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Sai Mandir Temple by SEA: ‘straddling the world of memory and history’

The lattice structure transforms this humble temple into an inviting social arena

On the face of it, the new temple of Sai Mandir in Vennached looks like a distilled version of a traditional Hindu temple – a simple religious building with recognisable elements such as a gateway, sanctum and circumambulatory path. But what makes this place of worship significant is the creative and extended role it plays in this remote village west of Hyderabad – one of the IT capitals of India. Wrapped in brick tracery, generous design has turned this sacred space into an inviting and desirable social arena. SEA – Studio for Environment and Architecture –has creatively juxtaposed changes and continuities, articulating innovation and underpinning traditions from the long history of temple building.

The project, built on a small 320m2 plot and completed only a few months ago, is dedicated to Shirdi Sai Baba, a saint who lived and preached in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hindus in many such villages and towns revere God and ‘godmen’ alike and make no distinction when it comes to building sacred structures. At times, temples for godmen (there are very few godwomen) are grander than the ones dedicated to the gods.

‘Wrapped in brick tracery, generous design has turned this sacred space into an inviting and desirable social arena’

K Hari Krishna, the principal architect of SEA, is agnostic about faith and rituals and has never designed a temple before. ‘Lack of experience or views about religion did not impede the design,’ he insists. ‘Any sensitive designer can evoke the sense of the sacred by remaining alert to the relation between nature and architecture. Light, scale and site-specific natural features are critical to achieving this’. Krishna’s design for Sai Mandir has retained most of the traditional elements of a temple: boundary walls that clearly delineate the sacred space, axial entries heralding a sequential movement to the sanctum, orientation to cardinal directions, articulated gateways, towers over the sanctum and circumambulation passage. Working alongside one of the patrons who initiated and substantially funded this project, they agreed not to upset these essentials in their pursuit to build a new temple. However, the design did not merely reproduce traditional elements; it also made a few critical departures.

The innovation began with the delineation of boundaries. Instead of the usual opaque solid wall, historically derived from royal and military paradigms, the encircling walls at Sai Mandir are porous. Delineating the sacred space was necessary, but letting the wall sever the connection with the adjacent public place would have isolated the temple totally. Four sets of brick tiers in increasing heights, turned at different angles, produce a lattice-like structure through which the inside and out permeate. The brick wall also evokes the traditional jali (a perforated screen to help cool the space). The narrow slits allow fresh breezes to meander and people to glimpse through it. The pavilion inside connects with the large 100-year-old neem outside and shares its shade. The sound and light (particularly in the evening) from the inside enliven the outside.  If the interior with its open pavilion draws the villagers to worship as well as rest, outside, the raised and extended plinth affords a place to gather, converse and conduct business. While men old and young claim the platform around the tree, women and children use the temple plinth and the interior extensively.

Krishna emphasises that light is the key element to articulate the sacred and views it as the vital link in the nature–architecture relationship. Light to him is evocative and he has successfully incorporated it as one of the design’s central features. The narrow courtyard enveloping the open pavilion with the shrine, and the outer lattice screen, are the key sources of illumination. Light from the top bounces off the overhanging roof, falling on the zigzag screen walls to create unexpected patterns. At times, the shadows are symmetrical, at times wonderfully unpredictable – they become the ornament. The strip of clear bright blue sky, seen from the open space, sets a perfect contrast. Here, light does not create an aura but repeatedly reshapes the perception of space, making it appear more layered than it is.

‘Instead of the usual opaque solid wall, historically derived from royal and military paradigms, the encircling walls at Sai Mandir are porous’

The use of unusually long bricks, manufactured by a German company based in an adjacent state, aids this experience. Their earthy colour accentuates the shadows, the grooved surface adds texture, and the sharp edges articulate the slits in the screen well. Climatically too, the bricks perform better, they are more suitable for the high temperatures experienced in the village. Bricks also enliven the building, and the red earth hue approaches the saffron colour associated with Hindu ritual objects. Apparently brick was neither the natural nor the first choice in this project however. Krishna initially prescribed local stone for the outer screen – the patrons and the villagers did not appreciate its grey tone so he replaced it with brick. The decision has paid off.

The shikhara (tower over the sanctum) marks the height of Krishna’s experimentation. It is the sacred high point and an icon in itself. If the tree has been the traditional anchor element and a quintessential feature of the village, Sai Mandir with its jagged shikhara and bright clay-brick walls is a complementary addition. 

Typically, the shikhara is assembled as tiers of sculptures culminating in a finial. The north Indian variation is a fractal assemblage of geometric patterns or leaping curvilinear sections but, at Sai Mandir, the shikhara takes a new jagged form.

‘The geometry is displaced at every tier, which is neither of equal height nor follows a well-worked-out proportion’

The geometry is displaced at every tier, which is neither of equal height nor follows a well-worked-out proportion. The emphasis is on the effect of the recess: the eye that anticipates all the edge points aligning and taking a gentle sweep along the surface to the finial, then to the sky, is disappointed. However, the innovation has not been stretched to the extent that it loses its typological meaning. The villagers reverently look at the new shikhara that dots their skyline.

Hindu temple architecture has a long unbroken history. From the seventh century, when social and religious transformations positioned temple worship as the more accessible and desirable form of religious experience, temple architecture flourished. It developed a rich lexicon of symbols, entwined meaning with form and space, and even had codification in the ancient texts.

Sai Mandir is an austere structure, but sumptuous regarding materials. The temple eschews ornamentation and the sculptures that usually adorn Hindu temples. This, however, does not make it a stripped-down version of a traditional temple nor a ‘modern’ abstraction; it is an interpretation that straddles the world of collective memory and history, and the architect’s subjective imagination.

Innovations were not easy to come by. The architects had to persuade the patrons and villagers. Design drawings and assurances partly helped. Equally important is the fact that Sai Mandir does not make many liturgical demands on its architecture as Brahminical temples would. Krishna thinks designing temples for God would not be the same as designing for godmen. But he is convinced design could create innovative spaces and forms without losing the sense of the sacred. This not only reflects his faith in design but also indicates the plural practices in Hindu temple building. Vennached, which has about 15 temples, attests to this. None expressed it more emphatically than Bimamma, a 65-year-old woman resident. She perceptibly remarked, ‘temples cannot be the same all the time’.

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