September 22nd, 2010 · 1 Comment
As I and many others have mentioned in previous posts, examining religion and religious life in London has been a big part of our course. Central to increasing our knowledge and understanding of a number of religions has been visiting the various houses of worship. We have visited a few churches, a mosque, a mandir, and a synagogue. We have gone into these institutions with varying levels of welcome, and we have observed a variety of rituals, customs, and traditions.
Beauty has also been a recurring theme in the course. Almost all of the houses of worship that we visited had put serious thought and effort into the beautification of their buildings. The only exception was the mosque, but I think it is ok to assume that this was due to the financial circumstances of the community than lack of desire or appreciation for a beautiful space. In addition to all being beautiful, these spaces were all aesthetically very unique. The Mandir was extremely ornate, but not to the point of tackiness or fussiness. All of the stone and teak carvings were well executed and the building as a whole had a feel of luxury to it. The synagogue was a more simple, paired down building, but even as a more streamlined space, it still packed ample visual drama in the floor to ceiling red and gold mosaic behind the ark and tall, dramatic stained glass windows, which unfortunately had to be obscured by anti-terrorism curtains.
Comparing St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, aesthetically, St. Paul’s is the clear winner. Westminster Abbey is cluttered with tombs and plaques and statues, it is mostly dark and parts do look kind of shabby. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a place of great historical significance and cultural value, I’m not denying that, but on looks alone…. ehhh. St. Paul’s on the other hand, is light, airy, and spacious. It has a regal, elegant exterior and strikes a nice profile. The mosaics on the ceiling close to the WWII memorial were exceptional. As John explained to us, the tesserae had been set in at a specific angle, not flat against the wall, so that the sunlight reflects off of them just enough to allow them to glint and glitter. Perhaps over stepping here, but I think the visual atmosphere, the aesthetics of the particular houses of worship, reflect something of the character of the congregations who pray there.
Tags: 2010 Rachel · Uncategorized
September 21st, 2010 · No Comments
The different sites of worship that we visited as a class offered us a way to understand some of the major religions that make up London. Within the city Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are embraced in different neighborhoods and different people. Here is what I learned from our visits to the different places of worship.
The Hindu Temple-
The first thing I noticed about the temple was its high walls and gated entrances. This place was not kidding around about safety. The guard in front was wearing a bullet-proof vest. I thought this was very unusual because I haven’t heard much at all about religious violence towards or against the Hindu people in London or anywhere else. After the visit, however, I realized what an amazing structure it is, and why protection of this sort might be necessary. It’s the largest Hindu temple outside of India and the building took a long time and lots of effort to build. Preserving it completely is extremely important. Inside the temple, I realized other aspects of the Hindu community here in London. First off, the temple was not only for worship, but it was a social gathering place. It seemed like a place where some members of the community go just to see other people and not for any religious reason. The little museum inside the temple was extremely informative. If you invite people to come and tour your temple who may or may not know what your religion really means, what’s better than a visual appealing and educational exhibit? I think it was a brilliant idea to include it in the temple, and it really shows how much the temple is trying to include outsiders in their religion. Being able to sit in on the religious ceremony was another informative experience I had at the temple.
Westminster Abby/Saint Paul’s Cathedral-
I didn’t get much insight into the Christian religion from my visit to Westminster Abby. Although it is still functioning as a religious institution, the majority of people there were there to see the dead people in the floors, walls, and stone tombs. It was exciting to walk over the names of Darwin and Dickens. It was a beautiful building and its history was also intriguing. The only time I realized I was in a place of worship is when John told us to listen to the loud-speaker and observe a moment of silence. Why is this? Why has Westminster Abby embraced tourism and dampened its religious value? I have an idea…money. The amount of people willing to shell out some cash to see kings and queens, composers and poets, who they had only read about or read must be ridiculous. And although it does not have the same amount of tourist attraction, St. Paul’s is similar. Maybe I am missing something, but these places seem to have diverged, to point, from religion and have almost joined the ranks of Big Ben and Tower Bridge.
This was the worst, but probably most interesting visit. It was interesting, not because of the information that I received from the tour guide, but because of the way the whole group was treated during the visit. I think this gave me the most insight into Islam in London. I was honestly nervous about visiting the mosque, only because I didn’t know what to expect. All I know is that in the country I come from, many people have intense views about Islam. Anyway, the tour guide seemed extremely uncomfortable, like he didn’t know where to start. He asked us about what we know about Islam, but what I know is extremely skewed by the media inside the United States. I wanted to know what he had to tell me. He answered our questions, but I didn’t feel that that gave me a concrete idea about what Islam is, like the introduction to Hinduism I got at the Hindu Temple. The most informative part of the visit was when the women dressed from head to toe in black closed the window shades and locked the doors to the hall where the children were playing. I know that no one is hiding anything, but we came there to learn, not judge, and I feel that the whole time we were there it was like they felt Islam was on trial.
I have been to synagogues in the United States and this one wasn’t very different. The man leading our tour was very enthusiastic about our visit and went directly into explaining Judaism and its existence in the UK and London. I did not know the influence of Jews in the UK and so it was very informative. The history of the building was also cool. He pointed to where I was sitting and he told me that a bomb during the Blitz landed right there. I thought that the plaque dedicated to the Queen was very interesting. I didn’t expect to see that there.
I learned a lot from these visits. They were worth while and gave me a better understanding of religion’s role in historical and modern day London.
Tags: 2010 David
September 15th, 2010 · 7 Comments
Within the overarching theme of “Community” in our London course, we have talked almost ad nauseam about religion. Not only have we visited churches, a Hindu mandir, a mosque, and a synagog, but the topic of religion and its related issues come up daily in discussions amongst ourselves. (Completely unprovoked by Professor Qualls!) Several members of our group are particularly religious, and their world views and values reflect this. The strength of these individuals’ faith and beliefs fascinate me. It amazes me that people my age seem to have already got it all figured out, they know where they stand, when I haven’t even really begun to piece things together.
Religion has always been a topic of interest to me, because I have always struggled with it. There are just so many questions that can never really be answered in indisputable, concrete fact, not to mention so many faiths to choose from. Somehow, I always have a hard time… well, buying it. So for a long time now I have pushed religion to the back of my mind, I’ve tried to avoid the uneasiness and discomfort that comes with thinking about it. But now, in this environment, it is unavoidable. As a Jew (at least secularly) this is a particularly hard time of the year for me, as Rosh Hashanah has come and gone, unobserved by me, and Yom Kippur fast approaches. Since I have gone to college and it has been up to me whether or not I attend services for the high holidays, I so far have not. This does not mean, however, that I haven’t still felt pangs of guilt when I have watched the holidays come and go, no matter how hard I try to feign indifference. I feel deeply connected to my Judaism culturally, and I would consider it my ethnicity more so than generic “white,” but it feels decidedly half-hearted without the spiritual connection.
Since I’m already on the brink of pouring my heart out on a class blog, I may as well just tip the whole damn pot over. As some of you may have noticed, I became visibly upset during our visit to the synagogue the other day. I’m not sure what came over me, exactly. I was shocked that I reacted so strongly to something I’ve seen before. At every religious institution we have visited, we have seen very blatant physical manifestations of the subjugation of women. Although my synagog at home does not separate the men and women, and we have even had a woman rabbi, the fact that such discrimination (and for me, outright belittlement) occurs anywhere in the Jewish faith AT ALL deeply upsets me and creates an enormous obstacle for me to be able to come to full acceptance.
It’s not just the head coverings and other “modesty” clothing articles, even the separate seating I can almost tolerate, (separate is NOT equal, think back to the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. not long ago) but its the fact that women are denied leadership positions and the top level and most sacred aspects of the religion. (We have seen this in every religion we have looked at.) As Jews, we are taught that the Torah is the most sacred, wonderful thing we could ever experience. It is supposed to hold all of the information we need, all the rules by which to conduct ourselves, all the history of our earliest ancestors. In Orthodox Judaism, women are not allowed to read from the Torah, and they are not allowed to have a bat mitzvah, the rite of passage comparable to a bar mitzvah which marks a Jew’s transition from child to adult. (The rules vary from congregation to congregation, but I am speaking here of the most extreme, by the book, traditional interpretation.) If there really is a god as we are made to believe, I cannot accept that such a “perfect” being would condone sexism in any way, shape, or form. How is it at all logical, that something such as the Torah should be denied to half of the Jewish population? (as the orthodox see it).
Our guide at the synagog only increased my distress with his attempts to convey that Judaism is a matriarchal religion. It’s really not. Judaism is traced through the mother only because it’s always obvious who the mother of the child is, whereas the father was much dicier to verify before the age of paternity testing. At the synagog we visited, women are not allowed to read from the Torah. They may be bat mitzvahed, but it is a much shallower, lesser version. I tried to speak to our guide about this after he had given his long-winded, unbearable shpiel and he literally walked away from me. I have witnesses. It could have been that he just needed to catch up to lead the group, but instead of saying so and offering to discuss it further later, he simply ran away. I have tried to ask these questions numerous times, to many different people, and never, ever have I gotten a satisfying answer.
We have heard the argument that it is cultural rather than religious, but, looking at it pragmatically, culture should be adapted to contemporary times if there is no conflict with the scriptures. Why wouldn’t you move forward if nowhere does it say you can’t? Why do women put up with this? Open, institutionalized racism has been virtually wiped off the map, why hasn’t sexism?
People who believe that women cannot read from the Torah, or be rabbis, or become a priest, or the Pope, or an Imam, need to quit squirming around the issue and say outright the clear message they are sending: You are less.
Tags: 2010 Rachel
September 15th, 2010 · 7 Comments
After visiting several religious sites, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, and the East London Mosque, I have noticed two prevailing influences on places of religious worship in London: government involvement and tourism. Given England’s history of combining church and state, and the level of tourism in London, it is no wonder that one finds these influences, to varying degrees, in places of religious worship around the city. What is debatable is what effect tourism and government have on religious life and the worship within each of these buildings. In my opinion, churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and the like may receive some benefits from tourism and a close relationship of Church(capital c, intending to refer to institutions) and State. However, on the whole, the influence of the government and the need to attract tourists lead to some troublesome trends in London’s places of religious worship.
By declaring a national religion, a country will very likely run into one of two scenarios. Either a small central government, such as a monarch, will use the national religion as a way to increase power and authority, and will persecute anyone who does not agree with their religious views. One can simply observe the history of the monarchy as they walk through Westminster Abbey, and see that this happened in England with the persecution, and massacre, of Catholics and others. This scenario has a horrible effect on religion, not to mention the human rights issues. If a ruler can influence the Church, then the Church’s message will quickly become distorted. Even if the ruler moves far away from the central texts and traditions of whatever faith is the national religion, there is no room for dissent. Historically, this situation has played itself out repeatedly.
The second scenario that can result from a combining of Church and State is what, in my view, is playing out in present day London. In this scenario, because the Anglican Church is the official religion for a nation that is increasingly secular and religiously diverse, the Church has become, frankly, bland. As a result, no one (or at, least, the intention is no one) is offended by the existence of a national religion. This also distorts the message of the Church, as governmental control has seemingly caused the Church to concentrate more on pleasing the masses than adhering to texts and traditions that could cause controversy. This “blandness” starts a vicious circle, as everyone involved in the Church sees no reason to attend anymore because it is no different than the world around them. This, in my view, is why when you go into St. Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey you don’t feel like there is an active faith community existent within the building. However, when we visited places like the Mandir or the East London Mosque one felt a sense of vibrancy and activity because these institutions are not as attached to the government. The lay leader at the synagogue suggested that combining Church and State has its advantages and disadvantages. Certainly, government involvement in religion has allowed students to become more educated in different faiths(Although exactly what they are learning and should be learning opens another can of worms) and governmental intervention allows the church to be funded, but is it worth watering down the principals of a major religion?
Picture obtained from http://www.mandir.org/
Almost as prevalent as the influence of government is that of tourism. Even the Mandir had a small museum you had to pay to enter (unless, of course, you had a London’s Visitor’s Pass-a card that also provides discounts at the gifts shops next to the crypt in St. Paul’s). From the perspective of the religious institutions, an influx of tourists allows you to share your belief system, but it’s a fine line between an educational experience and a money-making venture. At what point, and I don’t have an answer, does opening one’s place of religious worship become more about the cool architecture and less about the faith people are observing within the building? I am not saying any of the places we visited crossed such a line, but I know I am not the only one disturbed by the presence of gift shops in churches.
I am interested in seeing if Norwich’s places of religious worship, and in particular Norwich’s churches, differ from that of London’s. I do think we have seen people honestly observing faith here in London and I enjoyed many of the visits we made to these institutions. I simply think that they all, to wildly varying degrees, feel the effects, mostly negative, of tourists and government control.
Tags: 2010 Andrew
September 14th, 2010 · 5 Comments
So far we’ve visited several cathedrals and chapels of the Church of England, a Hindu temple, a Sunni mosque, and a synagogue, and as far as I can tell, Christianity seems to be the only dying religion in England. To be fair, I’ve only visited really famous cathedrals and they’re bound to be turned into museums because of their history, but regardless, church attendance in England, belief in a God: way down. I’ve been racking my brain to figure out why, and I think the best I can do is work through a few of the commonalities among all the holy places I’ve seen.
The temple, the mosque, and the synagogue all emphasized their connections to the community and the multi-functionality of their buildings when we visited. In fact, at the mosque, the man we spoke to said “children come to play and then to pray,” suggesting that a multi-purpose building keeps the religion thriving. But at St. Paul’s our tour guide said that prior to the Great Fire, church had become “run down” because it was being used for multiple purposes (markets, dentist, etc), so the argument works in both directions and doesn’t really get us anywhere.
The temple, the mosque, and the synagogue speakers also took extreme pains to emphasize the bridging of religions, especially to Christianity. All three mentioned their interfaith programs between different religions, including the cathedrals (even though none of the chapels or cathedrals made any mention of the other faiths they were connected to and working with). The non-Christian religions also made special efforts to explain their religions in relation to Christianity, in some cases understating differences in favor of finding common ground. I know some people felt this was a defensive move and a watering down, but I understood it as an emphasis on bridging differences. The speakers expected a Christian audience, and each one mentioned Jesus as an important figure, even from Hinduism, which is a non-Abrahamic religion (it doesn’t come from the same branch as the other three). The best explanation I can think of for this is that Christianity, as the official dominant religion, even if it’s unofficially dying, can take itself for granted because of its connection to imperialism. All other faiths must places themselves in coordination with the colonizer, but the Church of England, as an official religion does not have a stake in getting along. It belongs here and need not please anyone else. (I’m speaking in terms of practicality. There are plenty of other more altruistic reasons for getting along.)
All four faiths also emphasize the importance of their religious history, the history of their specific holy building, and their place in it. Weirdly, this seemed to strengthen identity for some, and weaken it for others. Jewish history, as a group in diaspora, is such a uniting force that it allows for an entire Jewish culture and identity that complements the religion. Christian history seems to obscure it. Instead of learning about Christianity at the chapels and cathedrals, we treated it like a museum, viewing artifacts. I again want to attribute this to imperialism. Groups who live under the threat of obliteration hold their roots tighter. Even though the Protestants and Catholics have been intermittently persecuted, Christianity has been associated with England for quite a while, and England is not in danger of going anywhere.
I also noticed that all the non-Christian faiths emphasized the fact that they were not evangelical. While they aim to teach others about their faith, they do not actively convert, while active evangelism is an important part of Christianity (most orthodox sects). It seems like an interesting coincidence that England, an imperial nation that converts other nations to Englishness, would be attracted to a religion that converts followers (Ironically, the opposite seems to be happening). Christianity can easily be transformed into a tool for imperialism. Maybe that perversion coupled with the expectation that it will just always be there is what has caused its downfall.
Tags: 2010 Jesse
September 9th, 2010 · 1 Comment
Most places of worship, be they churches, cathedrals, synagogues or mosques make me feel intimidated and slightly targeted. I find that churches in particular seem dark and gloomy. The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir however, was quite the opposite. I had never been to a Hindu temple, never really knew much about the religion except for a few basic facts I retained from high school, and so I didn’t quite know what to expect. But the mandir with its intricately carved marble and limestone walls was breathtaking. The white stones have a brightening effect, creating an atmosphere optimism and light that I hadn’t found, at least not to the same degree, in any of the churches we have visited so far. The ritual that we observed (feeding the god-statues there afternoon meal) was also different from any religious experienced I had participated in before. I have always felt that in Judaism and Christianity (the religions I am most familiar with) that the music is more chant-like and dreary. The music we heard in the mandir however, was loud and lively and colorful. It was unashamedly celebratory, and I really responded to that.
(Picture taken from http://www.mandir.org/photogallery/mandirmood_day.htm)
I’m willing to bet that most of Western culture has no real concept of what Hinduism is, what its origins are, or how it is practiced. I was shocked when I learned how the statues are tended. They are fed, tucked in for a nap, and have their clothing changed just as one might a child. This is completely different from my own religious experience where idolatry is prohibited, based on the idea that one should only worship “The God” and that there is only one God.
Tags: 2010 Sarah
September 15th, 2009 · No Comments
The Silver Exhibit in the V&A
Having a Good Time at the Fitzroy
Like many of my classmates I decided it would be worthwhile to summarize all of my discoveries this month in London. During this post I will focus on six main themes found within London: Parks, Churches, Pubs, Other Religious Institutions, Theatre and Museums.
Each park that I visited had its own distinct characteristics that separated it from any other. Green Park was the first I visited and after perusing a few others, I realized there was nothing that exciting about it. Located right across from Buckingham Palace, Green Park certainly provides a good place to go and take a break from the busy atmosphere of the area. Besides this however there is not much going on and I would recommend that potential park goers walk the extra distance over to St. James Park.
In addition to the large number of waterfowl heckling people for food which offers consistent entertainment St. James offers some picturesque flower beds throughout and various monuments along the way. It has the relaxing atmosphere of Green Park with a bit more excitement sprinkled in.
Regents Park offers a completely different feel from Green or St. James. Located in a separate area of London, Regents Park has a history of being used by a higher end crowd. I could tell this immediately from the feel of the park. The decorative shrubbery and elegant architecture throughout gave me a feeling that Regents is not as well used as other parks.
Since I was one of the members of the Parks group that gave a walking tour of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens I could go into a lot more detail about these two green spaces but I will choose not to in an effort to be concise. In summary Hyde Park is the largest green space in London and is often used for larger events such as concerts, festivals etc. It also contains a large number of monuments throughout including the 7/7 memorial and the Diana Memorial Fountain. Kensington Gardens is home to a variety of key monuments but is not as well trodden as Hyde. Overall it makes for a quieter atmosphere, more conducive fo reading or “snogging”.
Regents Park were my two favorite green spaces in London. Regents, is both beautiful, and extremely large and I continually felt the need to go back and explore. Kensington Gardens appealed to me in that it was quainter than Hyde Park but contained a like amount of history and monuments throughout. Although I would be content spending a length of time in any London green space Regents and Kensington would be my top choices.
Overall I enjoyed going to the theatre on so many occasions. What better place to do so than in London after all? Here I will discuss my favorite performances and theatre venues.
All in all I enjoyed all but two of the performances we saw. The two Shakespeare productions at The Globe Theatre were fantastic. Although I did not particularly enjoy reading Troilus and Cressida it made a huge difference to be there so close to the actors. The fantastic drum chorus at the end really sealed the deal. As You Like It was probably my favorite show I saw here in London. Although it is one of Shakespeare’s simpler plays the actors really made it jump off the page. Being down it the pit was fantastic because of all the ad-libbing and constant interaction with the crowd. I even felt traces of Touchstone’s saliva on my arm at one point.
The other Shakespeare performance I saw, All’s Well That Ends Well, was lackluster. Although the Olivier was my favorite performing venue (this is what an auditorium style theatre should be like…why can’t Dickinson have something like this?) the play itself was odd and ended on an abrupt and odd note.
The other play we saw at the National Theatre, The Pitmen Painters, was fantastic. Although I was dozing a bit because of the Benadryl I took right before the show, the actors kept my attention and I appreciated that the play was based off of a true story.
Easily the oddest play we saw was Arcadia. An extremely intelligent performance the play juxtaposed two different periods in time and created a singular storyline in which the plot was based. Overall it was an entertaining performance that made me think early and often.
Finally there was Blood Brothers. The lone musical I saw produced feelings of disbelief, anguish and held back laughter. The ridiculous 80’s sound track and creepy narrator just didn’t do it for me. I think it’s safe to say that I was not the only one from Humanities 309 who was a bit surprised to see just about everyone in the audience give it a standing ovation.
I had a very positive experience with the theatre here. I would go back to the globe again and again. I loved being that close to the action. I would also enjoy seeing another show in the Olivier. There really is so much to choose from here. It’s simply a matter of figuring out your tastes and saving your money so you can see a lot of performances.
From Westminster Abbey to St. Paul’s Cathedral we saw most of the major churches/cathedrals during our month in London. St. Paul’s was easily my favorite. From the fantastic crypt to the hundreds of stairs up to the tower it had so much to offer in the way of history and mystique. Westminster Abbey fascinated me primarily because of all the literary figures that had been buried inside as well as the room that was dedicated to “The Order of the Bath”. Other churches that I really enjoyed taking a look at were: “St. Martin in the Fields” which sits just outside Trafalgar Square and Nicholas Hawkesmoore’s “Christ’s Church” which is located in very close proximity to Brick Lane.
Other Religious Institutions
Overall the Sikh Gurdwara was my favorite place that we visited. I appreciated the simplicity of the religious doctrine as well as the conviction and honesty with which our tour guide, Mr. Singh spoke. The morning was capped off with a fantastic sit down meal together in which everyone was served the same food and drink.
I had different feelings about the Hindu Mandir. It was clear to me from the very beginning that the Hindu religion is not nearly as modest as Sikhism nor are they trying to be. From the extremely decorative prayer room, to the museum located right in the center of the Mandir I never felt particularly comfortable inside.
The only religious institution I wish we had gotten a chance to visit is a Mosque. I had been to one many years ago but I did not remember a whole lot from my experience. I wonder how much more lively the East End, and all parts of London would be if Ramadan were not taking place during our time here.
I could go on and on about museums so I will attempt to stay as concise as possible.
The British Museum was massive, convenient since it was so close to the Arran House but a little one dimensional at times. One of my favorite exhibits at the British Museum was a special exhibit on Living and Dying that drew information from all different time periods and cultures.
The National Gallery was fantastic. Although I have a hard time appreciating some visual art the gallery kept my attention for a number of hours. Seeing so many famous works of art was phenomenal.
The Tate Modern was my least favorite museum here. Although I am trying I have a hard time understanding modern art. After about 45 minutes in this museum it ended up being too much for me.
The Cabinet War Rooms/Churchill Museum were two of my favorites. The realization that I was standing in one of the most important places in World War II history was unbelievable. The War Rooms felt so authentic. I really felt as though I had been taken back in time to the 1940’s while inside.
The Victoria and Albert was easily my favorite museum in London. There was so much variety inside and so much to see. I could have easily spent a few days inside. Two of my favorite exhibits were the silver and jewelry exhibits. I’m not sure what this says about me as a person but I found it unbelievable that individuals could even own such treasures. I also enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of the V&A staff. At most of the other museums I visited I felt like I was doing them a disservice simply by being there. Although I understand that taking pictures of an object in a museum doesn’t do it justice I like to be able to have the option of doing so.
The Sir John Soane museum interested me but it wasn’t really my cup of tea in the end. It also had a stuffy atmosphere to it that I didn’t really appreciate.
One thing I can draw from my experience at museums here is that each and every one has something that distinguishes it. With so many museums I thought that it would be impossible to avoid some overlap but I never really felt that. Cheers to London and its museums.
Finally we have pubs. What would London be without it’s public houses? In some cases pubs are the true museums of London, designating what an area was like in the past and what type of clientele it attracted. During my month here I had a chance to visit a few pubs and get a general sense of what some possible differences could be. It is clear to me that each pub brings something different and unique to the table. The Marlborough Arms was convenient being so close to the Arran House and was a great place to enjoy a pint over a meal with friends. The Court was conducive to socializing in a different way. The music was louder, the people louder and the drinks cheaper. Other places I visited offered other things that made them stand out as well. One thing that i’ve learned about pubs is that it’s hard for one to please everyone. Since everyone has different tastes and desires when it comes to pubs you are better off going to one with a small cohesive group.
To conclude this novel I would just like to say that I think we saw a lot of different faces of London this month. I realize there is much more to see here but between walking tours throughout the city, trips to major monuments and museums and individual exploration I have learned a ton about London, it’s history and where it is going. I look forward to more London explorations in the future but for now, ON TO NORWICH!
Tags: Churches and Cathedrals · Henry · Pubs · Theatre
September 14th, 2009 · No Comments
Although I have blogged, to some extent, about most academic things I have done in London, I feel that I have a better impression of most things now than I did at the beginning of the stay. Along this vein, I feel the need to revise, or just plain state, my opinions on the “Big Five” topics – parks, churches, museums, theatres, and pubs.
I have now been to five of the Royal Parks in London. Green Park, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and St James’ Park are all very similar and yet very different in their own ways. I found Green Park, situated very close to Buckingham Palace, to have the most unfriendly atmosphere of the five. There is very little to Green Park. There are trees, benches, grass, the ever-popular lawn chairs for rent, and beautiful ornate gates facing Buckingham Palace. I think the reason I found the park so cold is that it was, well, too green. There were no flowers or water features (except for one fountain commemorating the Canadians), just trees, grass, and benches.
This is vastly different from the other four parks I visited. St James’ Park, Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and Kensington Gardens all were beautifully landscaped with brightly colored flowers, clean fountains, scultpures, and natural or constructed water features. In Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, and Kensington Gardens it was easy to forget that you were in the middle of a pollution-filled city. As I am not much of a city person, it was extremely refreshing for me to not be able to hear or see traffic for a while. With Green Park and St James’ Park, I couldn’t shake that feeling. However, I am a firm believer that parks, whether or not they are within city limits, always make people feel healthier. For this reason and the sheer beauty that the parks portrayed in their different ways, I understand why I did not only see tourists, but the people of London as well.
Gates towards Buckingham Palace from Green Park
Churches and other places of worship are an integral part of societies throughout the world. Throughout our time in London, we have been fortunate enough to visit Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, a Sikh gurdwara, and a Hindu temple. Of these four I enjoyed St Paul’s Cathedral the most from a purely historical standpoint and the Hindu temple most from a cultural perspective. St. Paul’s is one of the most recognizable and interesting buildings in London. It not only houses some of the most important military remains in the country (the Duke of Wellington and Admiral Nelson), but it was one of the most iconic images of WWII Britain. I also found it to be less like a museum where I felt like hop-scotching around graves in the floor (Westminster Abbey) and much more like a place of worship.
I enjoyed the Hindu temple for very different reasons. Although there was a definite sense of it being a tourist attraction, with the gift shop in the lobby and the interpretive centre with tiny models of Hindu gods, the temple was still very obviously, well, a temple. Before going there, I had no idea what Hinduism was like. I knew that there are multiple gods and that one is an elephant, but I didn’t know about their dedication to peace and volunteer work. What really struck me about it was that the intricate carving and craftsmanship of the facility was all done by volunteers. I think that this cultural experience was only heightened by being able to observe a service in the sanctuary that was so unlike my own Roman Catholic faith.
St Paul's Cathedral - a symbol and a place of worship
I had very mixed experiences with museums in London. Some, like the Victoria and Albert, I just didn’t seem to understand in the amount of time I spent there. However, I think that if I went back and dedicated a day to the facility, I would appreciate how the seemingly-random exhibits link together much better. (I did enjoy the items on display in the V&A, I just had an issue with the layout of the museum.) Other museums, like the Museum of London and the Docklands Museum, were put together in a very fluid and informative manner that I enjoyed greatly. My two biggest museum issues were with the British Museum and Sir John Soane’s Home/Museum. Grace and I wrote extensively on our thoughts on the British Museum, so instead of repeating everything, I’ll just give a brief summary: why are all of these amazing artifacts that have no connection to Britain in the British Museum?
The Sir John Soane Museum is a completely different story. I appreciated that the museum was free and displayed an extremely eclectic collection, but please never make me go back there ever again! It was the single most claustrophobic place I have ever been in my entire life with possibly one exception. Call it a personal thing, I do not like it when random pieces of monuments are mounted on the ceiling directly above my head. I am also not a big fan of walking into a room in a house and having literally hundreds of sculpture eyes staring at me from every surface around me. I disliked it so much that I could not even finish going through it, and anyone who has been in a museum with me will know that I read and see as much as I possibly can. I don’t understand why that creepy building perfectly-suited to be a haunted house at Halloween is called a museum. (Please if you can attempt to explain it to me, go right ahead!)
Theatre is a subject I have talked about in a couple of different posts (Observations on Accessibility and Blood Painters and Pitmen Brothers), however, I have not discussed theatre in general. I was lucky enough to see Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, Arcadia, The Pitmen Painters, and Blood Brothers. Each of these theatre experiences were extremely different, but all valuable in their own ways. Troilus and Cressidawas shown in the Globe Theatre and we had groundling tickets that forced us to stand for the 3 hour performance. The actual standing wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be, but the best thing about the show was being quite literally three-to-four feet away from the actors on stage. (Actually, it was slightly amusing when Hector died and was lying 3 feet away in our line of sight for the last 20 minutes of the play!) The staging of this Shakespearian play was vastly different to All’s Well That Ends Well, which was put on in the National Theatre. In the Globe, the sets are quite minimal because they have to perform four or five different shows on the same stage in the space of a few days. The set for All’s Well That Ends Well was much more elaborate and specialized for the show. Rather than the reliance on the actors and the costumes that the Globe used to tell you where the play was occurring, All’s Well That Ends Well used a dark set with elaborate staircases to add to the mood of characters and the dialogue.
Much like with Troilus and Cressida, the set for Arcadia was also pretty simple. Although the play took place in two different years, it was set in exactly the same room with almost all of the same props. This was a very effective way to stage the show and allowed for the writer, Tom Stoppard, to do some very interesting things with the characters from both time periods, like when he had them all in the room at the same time, oblivious to each other. I particularly enjoyed the way that this play was set and how basic it was. It was vastly different from the more complicated sets of The Pitmen Painters, which included projection screens, and Blood Brothers, which had lots of windows for the Devil/God character to peer creepily out of.
This final subject I have not blogged about at all. Pubs are an integral part of British culture. That said, pubs are also an integral part of Irish culture, so I experienced pub life when I lived in Ireland. British pubs and Irish pubs have a lot of similarities and differences. In both places, you must push viciously up to the bar in order to get your food and drink, you have to be 18 to have alcohol, smoking must be done outside, and there are usually way too many people in the pub for you to feel comfortable. Oh, and you always pay way more than you think you should for your drink. I’ve been to a couple of pubs in London and have found that they are all fairly similar. The bartenders are nice, but kind of frantic; the food is good, and usually relatively cheap; and the music is God-awful 1980s or techno playing at volumes that are way too loud. The first two are cohesive with pretty well every Irish pub I’ve ever been in, the third is not. Irish pubs play good music… or at least much better music than I’ve heard here! There are a lot of pubs that have a band playing traditional Irish music in front of you in the pub for pints and there are also a lot that play modern music at volumes that make my ears want to cry – but at least the music isn’t a Cher and Meatloaf duet accompanied with the weirdest music video I have ever seen in my entire life. (This particular musical masterpiece was played in The Court the other day. I never would have thought of that particular combination, but oooooookkkkkkkkkk.) Truth be told, I just want to find a comfortable pub with some good music and that will make me just as happy as George Orwell’s fictitious Moon Under Water.
Tags: Churches and Cathedrals · Kelley · Museums · Pubs · Theatre
I feel very fortunate to have been to both a Sikh Gurdwara and a Hindu temple in such a short period of time. Truly there are not two better examples of divergent immigrant communities than the Sikh and Hindi. Both religions originated from South Asia but due to differences in their philosophies, have taken to life in England quite differently. The followers at Wembley’s Shri Swaminarayan Mandir seem eager to embrace life in England, while the Sikh Gurdwara in Southall seems more intent on just existing wherever they are. Have these two religions been changed by England, or is it something about their inherent beliefs that have created these two different situations? Unfortunately for this blogger, the answer is: both.
A possible argument can be made for how long each religion has existed. In terms of age, Hinduism is one of the oldest religions to still be widely practiced in the world. Sikhism on the other hand is only an infant in comparison, starting around 1500. However, we cannot judge these two communities based on how long they have been in existence, but rather how long they have existed in their new homeland. Living in a country unlike India, there have undoubtedly been compromises that both religions have had to make in order to survive at the minimum in England. For example, followers of Hinduism in England have to come to terms that many of their non-believing coworkers, neighbors, etc. are very likely to have beef in their diet. On the other hand, Sikhs strictly forbid any kind of abortion, and yet must live in a country where it is tolerated. Therefore, we must consider not the original religions of Sikhism and Hinduism, but the new Sikh/British and Hindu/British identities they have certainly formed. According to the BBC (and their respective links here and here), both the Sikh and Hindis had their first large waves of immigration to England at around 1950, therefore we can not only say that both communities has the same amount of time to develop, but were affected by factors of the same time period. The differences in how their communities have adapted then must be caused by fundamental differences in their religion and how the reacted to life in England.
Thankfully, there are more than enough differences between both their religions and their England-based temples to ascribe these differences to. The largest of these differences is each religion’s sense of humility and how in turn that mentality changes the way each community acts in a capitalist society. As I was guided around each temple with my classmates and was able to look at my surroundings, this factor immediately struck me. The temple itself was furnished very modestly. While there were some places that were elaborate, the most impressive room was the main prayer hall. Although this was the place that an entire of community of Sikhs met to pray, the room was meant to hold the Sikh prayer book, not take away from it. To do this, the entire room was draped in white cloth and the only vibrant color in the entire room was displayed around their holy text. While the building was quite large, every part of it served a function and according to our guide cost around 17 million pounds.
In the case of the Gurdwara, the people who worked at the temple did not even have someone who was trained as a tour guide for their temple. The person that ended up showing us around was purely a student of the religion, and talked to us as such. The focus of his talk (from what I could hear, as he was speaking almost directly to Professor Qualls) was on the philosophies of his faith. What seemed to matter most to the man was the Sikhism’s emphasis of community and how those that followed the religion were part of the community without prejudice. The idea of a tightly knit community seems to be just what Sikh’s in England desire. Although they are immigrants just like the Hindis, they are without a doubt the minority religion of people from India, with there being slightly less than twice as many Hindus than Sikhs. In order to retain their relevance within England, it seems that Sikhs have pushed idea of a unified Sikh community to the level of the 5 K’s, five items that represent the pillars of Sikhism. While caring for and protecting the weak has always been a part of the Sikh religion, it would seem that in their immigration to England, Sikhs expanded this ideal in order to protect their people who in an instant became an even smaller minority than they already were. In addition to wanting to preserve the Sikh community, it seems that the philosophy of Sikhism does not mesh well with British capitalism. Take for example when we were told that we would be getting a free lunch. Most of us couldn’t understand why a temple would give out a free lunch to anyone who came to the temple. Our incredulity was well justified, as it was hard to imagine a group of people working towards pure charity rather than profit. It is likely for these reasons that Sikhism in England has not matched Hinduism in cultural influence.
Some of the students grumbled about how some of the money that went towards building the Gurdwara should have gone to the surrounding community, but those grumbles only fell to the wayside when we entered the Hindu temple. Although the Gurdwara was a large building, the Hindu temple looked to be almost twice as large, the reason for that being the temple’s head-first dive into capitalism. Upon entering the temple, the first thing you are immediately greeted with is the Cultural Center’s gift shop. The temple was also able to provide an actual tour guide who in many ways was the opposite of the Sikh guide. Instead of explaining about the fundamentals of Hinduism, the man instead explained about the magnificence of the building we were in, and how the materials that it was built from came from only the best places in the world. As a class we were shocked by the 16 million pound cost of the Sikh temple, but it is easy to imagine that a building of the Hindu temples grandeur easily cost hundreds of millions of pounds. While it seems that the Sikhs wish to believe in charity and modest (Pride is actually one of their five “vices”), the Hindus have no problem proving to everyone how great they are. In a country where it is up to each person to create his/her own success, Hinduism seems to be more of a fit than Sikhism.
While we now can possibly guess the reasons behind how these two different religious communities act, there is still the question of reason. Are these communities acting as such in order to assimilate with British society, or are they just trying to survive? It seems that each of the religious groups have chosen different paths, as the Hindus aim to thrive and the Sikhs simply want to exist. Is one choice more effective than the other? Will the Hindu’s give up too much of their beliefs in order to succeed? Will the Sikh’s reluctance to reach outside of their community force them to fade into irrelevancy? Only time will tell, but we can be certain that England will keep calm and carry on, with or without them.
It takes a lot to make me feel emotionally uncomfortable. I pride myself on my open mindedness especially in the face of different, unfamiliar cultures, ideologies, and religions. For instance, besides some minor worrying about potential offensiveness of our silly attempt at head covering, I didn’t feel the least bit anxious at the Sikh gurdwara in the same way some fellow students did. I venerated our unprepared, yet clearly impassioned tour guide on his ability to speak from his heart. I deeply respect anyone capable of complete devotion to his or her beliefs.
I was uncomfortable in the Mandir. The temple itself was beautiful beyond words. The grandiose structure stuck out in bland Neasden like a Ganesh in the room. (Get it? ‘Cuz Ganesh is an elephant? Sorry). Incredibly intricate masonry and woodcarving adorned the Mandir inside and out. It looked like it belonged on the list of Wonders of the World.
Images from www.mandir.org (since I forgot my camera, of course)
So yes, the mandir was gorgeous. Truly beautiful beyond words. What bothered me was the overbearing sense of pride conveyed by our guide. I lost count of how many times he mentioned that 2,800 tons of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tons of pure Italian marble were hand carved in India by the greatest craftsmen on the planet. “It is a masterpiece of exotic design and workmanship that rises above London’s skyline…replete with luminescent white pinnacles and glittering marble pillars, it stands as a beacon for Hindus, both young and old throughout the world” (www.mandir.org). In the featured exhibition on Hinduism inside the temple, the writers claim that Hinduism is “the most tolerant, most resilient, most peace-loving of all religions.” In addition, the BAPS (Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) faith has grown worldwide, without a hue of hypocrisy or an fever of fanaticism.” These are some very bold statements for a religion based upon the principle of ego-free modesty. Nirmãn, the fifth prime principle of Swãminãrãyan sadhus (monks) preach a life “untouched by pride or anger.” Modesty wasn’t exactly the most clearly conveyed quality of the Neasden mandir.
That was the negative. Now for the positives. For all the outright bragging done by our guide and the self-revering scripture on display in the exhibition, BAPS has redeemed its apparent immodesty through acts of charity and respect. Disaster relief is their forte. According to www.bapscharities.org, BAPS members donated their invaluable services to reparation efforts of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the 2004 South Asia tsunami, the September 11th attacks in New York, and just about every natural disaster that has ever occurred in India. They also provide rehabilitation clinics to those with addiction problems, ecological ventures such as tree planting and recycling campaigns, and perhaps most importantly, teaching literacy skills to those in regions with poor educational institutions.
Despite my initial discomfort of the grand Neasden BAPS mandir, learning of their selfless acts was cathartic. Verbal modesty is overrated in the face of philanthropic action. So go ahead, Mr. Mandir Tour Guide, tell me about the Italian marble one more time…
Tags: Andrew B