Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Can temples be more retrograde?

One thing that kept me bothering from the moment I first visited a temple here in the US is....temple architecture. Temples here remain more or less archaic with one exception: the fire-alarms and sprinklers on top. They are an excellent illustration of "post-industrial vedic society with retrograde-est things possible" phenomenon. Like in any culture, for a long time, temples were places of public gathering in India, not any more though. Apart from the usual architectural differences between temples of North and South India, one significant difference is ventilation. Tropics made temples of South India more ventilated, while colder weathers up north made them less naturally ventilated.

Temples here have a similar story. Climate and Air-conditioning make them close walled. Temples are THE places of gathering for Desis, grocery stores being a close-second. Some guy said he is looking for a job and put up his resume on a temple notice board in San Jose! From 'Camry for sale' to furniture to music classes to India tickets to SP Balasubramanyam's benefit show to a local desi DJ party .....everything ends up on a temple notice board. Temples have been embracing enough in these instances.

But why do they have to look exactly like the ones built by Raja Raja Chola or Krishna Deva Raya?? Why do they have to the same ornamentation on walls and the roof invented centuries ago? The only innovation I can appreciate is...coloring the ornamentation... as done on the outer gopurams of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai even though it may sound a little cheesy and non-traditional (non-vaidika) for many brahmins. Oh, wait! How can I forget this great innovation? The Saraswathi temple in Pilani (home to BITS Pilani) is modelled after one of those exotic Khajuraho temples. But the high point is when you notice the busts of Lincoln, Ramanujan, Vivekananda, Paramahamsa, Pasteur, Einstein, Tagore and other 'kids of Saraswathi' on its white marble walls. Thats some re-interpretation of Saraswathi, I thought. GD Birla was truly a visionary. (Well, I've to admit that I went to school there. But even with out those allegiances, I' would admit that Saraswathi Mandir is quite something).

Now, here is a country that is the home to some of the greatest modern architects on the planet: Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Louis Kahn and Maya Linn ( I choose these people in this context... as these are the guys who have an outstanding sense of blending with nature, flowing shapes, natural ventilation and a sense of time). The 'model minority' of the nation with all its wealth, advanced degrees and progressiveness goes to temples frozen in 15th century! The low point was the Swaminarayan temple in Chicago. Tonnes of money were spent on the temple, tonnes of marble was mined from God knows where. There is an elaborate tour of 'Sanatana Dharma' along the entrance. But I felt extremely claustrophobic when I stepped into the actual temple. Its like a dungeon with little sun light coming in. They only got more money to spend on 'disco lighting'. I couldnt avoid drawing comparisons to the cave paintings of France. The only difference, the visitors here are not high on narcotics.

The other extreme was a small time temple in Artesia, near Los Angeles. A church in a neighborhood which recently became 'Little India' ...was converted to a temple. The temple didnt have any inner sanctum and a formal priest. It didnt have a shoe stand, it had a coat closet and rows of seating. But was I comfortable with the whole thing? Not completely. I didn't find it original enough. It was too practical ( :D ). It was too much of change. It was not building on any of the existing 'culture' nurtured and matured through centuries of time.

But I believe there is a middle ground. I believe there has to be an evolution. An evolution from those 15th century architectural approaches to something more modern but at the same time retaining the core philosophy of the traditional approach. Chola's Brihadeeswaralaaya is state-of-the-art because, at that time it was higher than anything around it. It took some innovative engineering techniques to build temples using massive amounts of rock. It held people in awe. I am not sure if taking a 15th century approach to constructing a temple today has the same effect.

The mere fact that these temples are in the United States, somehow raises my expectations a lot. In this country, there can be a Vegas kind of extravagance, a bible belt kind of conservatism but there will be and should be a religious equivalent of Maya Lin's contemplative Vietnam War Memorial.


Amodini said...

I don't think that just because temples look like older, ornate ones, it's a bad thing. I think it's a good thing that you preserve and remember a thing of beauty and examples of great craftmanship. What needs to change is the ornate thinking - like instead of spending this huge amount of money mining and shipping expensive stone from across the world, donate all that extra money to a good cause and use a cheaper stone instead. I don't think the Lord cares. And as far as that ornate thinking goes, it is present in desis all across the world (and not just in the US).

Kesava Mallela said...

Thanks for writing. I agree, there is nothing wrong per se with temples looking older. But it certainly represents a lack of creativity or unwillingness to change, while it would be totally stupid to argue that Hindu temples have the best form and function and hence they CANNOT be improved upon!

Temples took a different shape in Cambodia when the idea traveled from India. Didn't they? I think there is just way too much emphasis on the whole culture preserving thing...when in reality...things live on by evolving, NOT by fossilizing themselves!

Amodini said...

As far as evolving on temple architecture goes, you'd evolve if you saw a need for it. The temples in my city, which I've visited, fit their function very well - which is to allow a space for prayer. There are temples which have language classes etc. and they have additional rooms for that. But these "utility" rooms, also outwardly look like temple buildings, which is great IMO. The shrine, so to speak is usually housed in an ornate, beautifully decorated building. There is something to be said for a temple looking like a temple - I'd not want to pray in a temple housed in a Gehry building, for example, because that is not my "image" of the House of God.
I do agree that form needs to fit function, however temples are more than just prayer-houses and gathering places - they represent art and culture, and the crafts that are so uniquely Indian. If we lose the representation of "Indian-ness" in America, where would we be ?
I think it would be a great loss if we "evolved" temples into bare, functional spaces (and I adore Frank Lloyd Wright's work) devoid of decoration. Every time I visit the Swaminarayan temple here, I marvel at the intricate carving and craftsmanship although I cringe at the cost of the temple bulding. I don't even enter the temple sometimes, just sitting outside in beautiful, ethereal suroundings is enough.

Aravind said...

I think the idea here is to make the Indians feel "at home" in the temples here. This takes precedence over building a more practical structure. I personally dont relish going to the temple here in Seattle area because it doesn't "look" like a temple.

Kesava Mallela said...

Thanks for writing. I agree one of the ideas is to make us feel at home. But there are so called ABCDs for whom this IS the home. Rahman's music, for example, makes people feel at home at the same time takes them to new frontiers. Yeah, it certainly takes a genius like Rahman to do the balance. The point is it can be done and it needs to be done...otherwise we would have been stuck with Anu Maliks and Raj-Kotis.

Mahadevan said...

Keshav, this is what i feel atleast - the temples in the US of A (and I presume the ones in Dubai/S'pore/AUS follow the same) trying to mock the indian way of constructing a temple, lack the very vibration that a temple in India has (take the Srirangam temple or any other centuries old temple for instance). when they cant get that "temple-feeling" with such same ideas, i just cant imagine how bad it would be to construct something like a Vegas extravagance on an indian temple.

but as you said, that darn notice board in the temple looks like a sulekha home page at times.

PS: and the one in desi podcast, there was lot of editing that has happened in there... :-)

Nihar said...

Building temples is more than just blending with nature. A temple is a place of worship built according to scriptures and not some whimsical product of a human fallible mind. It is a dedication to the supernatural not the 'natural' and mundane stuff.

Kesava Mallela said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kesava Mallela said...

Here is one temple that doesnt look like a typical Hindu temple, but never the less, invokes spirituality and peace: http://www.dhyanalinga.org/about.htm