Last year I remember I experienced Diwali for the first time in my life and I went with a couple of Indian friends to a big celebration in Trafalgar Square. By that time it was actually my first big party in Trafalgar so I was amazed by the fireworks and the Indian music. I was really happy to be there, although now I think it wasn’t much of an Indian tradition, but a Sunday event in that square, just like many others.
This year, to celebrate Diwali, instead of going to such a tourist place, I went to an even more crowded place in North London called the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, also known as the ‘Neasden Temple’, that happens to be the biggest Hindu temple outside India, and it was opened in 1995.
When I got there, I thought that just by the experience of being that far away from central London (is just in front of Wembley Park in Zone 3) and looking at the magnificent building was enough, but it was much more adventurous than that. I stood outside of the building for a while, just because of the shock that seeing a building like that in London caused me. For this particular night it was shiny pink, but I knew afterwards that is to raise awareness for breast cancer rather than being related to the Diwali festival.
I was thinking of going into the temple, but I was a little bit hesitant. Perhaps someone might consider offensive to see a non-Hindu person inside the temple, especially in such a festivity (since Diwali is the most important festivity and is like the Indian version of Christmas). There, at the door, I saw people walking in and out so I thought it would be just fine to walk inside.
Before even walking inside I was asked to remove my shoes. Then they provided me with a token, just like in a bowling alley, so that I could pick by shoes later. I was walking barefoot inside the temple and I was for sure not the only non-Indian person there. I could spot a blond girl like 20 metres away from me and another guy that was, like me, just interested in the Indian culture. Besides us three, there were thousands of Indians celebrating Diwali inside that temple. Then they separated us and all men were invited to follow a queue to the left and the women walked somewhere else. I was really amazed to see the tradition of going to the temple and being segregated by gender. Shiny golden statues of Shiva, Ganesha, Vishnu and many others were at the top of the temple, and the tour in that temple is also segregated, since women are not allowed to walk in the same areas as we were, and they have to pray to some of the gods from far away, even when I was allowed to be just a few inches away from those deities.
Every time I interact with the Indian culture I arrive to the same conclusion: the best part of India is their people. Even when you can tell that I am not Indian, and they needed to point me several times during my visit to the temple that I wasn’t allowed in that part, they all wished me a Happy Diwali with the warmest and most welcoming smile. People being proud of their culture, their costumes and their traditions but most importantly, that are willing to share them with a person that is from a different world.
After picking up my shoes I went outside of the building and I walked to a Diwali market across the street that served Indian food. There was also a guy there that was singing what I suspect are like Christmas carols. Unfortunately, I arrive to the same conclusion: the best part from India is their people (not the food or the singing part).
To finish the amazing night we had a fantastic show with fireworks and Indian music. Without a doubt it was a very special night and most importantly, I got to be part of this wonderful celebration. I guess that this particular Diwali celebration was as authentic as it gets outside India.