Divine Hanuman Has Pride of Place At 10 Downing Street
The official residence of British PM Rishi Sunak
Divine Hanuman, venerated for his devotion to Ram and Sita, has found a new London home that embodies the beating heart of political power in the United Kingdom.
The son of Vayu and part avatar of Shiva is now ensconced in 10 Downing Street, the official residence of Rishi Sunak, Britain’s first ever Prime Minister of Indian origin.
Thanks to Prime Minister Sunak, Hanuman has pride of place inside a special place created within Downing Street, a daily reminder that the UK’s top political office is no longer the exclusive preserve of the country’s Christian majority.
All Britain’s previous prime ministers, bar one, have been Christians. The sole exception before Sunak was Benjamin Disraeli, who was born into a Jewish family before converting to Christianity at the age of 12. He served two terms as Prime Minister, first between February-December 1868 and then between 1874-1880.
Hanuman’s presence at Downing Street has been confirmed by several close friends of the Sunak family who all worship together at the Southampton Hindu temple, the only Hindu temple in the city, where Rishi’s parents, Yashvir and Usha Sunak, and his aunt Kavita Kapoor (Yashvir’s sister) are also among the regular devotees. The city, population 254,000, currently hosts 2 synagogues, five gurdwaras, 12 mosques and 183 churches
Sunday worship at the temple begins at 10 am, often starting with Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn, ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram’, followed by tabla recitals, ‘havans’ and free vegetarian ‘bhojan’ meals for all those who make the effort to attend.
Among some of the other regular visitors is tabla player Karan Sunak, son of Kavita Kapoor and first cousin of the British prime minister. Karan is a surgeon attached to the Royal Surrey hospital, about two hour’s drive from Southampton. His wife Kiran is also a doctor.
The Sunak’s family’s participation in temple ceremonies has been confirmed by the temple committee chairman, Sanjay Chandarana, an investment banker, who explains the family have always prized their privacy. They are even more keen to avoid publicity since Rishi became prime minister last year.
Equally, the family makes no secret of their contribution to building and sustaining the simple but beautiful temple. Rishi’s paternal grandfather, Ram Das Sunak, helped to collect £10,000 in donations that was a prerequisite for Hampshire Council releasing an £80,000 grant that helped start the building of the temple in 1980. By the time it was completed, Ram Das himself had passed away at the relatively young age of 63.He is still remembered with affection and a great deal of respect.
The story of Ram Das’s life and his journey from British India via Kenya to the UK is as fascinating as Hanuman’s travels from South Asia to Downing Street. He is the key to understanding how the Sunak family evolved and prospered.
Born in 1917 Gujranwala, now part of Pakistan, Ram Das’s father was a successful trader in dried fruits imported from Afghanistan. The family 'haveli', now derelict, is only a short distance away from the railway station and site of the former Khalsa High School that were bombed and strafed with machine gun fire by British colonial forces in 1919. At the time Ram Das was only two years old.
The ferocious attacks on Gujranwala were launched against civilians who dared to protest against the killings of men, women and children at Jalianwalla Bagh in nearby Amritsar. General Dyer, the man responsible for Jalianwalla Bagh, was later sacked from the army.
When Indian workers from Punjab were hired to help construct the East Africa railway line from Mombasa, Kenya, to Kampala in Uganda, Ram Das’s father spied a business opportunity to supply food for the imported labourers. Business success helped him prosper, allowing him to bring over other members of his family, including son Ram Das and daughter in law Sohag Rani, daughter of the postmaster general in Abbottabad.
Young Ram Das qualified as a chartered accountant in Nairobi before going on to serve as a senior official in colonial Kenya’s finance and justice departments. UK-based family friends, who do not want to be quoted, claim Ram Das was an active member of the Nairobi branch of the RSS and a regular participant in the daily RSS training exercises that started with a 5 am 'Shakha' knock on the door. The same friends say he played a key role in helping Kenya’s Mau Mau resistance to win independence from British colonial rule.
Ram Das and Sohag Rani’s six children all went to primary schools in Nairobi. The two older sons, Harish and Yashvir, Rishi’s father, were enrolled at university in the UK by the time Ram Das and the rest of his family arrived in 1971. The whole family lived together in a four bedroom house in Southampton that Ram Das purchased for £2000 in 1971. He chose Southampton as his family base because that was where his brilliant oldest son Harish won a prize scholarship to study fibre optics at the University of Southampton.
Until he died in 1980, Ram Das was an active participant in Hindu acts of worship that were conducted in the private homes of other Indian families also settled in Southampton. Ram Das himself passed away by the time temple opened its doors in 1984, but his family remained devoted supporters. When the temple celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2022, priest Ritesh Bhatt commented, “Its so exciting, it’s a big anniversary..we have future plans for more events to connect with all events.’
A video made to commemorate the anniversary features Rishi Sunaks’s father and aunt, Yashvir and Kavita, and pictures are available as well of Rishi making chapatis in the temple kitchen.
Hanuman Jayanti is celebrated at the temple and portraits of Hanuman match those available at Downing Street.
For Hanuman the British Prime Minister’s home is a long way away from Ayodhya and the battlefields of Lanka. But his benign presence today in the Sunak family’s London home is both a reminder of good triumphing over evil and also how multi racial and multicultural Britain today has evolved into a more inclusive and tolerant society.
Cover Photograph: Taken by Shyam Bhatia at the Southampton temple