This country is not lacking when it comes to traditions. Far from it, we have a whole calendar stuffed with all manner of them. From the big ones like Christmas and Easter to the cards we send at Valentine’s or the money we send up in smoke on (or more often around) bonfire night, we’re always marking something. But while many of these traditions spring from the thousands of years people have been living on these islands, they are not exclusively home grown. In common with many lands we welcome people from other cultures and the traditions they bring. In time those traditions lose their alien nature and become part of our national fabric.
Examples abound. In my school days there was no such thing as a Prom at the end of the year. Today this essentially American tradition is a fixture on the calendar. We haven't fully embraced Thanksgiving yet but the same nation's commercial hand has certainly changed the face of Halloween and made it into the trick or treat fest it is today.
It was only when I moved to the Midlands in the 1980s that I first heard of Diwali. In the more than half-a-lifetime I've lived here I have learned more about it and been delighted to see it spread among the wider community and grow in size, impact and (I would hope) acceptance.
And it’s Diwali that’s brought me to the Shree Krishna Mandir on a Friday evening. Last week I enjoyed a fabulous Diwali show at the Sikh Community Centre jointly organised by the Gurdwara and by this Mandir. Over two hours of colourful dancing, music, storytelling and more. It had a huge turnout and even had the town Mayor in the audience.
Having visited the Gurdwara earlier in my year of visits I was keen to add the Hindu equivalent. The Mandir has been in Leamington since the mid 1980s, but its tucked-away spot under the railway arches means it has stayed something of a hidden gem. That might be about to change if plans to expand find favour and with a considerable following that’s growing all the time, it’s probably a good thing.
The building as it is now is a single room space dominated by a splendid Mandap boasting a beautiful line-up of Murtis - the life-sized carved manifestations of some of the many gods of Hinduism. Today they’re sporting stunning orange garments but come another week and the colours may well have changed. I’ve said it before but nobody does colour like the Indians and this Mandir is the perfect tonic for a bitterly cold, rain-soaked November evening.
This evening’s prayer is a fairly brief and low-key affair. Prayers are chanted both cross-legged and then moving round the Mandap to honour each of the deities. It’s a concentrated chant accompanied only by handbell and clapping.
The welcome throughout was warm and genuine. Most religions (not all I’m sad to say) talk a great deal about opening out into the community around them and working to include non-worshippers and people of other faiths. Some religions do it better than others and the community at this Mandir have been leading the way for years. This is not a small piece of an alien culture hidden away behind pizza parlours and convenience shops; it’s as much a piece of the town as the parish church and the town hall. I hope the decades of reaching out are rewarded when the planning committee gets to have its say.
A few years back I wondered if the presence of such a large community adding so much to the fabric of our diverse nation through such inclusive festivals ought to be recognised in how we allocate our bank holidays. Might it be time to drop some of those bank holidays with little relevance and replace them with days off to mark some of the happenings which mean much more to a lot more people? Diwali might be top of my list if any government were ever forward-thinking enough to make it happen, although I have yet to see it in any current manifesto.