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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 July 2005, 01:05 GMT 02:05 UK
English tests 'threaten worship'
By Duncan Walker
BBC News

Statue at Balaji Temple
The statues at the Balaji Temple are hand-carved
For the team behind what will be one of Europe's largest Hindu temples there is a new addition to the long list of daily tasks - fighting government immigration policy.

After eight years and getting on for 7.5m, the battle to transform a desolate West Midlands industrial site should soon be won.

The bulk of the looming Shri Venkateswara Balaji Temple in Tividale is already built. Its backers enthusiastically point out where a grand staircase and hand-carved statues will go.

But there is a problem - they cannot find enough traditionally trained Indian priests and, while the government says candidates must speak English, they do not believe they will be able to do so.

The lack of these scholarly pujaris has left many at the temple feeling "uncomfortable" and efforts to change ministers' minds are underway.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett introduced the English language rules to ensure priests "can speak to and for their congregations", but the Hindu Council says the move has left many other temples facing similar problems.

'Essential acts'

Although the men in hard hats and the clink-clink of Indian stone masons hand-carving blocks of granite are a constant reminder of the work still to be done, the Balaji Temple is partly open.

Priests at the Balaji Temple

Around the complex, the five pujaris at the temple - which says it needs eight - chant Sanskrit mantras as part of intricate and often lengthy rituals in honour of its deities.

Priests focus on "the essential acts of Deity worship, which involves offering pure foodstuffs to the Deity, bathing Him, clothing Him, and looking after Him in the most pure and spiritual way", the Hindu Council explains.

The Balaji Temple's rituals are the same as those that have been performed in India for thousands of years - which means that only traditionally trained pujaris can work there.

400,000 followers in UK
Hindus believe in a universal soul, or God, called Brahman
No founder, single teacher, or prophets
Not a single, unified religion
Existence a cycle of birth, death and rebirth
Hinduism more than 3,000 years old

Most started learning the mantras and rituals in India when they were about eight, continuing until they were 15. "Academic" subjects like English were not important.

"We are in trouble because finding a person properly trained in these traditions who can speak English is difficult, I don't think it's possible," says temple manager Dr Praveen Kumar.

The chances of finding a suitable priest raised in the UK are considered remote as British schools would not provide such dedication to one subject.


Nevertheless, it is English-speakers which the government says it must find.

Those travelling to the UK must have a basic grasp of English and, if they are to stay after two years, become a competent writer and speaker of English.

Hope is what makes you get on, so we hope the Home Office will see that this is the thing which keeps Hindus peace-loving and cool
Dr Praveen Kumar

"It is also important that once here, faith leaders play a full role in their communities and gain an understanding and appreciation of British civic life," Mr Blunkett said when introducing the rules.

Anil Bahnot, general secretary of the Hindu Council, says Hindus have been caught up in what he believes to be a policy aimed at tackling radical Muslim preachers.

As scholarly pujaris perform only rituals and do not preach, argues Mr Bahnot, they should be exempt from the tests unless they decide to take a more pastoral role, or stay on beyond two years.

Immigration Minister Tony McNulty has met Balaji Temple chairman Dr Narayan Rao to discuss the issue and the Home Office says it "takes seriously all the concerns of the faith community".


Among the Hindu community hope that it can force a government re-think remains.

"Hope is what makes you get on, so we hope the Home Office will see that this is the thing which keeps Hindus peace-loving and cool," said the Balaji Temple's Dr Kumar.

But even if the argument does go the temple's way, there is little chance that the months ahead will be quiet.

There are the small matters of keeping the builders on schedule, starting work on landscaping the grounds, organising a children's summer school and doing more fundraising.


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