Local traditions are revived in this centre’s soaring, sustainable spaces
The idea of the sacred grove – the devrai – is common in this part of Maharashtra, western India. A devrai represents divinity, repository of sacred knowledge and biological resource. It is recognised and preserved by all who revere it. When the Somaiya Centre chose the name ‘Jetavana’ for their community centre in Wari village, they were introducing a complementary signification from the Buddhist tradition. Jetavana is a grove of trees in Shravasti, northern India, where the Buddha once walked and preached, and where there had been a great monastery and vihara (monks’ retreat).
The centre is inside the campus of a bio-refinery and was commissioned specially for its workers, their families and people from surrounding villages, who are predominantly Buddhist. Supriya Rai of the Somaiya Centre for Buddhist Studies, Mumbai, envisions Jetavana as a resource for its users, not only to develop a greater insight about the specific kind of Theravada Buddhism that most of them practise, but also as a space to engage with all religions and spiritual pursuits. Less than three months since its inauguration, Jetavana has already found local acceptance and attracts a sizeable following for twice-daily meditation sessions. Devotees of the Buddha offer their veneration in a room whose roof folds outwards to the sight of neem and gulmohur trees, where the foliage filters the glare from the harsh summer sun and gives the experience of being alfresco.
Sameep Padora (principal architect of sP+a) came to this project out of a shared interest in Buddhism and a chance encounter with Bhante Dhammadeepa, a Buddhist monk of Czech origin and the spiritual mentor of this project. The centre, then, comes together as a multi-pronged collaboration between the architect, the mentor, the patron Samir Somaiya, the Centre for Buddhist Studies, and the Hunnarshala Foundation for Building Technology and Innovations, an institution located in Bhuj in Gujarat that seeks to revive local building traditions through community participation.
Padora was clear from the start that no tree would be cut down, and located his buildings in available spaces between them, at one point even setting a wall back primly to accommodate a slim tree trunk. The resultant six small structures flank two courtyards lined with steps that can be used for community events. There is a palpable microclimate caused by the green canopy and largely porous building design, reducing the inside temperature. This is a relief, considering the location on the Deccan Plateau that regularly experiences temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius.
‘Padora was clear from the start that no tree would be cut down, and located his buildings in available spaces between them’
While all the buildings have a self-similar profile, the two larger rooms have rectangular undivided plans, one for a meditation hall and the other for a multi-use workspace. ‘The mandate of Jetavana’ says Padora, ‘is to provide a spiritual anchor for their practice of Buddhist thought while also imparting training and skill development for members of the community.’ The smaller structures house the administration and guest rooms. The place is, after all, potentially a vihara, that would welcome itinerant monks from their walking pilgrimages across the region.
Material Sourcing Diagram
There is a sparseness to the design that sets it apart from comparative centres for the Baudh Ambedkar Dalit communities that usually rely on symbolic associations (such as stupa domes, chaitya – shrine or prayer hall – arches, and ceremonial gateways) seen as indicators of Dalit pride and assertiveness. There are none of those tropes here, instead the meditation hall is focused on a statue of the Buddha in the Dharmachakra mudra (the preaching mode), a replica in stone in the Gandhara style. In the work space presides a similar statue of Saraswati, the goddess of learning. The emptiness is countered by the dynamic of the concrete valley from which the butterfly roof rises, that runs axially along the rectangular rooms directing the devotees’ gaze towards the icons. The roof itself opens like pages of a book to bring in the dappled light, where the neem trees and birdsong are a continued presence.
‘This is a group of buildings that still have to see their first monsoon. In this part of India, that becomes the final test of any building’s viability’
All the floors are finished in cow dung. This is common practice in rural households in Maharashtra and is said to have both cooling and antiseptic properties. In Jetavana, I find this choice questionable, given the caste dynamics that have pervaded the history of this region, where the lowest castes would clearly have had restricted resources for self-expression. The spare finishes, the absence of glazing, and cracked cow dung seem to run counter to contemporary aspirations of those from formerly oppressed castes now seeking an equitable presence in civil society. Here, however, these desires have been overcome by including the end-users in the design process from the beginning. In fact, it is they who have to labour to replaster the floors every quarter or so. The use of such materials is reflective of a top-down approach, more fulfilling for the architect and client rather than the growing aspirations of a transforming community. Padora sees this differently: ‘I think aspirations tie into the notion of the image and the validation of it from another context, many times not completely pragmatic. For instance, in our discussions with the community earlier, the most vocal member of the group wanting to use tile and concrete was also the one who seemed to appreciate the project the most once it was finished. I think this project coming together the way that it has, it becomes almost a demonstration of the validity, relevance and projective capacities of traditional techniques in some sense freeing them from perceived stigmas.’ In any case, the locals now seem invested in the enterprise. Ramdas Sonawane, a former worker and now a representative of the village, showed us around with great pride, while other members meditated silently in front of the Buddha, basking in the serenity of the space.
Padora is known for his small projects, the result of community engagement, for example, his Shiv temple in Wadeshwar, Maharashtra, built through shramadaan – voluntary labour of the end-users – (AR Aug 2010). A small library project in nearby Sakharwadi is currently under way. Here in Jetavana, the choice of materials and constructional practices emerges from a penchant for sourcing the local and the recycled. The load-bearing walls are of rammed earth made from basalt stone dust from a nearby quarry and fly ash waste from factories that would in the past actually pay for it to be carted away. The composite roof trusses are made from repurposed timber sourced from the Alang ship-breaking yard. The clay roof tiles are all salvaged from demolished buildings. Padora brought in Kiran Vaghela and Tejas Kotak from Hunnarshala as collaborators to build a knowledge base in using local material. In lieu of boarding, they developed a unique design of mud rolls, created by dipping jute cloth wound around wooden sticks in wet clay that provided the much-needed insulation against the searing heat. These were made in large numbers through shramadaan.
‘Padora asserts that buildings rarely remain static - the need to make buildings perfect and immutable belies the life that they take on post-occupancy through appropriations’
This is a group of buildings that still have to see their first monsoon. In this part of India, that becomes the final test of any building’s viability. With its unenclosed roof (using simple wooden-slatted blinds as protection) and mesh-panelled doors, its plastered floors and unpaved approaches, it remains to be seen if this is an adequate bulwark against the seasonal unpredictability of recent years. Rainfall has been sparse in these regions, and the availability of water a problem. The valleys that are the buildings’ most dominant feature could have been used as rainwater harvesters, but this is not the case. The centre is a modest project with a very limited budget that has been used prudently and intelligently to create soaring spaces with sustainable design. Padora asserts that buildings rarely remain static in a context and the need to make buildings perfect and immutable belies the life that they take on post-occupancy through appropriations. While it opened its doors to its users in January this year, Jetavana is still a work in progress that has enough flexibility to adapt based on changing user-needs and extant conditions.
Architect: sP+a (Sameep Padora and Associates)
Structural engineer: Rajiv Shah
Artisan consultants and coordinators: Hunnarshala
Photographs: Edmund Sumner