It is not the most auspicious moment for the pupils of Year 4 at St John's Primary School, Friern Barnet, to enter Neasden's Hindu Swaminarayan Temple Complex, chattering about their desire to visit the nearby Ikea depot on their return journey. Fortunately, a guide appears and rounds them up, a well-tuned patter turning their attention to the vast temple and its undeniable visual magnificence: "Been here before? Better than school? Then stay forever! Been to India before? Now you will have been to India. Like elephants? We have them! What, to Spain for your holidays? Spain is so boring!" An exotic, spontaneous and eccentric education has begun, which elevates this visit from a mere teaching resource to an exciting theological and sociological opportunity.
It is also a lot of fun. Slipping off their shoes and maintaining a silence as they pass through the Haveli (cultural complex), teachers and pupils are caught up in the tides of Indian families who come to worship, dressed in bright saris and whispering in Gujarati. A holy man is expected and the monks of the temple can be seen rushing about. The air smells of incense - the whole atmosphere is exotic. Ruth Griffiths, Year 4 RE teacher, says:
"I've not visited here before but I'd heard the temple was a corner of India in England. I haven't seen anything like it. It's good for the pupils to see a place of worship which is not kept like a museum, but is something alive."
The mandir itself, with its ornate marble carvings and statues of Gods, is a visual fantasy. The exotic sculptural feast entrances the visitors and, although the word "theology" might not mean anything to children this young, their immediate enthusiasm sets off the leap of imagination needed for examining and contrasting religious systems. Mr Suryakant Patel, who helps manage the education programme at the temple, says: "With children as young as these, you can't talk too much spirituality or you lose them. They might be young but they can judge. We welcome them, we don't convert them. We make them part of the temple. The temple does the rest."
Next, an enthusiastic tour takes place of the Haveli - the large function rooms which serve the community. Mr Patel sits the children down and, pantomime-like, explains aspects of Hindu belief (but not before saying:
"Ask me any question, but don't ask me how to make money!"). His explanations are deft and funny: the Sanskrit Vedic texts, the theology of incarnation, the nature of Divinity.
Bravely he demonstrates the divine sounds of Om (Aum), inviting the pupils to Om-along: they are eager and earnest. The place of Yoga and vegetarianism in Hinduism follow, as does a calculated descent into mayhem with a group participation in "free laughter" (used traditionally to cure cancer) followed by a question session.
Mr Patel is used to answering difficult questions. "Last week a boy asked: 'does the swastika in Hinduism mean you can kill Asians?' So we had an extended history lesson, and discussed Nazism and the corruption of symbols. Britain is already a multicultural society and although we won't see the benefits of that conversation now, in 15 years time it will make a difference."
He ends the tour with specific moral advice: "Respect your teachers; respect your parents; think about your goals in life. And don't be angry or jealous!" Because a visit to the temple can be structured on many levels, it is well to prepare beforehand. A pre-visit look round the temple would be ideal, and it's worth phoning the guides to discuss specific issues they could include in their presentation (for example, The Ramayana). Year 4 was too young for the permanent exhibition on Hinduism (the only one in the UK, which led on to discussions of the sociological aspects of religious community abroad, of cultural identity and immigration) but all ages should see the arti in the mandir mid-morning, when offerings are made to the gods.
As Sophia of Year 4, sitting in the gardens and contemplating the shining temple pinnacles, dreamily says: "It's like an Indian palace. The statues were so nice, the carvings beautiful, the Gods so pretty, and the gardens peaceful..." Far from mistaking sacred beauty for secular bounty, but affected by cultural difference, she has begun to think about the language of religious symbol, art and myth. She has begun to think theologically. There is no mention now of that other place of worship Ikea, just down the road and trying to evangelise us all.
* To visit the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir and Cultural Complex, Neasden, tel: 0208 965 2651.