London’s Little Scandinavia

I was recently invited to attend a Sunday church service and I jumped at the chance! Not, I confess, because I’d had a spiritual reawakening. I was simply curious to visit this place of worship in one of my favourite areas of London. You see the church was Norwegian and the area was Rotherhithe, which from now on will be London’s ‘Little Scandinavia’ to me.

Several years ago I lived in this historic south London Thameside area and became very fond of the ancient pubs (including the Mayflower where the Pilgrim Fathers originally set sail from – sorry Plymouth but they actually started their journey from here), cobbled alleyways and general Dickensian feel. I traversed Brunel’s incredible engineering feat in the form of a tunnel under the Thames (which incidentally now hosts atmospheric underground concerts, as well as wonderful garden parties during the summer) and I regularly cycled or walked along by the river.

But I was blissfully ignorant of the area’s Scandinavian connection, other than a vague awareness of there being a Swedish Seaman’s Mission somewhere in the vicinity. Sadly the historic Mission closed before I was able to visit it, but it turns out that it wasn’t the only Nordic place of worship in the area, as the Norwegian Church and Seaman’s Mission (also known as St. Olave’s Church) is still conducting services, as is the Finnish church.

As Rotherhithe’s major port status has crumbled since Rotterdam stole its thunder, I would be forgiven for assuming that there isn’t much call for a Norweigan Seaman’s Mission anymore, so I thought I had better pay the place a visit sooner rather than later. Then I received an invitation by the wonderful organisation SharedCity (www.sharedcity.co.uk), which helps Londonders to visit the world without leaving town through their cultural tours, to join them at a service. It was the last impetus I needed to do something sacred with my Sunday for a change.

On the morning that I visited, the St Olave’s church service was being recorded for Norwegian radio, so it was a strict phones off policy (which meant no discreet photos of the service to share). But I can report that it was a beautiful hour-long affair, and that not being able to understand a word being said didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it. In fact familiar hymns such as Amazing Grace sounded angelic when sung by the choir in Norwegian, and when a celloist and opera singer ‘entertained’ us from the gallery during the blessing I was in celestial heaven.

As if that wasn’t enough, the after-service refreshments weren’t confined to mere tea and biscuits. Instead, you could indulge in a full-on Sunday lunch of Scandinavian meatballs with all the trimmings, including generous dollops of lingonberry sauce, followed by delicious cakes. This generous and delicious lunch was included as part of the SharedCity tour and was followed by a friendly talk exclusively for its participants, by the priest, who incidentally looked like he had stepped out of the Norwegian band Aha! (and anyone who remembers them will know that that is definitely a good thing!) He explained how the Mission came about and how it still thrives. They basically have an open door policy and are so so much more than just a place to worship. In fact the building was deliberately constructed back in 1927 to include a relaxation area to read or eat in. This was in order to attract the visiting seamen from Scandinavia there instead of the many bars and brothels.

After the beautiful service, a delicious lunch and an interesting talk I felt well set for the week ahead. But wait, there was more! A jazz band would now entertain us. Apparently non-sacramental afternoon entertainment is the norm. I was beginning to like St. Olave’s more and more with every passing minute. In fact I would have been happy just to visit the beautiful historic building for the architectural enjoyment alone but I came away having felt part of the Norwegian community for a few hours and I felt very blessed as a result. I wasn’t sure that their Finnish neighbours would be able to top that.

Actually the Finnish church was full of surprises too. Admittedly it was a more modern building, though still attractive in its own minimalist, tasteful, Scandinavian way. But the trick up its sleeve was that it had its very own sauna! Yes, that’s right! And anyone can come and use it; there is just one rule – clothes are not allowed. (Well actually there is another rule – you can only use it alone or with other members of the same sex  -but still, it’s not often that church-goers are asked to politely requested to strip).

Of course the sauna is not compulsory, but it is a very popular feature. This is because apparently every home in Finland has one, so to come and live in England and not have access to a sauna is a bit like being told that you lovely new home is missing a bathroom. I was told, during the interesting talk for SharedCity visitors, that it is very much the norm for the Fins to partake in a sauna at the end of the day as a kind of demarcation between work time and relaxation. A bit like the English tradition of going down the pub I guess, but a bit healthier.

Saunas aside, the Finnish church is also home to a very well-stocked Scandinavian food store and a pleasant cafe, with indoor and outdoor seating. I was impressed enough by this, so the unexpected concert by the Swedish children’s choir was an unnecessary addition. But it was lovely and I certainly left feeling very elated.

In fact all in all I spent a very pleasant few hours in an oft overlooked area of London. So, Ikea eat your heart out – this is my Sunday Scandinavian pastime from now on!

SharedCity conduct several tours around London where you can immerse yourself in different cultures ranging from South Indian to Italian to Latin American. The three hour ‘Norway & Finland’ tour costs £25, which includes the Norwegian lunch. I strongly recommend trying one of their tours, particular as a pertinent reminder that it is London’s multiculturism that helps make it such a vibrant, fascinating and popular city!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly photo challenge: Object

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Here is another ‘diya’ picture – an offering to Ma Ganga (the goddess of the Ganges). The lady was doing her own personal puja ceremony by the river, in which a butter candle is lit in offering and then left to float on the river. I don’t know if this was a regular occurrence for her if she had come to Varanasi in pilgrimage especially for this purpose, and of course to bathe in the holy waters. She was one of thousands that would have been bathing and offering ‘puja’ that morning.

Posted for the Weekly Photo Challenge

More joy!

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I should really have posted this picture for this week’s photo challenge because every time I look at it I feel joyful. I just know from looking at this man’s face that he is a spiritual person –  from the his general demeanour of inner peace, calm and happiness.

Believe me it isn’t hard to feel at peace on a busy Varanasi street with all the horns blowing from the cars and mopeds – but he achieved it somehow! It makes me wonder who he is and what his story is. And to borrow that famous film quote “I want whatever he’s having!”

Of course yellow is a sunshine colour, which makes the photo even more uplifting. It certainly makes me smile and I hope it makes others do so too. And I’m thinking that maybe we should all include yoga and meditation in our New Year’s resolution…

 

A ‘Holi’ sadhu

 

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This ‘maharaji’ (senior) sadhu allowed himself to be covered in coloured powder as part of the Holi celebrations in India last February. This colourful event is celebrated across India and the religious people are not excused from the fun as it is actually an important religious ceremony for them to observe. Hence, even the most senior of sadhus were subjected to the brightly coloured powders and waters.

I was incredibly fortunate enough to have been invited to observe the Holi celebrations at an akhara in Varanasi. It was wonderful watching the sadhus all going crazy covering each other with the coloured powder while dancing to powerful tribal drums. It is the kind of image that stays with you – as much as the multi-coloured powder that found its way into the nooks and crannies of my camera.

Benedictan monk, Tuscany

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During my recent visit to Tuscany I re-visited  St Antimo Abbey near the lovely village of Montalcino. It was my third visit there – I feel compelled to keep coming back, not only for the beautiful setting among vineyard but for the daily Gregorian chanting from the Benedictine monks who worship there. My arrival coincided with that of some of the monks – whose, rather appropriate, white cars raced down the driveway before two monks leapt out of each and practically ran into the abbey, just in time for the post-siesta re-opening of the abbey to the public. I was lucky enough to get a nice, atmospheric photograph of one making his way through the olive trees to the abbey.

 

Akhara colours

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One of the things I loved when I visited this akhara in Varanasi was the colours. I have visited a few ashrams and akharas since then and I haven’t seen anything as vibrant and beautiful. And because it had sadhus staying there, who mostly dressed in maroon or orange, even their washing blended in perfectly with the surroundings.

The urge to wear these lovely vibrant colours was contagious. You just felt good wearing them. But I wasn’t the only one to become attracted to all things orange; I noticed too that the worker who came in every day to sweep and clean (pictured here) also began to adopt the akhara colours.

 

 

Pilgrims at Guru Shikar in Rajasthan

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I was fortunate enough to visit a holy site in India recently – Guru Shikar near Mount Abu. Not only was I the only non-Indian present among the throngs of visitors, but I got to go inside the ashram situated there, which is where the sadhus live who look after the temple.  I had lunch and chai with them, followed by a personal tour by a very enthusiastic and informative young sadhu.  I will add it to my ever increasing collection of special Indian memories!

Posted for the wordpress  Weekly Photo Challenge

Sadhvis (female sadhus) Kathmandu

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They may not be a common sight but yes, females can be sadhus too! These ones were spotted at Pashupathinath ghats in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Sadhus are the spiritual nomads of India. Affectionately known as ‘babas’, they have rejected normal life in return for a holy one in which they wander throughout India with few possessions other than a begging bowl and, if they have chosen to be a follower of Lord Shiva, a trident. They wear saffron coloured clothing or, in the case of Nagar Babas, they merely cover their naked skin in ash and adorn their bodies with yellow flowers. They may live in ashrams, akharas, in a tent or just under a tree. Wherever they reside they will impart their wisdom to others that want to stop and share a chillum (a pipe filled with marijuana) or just chat. They are much revered in India, but can be feared as well because of their spiritual powers. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of one of these men as they are incredibly powerful. You can choose this path at any stage in life but it is more common in your final years, after you have fulfilled your responsibilities to State and family, to give away all your worldly goods and live a life of poverty and spiritual contemplation until your death.

Hinduism is one religion where women are much respected and, although it isn’t common to see a sadhvi, they are welcome to become one if they so wish.

Weekly photo challenge: Masterpiece

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The stunning Swayambanuth temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, which is both a Buddhist and Hindi sacred site.

Posted for the wordpress Weekly photo challenge

Monks on Durbar Square

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Every time I saw monks in Kathmandu I felt a sense of peace and joy. There is just something so wonderful about the simplicity of their presence. I don’t know if it is because I assocaiate them with the Dalai Lama and of course Buddha himself but they just seem to radiate goodness and beauty.

Weekly Photo Challenge (this week’s theme): Companionable (3)

Young sadhus at an ashram

Of all the photos I have taken of sadhus during my time in Varanasi, this has to be one of my favourites. These two  ‘brothers’ just look so happy in each other’s company and are full of the exuberance of young life.

I hope that their handsome, clean-kept appearance and the beautiful setting of an akhara temple will help to dispel some of the negative images that I’m discovering some Indians have of  holy men. I don’t confess to know much about sadhus’ reputation, but I do know that every time I met these two, or any of their ‘guru brothers’, they were all nothing but charming, entertaining and hospitable.

The Pujari, Hatu Temple

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Last night as I was sitting around the bonfire at Banjara Lodge, some lovely guests from Mumbai invited me to tag along with them on a mini excursion this morning, to see Hatu Peak, around 5kms from the town of Narkandar. It is the highest point in the Shimla region, standing at some 11000 ft,  so I jumped at the chance to go there and take in the panoramic views.

It was a 45 minute drive  through pretty windy roads, dodging cows and buffalo along the way, so we set off at 7am in order to be back at the lodge for breakfast. We were not lucky with the views as it was quite hazy and overcast, but I didn’t mind as my attention was drawn to a beautiful temple that looked to be Tibetan in style with its dragons and intricate wooden carvings. It was actually a Hindu temple that had apparently been deliberately designed to incorporate different religious styles.

Just as I was having my photograph taken in front of the temple, the Pujari climbed the steps towards us and proceeded to open the beautiful wooden door to enter the little interior and do his morning Puja duties. Being in the right place at the right time, this meant that I was then blessed by him and given a red dot on my forehead, plus a generous handful of little white Puja sweets to take away with me.

It was difficult to photograph him because I was supposed to be posing for a photograph myself. But I did get this lovely picture of him, showing his gentle face and noble features, while he paused for a moment in the doorway before disappearing into the dark interior of the temple . (In fact he looked slightly more appropriate than his Pujari colleague who also made an appearance. He was sporting a trendy skull-cap and huge sunglasses and was talking on his mobile the entire time – I’m wondering if he should find himself a new vocation!)

On the way back I spotted a perfect pastoral scene of a lady milking a cow, surrounded by other cows and buffaloes. I jumped out and took some photos of the scene (another day’s post perhaps) and returned to the Lodge very happy. With such an auspicious and beautiful start I have a feeling that my Summer solstice is going to be a very special one!

Looking out from the temple

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There is something very comforting to me in this scene, I think partly because, although it was taken in India, it makes me think of Italy – I guess it must be the way the man is dressed. But the ghats of Varanasi are about as far removed from Italy that you can get, apart from the sense of holiness of course.

Boy with Aum sign

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Aum, or Om, is the most used word in Hindi religion, as it represents the union of the three gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It also represents creation and originates from the holy sanskrit language. It is used vocally in meditation, at temples and shrines (as in “Aum namo Shiva”), and also as a greeting to holy men (if you happen to come across a sadhu  don’t say “Namaste”, instead you should say “Aum namo narayan” it’s a bit of a mouthful but is more respectful to them.

Bandara

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Here is another photo from the recent bandara at the ankhara where I am currently staying. Today it was my turn to cook, though rather unexpectedly. After cooking chow mein for the sadhus the other day, which seemed to go down well, I decided to make them some hummus as a pre-dinner snack, which I would serve up with crudites and chapaati.

It just happened that there was a very important sadhu visiting the ashram today, but that didn’t phase me – well not until I came back from being out for the afternoon, ready to make my hummus ,only to find that Onkar Giri (the naga baba who is the supervisor of the ashram) had chopped up my tomato and garlic, along with some onion. Just as I was wondering what was going on he then turned up with a selection of spices and some chilies and told me to get cooking.

It turned out that there had been a slight misunderstanding and he had told everyone that I was cooking for them all, including the visiting Maharaj! I had no vegetables other than the onion but had to rustle up  some Indian food for Indians, including two chefs who knew all about how to make good curries, and the visiting Mahara! So my hummus was transformed into chickpea curry using whatever ingredients were available, cooked on a one ring stove. Just to add an extra element to the challenge, the inevitable Varanasi power cut occurred during the process, so I had to cook by candlelight in temperatures in the top forties with no fan to cool me.

But I enjoyed the challenge and it felt nice to give something back as I am being fed practically every day at the ashram. Hopefully the sadhus enjoyed the English twist on curries  and the change of flavours made up for the drop in quality.