wafted through the air. I followed my nose until I found myself inside a huge tent adjacent to the temple. The tent was filled with food stalls and hundreds upon hundreds of festival-goers. People were sitting and standing wherever they could to chow down. I joined the line in front of the chili paneer and samosas stall. Several minutes later, I came away with a steaming plate of delicious food that set my mouth on fire.
I was in heaven nonetheless.
After eating, I headed into the temple. Alas, no cameras were allowed inside. No matter, though; the images of hundreds of women clad in brilliant multi-colored saris will never be erased from my mind.
This was my first time inside a Hindu temple of any sort. The experience greatly reminded me of visiting a mosque. Worshippers were required to remove their shoes upon entering the temple and women were asked to cover their bare shoulders. Women and men were then separated into two separate lines.
This, however, was where the similarities ended. In the center of the temple, people followed a circular route passing by various altars containing statues of gods and goddesses wrought in brilliant glimmering gold. People stopped before each altar to clasp their hands together and offer prayers.
Downstairs, I made my way towards a large prayer hall. Inside, everyone was seated on the ground in rows on top of lavish embroidered carpets facing the front. The hall was so immense, it was hard to make out what was happening up front. The sound of chanting rang out across the hall through large loud speakers and people clapped along. It was an electrifying atmosphere.
I couldn’t stay long, however, because I didn’t want to miss the grand finale: fireworks! I collected my shoes, then rushed outside to watch the sky explode in brilliant hues of greens, blues, and reds. Diwali, after all, is popularly known as the “festival of lights.” As I admired the fireworks show, faint greetings of “Happy Diwali!” drifted through the air from every direction.
For me, attending Diwali was ten times more rewarding and interesting than visiting the Tate Modern or crossing Tower Bridge. Though these are very worthy attractions, the energy and atmosphere of the festival were unbeatable. Diwali was a chance to see something completely unique, new, and unexpected.
That’s the great thing about London: it always surprises you. You can feel like you are in Mumbai one moment and Damascus the next! London is bursting at the seams with different peoples , beliefs, cultures, foods, and religions. And that’s what makes it so special.
I realized I may have found the answer as to why tourists don’t hear more about this vibrant multicultural side of London…Londoners probably want to keep the secret to themselves!