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The Right Honourable Tony Blair MP, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom visited BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Neasden, the largest traditional Hindu Mandir in Europe, on Tuesday 25 April 2006 with his wife Mrs. Cherie Blair.
The Prime Minister and Mrs Blair arrived at 5.15pm and were welcomed at the ceremonial gates by Mr Jitu Patel, Chairman of the Board of Trustees and The Mayor of Brent, Colum Moloney. They were then introduced to the High Commissioner of India – His Excellency Mr. Kamlesh Sharma, trustees of the temple, Tony McNulty – MP for Harrow East and Minister of State for Immigration, Dawn Butler – MP for Brent South, Mr Barry Gardiner – MP for Brent North, Mr Keith Vaz MP, Mr Stephen Pound MP and Cllr. Ann John – Leader of the Brent Council.
At the base of the Mandir steps, after removing his shoes, the Prime Minister was welcomed in the traditional manner by Yogvivek Swami, Head of the Mandir by applying a chandlo to his forehead and tying a nada chhadhi on his right wrist, to the accompaniment of chanting of the ‘Shanti Path’ by young children of BAPS.
The Prime Minister was quite at home with this traditional welcome as he had come to the Mandir almost 10 years before as Leader of the Opposition in June 1996.
Mrs. Blair was also welcomed in the traditional Hindu manner by the ladies volunteers of BAPS. Mrs. Blair had also visited in 1997 and was familiar with the traditional welcome.
At the top of the Mandir steps, the Prime Minister was informed of the Swaminarayan School across the road from the Mandir learning how the School recently earned a place in the league tables as one of the top 20 in the United Kingdom.
Inside the Mandir, the Prime Minister paid respects to the sacred images by offering flowers, after which he was shown around the Mandir by Yogvivek Swami who explained the spirit of volunteerism that had gone into the building of the Mandir and the significance of the intricate carvings that adorn the Mandir.
Yogvivek Swami also explained the significance of the sacred image of Nilkanth Varni where the Prime Minister joined him in offering prayers and abhishek there.
From there, they continued into the glorious Haveli viewing the beautiful wooden carvings and proceeding into the main Prayer Hall where the Prime Minister was given a rapturous welcome by the audience of thousands that had gathered.
Yogvivek Swami welcomed the Prime Minister on behalf of His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj reminding the Prime Minister of his previous visit to the Mandir on 21 June 1996 as Leader of the Opposition, when he had also met Pramukh Swami Maharaj who had offered prayers and blessings. At that time, the community had expressed a wish for him to return to the Mandir one day as Prime Minister.
He was then garlanded by Yogvivek Swami; Mrs Blair was garlanded by Dr. Jasuben Nirmal of the ladies wing.
On this historic occasion, His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj had sent special blessings from India for the Prime Minister via video.
The Prime Minister then addressed the Indian Community that had gathered.
Thank you for having me here today… When I was here those 10 years ago and I met His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj. I was immensely impressed, impressed really by two things.
First, the sheer scale of the vision to build this wonderful place of worship… That it took an enormous amount, obviously of effort and commitment. But what an extraordinary statement on behalf of Hinduism… It is something truly remarkable.
But the second thing that impressed me then, and has impressed me again today was obviously the sense of spirituality with His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj. But also the air of friendship and harmony that this place of worship generates…
And I really want to say three things to you this evening… The first is to thank the Hindu community, the Indian community in this country for the contribution you make to our country. It is wonderful and it is deeply valued…
The second is to say… the hope I had in 1996 – that we would be able to create a stronger and better relationship between Britain and India – has been realised… When I visited India a short time ago and I saw for myself yet again the changes happening there, I tell you that India today is one of the greatest countries in the world… His Holiness gave me a very kind invitation to visit, what is translated as the abode of God… the incredible thing that is happening today in India is something that… it is the best thing you could possibly have in the early 21st century and that is a strong sense of tradition, and the values that have nurtured a country over a long period of time…
But the third thing I wanted to say… is about Hinduism and its place in our society and its place in the wider world… what a wonderful thing it is to see the Hindu religion as an exemplar of peace and harmony and people working across faiths together… I do not believe that there is not a place for spiritual belief. On the contrary… it is important, for there to be a role for faith and belief in something larger and more important than your own selfish interests. And this for me is what Hinduism represents. It represents an intense spirituality… a great deal of devotion… it represents as His Holiness was saying earlier… one of the most profoundly important things necessary not just for a society to grow and flourish, but for humanity to make progress. And that is a sense of duty towards others. And the fact that in Hinduism, so many of these values – that are truly human and universal values – are brought together, is a great inspiration…
So it is a very great pleasure to be back with you today. It’s a very, for me, evocative moment to come back here after 10 years… to recognise that this place of worship has remained as something strong and fundamental and unchanging in its commitment and in its devotion to humanity and to faith… the young children here… that here, they will find something important to guide them throughout their lives.
One of the great things that you have done here, in this place of worship, is not just about the worship inside the Mandir; it’s also about the school, the Swaminarayan School, next door, which is a wonderful, wonderful school and congratulations incidentally to everybody who worked so hard at it…
‘Learn-Direct’… is offering help to people, not just in the Hindu faith, but from different faiths as well. What a great statement on behalf of your faith and on behalf of your contribution to society…
But one thing I do know which is that this place remained with me over all the years and time that I’ve been Prime Minister. And this place and its spirit will remain with me for the rest of my life… Thank you all very very much indeed.
Finally, the Prime Minister was presented with a beautiful golden ‘amrut kumbh’ – a ceremonial ornamental pot, a symbol of auspiciousness and immortality. Mrs. Blair was presented with a beautiful golden ‘Akshar Deri’ – the symbol of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha.