London with festivities: Flag raising at the Highgate Hill Murugan temple
London: A Sri Lankan Citadel of Saivism
The Tamil Hindus’ dedication for their beloved Lord Murugan has made London the largest bastion of Saivite Hinduism in the Western world
BY RAMAI AND VATSHALAN
London is famed for its rich culture, racial diversity and regal history, recently capturing the attention of Forbes magazine, which deemed it the world’s most influential city. Inside this cosmopolitan metropolis an untold Hindu story of equal fascination emerges. In this article, we chronicle the immigration of Saivite Hinduism to London from Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Peninsula, the journey from one island in the Indian Ocean to another 5,000 miles away. An estimated 300,000 Tamils reside in the UK, the densest concentration in the Western world, the majority of them within London itself. Most have immigrated from Sri Lanka; a minority hail from India, Malaysia, South Africa, Mauritius and Singapore. This homogenous concentration has provided a unique community enabling Saivism to flourish and remain true to its orthodox principles. London is today home to at least 23 Saivite temples, all founded by Sri Lankan Tamils in the last 40 years, many hidden inside unassuming English exteriors. Through these holy structures, the rich power of the Tamil faith flows out, making London the West’s most prominent Saivite bastion.
Portrait of Sri Somasundaram Sabapathipillai
The History of Tamil Immigrations
Historically Tamils in Sri Lanka remained staunch adherents of Saiva Siddhanta as revealed in the holy texts of the Vedas and Saiva Agamas, despite centuries of oppressive colonization by Portuguese and British rulers. The search for professional opportunities in the 1960s inspired the first wave of Sri Lankan migrations. A second wave began in the early 80s, as the civil war drove thousands of refugees from their lush, tropical homeland.
By unforeseen providence, the existence of all these temples—and many elsewhere in the diaspora—is largely due to the traumatic flight of refugees. They stoically endured all challenges in their new homelands to perpetuate the rich culture of Saivism for their generation and beyond. There was also a driving spiritual power from inner realms—Lord Murugan, Skanda. In many respects this is His story—one that London’s temple elders have wanted to share for decades.
PRASHANTHAN CHANDRAVARNAN; RIGHT: PK DEL MAR CREATIONS
Women carry milk to be offered to the Goddess
The Pioneer of Saivism in Europe
Among the many great souls who generously contributed his time, finances and love to propagating Jaffna’s religion in London and throughout Europe, Sri Somasundaram Sabapathipillai stands out as the preeminent pioneer. He came to the British capitol with a singular mission—to ensure that his faith would survive the 5,000-mile journey west. Born December 27, 1910, in Point Pedro, Jaffna, he completed his masters in London and returned to Sri Lanka to practice law. In 1939 he married Maheswary, daughter of Sri and Smt. Mailvaganam. The great sage Siva Yogaswami (1872-1964) of Nallur, Jaffna, paid an unheralded visit to the newlyweds and told Sabapathipillai, “You have the blessings of Lord Murugan now that you are marrying the daughter of Mailvaganam.” That auspicious blessing may explain the impact the young attorney was to make in Europe.
Even in married life, he pursued austerities and pilgrimages. Ultimately he relinquished his legal career to concentrate on his spiritual destiny and received the triple Saiva initiations from Sri Eesana Sivachariar, principal of the Saiva Siddhanta College in Palani, India. From that moment onwards, he performed daily Siva puja and supported temples beloved by Lord Murugan—Kataragama, Nallur and Keerimalai in Sri Lanka and Thiruchendur in South India. He was a prime mover in bringing together all Hindu institutions in Sri Lanka to form the still-influential All Ceylon Hindu Congress. In 1965, at age 55, Sabapathipillai moved to London. Shortly after arriving, he was invited by the Ceylon High Commission to conduct puja to Lord Murugan at the embassy in Hyde Park on February 4, Sri Lanka’s Independence Day.
Hindu Association of Great Britain
Before long, he quickly recognized the need for an umbrella organization for London’s Tamils, who were practicing their religion throughout the city in small isolated groups. He invited Tamils originating from Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa to meet and commune as one. The first meeting of the Hindu Association of Great Britain—the first Saivite association in Europe—was held on Navaratri, October 23, 1966, with the resolve to “foster Saiva Siddhanta locally and then globally.” A constitution was drafted and ardent devotees were encouraged to take positions in the organization.
Dressed as the child saint Thirugnanasambandar, Pranav Sarma is the son of Shri Shridhar
Thiruchendur Murugan Arrives
It was clear that the community needed a temple in order to promote Saiva Siddhanta and conduct pujas on a regular basis. But no appeal for funds would be made until there was sufficient demand and assurance that institutions could be properly maintained. To cultivate community support, devotees offered their homes for weekly puja and for festival celebrations, mostly importantly Mahasivaratri, which many observed every year in the Wimbledon home of Mr. and Mrs. Ratnasingham. As attendance in homes increased, gatherings were shifted to public halls.
Humble exteriors, magnificent interiors: Europe’s first consecrated Hindu temple, the Wimbledon Ghanapathy Temple still sports the exterior of the Presbyterian church that it once was
COURTESY OF SHREE GHANAPATHY TEMPLE
Inside is a different story. At great sacrifice and after many years of work, traditional sanctums were built and the Mahakumbhabhishekam was held in January of 2015, thirty-four years after it was founded, in 1981.
Old structures transformed: The London Sivan Kovil in Lewisham resides in a former warehouse, beautifully remodeled inside and out
In the early 70s, devotees concluded they had outgrown the use of pictures and small statues in the rituals. The time had come to acquire from India a proper image of the Deity, cast in the traditional five metals—panchaloka. This desire was realized in 1973 when the murti of Thiruchendur Murugan arrived. He was commissioned by Sri Sabapathipillai, who received Him in Chennai and carried Him on a flight back to London. The radiantly smiling Deity brought great joy to the Tamils.
Upon His arrival, Murugan was placed in the Bharat Sevashram Sangha at Shephard Bush, West London, a fitting first landing for the Lord of Renunciates, as the BSS monks are known for their high standards of monasticism. Skanda Shashti, a major festival day to the God, had special significance in London that year. Devotees witnessed the prana prathistha (life-infusing) ceremony for the murti. An elaborate homa invoked Lord Murugan from the inner worlds to infuse the murti with His Divine Grace, and the first abhishekam and puja were performed. This was a wonderful and poignant day for London’s Tamils: the Lord of their hearts had arrived. Shouts of “Vetri Vel Muruganukku! Haro Hara!” reverberated through the hall.
The Traveling Lord
Following His consecration, Thiruchendur Murugan traveled throughout the City and beyond, staying at the home of Sabapathipillai and others during the week. On weekends and festival days He was taken to large public venues so that His many devotees could see Him and experience His darshan. C. Krishnamoorthy, retired engineer, project manager and past president of the Hindus Association of Great Britain, said, “When Murugan first came, we didn’t have any temples. We only had the Friday evening pujas at Wimbledon Kenneth Black Memorial Hall. We thought to make Him available to all Hindus living in UK, and everyone was keen to arrange pujas. He traveled all over England, and huge crowds came wherever this beautiful statue went. I think He had a grand time.” This unusual pattern was followed for 25 years.
Lord Murugan also traveled beyond the borders of London to Skanda Vale, a multi-faith ashram in Wales (which now enjoys three temples and 90,000 pilgrims annually); to Edinburgh, Scotland; and to Birmingham, where a grand puja was attended by Tamil, Telegu, Punjabi and Gujarati devotees. Today most of the places He visited have a vibrant and strong temple culture, a tribute to the immense sakti, spiritual power, that emanates from Him.
The increasing numbers and fervor of Murugan’s devotees fed the desire to build Him a temple. In 1974 an offshoot of the Hindu Association of Great Britain was formed—a financial instrument, the Britannia Hindu (Saiva) Temple Trust, whose sole aim was to raise funds to build a temple. The devotees’ hard work and perseverance paid off. A site at 200A Archway Road in North London was purchased in 1977, which would one day become the Highgate Hill Murugan Temple. In 1979, Thiruchendur Murugan was installed at this site, but without full consecration rites. As it turned out, this was not to be His permanent residence.
Europe’s First Hindu Temple
The Hindu Association of Great Britain encountered many obstacles in their attempts to establish a consecrated temple. Manickavasagar Srikantha explained, “There was even a parliamentary debate on whether a Hindu place of worship could be established in the UK. One of the MPs raised objections to allowing ‘pagan worship’ and concerns about milk baths clogging the city drainage system. We presented the case that our worship was prescribed by our scriptures, the Saiva Agamas. Eventually, we prevailed and a bill was passed to allow a Hindu temple to be built.” Clearly, Lord Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles, had to arrive in the capitol in order to clear the way for this and other temples.
COURTESY OF SHREE GHANAPATHY TEMPLE
In service of the Deity: Four priests of the Shree Ghanapathy Temple
In 1978 Mr. Ratnasingham, a founding member of the Association, was entrusted with the divine task of bringing a panchaloka murti of Lord Ganesha from India. Two years later, the community purchased the Wimbledon Churchill Halls, in a leafy south suburb, from Sir Cyril Black, a former Member of Parliament. Devotees converted the former Presbyterian church into a Ganesha temple. By September of 1981, the Shree Ghanapathy Temple was inaugurated with the celebration of its Mahakumbhabhishekam (consecration ceremony). This was Europe’s first fully sanctified temple. Lord Ganesha had found a permanent home. This temple has become a conduit for Hindu education and cultural activities. The Inner London Educational Authority has recommended it as the best place to learn about Hinduism and temple worship. Several thousand public school children now visit every year and hundreds of children attend classes at the adjacent Sai Baba center. The vision and success of the temple is attributed to the grace of Lord Ganesha working through Mr. Ratnasingham, who departed this Earth plane in 1998.
Homes in North & South London
Meanwhile, weekly pujas to Lord Murugan continued in the mid-80s at the Wimbledon Hall in South London using small murtis, but attendance diminished following the installation of the panchaloka murti at Highgate Hill in North London, fifteen miles away. Cross-town transportation is painfully slow; and with an influx of Tamils from the recently declared war zone of Jaffna, there was an urgency to amplify pujas for Lord Murugan in South London.
Lord Murugan: The First Guru
From antiquity, Lord Murugan’s energy has reverberated within the hearts of South Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils. South India is home to six of His most holy abodes (the Arupadai Veedu pilgrimage), and Sri Lanka boasts the world-famous shrines of Nallur, Maviddapuram and Kataragama, the latter of which attracts significant devotion from Hindus and Buddhists alike. Murugan is also known throughout India as Kumara or Skanda.
Ancient Tamil history is intrinsically linked to Lord Murugan. At the Adichanallur archaeological site in Thirunelveli, South India, where evidence of civilization dates back 3,800 years or more, excavations have unearthed relics of an iron Vel with rooster—both symbols associated with Lord Murugan—thought to date from a proto-Tamilian race many thousands of years ago.
The first image of Murugan crafted for London was a 32-inch-tall, five-metal replica of the Senthil Andavar Deity enshrined at the famed seaside temple of Thiruchendur in South India. The exquisite smiling face of Murugan (right) became the driving force behind the spread of Saivism in the UK. Known in Britain as Thiruchendur Murugan, He now resides in a shrine at the Stoneleigh Rajarajeswari Temple.
Precise rites and deep devotion: In Highgate Hill, Lord Murugan is pulled on His chariot through the streets;
After evaluating the devotees’ needs, the Hindu Association of Great Britain resolved that Thiruchendur Murugan should return to South London. In compensation, the devotees of Highgate Hill obtained a new murti of Murugan in the form of Arumugam (the Six-Faced One) with His consorts Valli and Devayani. Construction at Highgate Hill continued, and in 1986 London’s second fully consecrated Hindu temple was established.
The Thiruchendur Murugan murti remained without a permanent home. Sri Sabapathipillai departed this world in 1989 with a tinge of sadness that he had not found a place for His Lord. But that was taken care of before too many more years. Another temple, this one for the Mother Goddess, Sri Rajarajeswary Amman, was being built at the Surrey suburb of Stoneleigh. Thiruchendur Murugan finally took up permanent residence in a side shrine in this temple, which celebrated its Mahakumbhabhishekam in 1999. He becomes the center of worship on His monthly day of Karthigai and during His annual festivals of Tai Pusam, Skanda Shashti, Thirukarthigai (Karthigai Deepam) and Vaikasi Vishakam.
Expansion to Contemporary Times
With both Lord Ganesha and Lord Murugan properly installed in London, the two temples provided comfort, solace and hope to Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka’s civil war. Though Great Britain felt very different from the homeland, the refugees’ culture of temple worship, the bedrock of their lives, was still available.
PK DEL MAR CREATIONS
All festivals are replete with nadaswaram(temple horns) and tavil (drums)
As the Tamil Saivite population increased, and their priests found it easier to travel between nations, the number of temples increased rapidly. Mrs. Shymala Srikantha, a devotee of the Highgate Murugan Temple relates, “Priests whose contracts ended always found a way to stay here. They all branched out and created more temples. First Murugan, then Amman, then Sivan. But they all are thankful to Lord Murugan, from Whom all these temples have come.” Now, thirty years later, most London devotees find themselves within a thirty-minute drive of a spiritual home emanating the traditions of Jaffna. Nearly every Hindu here can take a short ride on the tube (British for subway) to catch the morning arati before going to work.
Along with the rise of temples has come an increase in the complexity and frequency of pujas. Tamil festivals such as Thai Pongal, Thai Pusam, Mahasivarathri, Tamil New Year, Ganesha Chathurti, Skanda Shashthi, Navaratri, Thirukarthigai and Thiruvembai are glorious celebrations in each and every temple. The core focus is to perform them concurrently with the traditional celebrations in Jaffna. The link to the motherland is ever present and never forgotten. It is the power of the homeland that is believed to sustain such a rich culture. While London cannot rival the fullness of Saivite culture practiced for thousands of years in India and Jaffna, it has come a long way toward replicating the essential religious lifestyle for Tamils who now call this city their home away from home.
The annual chariot festivals are a re-energizing time of intense daily worship, usually lasting ten days. Beautifully decorated regal chariots are paraded around the city streets. The processional Deity is brought forth to circumambulate His or Her temple and bless the community. The months of May to August are a gala time, as there is at least one chariot festival every weekend with drums and temple horns resounding through the streets.
LEFT: PRASHANTHAN CHANDRAVARNAN; RIGHT: COURTESY OF SHREE GHANAPATHY TEMPLE
Children attend classes for religion and cultural arts at the Sai Center adjacent to the Wimbledon Ganesha temple
Complex rituals with homas, Vedic chanting and elegant abhishekams occur frequently. Major festivals are supported by close connections with Jaffna and Tamil Nadu, and Sivacharyas are often flown to London to join the resident priests, exponentially increasing the effervescent darshan that emanates from these powerful pujas.
Supporting the opulent temple culture are Tamil cultural organizations and private tutors teaching the arts of Bharatanatyam, Carnatic vocal, Tamil language and expertise in traditional instruments, such as vina and mridangam. This cultural development infuses temple festivals with music and dance. For the more cerebral, Saivite conferences have been established to preserve the great heritage among adults and youth. The Federation of Saiva Temples, UK, held its 16th Saiva Conference in April.
This success story is due in part to Britain’s sophisticated culture, which has openly welcomed Tamil traditions and understood the innate need for Hindu temples thousands of miles away from ancestral homes. Though often condemned for its colonial expansionism and wars, Britain has notably upheld social values of refinement, meritocracy, pluralism and religious tolerance, providing a fertile environment in which Saivism has flourished.
The tireless work of founding temple trustees will need to be continued in the decades to come if the rich Saiva culture is to be maintained and grow. The Shree Ghanapathy Temple and Highgate Hill Murugan Temple have begun incorporating the next generation into temple management committees and allowing a few committed souls to gain experience and understand expectations for the future. But many of the current generation are confused about their identity. As succession planning has begun in some of the major temples, there is a ripple of unease that the heirs of these institutions have yet to be found.
Balancing East and West is not easy. Parents want their children to secure professional and financial status, and spirituality and religion are often set aside to be explored in later years. This strategy relies on the next generation holding onto links with Jaffna—a region that is not their birthplace and which perhaps they never visited. Some youth feel disconnected and do not see Jaffna’s relevance to their lives today in this fast-paced Western city. Others have devoted their lives to promulgating the traditions of their parental homeland. Many want to understand their religion but have not found expressions that have meaning to them, nor a way to learn about their spiritual origins at their own pace. Stories of the Gods and life in Jaffna appear abstract, and a clear relevance to their everyday lives needs to be established. There is an urgent need for relevant religious education.
Our Personal Reflections
Next year’s fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Hindu Association of Great Britain will provide an opportunity to reflect on the historical growth of Saivism in the UK—a story that will continue to emerge with time.
We, the brother-sister writers of this article, are filled with gratitude for our forefathers, who spread Saivism throughout Europe; for our temples whose darshan fills our lives; for our dedicated Saivite grandfather and our beloved ever-present guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami of the holy Kailasa Parampara and his successor, Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami, who keep the essence of Jaffna Saiva culture alive for us. Our hearts say thank you to Thiruchendur Murugan, the divine being who is bridging Saivism from Jaffna to London.