05 June 2024

Three Hindu temples
illustrate the religious
and ethnic diversity
found in Leicester

The former Midland Bank on Granby Street is now a ‘Hare Kishna’ temple … Leicester has about 20 Hindu temples (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Leicester is known as a multi-faith city with a rich ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. In recent weeks. I have written about churches, the cathedral, synagogues, meeting houses, the Jain and Sikh communities, and the Secular Hall, as examples of the variety of faith communities and belief systems found in Leicester.

About 15 per cent of Leicester’s population are Hindus. When I was in Leicester back in 2011 for a course on interfaith dialogue in Saint Philip’s Centre, our group received a warm welcome at the Shree Sanatan Mandir, a large Hindu temple in Weymouth Street. During my visits to Leicester last month, I learned that the city has about 20 Hindu temples, and I was interested to see some of them as I walked around the city.

Iskcon, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness – known to many as the Hare Krishna movement – has its temple in an elegant building on Granby Street in the centre of Leicester. The former Midland Bank is a Grade II* listed building dating from the early 1870s. The building was designed for the Leicestershire Banking Company in 1872-1873 by the Leicester architect Joseph Goddard (1840-1900).

Goddard was a member of a prominent family of architects and played a major role in introducing Victorian gothic architecture to Leicester with his clock tower. He designed the bank building in the French Gothic Revival style, in striking contrast to the Italianate design of the National Provincial Bank built nearby a few years earlier.

Notable details include the corner porch, French pavilion roofs, and a two-storey-tall stained-glass façade. The spectacular interior featured enormous hammer beams that formed a lantern roof giving the building a lofty and imposing atmosphere.

The elaborate design of the Leicestershire Bank, both inside and outside, was intended to inspire confidence among depositors, while fire-proof corridors and rooms with safes in the basement ensured the physical safety of valuables entrusted to the banks.

The hand-carved pillars incorporated friezes and coat of arms representing cities where the company did business. These carved details on the exterior are the work of the local stonemason Samuel Barfield, who was also responsible for the figures on the Clock Tower in Leicester.

The bank was completed in 1874 at the cost of £7,439. Its immediate success earned Goddard multiple commissions for new banks throughout the East Midland. Many of his buildings are still in use and listed as historic structures by English Heritage.

By the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Leicestershire Bank merged with the London City and Midland Bank, and the building later became a branch of the Midland Bank and then of HSBC.

Joseph Goddard’s details on the bank building include the corner porch and French pavilion roofs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The former bank was vacant for some years when it was bought by a local family and donated to Iskcon, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, as a temple. Six years earlier, An explosion destroyed their former temple at 21 Thoresby Street in North Evington, in Leicester, on 3 September 2010, when 30 people escaped.

The temple is one of 16 religious and cultural centres Iskcon runs in the UK, and follows the Krishna-centric practices of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition in Hinduism. The tradition based on Sanskrit scriptures including the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavat Purana. It is a monotheistic form of Hinduism in which Krishna is worshipped as the highest form of God and the source of all the avatars of God.

The former HSBC bank on Granby Street had been on the market for five years and the bank accepted an original offer of £750,000 in May 2011. But, during the purchase process, the became clear the Grade II listed building needed major renovations to the roof, heating, and lighting systems. English Heritage added the building to a national ‘at risk’ list, saying it needed urgent repairs to save it from falling into ruin.

With an estimated renovation cost of £2 million, the community renegotiated the purchase price to £350,000 with the promise of restoring the building.

The Hare Krishna monks moved into the building in 2016, and the temple was inaugurated in August 2016. The main temple room can host up to 250 guests, and there are offices, two classrooms for the College of Vedic Studies, and a kitchen producing vegetarian food. Further renovations are planned to include a restaurant, library, and exhibition.

The Shree Geeta Bhavan Temple and Hindu Community Centre on Clarendon Park Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The second Hindu temple I noticed during my visits to Leicester last month is the Shree Geeta Bhavan Temple and Hindu Community Centre at 70 Clarendon Park Road, run by the Hindu Religious and Cultural Society of Leicester.

This is a more modern building than the other two temples I saw in Leicester in recent weeks. It is said locally to have been used once as part of the buildings of Saint John the Baptist school, which I visited back in 2011. It has been used as a Hindu temple and community centre since the 1980s. A £500,000 extension to the temple was officially opened in July 2010.

The temple says it seeks to meet the spiritual, ritual, ceremonial and social needs of Hindus, respecting and reflecting the diversity that is part of Hindu heritage. It tries to promote mutual respect and tolerance within the Hindu community, with its diverse beliefs and unique traditions.

The aims and objectives of Geeta Bhavan Leicester include providing an umbrella organisation for Hindu temples, faith organisations and groups across the UK, working with other faith groups for mutual appreciation through interfaith dialogue and community cohesion.

The Shirdi Sai Baba Temple Association of London had a temple in the former Guild Hall on Colton Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Until recently, the Shirdi Sai Baba Temple Association of London had its own Hindu temple in the former Guild Hall on Colton Street. The name of this building should not cause confusion with the mediaeval Guildhall near Leicester Cathedral, which was built by the Guild of Corpus Christi and later became the town hall.

The Leicester Guild of the Crippled opened the Guild Hall on Colton Street in 1909 by to provide a social centre for people with physical disabilities. As well as being ‘beautiful and commodious’, this Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau style building was very practical and was designed to be fully accessible. The architects A & TE Sawday designed it on one level, with wide exterior and interior doors for spinal carriages and wheelchairs.

The Leicester Guild of the Crippled was formed in 1898 by Arthur Isaac Groves, a hosiery manufacturer, and his business partner Thomas E Meakin, at the suggestion of Sister Carroll Hogbin. Through her work with the poor of Leicester, she realised that many disabled people were isolated and needed social contact. The Guild Hall provided a centre where the Guild of the Crippled could expand its work and provide activities such as concerts, ‘magic lantern’ evenings, craft classes, excursions and a library.

An industrial training hall was added in 1914 to address the problems disabled people faced in finding employment. Medical services were provided free of charge, including surgery, prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs.

Until recently, the former Guild Hall was used as a temple by the Shirdi Sai Baba Temple Association of London, a Hindu organisation or religious movement of the followers and devotees of the 19th and early 20th century Indian saint Sai Baba of Shirdi or Shirdi Sai Baba.

Sai Baba (1838-1918) is revered by people from a variety of religious backgrounds. He is called ‘Baba’, meaning father or grandfather, by his devotees who see him as a spiritual guru or saint with divine and miraculous powers. He was a spiritual master and fakir, considered to be a saint, and he was revered by both Hindus and Muslims.

According to the Shri Sai Satcharita, a biography written after his death, his Hindu devotees believed Sai Baba to be an incarnation of the Hindu deity Dattatreya. In his teachings, Sai Baba combined elements of Hinduism and Islam. He emphasised love, forgiveness, helping others, charity, contentment, inner peace, and devotion to God and Guru. He condemned discrimination based on religion or caste, and refused to identify himself with one religion to the exclusion of the other.

The former temple and former Guild Hall on Colton Street is in an area that has seen much regeneration in recent years, with new residential and office space bringing new life into the area. Now the sale of the former temple and former Guild Hall is being negotiated, after being on the market in recent months with an asking price of £500,000.

As for the organisation that built the Guild Hall, it moved premises but continues to support disability services. In a reflection of changing attitudes to disability, it was first renamed the Leicester Guild of the Physically Handicapped and since 2000 it has been known as ‘Mosaic 1898.’

The Shree Geeta Bhavan Temple on Clarendon Park Road is part of the religious diversity in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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