Faith in London

The extraordinary range of religions practised in this one city.

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Druid Autumn Equinox ceremony, Primrose Hill

At noon on the Autumn Equinox (the date when the amounts of day and night time are equal), a large group from the Ancient Druid Order gather near the bottom of Primrose Hill and then process solemnly to the top, where they perform various rites. These involve the proclamation of peace and the use of a long horn, a sword, cider, fruit and flowers.

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East London Mosque, Whitechapel

During the month of Ramadan, most people will try to become better Muslims not only by fasting but also by reading the Quran and praying more. Mosques can therefore be very full, especially on a Friday, as was the case here. The congregation occupied all the available floor space not only in the East London Mosque itself but also in the Muslim Centre next door. The East London Mosque and Muslim Centre serve predominantly the large Bangladeshi community which began to settle in the Spitalfields and Whitechapel areas from the mid-1950s.

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Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim, Walworth

Although they were committed Christians, the Yoruba people of Western Nigeria rebelled against the traditional, staid church services of the Anglican Missionary Society in the 1920s. They wanted to show how much they loved their faith by communal singing, clapping, drumming and music-making. The eventual result was the founding of the Eternal Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim. The exuberant form of service which was at its core came to London with Nigerian immigrants and is now performed at the Order’s church, the Cathedral of the Mount of Salvation, in Walworth.

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Diwali, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (the Hindu Temple), Neasden

At Hindu New Year, or Diwali, a ceremony called annakut is performed. It means literally mountain of food and it is the offering of the first meal of the year to God. This is done with a deep sense of thanksgiving for his providence. Part of this ritual requires a senior monk to perform the arti. This is the popular Hindu prayer ceremony which involves the waving of lighted candle wicks infused with the blessings of the divine. Here, this ritual was being performed in the giant assembly hall within the Haveli, the building alongside the main temple, or Mandir.

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Vaisakhi and Nagar Kirtan Sikh ceremonies, Southall

Guru Gobind Singh was the last living Sikh Guru. The eleventh Guru is Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of Sikhism. On special occasions, this sacred scripture is taken out of the temple and paraded through the streets. This is called a Nagar Kirtan. One of these occasions is Vaisakhi, the Sikh New Year Festival. Guru Gobind Singh chose this celebration in 1699 to transform Sikhs into a family of soldier saints. Five men were involved in dramatic scenes on that day in 1699 and they became known as the Panj Pyare, the Five Beloved Ones. Men representing them can be seen in the modern procession.

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Roman Catholic priests, Clerkenwell

St. Peter’s Church in Clerkenwell was founded in the mid-19th century as a church for Italians. In the 1880s, St. Peter’s began to follow the Italian tradition of parading the statues, icons and paintings from the church through the streets on the saint’s day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which had a special significance for the church. Since no Catholics had made a public demonstration of their faith like that since the Reformation, it was a brave thing to do. Nobody stopped them and the parade has taken place every year since then.

Anglican funeral, Camden Town

A funeral service took place at a nondescript Anglican church next to a railway bridge in a depressing part of Camden Town. The family decided to use an ornate glass-sided horse-drawn hearse pulled by a pair of Dutch Friesian horses, known as Belgian Blacks. The coachman and the groom were wearing top hats. The result was a special send-off for their loved one.

Peace Pagoda, Battersea Park

Monks from the Japanese Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Order perform a ritual each year at the commemoration ceremony at the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park. The order is a branch of Japanese Nichiren Buddhism and was responsible for building the Pagoda in the 1980s. It was founded in 1917 by Nichidatsu Fujii, who, after the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, made it his life’s work to abolish nuclear weapons. He started the movement to build peace pagodas and more than eighty have now been erected round the world.

Thai Buddhist Temple, Wimbledon

At Wat Buddhapadipa, the Thai Buddhist temple in Wimbledon, the celebrations for Asalhapuja – the day on which the preaching of the Buddha’s first ceremony is commemorated – coincide with Silacarini Day. Silacarini is the Thai word for lay Buddhist nuns and these ladies, dressed all in white, embark on a nine-day programme of meditation and simple living at the temple. The temple houses replicas of the famous Emerald Buddha in Bangkok’s Grand Palace and the Golden Buddha in its National Museum.

Kavadi, Murugan Hindu Temple, Highgate

A kavadi ceremony honours Murugan, the Hindu god of war and victory. Devotees carry heavy decorated wooden structures on their shoulders and often pierce their cheeks and tongues with fine skewers. When drawn out, these skewers produce no blood and cause no pain. At the end of this ceremony, one of the murtis (divine statues) in the temple was placed on a litter and carried round the whole of the interior.

Rathayatra Hare Krishna Festival, Hyde Park

The Hare Krishna movement was founded in New York City in 1966, although its beliefs are based on traditional Indian scriptures. Every June, the movement organises the Rathayatra Festival of Chariots simultaneously in numerous places round the world. In London, three huge colourfully decorated wooden chariots containing the statues of deities are pulled by hand from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square.

Orthodox Jews, Stamford Hill

The large ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Stamford Hill belongs to a significant number of different, mainly Hasidic, streams. The Hasidim themselves are subdivided into numerous rabbinical dynasties, each taking its name from the village or town in Hungary, Poland or the Ukraine where it originated. Each is also distinguished by some slight variation in religious practice and dress. There are more than 70 synagogues in Stamford Hill and each is unique.

© Richard Slater