60,000 celebrate Hindu festival in British countryside

In a typically English setting, the grounds of a mock-Tudor country mansion, thousands of pilgrims are celebrating what organisers claim is the biggest Hindu festival outside India.

More than 60,000 people were expected to attend the two-day Janmashtami festival on Sunday and Monday at the Bhaktivedanta Manor temple outside suburban Watford, northwest of London.

The rolling fields backdrop of Letchmore Heath suggests an English country fete, as does the bunting and muddy grass, but the flavour is unmistakably Indian.

Dancing, dramas, devotional songs and inspirational talks from swami teachers filled the tents as outside, mothers in bright saris sipped coconut juice and children had their faces painted blue like Lord Krishna.

The smell of cattle and spicy food filled the air as thousands soaked up the party mood.

"Janmashtami is a coming together of a great big family," said former temple president Gauri Das.

"People wouldn't miss this for anything. There's just such a spirit that captures everybody," the 49-year-old temple senior told AFP.

"There's a tremendous atmosphere of devotion and goodwill. It's a cultural extravaganza.

"The magic of this place is that it's the Hertfordshire countryside," he added.

"You couldn't turn it into an architectural piece of India. But at the heart of it are the ethics, ideals and devotion of Hindu culture. It's become an iconic symbol of the British Hindu identity."

The 1880s manor was bought for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in 1973 by Beatles guitarist George Harrison, a devotee.

As ducks waddled from the ornamental lake, pilgrims queued on the clipped lawns beneath the oak and willow trees, bearing flowers and fruit to decorate the shrine of Krishna.

Inside, devotees enjoyed their fleeting moment passing the shrine as chanting and drumming echoes around the room.

The manor is also a dairy farm and pilgrims could feed the 46 cows, which are fond of carrots and jaggery sweets.

The temple is behind the production of "Ahimsa" (non-violent) milk, from cattle that are not slaughtered when their milking years are over.

Indian, London and regional English accents can be heard wandering between the bookstalls and children's play areas.

Avi Singh, 26, a warehouse operative from Lucknow in northern India, who moved to England six months ago, was impressed by the free festival.

"It's nice, everything is gorgeous. It's like we are in India, apart from the weather!" he told AFP.

Non-Hindus were also among the thousands wandering between the food stalls, exhibitions and entertainment.

"We were intrigued and wanted to experience something different," said Hayley Crompton, 26, a costume maker from Nottinghamshire in central England.

"It's a really beautiful atmosphere, really happy. It's like an English summer party -- only with much better food," she said, after finishing off some potato curry.

According to the last published census in 2001, there were 558,000 Hindus in Britain, one percent of the population. Therefore, roughly a tenth were expected to visit the festival.

One play, India Joe and the Temple of Krishna, told the story of a London-accented Hindu youth, telling his Indian-accented father of how the savings of his generation had been blown away in the recession and how he was determined to make the best of his life by facing it fully armed with his faith.

"These are contemporary British Hindu kids who are reinterpreting their ancient traditions into the most modern setting," Das said.



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