23 May 2024

The Jain Temple in
a former church in
Leicester is the first
of its kind in Europe

The Jain Centre in Leicester is in a former Congregational Church on Oxford Street, built in 1863 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Leicester is Britain’s most ethnically diverse city, and I learned about its vibrant multi-faith environment and positive community relations during a course on interfaith dialogue at Saint Philip’s Centre back in 2011.

Last week, for the first time, I visited the Jain Centre in Leicester, an important part of the multifaith mosaic of the city. The Jain Centre is housed in the former Congregational Church on Oxford Street, built in 1863. When it opened over 40 years ago on 10 November 1983, it was the first fully consecrated Jain Temple in the western world.

An early Congregational chapel was built on Oxford Street from ca1815. The area around Oxford Street developed from the mid 19th century and, along with shops, houses, pubs and factories, places of worship were built.

A new Congregational Church was built in 1863 as a memorial for the bicentenary of nonconformity, and was designed by the architects Shenton and Baker of Leicester.

However, by the 1960s people had moved out of the city centre, including Oxford Street, to the suburbs. In the midst of these changes, the congregation of the Congregationalist church dwindled, and the church eventually closed in the 1970s. The best-known landmark church of the United Reformed Church in Leicester today is probably Saint Stephen’s Church on De Montfort Square.

When the Jain Temple in Leicester opened in 1983, it was the first fully consecrated Jain Temple in the western world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Meanwhile, a Jain community had started meeting in Leicester, where a few devotees met to celebrate Jain sacred days in a small house from 1969 on.

As Jain numbers increased in Leicester, the Jain Samaj Leicester was established in 1973. The community had a dream for a Jain Centre, where all major Jain traditions could study and worship under one roof, and the disused church on Oxford Street was bought in 1979 and renamed the Jain Centre.

The foundation stones for the first fully consecrated Jain Temple in the western World were laid at a ceremony on 10 November 1983.

As the Jain community in Leicester grew and the project developed, Leicester city council and Leicestershire Museum helped in the administration of the grant, and the Church of England Diocese of Leicester helped the administration of the Jain Centre by allowing the services of the Revd Michael Ipgrave, now the Bishop of Lichfield, as an administrator at the Jain Centre for three years.

The temple was completed on 8 July 1988, and opened with a number of ceremonies. The Jain Centre has since become a vibrant place for the all Jains and major place of pilgrimage, as well as major tourist attraction in Leicester.

The once simple chapel has been transformed into a spectacular Jain Temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The once simple chapel has been transformed into a spectacular Jain Temple, the first to be consecrated in the Western world and the first to accommodate all branches of Jainism under one roof.

There are between 5 and 10 million Jains in the world, mostly in western and southern parts of India. Jains make up less than 1% of India’s population, but they have long had considerable influence on the religious, social, political and economic life of that country.

Jainism was confined to India for many centuries, and there was no noticeable migration to the West until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when many Gujarati Jains, who had previously settled in East Africa, migrated to Europe. Today there are around 25,000 Jains in Europe, including 15,000 Jains in England and Wales, with similar numbers in North America.

Most Jains in England live in London, Leicester, Manchester or Birmingham, and there are four Jain temples in England: three in the Greater London area and one in Leicester.

The first Jains in Leicester arrived from Kenya and India, followed by greater numbers from Uganda, and the Jain community in Leicester is estimated at about 1,000 people. The first followers of Jainism in Leicester arrived from India and Kenya. The Jain Samaj Europe organisation, which runs the Jain Centre, was established in Leicester in 1973.

The Jain temple on Oxford Street is now one of Leicester’s most recognisable landmarks, with its remarkable pillars carved from Jaselmere yellow sandstone.

The exterior has been clad in white marble imported from India, while the interior decorations and furnishings were created in thousands of hours of fine craftsmanship.

Inside, the features inside include 44 magnificently carved sandstone pillars, a temple dome and ceiling with traditional carvings, white marble floor, mirrored walls, traditional doors at the Garbhagriha or inner sanctum and hand-carved staircases. The centre facilities also include a museum, library, auditorium and dining hall.

The Jain religion originated in India, and is one of the oldest religions. Jains believe in the equality of all living things and so are committed to nonviolence, are vegetarians, care for the environment and are tolerant of other faiths.

Jains follow the teachings of the Jinas or ‘Spiritual Victors’, a succession of 24 great teachers or Tirthankaras (‘Fordmakers’), enlightened people believed to have shown the way to spiritual liberation since ancient times.

The raised hand in the Jain symbol reminds people to stop and consider their actions. The wheel in the symbol represents samsara or the endless cycle of reincarnation, the 24 spokes stand for the Tirthankaras and the word in the centre is ahimsa, ‘non-violence’. This is the supreme principle of Jainism and probably its best-known feature in the world at large.

A Jain is expected to avoid doing harm not just to people, but to animals, birds, fish, vegetation – even to the earth, air and water, down to the smallest of lifeforms.

The exterior of the Jain Temple in Leicester has been clad in white marble imported from India (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

There is no agreed date for the beginning of Jainism. The most important figure in the history of Jainism is Mahavira, whose name means ‘Great Hero’. The latest in the long line of Tirthankaras, Mahavira lived in India in the 6th century BCE, around the same time as the Buddha.

Mahariva taught that the only way for the individual to attain eternal bliss is to live in a state of discipline and renunciation, through right belief, right knowledge and right conduct. These Three Jewels provide Jainism’s path to liberation (moksha) and salvation.

Since Jains do not believe in an all-powerful God, the question of whether Mahavira – or any of the other Tirthankaras – is a prophet, messenger or incarnation of a supreme being is meaningless. Jains see the eternal existence of the universe, without beginning or end in time or space, as self-evident, with no need of any creator to explain it. They believe that endless cycles of time stretch into the infinite past and into an infinite future, and that the teachings that lead to liberation come into the world in the form most suited to the present era.

Mahavira’s teachings were transmitted orally from teacher to pupil for generations before being written down in the 4th century BCE. These were compiled into holy books called Agams, ranging in number from 33 to 45, depending on the Jain sect. Some cover specific topics, including Mahavira’s final sermon, the environment and death. So Jains do not have one central holy book, but many authoritative texts.

One of the most revered books outside the Agams is the Kalpa Sutra, which tells the life stories of the Tirthankaras and codifies conduct for Jain monks and nuns. These texts are written in the ancient languages of Ardha-Magadhi and Prakrit. Some extracts from Jain scripture have been translated into vernacular languages including Gujarati, Hindi and English.

Jain Samaj Europe celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Jain community in Leicester last year (2023).

Jain Samaj Europe celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Jain community in Leicester last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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