Thousands gather to celebrate Diwali in Willesden

Devotees gather in traditional dress to celebrate Diwali at Shree Swaminarayan temple in Willesden (

Devotees gather in traditional dress to celebrate Diwali at Shree Swaminarayan temple in Willesden (pic credit: Adam Thomas) - Credit: Archant

As families gathered to celebrate the Hindu new year, Hannah McGrath took in the lights, colour and traditional feast of Diwali with more than 10,000 worshippers at the Shree Swaminarayan temple in Willesden.

Devotees have spent three weeks preparing treats, food and offerings. (Pic Credit: Adam Thomas)

Devotees have spent three weeks preparing treats, food and offerings. (Pic Credit: Adam Thomas) - Credit: Archant

The Shree Swaminarayan temple in Willesden Lane is buzzing with devotees dressed in dazzling saris and smart suits; they embrace one another with the traditional greeting ‘Jay Swaminarayan’ before accompanying one another towards the Temple.

Today is Diwali, the annual festival of light which marks the start of the Hindu calendar.

Members of the temple community have spent three weeks fashioning decorations, stringing up lights and cooking traditional sweets in preparation for more than 10,000 worshippers due to gather here for prayers and the Diwali feast.

As she ushers me though crowds, Hassina Jesani, 29, explains that she and a group of more than 70 volunteers- some more than 80 years old- have been in the temple kitchen since one o’clock this morning making traditional snacks and delicacies.

Members of the temple community have spent the last three months preparing decorations and light dis

Members of the temple community have spent the last three months preparing decorations and light displays for the annual Diwali celebrations(Pics: Adam Thomas) - Credit: Archant

She gestures towards the result: a multi-tiered shrine overflowing with pastries, samosas, fruits, and sweets beneath vivid pictures of Hindu god Krishna, stretching down the length of the temple.

As queues of women stop before the shrine to pray and drop coins in elaborately decorated dishes, Hassina tells me: “Diwali is special because it brings everyone together- even when you’re tired and you’ve been cooking all night!

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“It’s a chance for us to come together to pray for health, wealth and progression.

“It’s like a renewal for me- it’s a chance to make changes that you are going to carry throughout the year, today is the first step.”

It’s also a chance to reflect and renew friendships.

Hassina says: “ Even if you have a grudge against someone you still greet them and hug them and it’s part of Diwali being a new start for everything.”

The temple on the women’s side is bustling with girls and excitable toddlers in glittering saris who greet one another before taking a place on the floor to admire the canopy of coloured lights and mounds of offerings.

Hassina, who married her husband in the Temple last year, says: “I feel really lucky to be part of this, dressing up in the saris and jewellery- I’ve been deciding for weeks what to wear!

“We also have a real community here; we offer Sanskrit, scripture and yoga classes all year so this is a chance to celebrate that together.”

This year the temple’s celebrants are also hosting a film crew, who have chosen the chants and rituals of Diwali as a colourful backdrop to ‘The scent of infinity’, a film by Russian producer Luba Batagova.

The actress, dressed in a bright red sari, blends in with the crowds as she films the story of a troubled Russian heiress who finds peace in the teachings of Hinduism.

The worshippers break into impromptu song as they respond to scripture, prayers and New Year blessings read by temple elders and sent via video link from saints in Gujarati Temples.

Groups of women gather in front of a marble icon and I am invited to join them in holding a ritual candle on a tray as they chant the sacred Aarti prayer, which is said to call forth Fire, Earth, Air, Wind and Water as the candle’s light defeats darkness.

Good wishes are given by the temple’s elders as floral garlands are offered to local dignitaries including Leader of Brent Council Muhammed Butt, Conservative councillor for Brondesbury ward Joel Davidson and Labour councillor for Wembley Central Krupa Sheth.

Cllr Butt wishes happy Diwali to all and says: “Just coming to the temple gives us so much of that inner peace we are looking for.

“I want to congratulate you on all of the amazing work it has taken to organise today and thank you for contributing to a community where peace and compassion is so important.”

We are then shown to a dining room where a team of 30 chefs in hair nets-all volunteers from the temple-are busy dishing up an array of curries, chutneys, rice and sweet breads to thousands of guests seated in neat rows on the floor.

Shree Swaminarayan’s feast, which draws Hindu worshippers from across London, is a way of connecting families and friends living in different parts of the city before they set out to pray in the temples at Kingsbury and Neasden.

Another guest who is paying a visit to temples around Brent this afternoon is London mayoral hopeful Sadiq Kahn MP, soon to be joined at the lunch by his Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith MP.

Mr Kahn tells me he is delighted by the welcome he has received, adding: “These really are the best Diwali celebrations I’ve seen so far. I challenge you to find anywhere else in the world where you can find the whole community getting involved in a celebration like this.

“In places like Brent it’s great that you can find Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians or Buddhists not just tolerating each other but respecting each other. It’s what proves that London is already the best city in the world.”

As I leave the temple, queues of patient devotees are snaking out of the door and into the street- a sure sign of the warm welcome and hospitality that draws tens of thousands to Shree Swaminarayan temple to celebrate Diwali in style every year.