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)

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
15, 23 May 2024

‘Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward’ (Mark 9: 41) … ‘Christ the Beggar’, a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The 50-day season of Easter came to an end last Sunday with the Day of Pentecost (19 May 2024). The Church Calendar has returned to Ordinary Time, which continues until Advent, and the liturgical colour has returned to green.

This week, between the Day of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday next Sunday (26 May 2024), my morning reflections include the daily Gospel reading, the prayer in the USPG prayer diary, and the prayers in the Collects and Post-Communion Prayer of the day.

Before this day begins, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

3, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

One of the millstones at Bradwell Windmill in Milton Keynes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Mark 9: 41-50 (NRSVUE):

[Jesus said:] 41 “For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

42 “If any of you cause one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

‘May we move forward fearlessly to do God’s work’ (USPG Prayer Diary) … moving forward fearlessly with road signs near Shanagolden, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers (Thursday 23 May 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Pentecost Reflection.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a Reflection by the Revd Duncan Dormor, USPG General Secretary.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (23 May 2024) invites us to pray:

We pray for the confidence to be radical in our approach to creating our Church and our communities. May we move forward fearlessly to do God’s work.

The Collect:

O Lord, from whom all good things come:
grant to us your humble servants,
that by your holy inspiration
we may think those things that are good,
and by your merciful guiding may perform the same;
through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Gracious God, lover of all,
in this sacrament
we are one family in Christ your Son,
one in the sharing of his body and blood
and one in the communion of his Spirit:
help us to grow in love for one another
and come to the full maturity of the Body of Christ.
We make our prayer through your Son our Saviour.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘In this sacrament we are one family in Christ your Son, one in the sharing of his body and blood and one in the communion of his Spirit’ (Post-Communion Prayer) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.