Labour of love and true faith
It’s more than a huge, impressive white limestone temple; it’s also a symbol of modern Leicester – and Britain’s biggest jigsaw. Adam Wakelin had a look round the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir off Catherine Street
It's hard to think of a more potent, self-confident symbol of where this city has come from and what it can do. A decrepit old saucepan and former denim factory, transformed into an impossibly grand £4 million Hindu temple – bought and paid for by the community it will serve, many of whom arrived as refugees in the 1970s with little in their luggage but ambition and a desire to build a better life.
That's a pretty strong message to send out.
One day, after Leicester's image-makers have reproduced it endlessly on glossy paper to bring in tourists and businesses, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir may well be as ubiquitous as the Clock Tower, Curve and tree-lined New Walk – so familiar you almost stop seeing it.
For now, though, the temple still carries the shock of the new.
It slides, almost surreally into view, between the shops, industrial units and suburban semis of Leicester's Catherine Street.
Surrounded by metal security fencing, not quite finished, shimmering behind a haze of dust, the temple makes your eyes boggle.
The closer you get to its magnificent domes, pillars and intricate carvings in white limestone, the more impressive it gets.
Sanjiv Patel, here to give me a guided tour with Nisha Popat, his fellow spokesperson for the project, points out some of the religious and cultural motifs that run through the building.Here, God is in the detail.
Those things, says Sanjiv, gesturing to the three half-gherkin-like structures rising out of the roof, are known as shikhars.
"They represent the mountain peaks of the Himalayas," he explains. "In Hindu tradition, the sages used to contemplate in the Himalayas."
On top of the shikhars, peeking out from behind their protective wrapping, are gold painted pinnacles – "kalashes" – literally their crowning glories, says Sanjiv.
The temple's six domes are called "gumats". Running along the edge of the roofline are flows of peacock tails.
Lotus flowers and other blooms fold into one another through the stonework.
The presence of the peacocks and lotus flowers, like everything else, are significant. Both symbolise peace and beauty in India.
Everything was hand carved by craftsmen in Gujarat, brought over on a slow boat from India, and painstakingly assembled on site.
"What you're looking at is basically a giant, 3D jigsaw," says project leader Divyesh Tailor.
"The whole of this came in thousands of different pieces. It was a case of getting it all off the lorries, laying it out, working out what went where and putting it all together."
He puffs out his cheeks.
"It took some doing, believe me."
We pick a path through the builders, watching our steps in the tyre troughs left by heavy machinery, and go inside.
The wow factor doesn't stop at the door.
A 15-metre frieze depicting Swaminarayan – a manifestation of God and the founding guru of this school of Hinduism – stretches out across the back wall of the marble-floored foyer.
We move through to the first prayer room. The floor and walls are clad in brilliant white marble.Patterns on the ceiling draw the eye to the place where a deity will be installed. All is designed in accordance with Hindu scripture to concentrate the focus of worshippers on the deity, explains Sanjiv.
Along the corridor, covered in underlay but not yet carpeted, is the main prayer room.In here stands a large, gilded wooden shrine or "sihasan", delicately carved with more peacock tails.
The sihasan will house the deities – to be installed after being carried through the streets in a grand procession from Belgrave fly-over on Saturday, October 8.
It is forbidden to take pictures anywhere inside until a consecration ceremony and the arrival of the deities.
That will mark the building's spiritual transition from marble, limestone and mortar to a place of God.
"It is the tradition that the deities are first to see it, so sorry, no photographs," says Sanjiv. "Not even the congregation has seen it yet. There's just been too much to do."
Expectation has been on tiptoe for months. The sect's first temple was a modest semi on Doncaster Road. They moved into their temple in St James Street in 1980, but have long since outgrown it.
"We've had a 30-year wait for this," says Sanjiv. "So, no corners could be cut. Everything had to be right."
It's hard to find a fault. The building, in every sense of the word, is immense.
The main hall, a gargantuan square space adorned with chandeliers made up of cascading lotus leaves, brings another gasp.
The kitchens, set to be staffed by volunteers, boast facilities that would shame a top hotel.Function and form dovetail immaculately, but much still needs to be done.
The inside and outside are what they are: works in progress. Everywhere you look, someone in a hard hat and hi-vis jacket is doing something.
The temple will officially open on Sunday, October 9, an auspicious date chosen by the priests. Miss that date, and there won't be another one this year.
So no pressure, then?
"None at all," smiles Divyesh, a building surveyor and property developer, who has masterminded the temple's construction.
It's been a challenge, he admits, one that has seen his life and business go on the back burner for almost four years.
This, as you've already gathered, is no ordinary slot tab A into section B new-build. But the complications go well beyond load-bearing joists and putting domes on roofs.
This is a place that has had to marry fundamental tenets of Hindu temple design – Vastu Shastra principles of directional alignments and geometrics that are laid out in the scriptures and can't be compromised – with modern, British building regulations.
Two sets of architects have been involved: in-house BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir specialists in India – up to speed on all the religious specs – and Leicester's Kent Porter Warren Associates; experts in more secular rules and regulations.
Countless e-mails have been bounced back and forth.
The issue of car parking and congestion have raised some local concerns.
There will be 100 spaces available for cars on site and nearby.
Park and ride schemes will operate on busy festival days. Traffic won't be a problem, reassures Sanjiv.
Getting the temple through planning took two years.
Nature has had to be appeased by various rites carried out during the construction process. Before a digger moved in, there had to be a khatmuhurt – an inspection carried out by a priest to ensure the soil's suitability. This was followed by prayers to seek permission for the earth to be disturbed.
A small pot, containing sacraments of five metals, was ceremonially buried under the place where the deities will sit in the main prayer room after the foundations were dug.
This was to create an awareness that the earth is a dynamic ecosystem and man is to live harmoniously with other life forms.
The fact that Divyesh has had to cope with all this, while bringing the temple in on time and in budget, does him great credit. If I was in charge of Leicester City Council or a PFI project, I'd give him a job now.
"A lot of the money to build this has come from ordinary families," he says.
"I went to one house and I could feel the springs coming through the sofa. They didn't have much, but they wrote out a cheque for £1,000.
"They could have spent that on themselves, but they didn't. I saw it as my responsibility not to waste it."
When all this is over, Divyesh and his family will go on a nice long holiday.
"I'm looking forward to it," he says. "It's taken over my life and I'll be glad when it's finished."It's all been worth it, though, especially now. It's quite exciting, seeing all the plans coming to reality."