LONDON: A SRI LANKAN CITADEL OF SAIVISM
HINDUISM TODAY, OCT/NOV/DEC 2015
NOTE: Space constraints of a print edition require major reduction in the number interviews and word that can be included in a short article. Here we offer a fuller set of transcripts that are deemed useful to our readers.SIVACHARYAS (PRIESTS)
SRI KAMALANATHA KURUKKRAL, chief Sivacharya
Enfield Nagapoosani Ambaal Temple, LondonSri Kamalanatha Kurukkral:
Vanakkam. Our Saiva religion is the foremost religion in the world and we are also proud to say the oldest, starting many aeons ago. Lord Siva is the Supreme Lord of our religion. The Vedas, Saiva Agamas, Upanishads, Thevarams and Thiruvasagam are our rich religious texts and from these we derive the principles of Saiva Siddhanta.
Reflecting on how we have left our native country and grown Saiva Siddhanta in other countries, London is unique as it has so many Saivite temples within the city. “May the greatness and truth of Saiva Siddhanta be spread throughout the whole world”, as stated in the Skanda Puranam has now been shown to be true.The way in which our (Sri Lankan Tamil) people are living shows the strong foundation of our heritage. In order for us to follow our culture, it is important for us to know who we are and follow the footsteps of our forefathers. As soon as someone looks at us, they should know we are Hindu, from the way we dress as well as our mannerisms and actions.
Our Saiva Siddhanta has arrived (here in London), like a unique jewel which has been staunchly protected with pride. The foundation of Saivism is to understand yourself and be loving towards others.“Praise be to Siva, Lord of people from foreign lands, who is also Supreme God of my own country” is the key concept of our texts for we believe Lord Siva is the Father of all. In London especially we are proud of the way Saivism is growing. Having left our homeland, through the construction of temples we have been able to teach the next generation about our customs and religion.
If we reflect on why we need to build temples here? The answer can be derived from the word temple it self (Tamil: Ahlayam). Ah- denotes the soul body (jeeva), Layam- designated place. We believe our all pervasive Lord (Iraivan) is especially powerful in the temple and accessible for the soul.An analogy is a cow’s body is full of milk however it is only accessible from its udder, like this the Universal Lord is accessible with the help of temples and their deities (vigrahams). That is why our elders say “to pray at the temple is particularly important”. Due to the daily prayers and ceremonies, the temple emanates God’s power and hence purifies our soul. Through our temples we are able to ensure our Saivite culture and Tamil language are followed in a proper manner.Even greater power is felt during special ceremonies and the annual festivals and this gives an opportunity for our community to meet in one place and facilitates unity. We have created many temples in London for the next generation, each temple makes us incredibly proud. All the temples conduct pujas as per our Saiva Agamic principles. In North London, Enfield Nagapooshani Amman was first opened in 2002 in a hall before moving to its current location in 2003. From then the temple conducted pujas 6 times a day. In 2005 we consecrated a flag pole (kodimaram) and started annual festivals which last 15 days with a chariot festival to complete it. Now we are building a sanctum for our Ambaal (Nagapoosani Amman) in granite with 12 pillars, each 27 feet high, on which are carved various Hindu stories. We have also planned to create shrines for Lord Vinayagar (Lord Ganesha), Murugan, Siva, Nataraja, Dakshinamurthy, Navagraha, Bhairava, Narayana, Chandikeswari and construct a traditional “Spring Hall” (which houses the utsava murthis). We are proud to say that this will be the first all granite temple dedicated to Goddess Sakti in London.With the hope of conducting our consecration ceremony (mahakumbhabhishekam) in 2016, we are currently hard at work to bring this new temple into fruition. At Enfield Nagapoosani Ambaal Temple, we can say every Tuesday we have 4,000 devotees attend our ceremonies and during our chariot festival 20,000 come. Our aim is also to raise the spiritual consciousness of man and alleviate the sufferings of others, so at Enfield Nagapooshani Amman temple we also sponsor many charities in Jaffna which serves the orphans and the vulnerable who have been affected by the war. For the benefit of the next generation we also conduct veena, dance and Carnatic singing lessons, through which we aim to improve the lives of our devotees and develop their desire to help others. Thus we are doing service in the shadow of our Mother Ambaal, in the hope that all are able to pray to the Saiva Gods and obtain Lord Siva’s blessings.
SRI KUHENDRA KURUKKAL, Sivacharya
Highgate Hill Murugan TempleSri Kuhendra Kurukkral:
A well known Tamil saying from our forefathers is a place bereft of a temple should not be lived in.Though we have left our native land of Jaffna, in every place we have settled we have built temples and run them as per our pure Saiva Siddhanta Truths. An important temple during the establishment of our culture here in London has been Highgate Hill Murugan Temple, where Lord Murugan enjoys regular beautiful pujas and festivals. Our Saiva devotees ensure they attend temples in our traditional clothes and support our temple festivals and pujas. The power of Lord Murugan is that even here in London, He stands on top of a high hill. This symbolizes how Lord Murugan helps our soul ascend, hence His name Highgate Hill Murugan. From this auspicious place, He stands blessing devotees. The way in which we have left our native country and created these temples in new countries is a testament to the power of Saiva Siddhanta. “May the greatness and truth of Saiva Siddhanta be spread throughout the whole world”.FOUNDING MEMBERS
CHELLIAH KRISHNAMOOTHY, 79. founding member of the Hindu Association of Great Britain.
He remains closely involved with London Thiruchendur Murugan (Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple) and Highgate Hill Murugan TempleInterviewer:
Today we are speaking with Mr Krishnamoothy. His involvement in London temples dates back to the starting days of the Hindu Association of Great Britain, and he remains active today supporting Sri Rajarajeswari Amman and Highgate Hill Murugan Temples in London.
Krishnamoothy mama (uncle), can you tell us what inspired you to join the Hindu Association of Great Britain and how that has led you to your current role? Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
Well that is long story. In essence it was my fascination with Lord Murugan, which came from my parents. They were involved with temples in Jaffna namely Selva Sannidhi and Nallur as well as one in South Sri Lanka called Katargama. All of these temples are devoted to Lord Murugan and hence I was brought up with this devotion. Even before I arrived in the UK, I was involved in Hindu associations in Sri Lanka. Arriving in the UK, I continued my devotion to Lord Murugan, which led one day to Sri Sabapathipillai and Mr Ratnasingham visiting my home. They invited me to one of the regular poojas to Thiruchendur Murugan and from there I was enamoured. We soon formed the Hindu Association of Great Britain.
I became actively involved in finding Thiruchendur Murugan a home. We first looked for land in South London with no avail, and then the 200A Archway Road site became available in North London. However the need for Thiruchendur Murugan to return to south London arose so we continued poojas to Him in halls in South London. Finally He arrived at His current home at Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple in Stoneleigh.
You see that history explains my current involvement at Sri Rajarajeswari Amman temple. When the land was bought for Amman temple, I was asked to visit and see if it was suitable for Thiruchendur Murugan. I was deeply devoted to our Thiruchendur Murugan and felt Sri Rajarajeswari Amman temple was a suitable home. Now a group of us continue poojas to Him at Sri Rajarajeswari Amman temple and my love for Murugan and Amman has grown as a consequence. I must emphasise this journey was a collaborative one, with many people involved. Even today there are many people who support the on going poojas to Thiruchendur Murugan here in London.
It is a great intermingling of communities that has sustained poojas to Thiruchendur Murugan. For example, our monthly Karthigai (auspicious day for Lord Murugan) are supported by Mauritian devotees. Interviewer:
You have previously spoken passionately about Thiruchendur Murugan, which has been invaluable to us piecing this story together. On a personal level, what did He mean to you?Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
Thiruchendur Murugan means a lot to me. Foremost I am a devout Murugan Bhaktar. I was highly taken by Him from the first time I found myself in Thiruchendur at the 4 a.m. abhishekam. It feels Lord Murugan is there and it is so alive with His energy. When Sri Sabapathipillai said he was planning on getting a Hindu murti for London and we decided it would be Thiruchendur Murugan, I was delighted. Interviewer:
The story of Thiruchendur Murugan in London is fascinating and inspiring. He seems the unifying force behind Saivism in London…Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
You are right, absolutely right. For Tamils, irrespective of where they live, Lord Murugan is a force for them. He just enters the hearts of Tamils. There is no hesitation, nothing to think about. He immediately enters their hearts.Interviewer:
He is described as the God of Tamils.Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
Yes indeed. That is why Murugan temples are infamous in Sri Lanka such as Nallur, Selva Sannidhi and Katargama. Tamils are devoted to Him and His temples. Interviewer:
How would you summarize the significance of Thiruchendur MuruganChelliah Krishnamoorthy:
His arrival to London was a landmark event. He supported the growth of Saivism in London. His instrument was Sri Sabapathipillai, who was deeply devoted to Lord Murugan. Sri Sabapathipillai sacrificed a lot to bring His mission into fruition. What I sacrificed appears miniscule compared to that of Sri Sabapathipillai. It was Sabapathipillai himself who instructed the sculptor, Mohan Ram, to make a murti that was the exact representation of Thiruchendur Murugan. Sri Sabapathipillai personally transported Thiruchendur Murugan from Chennai to London.
When the murti of Thiruchendur Murugan arrived in London, it was a time that predates temples. We only had poojas in homes of devotees. We moved from performing poojas at homes to halls to accommodate the increasing number of devotees since Lord Murugan’s arrival. We decided, since there were no temples at the time, that Hindus living elsewhere in UK should also benefit from His Darshan. So He travelled to Birmingham, Wales, Edinburgh and other places. He travelled all over England, I think Thiruchendur Murugan has a grand time!
I must say there were lots of devotees who were very happy to see Him. Large crowds followed Him wherever He went. There were no temples at that time, and it was beautiful to see His murti.
A few years later, we got Valli and Devani murtis to stand with Him, as He stands now in Sri Rajarajeswari Amman temple. Their murtis were made by the same sculptor.
Thiruchendur Murugan means a lot to London Tamils.Interviewer:
You have mentioned in a prior interview that wherever He travelled now has flourishing Hindu communities, can you expand on this?Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
Absolutely right! Wherever Thiruchendur Murugan went now has Hindu Temples and a strong Hindu community. Even if we look at where He travelled in London alone, we now see temples have been built in these areas. So He is more than just a statue, there is something about His murti.
I think you know He is the centre figure for this story. Without Him, there is nothing.Interviewer:
Can you talk us through your commitments and how you have balanced this with life in London?Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
I was the secretary for Highgate Hill Murugan Temple for over 10 years. For approximately 4 to 5 years of this time, I was doing my job as a consultant for a large firm and I used to travel abroad intermittently. The needs at the time meant even when I was abroad, I had on-going commitments to the temple. I spent a lot of time balancing work and temple life, particularly in the early days when we were establishing Highgate Hill Murugan Temple. Actually that is an interesting story in itself. Thiruchendur Murugan was first installed at the Highgate Hill site and many people came to see the installation pooja, they were highly devoted to Murugan.
Since retirement, I have found it much easier because I can be fully devoted to temple activities. Interviewer:
Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple has just completed its annual thiruvilha and Highgate Hill Murugan Temple starts its in a few days..Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
Yes it is a busy time for me. I tend to be there from early in the day to late during thiruvilha festivals, we all are. Interviewer:
You have now been involved in these temples for over 40 years. What inspires you to continue your commitments?Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
The driving force has always been my parents. They were so devoted to Lord Murugan. As a small child, I used to accompany them to Selva Sannidhi in Jaffna, particularly on Fridays and more during thiruvilhas and festival times. We were highly devoted to Lord Murugan. To my eyes, He is the main God and I pray to others only after Him. Right from those early days, I became a devotee of Lord Murugan and have carried this through my life. Lord Murugan started our story here in London, and from there I have continued my devotion. He inspired us from the start and has kept us going. I must also say we are grateful for Sri Sabapathipillai, he was a highly devoted soul.
Sometimes the Lord Himself comes to you. I would not have got involved in temples in London if Sri Sabapathipillai and Mr Ratnasingham has not come to my home and persuaded me to attend one of the Friday poojas. At the time, I was more involved with my career than anything else. Then they came and invited me to attend a Friday pooja and after that I never missed one unless I was ill! Interviewer:
I must say it has been a great honour to speak with you, especially as we no longer have Sri Sabapathipillai or Mr Ratnasingham with us. Talking to the elders, such as yourself, has been very inspiring.Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
I have spoken at the Sri Sabapathipillai memorial days. He was a great man. He really sacrificed a significant part of his life to this mission. Very seldom to find someone so committed.Interviewer:
What do you think Sri Sabapathipillai would make of the Saivism in London today?Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
He would be very happy that it has flourished. At the same time (laughing), knowing Sri Sabapathipillai, he would aspire for greater.
He would be very extremely happy that his mission was successful. When he
came from Sri Lanka, there were no temples and a few devotees would regularly get together at each others homes to worship. He made it his mission to build a temple in London, and he would be thrilled that his mission has been realised.
Sri Sabapathipillai’s mission been very successful. As you may know, he was a highly successful barrister in Sri Lanka and he sacrificed his career for this greater mission. His wife was extremely supportive which was a great asset. Interviewer:
Next year will be 50 years since the Hindu Association of Great Britain was formed, what are your aspirations going forward for the next 50 years?Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
It is great to have people of my generation committed to these temples. But have you ever thought what happens when after we are all gone? Will there still be Saiva priests? Will there still be money to pay priests to perform poojas? Will people get involved to make temples flourish? We need to plan ahead and it is important to start thinking about this. Some do not allow others to get involved because they want to be in the forefront. We need to work together and get others involved if we want this temple culture to continue.
In fact quite a number of us talked about this at the recent Sri Rajarajeswari Amman temple chariot festival. It has been very nice to see this article taken on by the younger generation. It is always nice to see the generations below get involved in Saiva temples in London. For this to happen, we need an open culture so youngsters can have a chance of getting involved. We all need to be asking the question what is the future for Saiva temples? Some of our people are already dropping their “Saivite” identity. Hoping the culture will continue in one thing, but we need to make this happen. We have to make plans.Interviewer:
Thank you Krishnamoothy mama (uncle) for your time and support for this article. You have been an immense aide to filling in the missing pieces for this story. Is there anything you wanted to add?Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
Sri Sabapathipillai was a highly evolved soul. I will share a story. I was a close friend of him, particularly towards the end of his life. The day he passed away, he called me to his bedside and caught my hand. He said “I want you to find home for Thiruchendur Murugan”. This comment gave me the impetus to work with the other members of the Hindu Association of Great Britain and find a home for Thiruchendur Murugan. This finally led to Him being housed in Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple in Stoneleigh.
Sri Sabapathipillai was actually quite disheartened he could not find a home for his beloved Thiruchendur Murugan during his lifetime. It was a real moment, which I feel privileged to have shared with a great soul. I felt honoured he felt he could trust me with the onerous task of finding Murugan a home. It would bring joy to Sri Sabapathipillai to see Thiruchendur Murugan happy at Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple.Interviewer:
It seems a very poignant moment, thank you for sharing this with us. Chelliah Krishnamoorthy:
It is all God’s Grace. Sri Sabapathipillai was a great man.
APPATHURAI VAIRAVAMOOTHY, 81, founding member of Hindu Association of Great Britain and life long trustee .
Highgate Hill Murugan TempleInterviewer:
Vanakkam, we are interviewing Mr Vairavamoothy who was a founding member of the Hindu Association of Great Britain and has been a lifelong trustee of Highgate Hill Murugan, currently in the role of treasurer. Vairavamoothy mama (uncle), please can you talk us through the inspiration behind the Hindu Association of Great Britain.Appathurai Vairavamoothy:
We wanted to bring all members of the Hindu community together, irrespective of their country of origin. Hindus from Sri Lankan, Mauritius, Malaysia, South Africa and India wanted to come together as a community under one organisation. We wanted a forum where we could meet and discuss our culture; initially a social gathering within the remit of a religious atmosphere. That was how the Hindu Association of Great Britain was formed. We brought many Hindus together from different parts of the UK.
It became apparent to us that for some Hindus, worship was related to meeting other Hindus and performing the prayers without a deeper spiritual meaning. They participate without an understanding of the rituals and ceremonies. We were keen to bring spirituality into religion through the Hindu Association of Great Britain. We wanted a democratic and transparent organisation; even to this day Highgate Hill Murugan Temple is run on a democratic basis. Interviewer:
What are your current duties?Appathurai Vairavamoothy:
At the moment, I am the treasurer for Highgate Hill Murugan Temple. My main objective is to see that we have enough funds to run the temple at least for next three months. We have been very lucky in that we bought some properties at the same time as the temple and the rental income from these partly subsidises the temple. We are not a commercial business and our philosophy is not to force members or devotees to make mandatory contributions. We work predominantly from voluntary contributions. We want the temple to be open to anyone, we want anyone to be able to walk off the street and feel welcome. This is the type of atmosphere we have here at Highgate Hill Murugan Temple.Interviewer:
Just like temples in Jaffna..Appathurai Vairavamoothy:
Yes, absolutely! (laughing)Interviewer:
How many hours a week do you spend on temple activities?Appathurai Vairavamoothy:
Recently there has been a major renovation project at Highgate Hill Murugan Temple, and I was one of the technical directors. When we have large projects such as this recent one, I am there everyday. I spend most of my time there.
Now this project is over I go less frequently, perhaps two or three times a week. I go to fulfil my duties as treasurer, ensure payments are made and salaries are paid. Highgate Hill Murugan Temple is quite far from home, it takes me an hour and fifteen minutes each way to travel to and from the temple. When I am at the temple, I will be there for 3 or 4 hours, mainly working. I have been involved in the temple since the beginning as well as being a permanent trustee. With that comes responsibility; people tend to listen to your thoughts on matters concerning the temple. Hence I feel it is important to have a physical presence at the temple so I go as often as I am able.Interviewer:
Just to elaborate, Mr Vairavamoothy lives in south-west London and Highgate Murugan Temple is in North London. This represents a significant journey every time he goes to the temple and is a significant commitment. It is an honourable role…Appathurai Vairavamoothy:
The challenge in London is most temples do not have a spiritual head such as a Guru. They are run by us laymen. Whilst democracy is paramount, it is not the same as temples who have a designated spiritual leader. It is up to us to uphold these values, we are not a one-man show but represent 3000 members. Everybody feels a responsibility to sustain the temple. Everybody knows we are all working for the temple, and where differences in opinion arise we somehow work through them because we understand the importance of the cause. Interviewer:
Your have been committed to nurturing Saivism in the UK, especially London for over forty years now. What has inspired you to keep progressing?Appathurai Vairavamoothy:
Saivism has no beginning; it has no founder. What it means to you is personal. I can read many books and choose to interpret in one way, whilst another may have another interpretation. Many of us follow the rituals of Saivism, but how many of us actually understand the metaphysical aspects of why we do the rituals we do? This is why religion is so important; it must be our guiding force. We must not follow it blindly without understanding it.
Spirituality within religion is important. It is not about spending x amount of pounds on a puja and feeling like going to temple is an effort. This is where education come in, moving devotees from a ritualistic worship to one with understanding. This motivates me to stay involved. We appreciate people may have travelled far to come to Highgate Hill Murugan Temple, and we would like them to take away more than the feeling that they have offered prayers and not understood much beyond that.
Religious education is not only a challenge in the UK, in Sri Lanka it is much the same. Of course we have lectures, and people will go and listen and gain some insight. It is difficult to know how much of that stays with them after a few days have passed. I would say that in some respects you (the interviewer) have more knowledge about Saivism than myself.Interviewer:
Thanks to Gurudeva (Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami) and his teachings…Appathurai Vairavamoothy:
Yes and that is one of the strengths of Gurudeva’s mission, most of his devotees are spiritually orientated. They know why they pray, they know why we perform the rituals we do. I know to pray and I do particularly in the morning and before sleep, prayers help me gain clarity. However a deeper understanding of Saivism would be helpful in my religious life.Interviewer:
I can understand that. Before we close, would you mind repeating the story regarding Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami’s first visit to Highgate Hill Murugan Temple. Appathurai Vairavamoothy:
We were going through a number of challenges establishing Highgate Hill Murugan Temple. We felt Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (Gurudeva), as a spiritual and religious leader, could help us. We looked to him during these challenging times. He gave us a Pillaiyar (Lord Ganesha) and blessed Sri Sabapathipillai. Sri Sabapathipillai has great faith in Gurudeva. We went through challenging times where progress felt slow, however we managed to establish Highgate Hill Murugan Temple. The same Pillaiyar (Lord Ganesha) remains in the temple today. Interviewer:
Thank you for your time, it has been an immense honour to interview you. Is there anything else you would like to add?Appathurai Vairavamoothy:
Running a temple on a democratic basis has its trials and tribulations. With so many people behind the temple, we never worry about lack of support and sustainability. However, there will always be differences in opinion and we can get bogged down in this. That is one lesson we have learnt. Temples run by a spiritual leader do not seem to have these issues. They are always peaceful places. We can learn from them. We have to be present at the temple and accessible, sometimes I go to temple and barely have time for personal prayer because I am listening to the thoughts of devotees and members. They are all on an equal footing and they feel they are respected and have respect for us.Interviewer:
Thank you for that insight.Appathurai Vairavamoothy:
That’s where Gurudeva comes in. He is a well respected spiritual leader and everyone held him in high regard. He was firm in his values, but would not be found in the middle of a disagreement or taking sides. We can learn from his leadership. Sri Sabapathipillai was similar. For example we had a Catholic wanting to join the Hindu Association of Great Britain. With the greatest respect, Sri Sabapathipillai felt this was not consistent with the association’s mission. Sri Sabapathipillai was firm that anyone who joined the Hindu Association of Great Britain had to be a self-declared Hindu. It was not a personal discrimination, but affirmation that anyone who wanted to join the organisation had to be Hindu to truly support our tradition. Interviewer:
Thank you. You have been an immense support to us piecing together the story of Saivism in London. Appathurai Vairavamoothy:
I am very proud that the younger generation have chosen to bring this article to light.
Sri Sabapathipillai wanted Tamils to unite as Saivites. Our objective has always been to propagate Hinduism.TEMPLE COMMITTEE MEMBERS
MANICKAVASAGAR SRIKANTHA, 57
Secretary of Religious Education, Highgate Hill Murugan TempleInterviewer:
Vanakkam Mr Srikantha, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. You have been involved with Highgate Hill Murugan temple from the beginning, can you tell us the history of Highgate Hill Murugan Temple?Manickavasagar Srikantha:
Highgate Hill Murugan Temple is a very gifted temple for Tamils. It was the first place Thiruchendur Murugan was installed. It was after a Parliamentary debate that we were allowed to build a Hindu temple in the United Kingdom. Before the temple was formed, we had prayers to Thiruchendur Murugan in the home of devotees and halls in south-west London. Now, through grace we have a temple complex spanning three floors. It has recently undergone renovations and it is beautiful. The Murugan statue on the outside of the temple is a smaller version of the one that stands in Batu Caves in Malaysia. I have been involved in this temple from the start.Interviewer:
Thank you. Can you tell us your current position in the temple?Manickavasagar Srikantha:
I am the vice chairman for religious education. Interviewer:
You mentioned a Parliament debate, can you tell us a little more?Manickavasagar Srikantha:
In the days that predate temples in London, one MP felt our worship was ‘pagan’ and the milk abhishekams would clog the city’s drainage system. It was a challenging time, we had to explain to them that we worship in accordance to our ancient Saiva Agamas. Finally we succeeded and now we have close to 25 temples in London, and many more beyond and in Europe. Interviewer:
How many devotees would come to the Highgate Hill Murugan when it was first opened?Manickavasagar Srikantha:
Right at the beginning, when Thiruchendur Murugan was installed, we had approximately a hundred devotees. Interviewer:
How have you seen the numbers grow over time?Manickavasagar Srikantha:
Numbers have definitely grown many fold and we have more children involved. We wanted to involve more children, and we have developed educational programmes in the Tamil language, Bharatanatyam and instruments such as mridangam. Many devotees have taken interest in other activities such as fundraising. The Queen of England visited Highgate Hill Murugan temple during her 2002 Golden Jubilee Tour. We have brought together a democracy of many Tamil devotees from different nations-Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, South Africa and Mauritius. We think it is this democracy that drew the Queen to visit our temple. Interviewer:
What makes Lord Murugan so special to Tamils?Manickavasagar Srikantha:
Lord Murugan is called the God of Tamils. Miracles have occurred in Tamil Nadu and parts of Sri Lanka, which are attributed to Him. The name Murugan is synonymous with beauty. Beauty, that is not quantified from facial features, and encompassing all aspects of life. To us, Lord Murugan represents a form of Lord Siva’s energy. Prayers to Lord Murugan are offered in many parts of Asia, and we are grateful to be able to offer them here in London.Interviewer:
Thank you for that inspiring explanation. How has the temple management committee grown over time?Manickavasagar Srikantha:
The trustees are elected by committee members and the public, so we keep this as democratic as possible. We have actively encouraged the younger generations to get involved, so they too have taken up trustee positions.Interviewer:
How have you got the younger generation involved?Manickavasagar Srikantha:
They have taken a great interest in our service to the public as well as educational and cultural matters. We actually find we do not need to entice them, they come of their own accord. They willingly come forward to serve the temple.Interviewer:
Great. To close, please can you briefly tell us about the Lord Ganesha murti at Highgate Hill Murugan temple?Manickavasagar Srikantha:
The Lord Ganesha murti was gifted to us by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami of Kauai Aadheenam. He visited our temple quite a few times and kindly donated to that Ganesha to Highgate Hill Murugan temple. He is a powerful Ganesha and every time we pray to Him, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami listens. It is such a blessing for our Tamil people.Interviewer:
Lovely story. Thank you so much for your time.
Vice Chairman of Religious Education, Highgate Hill Murugan TempleInterviewer:
Vanakkam Susi mami (aunty), you actually met the founder of Hinduism Today (Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami) and have been involved in developing Saivite education here in London. Can you tell us about your experiences?Susi Sarabatnam:
Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (Gurudeva) came to Alaveddy (Jaffna) and stayed with a chettiar with some of His swamis. They gave us nice yoga classes and teachings in English. That was really good. We used to attend bhajans and meeting Gurudeva and his swamis was an amazing experience growing up in Jaffna.
I came to London quite some time ago, and initially I did not get involved when Highgate Hill Murugan was first established. However in the past 15 years or so I have been getting increasingly involved and I am now vice chairman for religious education. This involves organising the various religious education activities run by Highgate Hill Murugan Temple. Interviewer:
How has the temple grown since you have been here?Susi Sarabatnam:
It has grown a lot. In addition to the prayers and poojas, we teach cultural activities such as bharatanatyam and also recently yoga classes too. We would like to start thevaram classes as well, but it is challenging finding a time for people to attend. We are based in North London and for some it is difficult to travel here on a regular basis. Interviewer:
Why is it important that the next generation knows about aspects of Saivism such as yoga and thevarams?Susi Sarabatnam:
I think they should all know thevarams and yoga. Yoga is a spiritual discipline as well as being great for your health. Thevarams are integral to our teachings and should be learnt. We have an annual memorial day honouring our founder, Sri Sabapathipillai, and at that time we encourage the youth to sing thevarams at a competition where they win trophies and a certificate to encourage them. Also at our major festivals, especially the annual festival, many of the younger generations come and perform cultural arts.Interviewer:
Is it difficult to engage the interest of the younger generations?Susi Sarabatnam:
Some do need significant encouragement to come and participate in temple worship and activities, but for others they seem to naturally come along to temple. Interviewer:
When you look back over the history of Highgate Hill Murugan Temple, are there any stories that resonate with you?Susi Sarabatnam:
The temple started downstairs on the ground floor, before moving to the first floor where we are now. Those initial days are filled with memories, and moving to the first floor was great. Where the temple is now is so much more spacious. Lord Murugan is really special, especially because He is closely linked to the Tamil people. Sometimes I feel stressed with life in London, but the minute I come to temple and see Him I feel great. Lord Murugan is amazing.
Skanda Sashti is one of our largest festivals, it is a highly auspicious time for Lord Murugan. Loads of people attend our temple during this time. The poojas are wonderful and elaborate.Interviewer:
Do you think temple worship is important as well as home worship?Susi Sarabatnam:
Some do one or the other. I feel coming to temple is more powerful and feels special. I think it is important to have temple worship, as well as home worship. Interviewer:
I completely agree. Thank you very much for your time.
GEETHA MAHESHWARAN, 50, school teacher and daughter of the late Mr Ratnasingham who was an early mover in the London Saiva Community
Temple Management Committee, Shree Ghanapathy TempleInterviewer:
Geetha, your father was the founding member of the Shree Ghanapathy Temple which was the first Hindu temple in Europe. Can you tell us more about him?Geetha Maheshwaran:
Your are right, he was the one who founded this temple. He built the temple and he is the reason we strive so hard to carry it on. He was heavily involved with the Britannia Hindu (Shiva) Temple Trust, which was formed with the single intent of building a temple. It was a period when there were lots of obstacles and he felt strongly devotees needed a temple in London right now. We had been holding Sivarathri celebrations at our home, because we were one of the bigger houses, for about 20 years. My earliest memories is really enjoying Sivaratri; the ladies were downstairs doing the prayers, the gentlemen were on the middle level watching Tamil movies, and us children were upstairs playing. We just loved the fact that we could stay up all night. We did not know much about the actual festival, but it was bringing a community together. The community needed a temple, and it was taking time to manifest. My father wanted to build a temple as soon as possible and God guided him to do this. The property for the temple became available. My mother and father re-mortgaged their house to secure this building, that was a huge undertaking at the time but it has turned out successfully in the end.Interviewer:
That is a great recount. Do you remember anything about the pujas which predate the temples?Geetha Maheshwaran:
We were very young at the time, and I remember seeing the pictures of the Gods at the time. As young children, we tended not to get involved in the pujas. I do remember going to Archway Road, where the Highgate Hill Murugan Temple now stands. The temple was on the ground floor in the building of a disused synagogue back then, it was very early days and the building had just been bought. I remember holding up the curtain with my sister, in fact it was a saree at the time, when they had to change the gowns on the Gods. As children, we connected through karma yoga. We used to clear rubble and do little jobs here and there, for us it was connecting as a Tamil community.Interviewer:
Lord Ganesha is popular amongst all Hindus, how did He become a part of your life?Geetha Maheshwaran:
It stems from my father, he got us all involved in the temple. When he brought the property for Shree Ghanapathy Temple in 1980, he really felt the next generation need to be involved in constructing the temple. So he got all of us during the holidays. We came here and we built this temple. We had official builders who constructed the walls, but I could tell you which piece of plasterboard I put up in the old building. We learnt to mix cement in the right ratios! Even thought we were young children, my father taught us that our sweat is the very foundation of this temple. He would get us involved in every new part of the building and gave us a sense of belonging. So after his passing, there was not even a moment we had to think about it-it was very natural to continue being involved in the temple.
We had to take over from his role and we had an incredible group of volunteers. We were going through a traumatic period of our lives losing our father, and they wrapped us in this blanket of love, looked after us and said ‘don't worry about the temple’. Even the priests told us not to worry about their wages, to concentrate on being together as a family whilst they made sure the temple ran. That was our inspiration, those volunteers, children and priests who helped us through that time. Interviewer:
That’s a powerful story. So, why do you think your dad thought it was important to get the next generation involved so early on?Geetha Maheshwaran:
My father was not attached to his role nor saw it as a position of power. He was a karma yogi. He could not sit still and pray for even a few minutes, he was always in action. He had that soul for service and would always tell me ‘never remember the good things that you have done for others, always remember the good that others have done for you. Always try to pay that back or pay that forward’. I think that is the way he lived his life. He was very charming and spent a lot of time at the temple, speaking with people. He was grounded; it was not him in charge and everyone else following. He made you feel that you were important. He listened to everybody even if they came up with crazy ideas. He used to listen to them and say ‘yes, go for it’. I think that's what you need, you need someone who makes others feel this is their temple.Interviewer:
How does being a Hindu play a role in your day-to-day life? What do you do to encourage that role?Geetha Maheshwaran:
For me, being Hindu is an essential part of my life just like breathing. We believe in the law of karma. We follow the teachings of Satya Sai Baba and he teaches us that our thoughts, words, and deeds are an expression of our Hindu nature. My parents and other devotees set us a good example‚ inspired us to always do good. If you cannot do good, then at least do not harm. That’s the central teaching and the way I try and live my life. I try and provide opportunities for service here at the temple, so that everybody feels like they are involved, and they can grow.Interviewer:
How does this affect the way you bring up your own children?Geetha Maheshwaran:
I follow the example my parents set us. For us it was never a case of ‘stay at home and study’, we had to come to the temple even if its exam time. We had to come to the temple. My husband and I made a decision that because of our involvement in the temple, it was really important that our children were part of it as well. Soon afterwards my son was born. Whenever we did overnight camps with spiritual education, he was here. So I think he was the youngest one, at about six months old. He was here for the first one.
For our children, it has been just as natural as breathing, as living. We really realised that we wanted them to learn their culture through music and dance and spiritual studies. Everything would have to be centred around the temple, because there was no way we could drop them somewhere else and go. We have fantastic teachers here. So they come to the temple, not just to pray, but they come here to learn music and dance and spiritual education. They love it as they are part of a group of children that have grown up together. So they meet through classes and festival times, and it keeps them coming to the temple. We try and keep them active and involved in everything that we do. So both of them, they are fully involved in the temple, just as our parents brought us up.Interviewer:
Can you tell us about the religious education you provide in the adjoining Sai Mandir?Geetha Maheshwaran:
Adjoining the Temple (in the former church hall) is a Sathya Sai Baba Mandir. This was the first Mandir in the whole of Europe dedicated to Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. Both my parents were Sai Baba devotees and the Mandir altar was built and consecrated on 1st January 1981.Selfless service to humanity is a major part of Sai Baba’s teachings and the devotees who come to worship in the Sai Mandir (who also all worship at the Temple) form a strong group of volunteers. They have been a great support for the Temple and are one of the reasons we are able to do so many innovative voluntary projects within the local community.
The Sai Mandir here hosts one of the largest Sai Centres in the UK. The Merton Sai Centre meets at the Sai Mandir every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday for group devotional Singing.
They conduct Sai Spiritual Education Classes and follow a National Education Syllabus. The devotees teach more than 300 children every Sunday at the Sai Mandir and in our community spaces, ages range from 4 years up to 16 years of age. They take part in all our festivals and cultural programmes in the Temple and the Sai devotees help with stewarding at our main festivals.
In addition the Temple created the Merton Tamil School, which teaches over 150 children to speak, read and write Tamil and also teaches Tamil thevarams and Saivism. They take part in all our cultural and religious programmes. In previous years, we have also held Hinduism Classes on a Friday evening, to teach the Saivite faith in English, to about 30 children, ranging from 6-12 years of age. We currently teach Hinduism at GCSE and A-Level.
In addition, we have over 250 children who learn carnatic vocal, bharathanatyam, violin, keyboard and miruthangam at the Temple every week, and we try to provide as many opportunities for them to perform at cultural programmes for each of our festivals. About 25 children are part of our Scout Group, and we are always looking for opportunities to get them involved in the Temple and in the community.Interviewer:
This January (2015), the temple has its second mahakumbhabhishekam since opening in 1981. Where do you see it going in the next thirty years?Geetha Maheshwaran:
I think carrying on as we are. You know, for us, it’s selfless. We don’t get attached to it. However I would love to have a mother and toddlers group here, not just for our tamil community but for the local community here. I would love for the local community to feel that they are part of this as well, a place that they can come to for solace and reflection. Many elderly people already come here. At about 9 o’clock in the morning, children will be dropping their elderly parents here, because it is warm, open all day and they can have their meals here. They then come at five o’clock to pick them up. So it feels we are serving our local elders. However it would be nice if we can develop this and have an area where they can talk and have the company of one another. It will naturally evolve. We give them space and allow them to share ideas, for example the Siva Yogaswami hall upstairs was entirely due to a few elderly couples who are staunch Yogaswami devotees. They asked my brother and I every time they saw us that it would be nice to have a Yogaswami Hall, somewhere to sit and discuss His teachings. It was this gentle persuasion that we acquired a picture, through the blessings of Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami of Kauai Aadheenam, and started prayers.
It has been a fantastic journey, and it is just continuing to develop. In India and Sri Lanka, the temples are purely for worship and the ritualistic aspect of devotion. Here, we have tried and develop the temples into a part of our lives in the western world. Many devotees fled the war in Sri Lanka, some came here on their own without any family. So we become that family for them. So they have been coming for the past 34 years, and some now bring their children here. That’s the best example, the most classic example, of the community we have built. Interviewer:
That is wonderful Geetha, is there anything else you would like to add before we bring this interview to a close?Geetha Maheshwaran:
I feel the example we have learnt from my father is that you have to be present at the temple, you have to be part of it. You cannot lead from afar, you have to physically be here. You have to be here for the devotees. The other lesson is to listen. We have to listen to the youth and find out what they want. Also, do not be attached to your role. We have always been part of the temple management committee and I am responsible for religious education and cultural activities here as well. However, we are always looking for opportunities for the children to shine. We have to provide opportunities for them to take leadership roles. My greatest and happiest moment was preening the scout group here, it was such a joy for me. We get our inspiration from listening to them and listening to the devotees.
We started a Hindu chaplaincy in the local hospital.One of the elderly devotees here was upset, that when she went into hospital she found the Christian visitors or chaplains were coming round and converting Hindus. So we started a Hindu chaplaincy. We get our devotees going with ideas and provide comfort and a willing ear, especially with the language barriers as well. We are looking for opportunities to build our faith, to be part of the lives of our devotees and meet their needs. Interviewer:
Thank you very much for your timeGeetha Maheshwaran:
VASEE NADESAN, 33, banker
Temple Management Committee, Shree Ghanapathy Temple
GEETHA MAHESHWARAN, 50, school teacher and daughter of the late Mr Ratnasingham who was an early mover in the London Saiva Communitee
Temple Management Committee, Shree Ghanapathy TempleInterviewer:
Vanakkam Vasee, we know you are on the temple management committee for Shree Ghanapathy Temple and heavily involved in organising the pujas and annual festival. Please can you tell us more about your role?Vasee Nadesan:
I am on the temple management committee as you say. My other roles include festival organisation, which includes liaising with local police, the local borough, and the local community to ensure that the festival runs smoothly. I liaise with the priests quite closely in terms of festival organisation inside the temple. In addition, I bring up new ideas and develop the festivals encouraging links with the younger generation. We are finding there is a second generation of devotees coming to the temple. We have to offer the same opportunity that the generation above gave me, and making sure that continues down the line.Geetha Maheshwaran:
On the management committee, he was very heavily involved in the reconstruction of the temple. He was here more than any of us were here. Every day he would come to temple straight from work, especially when the stapathis were here. He was akin to their adopted son, he knew them more than we did as he lived and breathed the temple. I would get a steady stream of emails all day from him. The temple was ever on his mind, which made a difference for us. Vasee Nadesan:
I think this devotion stems from my parents. My parents came to this country in the late 1970s. My mum always jokes that during the temple festival in 1981, I was in her stomach and I heard Lord Ganesha’s bell ring and that was that. It all started with my parents, and it was their influence that brought me to the temple consistently.
Also, I have many memories from my childhood days with Mr Ratnasingham. I remember the first chariot festival, in 1996, was actually inside the perimeter of the temple. I must have been in my mid teens and at the end of a long day, I said to Ratnasingham uncle ‘in Sri Lanka, their temples chariots are much larger than yours’. At the time, we had a small chariot as it was early days for our annual festival. Ratnasingham uncle smiled and replied ‘when you get older, you can organise the festival and get a larger chariot’. Ä few years later we got a larger chariot.
My earliest memory was running around the temple and thinking it was a massive playground. Ratnasingam uncle would consistently tell me off. I remember one time during a puja, he purposefully walked the other way and scared me as I came around the corner, picked me up and said to my parents ‘He is like my son and you will not mind if I discipline him for his behaviour’. He took me upstairs and I was fearful, absolutely fearful, about being disciplined. He sat me down and he gave me a piece of paper from the old library upstairs, and told me to draw Ganesha. Whilst he sat there doing his admin, I sat drawing lots of pictures of Ganesha. I remember thinking ‘this is great!’.
Over the past few years, I have become more and more involved. There is a strong stream of the next generation wanting to get involved. During the annual festival, there are a set of boys who help out whether it be clearing up, setting up, carrying Ganesh around the temple, being here early to prepare and cleaning up outside. We call them ‘Ganesha’s Boys’ and they have grown up in the temple. Geetha Maheshwaran:
Yes they may be real rouges outside, but when they come here they are dedicated.Vasee Nadesan:
During the festival, even if they have exams, they come and help out even if just for an hour. The youth that come to the temple come and go, the mix changes over time. But it is them who sustain us, they move us forward.Geetha Maheshwaran:
On thing I remember is, during the first kumbabhishekam in 1981, we performed a sankalpam (sacred oath letting the inner planes know the intention to perform pooja). It is normally trustees who will take it. My father (Mr Ratnasingham) decided three families should take it alongside us youth. We were called the ‘Magnificent Ten’; ten of us children who spent the summer helping with the temple. He chose a boy from each of the families, and said you are the ones who are going to take the sankalpam for the kumbhabhishekam. I think that was really special. My father used to be pleased to see the young boys coming to work during the festival time. Just quietly coming to temple to help, even cleaning the toilets and cleaning the carpets. And he said to them, before we carried Lord Ganesha around the temple, “Haro Hara, you are the ones who are working for Ganesha, so you are the ones who are going to carry Him’. They carried Lord Ganesha during festival times and to and from the chariot. Interviewer:
For you personally, what does coming to temple fulfil?Vasee Nadesan:
Well it is on my mind, even at work I am thinking of the temple. When I am at home, I am thinking of the temple. I got married two years ago and within the year of marriage, we had the temple reconstruction which was a major project. Half the stuff was in my house. It was five years in planning and nine months following my wedding, the temple reconstruction started. Like my parents, I have a loving wife who understands and is absolutely supportive. She looks back and says, ‘that first year of marriage was you at the temple, but I would never have it any other way. You have to live a thousand lifetimes to have this experience and it would be a shame to not have taken it with both hands.’ And yes managing a career as well is challenging. But its amazing, if you give 108% into your efforts at the temple, everything else falls into place. When I need a quiet hour at work, to get something done urgently for the temple, it manifests itself. And I just find that, as long as I just give everything and lay everything at His Feet then it all seems to fall into place. It not our doing, we are just a small part.
If you have faith and surrender to Him, that is give everything to Him, everything ends up falling in place. You don't know or realize it at the time, but it does. This was especially seen during the reconstruction project, none of us had done anything like this at the time but it manifested itself.
We did not ask for help elsewhere, we decided this is something we are going to try and do ourselves. We are going to lay everything at His feet, and everything will be successful. And, six years later, it all fell into place. Even now, I look through old emails from 2010 and think ‘wow, that was the start of a project’. The management committee really came together during the rebuild, and that was the best part. We really formed. It was a learning curve for all of us. We all had challenges. Ganesha doesn’t make anything easy for us, but that is the way we like it. Because you have to state your faith in Him.Interviewer:
How did the idea about rebuilding come about? And did you intentionally keep the team comprised of the younger generation? Vasee Nadesan:
The temple that was built in 1981 and we did not have the luxury of having companies available locally that could do a rebuild. It was a very hard decision for us to look at the temple and say ‘let’s go for a rebuild project’. We all had so many memories in the old place. As much as it may have not been architecturally grand, as some of the other temples, we really felt it was special. We felt attached to the old temple. So we spent two years really looking at the space and trying to identify what we were going to do, if anything. Then the moment came, and we thought it was time to rebuild. There was a great moment, I remember well the evening of the balastanam. We moved Lord Ganesha out of the old moolasthanam and into the temporary temple, and the moolasthanam (main sanctum) was empty. Myself and Ranjit (Geetha’s brother) sat there in the moolasthanam in silence. We literally both had a tear in our eye and we both said ‘What have we done?’. It was a moment of realisation that the rebuild was actually happening. There was no going back now. Our commitment, and our life now, is to do this. We have seen the devotees who come here and what the temple means to them. This drove us to complete the temple to the standard it is today.Interviewer:
So it sounds like a busy time, how did you balance everything? Vasee Nadesan:
I am quite fortunate in what I do. I have a very understanding company with respect to the hours I work. I do find that whenever I need the energy or I need the time, it does fall into place. It is hard to explain but everything we do for the temple, we find the time and energy.Geetha Maheshwaran:
I think Lord Ganesha has given us this task and people have supported us, just let us do what we need to do. For example, Vasee’s wife Abi has been with us since she was a little girl in Sai Baba Mandir. She is fully supportive of this and has been here for each of the festivals. Mahesh, my husband, guides the Tamil Saiva aspects as we do not have as much experience with. So it's just been the right. Ganesha has got the right mix. He has got His group. On the monitoring committee we have Nilesh, a Gujarati, so he brings another skill set with him. He is an accountant by profession so that's helpful.
As long as we have absolute faith and love in Ganesha, He brings different skills to us, and we have tried to listen to each other and tried to make the journey together. We are not here in a post for a specified length of time, we are in this for the long haul. We are not focused on this generation, but looking at future generations and trying to build a temple that will last outlast the current generation.Vasee Nadesan:
When we did look at a temple space, we did think about the next generation. The temple reconstruction that you see next door is actually phase one of three or four phases. We are looking at redeveloping the rest of the space to open it to the community. We want to make the space more viable so the temple will stand for 50, 100 or even 200 years.Interviewer:
There are a lot of people our generation who do not go to temple or are not involved in a temple. Is there anything you want to say to them?Vasee Nadesan:
Everyone is an individual. Providing people with whatever they feel comfortable is important. We all strongly believe in karma, but within that, helping for ten minutes is still the equivalent of staying for two weeks and helping every day as long as you do it with a good heart and do it to the best of your ability. Geetha Maheshwaran:
I think it is also that we have not just stuck on the rituals. We are a very traditional temple. All the rituals are done by the book. But Hinduism has always had within it the ability to question. In fact Hinduism encourages questions. And right from our younger days, we were encouraged to question. We did not blindly follow what our parents have told us. So as a temple, we feel we should provide answers to those searching for them. We have Hinduism classes and spiritual education classes teaching over 300 children over the weekends. We do music and dance classes. We provide opportunities for them to perform. We have displays, all in English. This is the other aspect, we have to teach our religion in English. Although the priests speak Tamil and Telugu, our notices are not just in Tamil. They are also in English.
Because we were the first temple in Europe, we have a very mixed crowd of devotees. We have very traditional South Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils, but we also have a lot of Gujarati devotees, English and second generation Tamils that may only understand English. I think it’s difficult to connect when you come in a place and it’s a language that you can’t understand. If we have it in English, then at least they feel welcome. For example the festival that we had today, the puja for child saint , we asked the speaker to speak in English rather than in Tamil. It’s way to make sure that everybody feels that they can understand and that they are welcome and valued here.
I think the saddest thing that I have seen is when the previous generation passes away, parents of the current generation who perhaps have not been connected with their religion. Their children ring me up at the temple and say they do not know what to do, ‘I know my parents were very traditional. They would have wanted a traditional funeral, but I do not know what to do’. We have volunteers here who support them, we take the priest to them and we do the service for them. That’s the saddest thing, I think, as they feel regret as they realise at that point in time that they should have learnt more about their faith. I think the website and the Facebook page has become an important way to connect with the next generation. It was the idea of the youth and we gave them the space to do so. I feel it is important to be open to the youth along means they understand, such as the internet and facebook.Vasee Nadesan:
During the annual festival, we have kumbham on the last day of the festival. I remember as a youngster, it was the adults who were always telling us what to do and how to organise it. Over the past decade, it has been the youth group who organise it and it has become our youth day. We were encouraged to come up with all these great ideas, ‘can we do this? Can we do that?’.Geetha Maheshwaran:
Like, put a waterfall in the temple. Go ahead!Vasee Nadesan:
One of the ideas from the youth was that traditionally Lord Ganesha is in the jungle. So they had the idea to have a waterfall. Initially, we said ‘a waterfall in a temple?!’. We laughed it off. But then we sat down and looked at the idea and we said, ‘You know what? Guys, go ahead with it. You guys run with it’. I have to say, that was probably one of the best festivals we had because everyone was blown away. We had a big curtain in front of it to hide it, and everyone was taken away when it was revealed. The best part was looking back on it, and actually saying that it was the youngsters who did it. I regard myself as quite young, so I felt really proud. We had an opportunity and we grabbed it with both hands. Now, this day has become known as the youth festival. Throughout the whole day, we have twenty to thirty youth coming in and contributing. Geetha Maheshwaran:
We even ask the children to bring their soft toys, realistic looking animals, and then placed them into the manmade forest.Interviewer:
How has your relationship with Lord Ganesha changed over time? Is He your favourite deity?Vasee Nadesan:
Is He my favourite deity? I have to say, He is my only deity. I attended spiritual classes when younger and one of my teachers said ‘best you pray to Ganesha’, but I would always pray to Murugan. Lord Murugan was my favourite because he had a weapon. He was a cool guy. But in the last twenty-five years, Lord Ganesha has changed my life..it really does come down to Him. Though we gladly help when needed, the best time in the temple is when no one is there. We can sit at the back, even in silence, and just contemplate and meditate and enjoy the space that we have. We are all aware of the formless. We have a nickname for Lord Ganesha, ‘Big G’.Vasee Nadesan:
Yes that is our little phrase for Him. Sometimes in communication, texting or emails, we refer to Him as ‘Big G’. But He really is our little ‘Big G’; He has grown up with us. We find ourselves at work and home, thinking of our ‘Big G’ and all the restorations we would love to make to His Home.Geetha Maheshwaran:
He’s on all our screen savers; phone, computer, everythingVasee Nadesan:
He really has become our life. He’s not part of our life, that’s the wrong phrase. He really is our life now. I remember when I got married, my wife asked me a week before the wedding ‘I want you to write your own vows, it’s really nice and cool thing to do’. I was totally against it. I just wanted a standard simple ceremony, but she insisted. I sat down two days before the wedding and thought ‘what should I write?’. I jokingly said that as part of the vows that she would let me come to the temple. She now laughs and says ‘I am really glad you said that, because it’s so true!’.
We have all been given an opportunity with the management committee. We know what we have and that we got the roles for a reason. And, you know, the biggest thing is for us to make sure that we do our part to the best of our ability. That is what we strive for. The great thing is, we don’t stop. We try and look at the next level. We try to look at the next thing to develop on and dote upon, whether that’s materialistically with the building works, or developing extra activities for children or providing more opportunities. We just want to grow this place to the best of our ability.Interviewer:
Thank you very much for your time. Both of you have taken time out of your schedule to especially meet me here today, so thank you.
KRISHNA RAGUNATHAN, 42, business director
Trustee, Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple, StoneleighInterviewer:
Vanakkam Krishna, you are heavily involved in Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple and have recently been made a trustee. Can we start with what you do when you go to temple?Krishna Ragunathan:
When I go to the temple, I go around the temple and pray. I always start praying with Lord Ganesha. And I do thoorpukarnam (traditional greeting gesture for Lord Ganesha) and pray to Lord Ganesha. Personally I really enjoy abhishekams and help the priests this aspect of puja in particular. I hand them the various items like milk and honey, and especially like watching Pillaiyar (Lord Ganesha) have His abhishekam. We associate the Tamil phrase “paalum peli thenum” with Lord Ganesha which means “milk and pure honey”, so I love giving Pillaiyar milk and honey. I always find it a big de-stressing experience to be involved in the abhishekams. I go to temple, in particular, for Pillaiyar’s two chathurthi days a month-chathurthi Sankatahara chathurthi. The temple is closely linked to our family, and I am there a lot for festivals especially where help is needed in preparation and to carry the deities. When I was younger, I was embarrassed to carry the deities as the tradition is to do this bare chested. However I started to perform this duty the 1990s and now I am quite used to it. In fact I really enjoy it, carrying the Deities as well and going around the temple.Interviewer:
So, what drives you to keep coming back to the temple and helping out?Krishna Ragunathan:
See, I was lucky. I was born in 1972 in Kingston, near Wimbledon. I went to Holy Trinity Primary School, a Christian school, and I told my dad that you can get everything if you pray to Jesus. My dad was very worried and started telling me about Hinduism; Pillaiyar (Lord Ganesha) and Lord Murugan and Lord Krishna. He made a big effort with us. We were lucky that a Pillaiyar temple was built on Effra Road right behind our house. Suddenly Pillaiyar came into our lives. We grew up in the temple and we went there so many times. My mother and father were mad, mad, mad Murugan devotees. We also had Highgate Hill Murugan Temple and we would go there for Skanda Sashti celebrations. The Thiruchendur Murugan initially installed at Highgate Hill Murugan Temple was the one we used to pray to in a hall in Wimbledon. Thiruchendur Murugan was later installed at our Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple, and had a strong connection to our family. My mother and father go every year for Skanda Sashti to Thiruchendur in India. So they are the big driving forces for me.Interviewer:
That’s lovely. I understand you are involved in the management committee at Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple, can you tell us what this involves on a day-to-day basis?Krishna Ragunathan:
My late mama, my mother’s older brother, affectionately known to us as Vinaya mama co-founded Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple. He passed on just six weeks before the mahakumbhabhishekam in 1999, which was a huge loss for the Tamil Hindu community here in London. It was a challenging time for our family but we decided that he would want the kumbhabhishekam to go ahead as planned. As a family, we have carried the temple on and done our best to carry it forward as Vinaya mama would have desired. More recently, I was asked to use my experience as a business director of several nursing homes to help install a new kitchen at Sri Rajarajeswari Amman temple. I helped install a new commercial kitchen, and it drew me into the managerial side of running a temple as well as being a devotee. I got involved in the management meetings and my family were keen I take the role of a trustee. The chairman of the temple, who is now in his mid-80s, was also keen that the next generation should learn and take responsibilities within the temple to carry it on in decades to come. So myself and my cousin, Mayuran, alongside another devoted younger trustee are taking an active role in the running of the temple. Interviewer:
How do you think we can encourage the younger generation to get involved in temple? Krishna Ragunathan:
Speaking from my own experience, I think its important to encourage the younger generation to come to temple, to carry the Swami, get involved in the abhishekams and sing thevarams. I think it is important not to criticise the younger generation when their Tamil is not perfect when singing thevarams. We have to encourage the younger generation to start singing thevarams. We have to encourage the younger generation to carry the Swami. We have to encourage them to take the lead role. And slowly, they will be less shy like I was, and start getting more involved. Interviewer:
You have young children yourself. How are you bringing them up as Saivites?Krishna Ragunathan:
That is a brilliant question. For discipline and concentration and many reasons beyond that, it’s important for them to come to the temple. So I take my kids to the temple on Fridays. Weekdays are difficult for them to get to temple as they have school the next day, but particularly Fridays it is easy for children to go to temple. Also during holidays, they come to temple more frequently especially during the thiruvilha (annual festival). We have the Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple thiruvilha right now and it is half term (midterm break) at school, so I brought my eldest son to the temple almost every day. He knows temple is important and he prays. He performs thoorpukarnam (traditional gesture) in front of Pillaiyar (Lord Ganesha). I think the temples are important in bringing them up as Hindus and also to give them a moral foundation. It is very important to get them involved very early so temples become a way of life. Hinduism is a way of life so it’s essential that children are exposed to this early, especially living in such a western society as we do here in London.Interviewer:
When we look back over the past 40 or so years and see the journey from no temples to the many we have in London today, what are your reflections? Why do you think there has been such a growth in our Saivite culture here in London?Krishna Ragunathan:
It is interesting that in the 1970s there was no temple and now we have so many in London. Pilliayar (Shree Ghanapathy) Temple started in 1981 as the first consecrated temple. Highgate Hill Murugan Temple followed shortly after that and our own Stoneleigh Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple had its mahakumbhabhishekam in 1999. As the population of Tamils has grown, from Sri Lanka and also places like India, Malaysia and Mauritius, the demand for temples has grown. This Sunday is our annual chariot festival at Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple and we are expecting at least 3000 devotees, more as the weather is forecasted to be good. It is amazing to think this has all grown in only a few decades.Interviewer:
Do you have a favourite deity and how do you keep up your relationship with Them?Krishna Ragunathan:
I love Pillaiyar (Lord Ganesha). My family are fond of Lord Murugan, but I have always liked Pillaiyar because I grew up in His temple in Wimbledon. Had Shree Ghanapathy Temple not been so close to our house, I do not know what kind of person I would have been. I really believe Pillaiyar came to me and guided me throughout my life. So I have to confess I do have a favourite God and that is Pillaiyar! I also like Goddess Parvati and Lord Murugan. I relate to the family; Goddess Parvati and Her two children Lord Ganesha and Lord Murugan. Growing up my mother told me that going to temple means going to God’s Home. When you visit someone’s home, you like taking gifts especially for their children. So when you visit the temple, you always take care of the children and that is Lord Murugan and Lord Ganesha at our temple. So I take milk and honey, because taking care of our Goddess’ sons makes Her happy. That has always made sense to me. Interviewer:
I think that is a great analogy. Thank you for your time. Krishna Ragunathan:
Thank you. That was brilliant. YOUTH
NEARA PRABAHARAN, 13, schoolgirl
Devotee, Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple, StoneleighInterviewer:
Vanakkam Neara, can you tell me a little about yourself?Neara Prabaharan:
I am thirteen years old. I am at school and have many extracurricular activities, such as a vocal, violin, dance and rowing which keeps me busy. I go to temple at least once a week, but mainly I pray at home. I feel home prayers are more relaxing and more personal. It’s just you and God. Somehow it feels stronger.Interviewer:
Please can you tell me about your daily practice? What do you do?Neara Prabaharan:
When I wake up, I normally do a morning prayer to say a little hello to God and hope my day will be good. I try and do the food prayer, but at school I normally can’t do this. But I try to do it at the weekend. Interviewer:
How often do you go to temple?Neara Prabaharan:
I go to temple once per week and also for religious festivals because I like seeing God all dressed up. I feel that’s strong as well, because God is more awake. I especially love Navaratri, that is my favourite festival to attend.Interviewer:
How do you balance school and exams and spiritual life? Neara Prabaharan:
I think it is very important to balance both. I do not want to get rid of my spiritual life completely. During exams, when it can be stressful, I find it really comforting to know that God is always there. It’s just nice to know that. God is always there.
I have to be honest that sometimes balancing it all is quite difficult, especially when your school life gets busy and under pressure. However, I still really want to stay connected with God. If you want help from God, you cannot expect Him to help you when you lead it without Him knowing that you are committed to Him. So that is why you have to keep up your relationship with Him. So, when you do need His help, He is going to be there.Interviewer:
Tell me about your daily routine during the week.Neara Prabaharan:
I have to wake up quite early for school, but I feel refreshed after I have said my prayer to God. I normally get home at about five and then I do my homework. The timing can feel quite tight. At my school, every day is quite tight and I have to keep on top of it. Connecting with God is my way of keeping on top of it, and not falling and cracking under pressure.Interviewer:
What is it like being a second generation Tamil in London?Neara Prabaharan:
It can feel hard. Actually I wouldn’t say it’s so hard because I am influenced by going to temple and my parents. We do prayer at home. All my cousins and my grandparents are religious too. I am influenced by them and it’s what I have grown up with. At school obviously not everyone is Tamil. I don’t want to hide my religion, so I am quite open. Sometimes I do not know how to explain my faith to others. But I don’t want to hide it, so all I will say is I am Tamil and Hindu. After a weekend at the temple, like the annual chariot festival for example, I go back to school and it’s a big change. I spent the weekend really connected with God, and then suddenly I am at school. I remind myself that I cannot always be at temple, and school is school and I have to concentrate on that too.Interviewer:
How do you explain your culture to people at school?Neara Prabaharan:
If they want to know about my faith, I ask them what they want to know. I tell them everything. It’s nice to let people know if they are interested. If they are not interested, then that’s also okay, because you don’t have to be. You do not have to be religious, and I think that's okay too.
ASCHANI THAYAPARAN, 16, schoolgirl
Devotee, Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple, StoneleighInterviewer:
Aschani, please can you tell me a little about yourself Aschani Thayaparan:
I am 16 and attend school. I try and go to temple once a week, however recently I have had exams so I have not been going as often. I also go for festivals.Interviewer:
What does going to temple mean to you?Aschani Thayaparan:
I go to pray. It’s time away from home, which is hectic. You can leave everything behind and go to temple. It's a place of relaxation. A place where you can talk to God, talk to Him about your worries and problems and hope He will guide you.Interviewer:
Do you think many people your age group go to temple? Can you estimate what percentage attend temple amongst your Tamil Hindu friends?Aschani Thayaparan:
I think 40%, if that, of my Tamil Saivite friends go to temple. I think we are in the minority.Interviewer:
Why do you think people of your age do not go to temple?Aschani Thayaparan:
I think it is because of other commitments, for example school, exams and homework. Distractions such as the internet, facebook and twitter which now plays a large role in our society today. Also, possibly they might not know why they should go to the temple and they feel they have no reason to go.Interviewer:
Do you think there is anything we can do to encourage youth to go to the temple?Aschani Thayaparan:
Definitely educate people about why you should go to temple and the meaning behind it, that's personally what I want to know. For example, it does not make sense to me that you can ask God for something and He will give it to you. So getting the reason why would definitely encourage people to go to the temple.
Also understanding what goes on during puja is important. One question I have is why spend money on milk etc for abhishekam, when it could be spent on charitable causes. Interviewer:
What keeps you connected to temple?Aschani Thayaparan:
Definitely my family, immediate and extended. We are a religious family and that is what keeps me connected.
BANUJA SRIKANTHA, 20, university student
Devotee, Highgate Hill Murugan TempleInterviewer:
Vanakkam Banuja, shall we start with a brief description of what you do when you come to temple?Banuja Srikantha:
So, I start by praying to Pillaiyar (Lord Ganesha) and then I work my way around to Lord Murugan. Then I follow the pooja, sitting initially and then following the pooja as we go around all of the Swamis here at Highgate Hill Murugan Temple. We then sit and sing thevarams. After the pooja is finished, I go around the temple three times by myself without it being so busy.
This is really just for myself. After these rounds, I sit and collect my thoughts and prayers and sing a thevaram.Interviewer:
What does it feel like when you go to temple?Banuja Srikantha:
It is very peaceful. I find it clears the mind and a good way to find inner peace. Personally it feels like a spiritual journey, somewhere you can contemplate the purpose of life. Interviewer:
Is there anything about Highgate Hill Murugan Temple that makes it special?Banuja Srikantha:
It is a beautiful temple and Lord Murugan is beautiful. My father has been involved in this temple since it was built, so I have literally grown up in this temple. The more I come, the more I grow to love it. Coming to this temple also makes me want to know more about our religion.Interviewer:
So you are at university away from home, how do you keep in touch with your religion whilst growing up in the west?Banuja Srikantha:
I try to come to temple every time I am home from university. I have a small shrine at university to which I offer my prayers. I have also recently started meditating. I do not know how the two go together, prayer and mediation, but it feels really good. Interviewer:
London has a rich Saivite culture thanks to our forefathers. Do you have anything you would like to say to them?Banuja Srikantha:
I would say that everyone should be grateful. They founded the temples and now everyone has the chance to come here and pray. Temple worship is different to worship at home, it is somehow more powerful and clears your mind. When you come to the temple, you feel more one with God. At home, it seems more chaotic. In the temple, it is completely different and that is what I love. I am so grateful to those who worked hard to create these opportunities for us.Interviewer:
What do you say to those in your generation who do not come to temple? Why do you think they do not come to temple?Banuja Srikantha:
I feel some of my generation do not come to temple because of experiences that have happened to them that have made them lose faith. There seems a lot of people my age who do not believe in God. I also have friends who come to temple for the wrong reasons. They are being forced to come to the temple and I don’t think that is right either. I think it is your choice to come to temple, and you should come because you want to come to the temple not because your parents are forcing you to go. It comes down to how religion is implanted into them, which comes down to upbringing than the religion itself.
SAIRRA PRABAHARAN, 12, schoolgirl
Devotee, Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple, StoneleighInterviewer:
Vanakkam Sairra, can you tell me a little about yourself?Sairra Prabaharan:
I am a twelve year old schoolgirl, and I attend quite a lot of after school activities such as dance, vocal, violin and netball. I also attend temple once a week. On the days I am unable to go to temple, we do a home puja as we have a shrine at home. That is a nice way to connect with God too.Interviewer:
How do you balance your inner life growing up in a western culture?Sairra Prabaharan:
Like I was saying, we try to go to temple. However, when we are unable or when we are overwhelmed with exams, or tests, or with homework we have a home puja where we sing all the thevarams and perform an aarti. Interviewer:
Why do you think its important to stay connected with your Saivite roots?Sairra Prabaharan:
It could benefit us in the future. You never know what might be thrown at you in life. I like doing all this, it is almost like a hobby and the more I do the more I grow to love it. It is a way to keep the Tamil culture going. I do bharatnatyam and find dancing is a great way to get to know more about my religion, and learn the stories of the Gods.Interviewer:
So, how many hours per week do you think you spend on your spiritual life? Do you do anything daily?Sairra Prabaharan:
I try to say the Gayatri mantra three times a day and I try to cut back on listening to pop music, preferring to listen to classical thevarams or bhajans. I do the food prayer before I eat food when I can. However it does depend on whether I am rushing out to go somewhere.Interviewer:
Do you feel any connection with Jaffna?Sairra Prabaharan:
I do not really feel connected to Jaffna. I know my parents are from Jaffna and in that sense there is a connection. However in my day-to-day life, I do not feel a connection. I feel a little disconnected from life in Jaffna and relate more to life in London.Interviewer:
How is life as a second generation Tamil growing up in London?Sairra Prabaharan:
It is sometimes busy, and it often feels like a juggling act trying to balance all of your activities with school and also go to temple. However, in the end, I do enjoy it. I do enjoy going to temple. I want to keep my culture alive inside me, and I want to express it more as I grow up.
GNANASOTHY SANTHIRAPALA, mother and elderly care officer
Raised in Jaffna (Sri Lanka) in an orthodox Tamil Saivite family and moved to London in the mid 1980’sInterviewer:
Can you tell us about life in Jaffna?Gnanasothy Santhirapala:
For Saivites who live in Jaffna, the temple is the centre of their life. They pray mostly to Lord Ganesha, Lord Murugan, Lord Siva and Amman. They are staunch in their religion, having strong faith. They are taught our Saivite religion from their grandparents and parents. They teach others and are very close to their religious roots.Interviewer:
Your father was a staunch Saivite. Did your father teach you about being a Hindu?Gnanasothy Santhirapala:
My father’s life was immersed in the temple and the Gods, almost every day he would go to temple. Every Friday, monthly karthigai (special day for Lord Murugan) and festival days, we would go with him. He would always teach us how to be a good Hindu and develop our relationship with God. Every morning we would awake and take a bath, before joining him in the shrine room. Every evening, at about six o’clock, we would join him for prayers. He was strict about this discipline and that was how we grew up as strong Saivites. He was a staunch Saivite with a heart full of love for Lord Siva and Lord Muruga. He lost his parents as a small boy. Sometimes, I think this is why he developed such a strong relationship with the Gods-even from a young age he was close with God. I am one of twelve and we are so proud of our parents, especially grateful for what my father instilled in us. I have brought up my children to follow in their grandfather’s footsteps, to follow the example he set. I am so happy that they have chosen to stay close to their religious roots.Interviewer:
Can you expand on your father’s daily routine of worship?Gnanasothy Santhirapala:
My father would wake up early in the morning, before dawn, and take a bath. He would then go into the shrine room, apply vibhuti (holy ash) to his forehead and body. He would perform the surya namaskaram and start his prayers. Prayers would last about half an hour, during which he would sing thevarams to the Gods. So many songs. He would then apply vibhuti and pottu to all our foreheads. He would apply these to our foreheads twice a day, once in the morning and again in the evening. He had such a pure heart. If anyone in the village wanted to go to the temple, he would take them. He would tell them if you have a problem, go to the temple and tell God and pray. He would tell them God will heal everything, just have faith in Him. I have so many fond memories of my father, he was a great influence in my life and a very loving father.Interviewer:
What was his routine later in the day?Gnanasothy Santhirapala:
After he finished his morning prayers, he would go to work and return in the evening. He would help my mother with chores, we were a large family with twelve children. He would then wash again and do his evening prayers, which he liked us to attend as well. He would tell us that we should go to the temple in the evening and clean the temple. One time my sister said she would go and did not. My father found out and was a little disappointed so thought to discipline her. Even this he did in a loving way, he made her stand on one leg for half an hour! He believed in disciplining through love, and that is how I brought up my children. My father is a real inspiration for me, and his example is still very much alive in our family. Interviewer:
Who is your ishta devata, the God to Whom you pray to most?Gnanasothy Santhirapala:
It is Lord Murugan, He is my ishta devata. My father loved Lord Murugan, and every monthly karthigai we would go to temple with many offerings for Him. We would stay for puja and bring home prasadam (blessed food) and vibhuti (holy ash). At festival times celebrating Lord Murugan such as Tai Pusam and Skanda Sasthi, I would go to temple with him. Occasionally we could not go with him, and on those days he would come back from puja and apply vibhuti and pottu to our foreheads, each and every one of us. He was always teaching us about our religion, and so my brothers and sisters and I teach our children. He loved us all very much, and it is during these fond times that we developed our faith and relationship with God. I have felt close to Lord Murugan since I was a young girl.Interviewer:
Has it been difficult teaching your children Saivism, as they have grown up in London rather than Jaffna?Gnanasothy Santhirapala:
No, I did not think it has been difficult and now my children know more than me! I taught them from the time they were born, mainly through stories of the Gods, the Nayanmars and my father. They never met their grandfather, but I feel it is vital they understand his example. They now learn through the teachings of our Guru, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (Gurudeva). I met Him as a young girl, at a Ganesha temple in my village in Jaffna. I remember He was tall and graceful with rudraksha beads in His hair. He shone so brightly that I immediately fell and prostrated at His feet. He said ‘don’t let anyone take your religion away from you’ and this has stayed with me, it is the essence of my father’s teachings too. Both encouraged me to remain a strong Saivite, irrespectively of external influences such as coming to London. Time passed, and now it is my children who have taken up Gurudeva’s teachings and learn under His guidance. They are the ones teaching me now! I am so proud of Gurudeva for making our Saiva Truths accessible, understandable and in English. This has really helped my children stay closely connected to their religious roots and Jaffna, whilst making the most of the west. I am certain my father is proud of them.Interviewer:
Do you have any advice for parents bringing up children as Saivites?Gnanasothy Santhirapala:
It is the duty of every parent to pass on their religion. Religion is important, especially as it teaches them the beauty of their roots. I think you have to start when they are very young. I used to tell both my children stories of our religion whilst feeding them as babies. Even a simply story seems to enter their consciousness, and they come back to it as they grow up. Also, I think you have to set an example and standard-not too strict but loving discipline. You need to stay close to your children, as a parent and a friend. I always told my children that no matter what it is, they can talk to me. I am their mother and I am here to help them through life. Now they educate me, as they have read vastly through the internet and Gurudeva’s (Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami’s) teachings. Their understanding of Saivism is much better than mine. We learnt the rituals and had some religious education at school, but today’s generation are intellectual-they like to know why we do what we do. Really from the depths of my heart, I thank Gurudeva as I am confident my children will always stay connected with their Saivite roots, and pass it onto their children. They have learnt Saivism in its purest form, just like my father practised it in Jaffna. They challenge the superstition and are confident in their identities as Saivites who have grown up in the west. The role of the parent is to set their children on the right path from a very early age, and prepare them for a Guru to continue this journey and keep them on the right path. I do think having teachings that relates to them is essential, whatever speaks to their hearts let them explore it under your guidance-always be there to guide but remember religion is a personal path. They have to build their own relationship with God, Gods and Guru.Interviewer:
When does it feel like when you are at temple?Gnanasothy Santhirapala:
Life in London is busy with many commitments. I feel so much happiness and joy at temple. Simply put it’s happiness, as I connect with God.Interviewer:
There are many Saivite temples now. How often do you go to temple? Can you explain what you do when you go to temple?Gnanasothy Santhirapala:
I go to temple at least once a week, every Tuesday evening and additionally on Friday once a month. Also I attend festivals and special family poojas. The temple I attend, Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple in Stoneleigh, was co-founded by my late older brother so it is very special to our whole family. He passed on a few months before the mahakumbhabhishekam in 1999, we think he was needed to guide the ceremonies from the inner planes. The first time I saw Sri Rajarajeswari Amman, Who now stands in the main sanctum, was when She first arrived in London. My brother phoned me and he was so happy and keen to show Her to our family. He lived across the road from our home, so I went over and saw Her. She is beautiful. Often I tell my children, it is Her who has brought them up as they have grown up with the temple especially my son. My children regularly go to temple too, sometimes they like to go at quieter times and if I am free I will go with them at these times too.
Every Tuesday, I return from work in the late afternoon, prepare the evening meal for my husband. Then I take a bath and dress in a traditional saree for temple. I look forward to it every week, it is my time with Sri Rajarajeswari Amman and of course my beloved Lord Murugan who stands by Her side. I attend the evening pooja in its entirety and feel full of joy as they are beautiful. Often I want to help clean the temple, my younger brother and nephews are very good at this. However it is usually late, ten o’clock or sometimes even eleven o’clock if it's a special pooja by the time I get home. Recently we have re-established our shrine room in a different area of the house, and it is just as I walk into the house. I go straight there after coming home from temple and do a short aarti and place the flowers and offerings at the feet of the Gods at home. I have learnt this routine of performing an aarti from Gurudeva, and it feels nice to bring the devas and dharsan from the temple into our home shrine. Interviewer:
How do you balance your work with being a Hindu?Gnanasothy Santhirapala:
I work in an elderly care home, which has quite Christian values with respect to its clients. However, this does not bother me as I am firm in my faith. Every day I put vibhuti (holy ash) and a pottu on my forehead before I leave the house, and feel this is a clear sign that I am a Hindu. If people want to ask me about my religion, I am happy to talk about it and all my colleagues know I am a strong Hindu.Interviewer:
Why do you think it is important to build temples for Tamils in the west?Gnanasothy Santhirapala:
Temples are the Homes of the Gods, and a holy place where you can connect with God and our religion. The next generation need temples to continue their connection with their faith. In Jaffna, our lives revolved around our Saivite religion and temple culture. It is important that this is practiced, to the best of your ability, in the west. It is a beautiful tradition and temples are beautiful and peaceful places. Interviewer:
Thank you for the insights into Jaffna and London life.
KIRRIJA PRABAHARAN, mother and family medicine physician
Devotee, Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple, StoneleighInterviewer:
Vanakkam Kirrija acca, can you tell us a little about yourself?Kirrija Prabaharan:
I am a mother of two girls and I have a responsible profession. I work as a general practitioner (family medicine physician), so I do patient care as well. So life is quite busy, especially in London. Our daily schedule is busy through out the year, and especially challenging through the winter months. Apart from having two young girls, I do care for my parents as well. They are elderly, so I need to attend their medical needs and the social care. Also I have to be a good wife to my husband, and I have to run the chores at home, so managing everything can be challenging.Interviewer:
Could you tell us about your spiritual activities? How many hours a day or week do you spend and when do you get to temple?Kirrija Prabaharan:
My husband goes to temple weekly, and because of our girls we have to compromise. I cannot attend temple every week as I would like because I have responsibility of our girls especially their studies and various clubs and activities. I also need to maintain the home and cook for my family. So I am unable to go to temple frequently, but I do pray daily at home especially in the mornings. I sing the pancha puranam (Tamil devotional songs to Lord Siva), and have a routine for my prayers such as reciting the Gayathri mantra. I fast for Skanda Shasti and the sixth day is a special day which we celebrate at home. Similarly for navarathri, we celebrate at home as well as at the temple. I tend to sing with my girls so they can learn thevarams. They can sing them, but it helps to hear them sung in Tamil. So, I tend to pray more at home than go to temple. During festival times, I tend to go to temple and this helps immensely. I feel the prayer is very important especially in the stressful life we are leading here in London. It helps us to de-stress ourselves and beautify our mind and strengthen our feeling as well. As a profession, I have seen cultures where prayers are not that important. They struggle a lot with the depression and other mental illnesses. I feel better when I go to temple, hearing thevarams and bells ringing and watching the abhishekam and puja. I come home and feel my mind is charged and I have more energy to run for the next few days. Then it flattens, and then again I visit the temple. So that is very helpful.Interviewer:
Why do you think it is important to connect with your Tamil roots? Kirrija Prabaharan:
I am really proud to be a Tamil Hindu. Back home I did not have the time to explore this as Sri Lanka was under a British Colony, so I went to a convent school. I did not have to opportunity to study our religion in detail, though I did complete my GSCE in Hinduism. We are Tamil and Hindu, and we need to bring our culture to wherever we live. So, I do teach my daughters to wear the cultural dress and wear a pottu; to dress the way we did growing up when we went to temple. My girls really enjoy dressing in traditional wear which helps pass on this culture. Unlike a few decades ago, we are lucky in London now as we have many Hindu temples which we can visit and get connected with our religion and community. Interviewer:
What do you think are your challenges for your two girls, growing up in a Western society?Kirrija Prabaharan:
So far we have not travelled back to Jaffna with the girls, we have made it back to Colombo but not Jaffna. So they have not experienced directly the culture that we had growing up. They are growing up in a mixed culture here in London. We talk a lot about the Tamil culture and practice this at home, for example we do home worship, they go to temple and cultural arts classes and our main meal is rice and curry. However I am aware that they have been born and brought up in London surrounded by a different culture. We support them as best we can to connect with their Jaffna roots, and sometimes I do wonder how they will develop this once we are not longer here to give them guidance. I think at some point, when they are more mature, they search for their roots themselves rather than us having to feed them. I hope that will be the case.VOLUNTEERS
SHANMUGANATHAN PRABAHARAN, 50, father and senior project engineer
Devotee, Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple, StoneleighInterviewer:
Vanakkam Babu anna, you spend a lot of time at Sri Rajarajesweri Amman temple helping with poojas and festivals. How many hours a week do you normally spend at temple, outside festival periods?Shanmuganathan Prabaharan:
I help at Sri Rajarajeswari Amman temple every Tuesday and Friday. I go early and help with abhishekam preparations and stay afterwards to clean the temple. Normally this means leaving home at 7pm and leaving temple after it is cleaned at around half past nine or ten o’clock.
sankatahara chathurthi and chathurthi days, I spend more time leaving home at 6pm. I prepare the milk, honey, fruit and other offerings for the abhishekam alongside my cousin who comes with me on those days. We help the priests.
During Thiruvilha (annual festival) time, I spend most of my time at temple during those two weeks.Interviewer:
We have just finished our thiruvilha at Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple during which Babu anna spent many hours at temple. During this time there are two main poojas a day. Babu anna, please can you talk us through your routine during the two weeks of thiruvilla?Shanmuganathan Prabaharan:
During this time, I normally go every day after work at 5pm helping with the evening pooja abhishekams. During this festival, I also help the kurukkral (priests) get Amman ready; such as getting Her clothing ready and arranging flowers.
Towards the end of thiruvilha is the chariot festival, on a Sunday. On the Saturday beforehand I spend most of the day at temple leaving home at 8am to help assemble the chariot (as it is normally stored dissembled) as well as other preparations, usually I only get home at eleven o’clock or midnight. On the Chariot festival day (Sunday), I get to temple for 7am and return home at midnight once we have cleaned the chariot, dissembled it and put it back into storage. Those two days are very long days for us at temple.Interviewer:
Babu anna, why do you think it’s important to keep this tradition going?Shanmuganathan Prabaharan:
Back home in Jaffna, we grew up in an area which has seven temples called Earlalai. We grew up around temples. I learnt a lot from my grandfather and grandmother and also from my parents-they all originated from very religious families. Here in London we have much fewer temples, however my uncle built a temple which is close to our home-Sri Rajarajeswari Amman Temple. I am very proud of my uncle for building this temple, it’s good for my whole family and we need to keep it going. The children growing up in London need to learn about our religion too.Interviewer:
Coming onto that, we have already heard from your daughters, Neara and Sairra. Why do you think it is important to keep the culture going into their generation?Shanmuganathan Prabaharan:
They are the next generation. We did not build the temples for us, but for generations upon generations. We need to teach the next generations and lay the right foundations. This is why we need to take them to temple whenever they have time and show them ‘this is the way we grew up’. I need to teach my daughters what I learnt from my family, my grandfather in particular.Interviewer:
What is the most important lesson we can learn from temple culture in Jaffna?Shanmuganathan Prabaharan:
It is very different here in London. Back home the temples were our life, it's the centre of life for us. Here, we are limited by time so whenever time allows we go to temple and spend time there.Interviewer:
How do you balance it? You have a full time job, a family and two young girls…Shanmuganathan Prabaharan:
My wife is very understanding. For example, she knows during the thiruvilha festival, I will hardly be at home.Interviewer:
Is there anything else you want to add?Shanmuganathan Prabaharan:
My family has very religious roots and temple is the centre of our life. We tend not to go out to socialise, when we have free time we go to temple. We try to make temples as dominant in our life as they were in Jaffna.
SHYMALA SRIKANTHA, 47
Devotee, Highgate Hill Murugan TempleInterviewer:
Vanakkam Mrs Srikantha. You husband has been involved in Highgate Hill Murugan from the beginning, so you have both been supporting each other through this whole journey. Do you have any stories you want to share?Shymala Srikantha:
So, I’ve only been here 25 years. Since the first day I set foot into this country, I have been coming to Highgate Hill Murugan Temple mainly. I have got three children and they all come here too. So, from childhood itself, they have grown up with this temple. For them it’s part of their home. They know a lot of families here as well.
For most devotees, younger or older, this Murugan here at Highgate Hill is immensely attractive. I know Nallur Kandaswamy temple in Jaffna and I often compare Highgate Hill Murugan to Lord Murugan at Nallur.
So many children pass through the doors of this temple. Some have grown up with the temple and are part of all the festivals and special occasions. Whatever happens, they will try to come and join in at these times. Interviewer:
Had it been difficult raising children in the U.K. to be Saivites?Shymala Srikantha:
Not really, because luckily enough we had a strong sense of our roots and we have been establishing our religion and culture here in London. Religious education is widely available nowadays, and even at school other religions learn about ours. London is multicultural and the children have a broad awareness of our religion and tolerance of other religions. We have many school visits at Highgate Hill Murugan Temple, and we like to encourage this as it helps others understand our culture and ultimately helps our children integrate into society. So no it has not been difficult to bring my children up as Saivites, because of the rich culture we have in London.Interviewer:
Are there any other aspects of Tamil culture you have imparted on the younger generation?Shymala Srikantha:
As Tamils, we want our children to learn about our culture as well as religion. At Highgate Hill Murugan Temple, they have been encouraging cultural activities around festivals. During temple festivals, they ask children to participate by playing an instrument such as the veena or violin, and sing thevarams. Navarathri is especially special for cultural programmes during the festival period.Interviewer:
What happens for Navarathri?Shymala Srikantha:
For Navaratri, there is always a programme on every day of the festival. All the teachers bring their own students and give performances, including dance, vocal, violin and mridangam. That encourages the children to learn the instruments, and when they come and participate in the temple they are being blessed as well.Interviewer:
How do you think temple worship is different from home worship?Shymala Srikantha:
Home worship is more private. When they come to temple, it’s a gathering of a community. People may come and meet each other, and it serves as a place for communal worship and also to build community ties. After the puja is finished, they all get together over prasadam. They talk about aspects of their personal life and share experiences and advice.Interviewer:
Can you tell us about the sivacharyas (priests) here in London?Shymala Srikantha:
The priests are generally from our homelands, and when their contract has finished, they have thankfully always found some way to stay here. As a consequence, they all branched out and created more temples. This was good, as we now have temples to Lord Murugan, Ganesha, Siva and Goddess Amman. They are always appreciative and thankful to Lord Murugan. And still to this day whenever we see them at the various temples they now work in, they hold a special reverence to Lord Murugan and Highgate Hill Murugan because they almost all passed through here at some point in their lives in London. So we are proud of Highgate Hill Murugan for serving our community well.
TULASI RAVINDRAN, 20, university student
Devotee, Sri Rajarajeswari Amman TempleInterviewer:
Vanakkam Tulasi, can you tell us a little about what you do at temple?Tulasi Ravindran:
I have been coming to this temple since I was a baby. So since I remember, the temple was pretty much a way of life for me. I have sung many performances here, and my brother sometimes accompanies me on the mridangam. During the thiruvilha (annual festival), we all do what we can to help out and clean the temple. The day before thiruvilha, we make decorations and I like hanging these up and decorating both inside and outside the temple. It is a nice vibration as we prepare for the celebrations. Every twelve years or so we celebrate the temple kumbhabhishekam, I like to paint the temple and clean the vilakku (oil lamps). Interviewer:
What keeps you connected with the temple?Tulasi Ravindran:
I have been coming since I was a baby, so it is a way of life. So if we on a Friday night, what would you be doing? Go to the temple! There’s no two ways about it. Also, my faith is really important to me because I don’t know what kind of person I would be without it. It’s made me all that I am today. It’s been with me throughout my whole life. My faith has held my hand through life. So I do all these things, I do as much as I can to say ‘thank you and say I really appreciate it’. Interviewer:
What would you say to people of your generation who do not come to temple?Tulasi Ravindran:
Growing up in a western culture is difficult at times as you are surrounded by a different set of beliefs and they can take over. However it is your faith that helps you through life’s experiences in a way nothing else can.
Your faith will always be there for you, and that’s a good foundation to lean on. For example when I am stressed about an exam, I close my eyes and meditate and it always refocuses me and calms my mind. It is always my religion that I return to whatever happens in life. So I recommend coming to temple and keeping your faith strong.
I think about 30% of my generation attend the temple on a regular basis but a lot more do on auspicious days such as the chariot festival. The percentage tends to decrease in the teenage years due to important exams and various changes being made to lifestyles such as moving away to university. However, I believe this is when we should try and do as much as we can for the Lord because it is during these times we look to the Lord for guidance and support the most. Furthermore, we are exposed to people outside our immediate family and community as we grow older. People who have different beliefs and faiths and sometimes it is easy to become influenced by other people's opinions. What is important to remember is that it does not matter how far we stray away from our own religion, the Lord will always be there for you and welcome you back with open arms. I think that is what brothers and sisters of my generation forget the most.Interviewer:
You have recently moved away from home for university. How have you kept your faith alive?Tulasi Ravindran:
I come back to London as much as I can. There is a bhajan group close to my university, so every other Saturday I attend those. It is not as much as I would like to do, but it’s something that keeps me connected whilst I am away from home.Interviewer:
Does coming to temple have any special meaning now you are away from home?Tulasi Ravindran:
I notice that every time I am home, I do not want to go anywhere until I have come and said hello to Amman. Life does not feel right without this, and the temple has come to feel like my second home.Interviewer:
That’s beautiful. Thank you Tulasi.