This is part 2 of my journey to discover if, and how, Londoners still practice religion. After visiting Chiswick’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral I made my way to Wimbledon where, hidden among the multi-million pound villas dotting the hill around the famous tennis courts, the only Thai Buddhist temple in Europe (and monastery) exists.
The road wound up along the hill, past magnificent trees and impenetrable laurel hedges. Gates appeared now and then, revealing stately mansions and cobbled driveways where the inevitable Range Rover was parked, shiny and often accompanied by leaner, meaner sport cars. Few residents were out and about, walking dogs or taking kids to tennis practice. Looking at their outfit made me, wearing my prehistoric climbing jacket and cheap trousers, feel embarrassingly badly dressed.
Finally, at the apex of a slope, a white fence appeared decorated with golden Thai letters and an elaborated logo showing a couple of hinds. I had arrived.
Wat Buddhapadipa was the first Buddhist temple in London, established in the mid-Sixties. In those times, the small but growing Asian community – and swarms of hippies, I imagine – gathered in Richmond. However, a few years later the temple moved to its current location in Wimbledon. Eventually, in 1982, the monks came and this allowed Buddhapadipa to be formally recognised as a fully fledged Thai temple, the only of its kind in Europe.
The Temple is a classic example of what I like to call “State-sponsored religion”: in this case it was the Thai government that had funded (and, I guess, continues) the construction of the Ubosot, the main building of a complex which also comprehends a cottage for the monks and meditation classes, a community centre and a lush garden with a pond.
We arrived late one Sunday afternoon and immediately felt we’d missed out on something. People were packing up the paraphernalia they had arranged on the lawn, while volunteers were busy dismantling a communal kitchen and washing large pots and pans. As for the Chiswick Russian Orthodox Cathedral, this temple is an aggregator for the Thai community, with families visiting it every weekend from all corners of the town.
The Ubosot hosts a small prayer room, where the members of the congregation who weren’t involved in the packing up were busy praying in front of a golden Buddha statue, guided by monks. We peeked from the outside and decided not to enter, for the room was already packed and, to be honest, we didn’t feel like distracting the devotees; instead we continued strolling around, people-watching, largely ignored by everyone else.
Albeit the vast majority of those chatting or learning boxe were unmistakably Thai, a few ones stood out: mixed couples, mostly with a British husband. I looked at them, wondering how much they understood of the rapid, machine-gun-like, exchanges in Thai that their spouses were so engrossed in with other friends and relatives.
The Ubosot lies on a platform and staircases depart from all sides, each complete with lion statues and candle holders; gold-framed windows opened on the prayer hall, but all my efforts to have a peek inside failed miserably, much to the enjoyment of the band of kids who had elected the staircases and balconies their playground of choice. Defeated, we retreated to the pond.
It was, undoubtedly, the best part of the whole complex. In the pond a group of ducklings played, spraying each other with water while, in little niches dotting the banks, little statues of Bodhisattvas and Thai royals peeped out, each fitted with Thai coins, banknotes and incense sticks as offers.
A couple of girls joined us while we admired them then giggled, waved and ran away, towards their parents and their waiting cars. Monday was closing by and so we left, too, walking down towards the train station, with our minds still in Asia. From that day on, Wimbledon will sound a lot more exotic, at least for us.