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London Temples Reveal the History of UK Hindus

London Temples Reveal the History of UK Hindus

In examining the history of these temples—and why their appearances can differ so radically—we can also trace the history of Hindus in the U.K.

Although the Indian community in Britain dates back to the 1600s, the first major wave of South Asian immigration to the U.K. did not come until after World War II. The countries of South Asia remained part of the Commonwealth after independence, meaning that the 1948 British Nationality Act, which bestowed British citizenship and the right to settle in the U.K. upon Commonwealth nationals, applied to people from modern-day India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Between the peak immigration years of 1955 and 1975, tens of thousands of people from the subcontinent, especially the Punjab and Gujarat, traveled to Britain to pursue economic opportunity at a time when the U.K. was facing major labor shortages.

Hindu immigrants to Britain at this time would have been hard-pressed to find a place to worship. London in the 1950s had no official Hindu temples, and prejudices against South Asian art and architectural styles remained. (Until the 1960s, the British Museum maintained a secret room for works it deemed “obscene,” the most prominent among them a Sri Lankan statue of the bare-breasted Hindu-Buddhist deity Tara.) As a result, Hindu immigrants at this time often had to improvise spaces of worship in private, converting homes and offices into temporary worship halls.

London in the 1950s had no official Hindu temples, and prejudices against South Asian art and architectural styles remained.

While South Asian immigrants to the U.K. had difficulty getting an official house of worship going, Western counterculture figures who became enamored of Indic religion faced fewer obstacles. In the 1960s, popular fascination with a romanticized notion of “the East” led in part to the rise of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas. Their Radha Krishna Temple, the lease of which was co-signed by George Harrison, opened in the 1960s near busy Oxford Street, a location chosen for optimum proselytizing.

A vegetarian restaurant (which is run by the temple) and the Radha Krishna Temple on Soho Street in London. (padmak/Shutterstock)

Radha Krishna Temple was housed not in a specially built structure but a repurposed one, a strategy that many communities would employ to secure larger sites of worship beginning in the 1980s. Shree Ghanapathy in Wimbledon, a temple devoted to Ganesha, looks from the exterior like the Presbyterian church it once was before becoming Europe’s first fully consecrated Hindu temple in 1981.

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