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A Hindu Temple, Islamic art & Japanese culture centre; wonders of Ontario

TORONTO – I walk up a flight of stairs and emerge into a wonderland. Swirling, intricately carved arches of brilliant white stone dance around my head. Soft blue lighting infuses the room with a deep glow, then turns green and yellow and soft orange. The light seeps around corners and plays onto brilliant white pillars that rise towards a series of equally stunning ceiling panels.

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I’m not a religious person, but the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is what I imagine the halls of heaven must look like; with so much purity and soft yet brilliant light that bathes the body and clears the soul.

I’m on the upper floor of this magnificent, under-publicized Hindu temple tucked away in the far northwest corner of Toronto. It’s a place many Torontonians, including myself, have seen from the highway that runs nearby. It’s an imposing place from the road, standing all white and pure. It looks nice, but, like many things in life, it’s not until you get up close that you can admire the beauty and intricacy and intimacy of one of Ontario’s most remarkable pieces of architecture.

Which is why you’ll find the temple highlighted in the latest Ontario tourism campaign.

Stones in the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir weigh as much as five tonnes, or as little as 50 grams.

Stones in the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir weigh as much as five tonnes, or as little as 50 grams.

It took some 1,500 workers around 19 months to get most of the work done. It was then shipped piece by piece from India to Toronto in more than 300 separate containers, where some 400 volunteers helped get it built. But not so many get a chance to step into the temple and admire their handiwork and superb craftsmanship.

There are two parts to the BAPS complex, located on Clairville Drive near Finch Avenue and Highway 427, just north of Pearson Airport. On the east side, there’s a haveli or courtyard building, which serves as a welcome centre and kind of a community gathering spot. It opened in 2004. There’s an interior space with lustrous, hand-carved Burmese teak that was hand-carved in India, featuring the likenesses of elephants, birds and more.

The haveli is lovely, and it’s fun to hear the shouts of the kids who are attending a summer camp at the complex, but it’s the main building or Mandir that draws the oohs and aahs. It’s fashioned from Turkish limestone, Italian Carrara marble and pink sandstone from India. It looks great mid-day, but the real show comes during early morning and early evening hours, when golden light bathes the building in soft orange and yellows or pinks and pockets of shadow provide dramatic effect. I don’t mind sleeping in, but I really would love to be here to watch the sun come up some day.

The murti statuettes are a fantastic part of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Toronto.

The murti statuettes are a fantastic part of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Toronto.

The arches and ceiling work are hugely impressive inside. They also have a series of small statues of human figures called murtis, which are incarnations of deities. On the day I’m there many of them are clothed in flowing yellow and hot pink clothes, which glow in the light. A pair of workers make their way down a row of murtis, leaving offerings of fruit, naan bread and other treats.

I’m overwhelmed by the beauty and the light and shake my head.

“It leads the eye and the mind to the world above,” my guide (they prefer not to have their names used) tells me.

Everything has a light and feathery look, thanks to the intricate carving. But some of the stones weigh 5.6 tonnes.

The workmanship at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir has to be seen to be believed.

The workmanship at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir has to be seen to be believed.

“Every stone is important,” my guide explains. “If you take away a single one, the building would be in jeopardy.”

As we walk about, I admire human figures doing a dance from the Gujarat region of India, while others are engaged in yoga or even brushing their teeth. The ceiling is made up of a series of panels, each with different motifs. Some are carved to resemble snowflakes, other feature concentric circles or more geometric-looking shapes. They all dazzle with their workmanship and style.

After leaving the main floor, I stop to admire a small museum dedicated to the history and culture of India and Hinduism. I had no idea, but I read that India is the birthplace of both chess and the decimal system and was home to the world’s first university. It’s also said that India is a place where scientists knew the laws of gravity 1,200 years before Isaac Newton.

Human figures at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir are so carefully carved you can even see the outlines of their toenails.

Human figures at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir are so carefully carved you can even see the outlines of their toenails.

I feel badly that I didn’t know what this complex is really all about. But even a guy who’s lived in Ontario for 35 years is constantly surprised by the province, and by Toronto. A couple hours after visiting the BAPS Mandir I find myself in suburban Don Mills, a few km’s from downtown Toronto, at the Aga Khan Museum. It’s a beautiful, low-rise building with classic, simple lines and a series of reflecting pools outside. The museum’s mission is to “foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage” in the hopes of promoting “tolerance and mutual understanding.”

Important words for troubled times, for sure.

There are more 1,000 objects in the museum’s permanent collection, and they also have temporary exhibits, music and dance performances, film screenings, lectures and more.
There are treasures galore inside the building, which has high ceilings and tons of natural light. I gaze at 13th century robes, blue and green glass bowls that are hundreds of years old and carved vessels with dragon heads from 16th century Iran.

The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is a marvellous place to see Islamic art.

The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is a marvellous place to see Islamic art.

I admire the swirling Arabic writing displayed in sections of the Koran that you can look at, as well stunning patterns in 9th century oil lamp stands and gleaming wood and bone boxes from Spain. They also have a series of lustrous ceramics on display and rotating, temporary exhibits.

When I visited they had an exhibit on The Alhambra in Spain as well as one called Marvellous Creatures, which looks at aquatic monsters, dragons and other scary stuff depicted in Islamic Art. A nice one for the kids, for sure.

The on-site restaurant, Diwan, serves up lovely cuisine fashioned by celebrity chef Mark McEwan in a sunny, modern setting. I dine on a wonderful chicken dish with Middle Eastern/Indian spices, along with fruit chutney, rice and naan bread. They also have a nice wine list.

The interior spaces at the Aga Khan Museum are airy and bright.

The interior spaces at the Aga Khan Museum are airy and bright.

Across the street is another testament to the multicultural wonders of Canada’s biggest city; the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, which presents Japanese programs and culture to both visitors and Japanese-Canadians alike.

They have a couple of small gardens and a bright, lovingly arranged display area that traces Japanese-Canadian history. It’s both wonderful and sad at the same time, Canada not having as admirable a track record with immigrants as we sometimes like to think.

The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto is a great place to learn about the beauty of Japanese culture and the history of Japanese Canadians.

The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto is a great place to learn about the beauty of Japanese culture and the history of Japanese Canadians.

I gaze at great old photos of Japanese immigrants who braved long ocean voyages for a chance at a new life in the New World. I’m especially taken by a photo of a gentleman named Manzo Nagano, who apparently was the first Japanese immigrant to Canada in the late 1800’s. He went on to become a salmon fisherman, but I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him as the first to come ashore in a strange land with unusual customs and food. I’m heartened to see a photo of him with what appears to be his wife and three grown children. Perhaps he did well for himself and his family.

Being a former sports reporter, I take great delight in the photos of Japanese-Canadian baseball teams from the 1930s and the simplicity of a pale white baseball jersey with the word “Asahi” spelled out in faded red script. I also love the photos of team members; their silent stares and frequent smiles. I can imagine how shocked they’d be to attend a Major League Baseball game today and find Japanese stars earning millions of dollars a year.

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As lovely as parts of the centre are, you’ll also find disturbing accounts of racism, including photos from Anti-Asian riots from Vancouver and other cities in the early 1900’s and photos of desperate men and women forced to leave their homes for internment camps during World War II.

Founded in 1963, the Japanese Canadian Culture Centre is one of the largest in the world, with a mandate to promote Japanese culture and Japanese-Canadian heritage. They show films on a regular basis and also have space for martial arts, traditional Japanese dancing, ping pong, bridge and more. Oh, and it’s also home to one of Toronto’s finest Japanese restaurants, Kaiseki Yu-zen Hashimoto.

NOTE: The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is free to enter, but donations are encouraged for upkeep. Check with administration regarding guided tours or group/school visits. There’s no charge to enter the Japanese Cultural Centre. The Aga Khan museum costs $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 for children. The museum is free on Wednesdays from 4 to 8 p.m.

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