This article won the Citation one of the Architectural Journalism competition of the east Zonal meet of National Assiciation of Students of Architecture, India hosted by NIT Rourkella in October 2015. It was authored by Shubhayan Modak along with Shayantani, Sourav, and Srinjoy.
Architecture, in its most basic form, owes its advent to one of the three fundamental needs of mankind – shelter. But as man surpassed his meager needs and strove towards a better quality of life, with the industrial revolution further paving the way, architecture, from being local and sometimes even individual, became a vehicle of imperial expression. However, in the current scenario, it becomes an imperial expression when it is commissioned by vested interests or otherwise by individual efforts, be it large-scale or small by billionaire entrepreneurs or mere shopkeepers. On the other hand, architects may stamp their idiosyncrasies on their creations which give these structures an imperialist nature without commissioned vested interests, individual or otherwise.
Thus we find, that architecture serves as an extremely useful vessel, to express one’s authority, stature and power, where the context maybe political, cultural, religious, commercial or anything else. The sole intention of such buildings is to inspire awe and invoke a sense of humility within the “commoners”. We can find numerous examples under each category – The Ambani residence, Antilia, stands out like a beacon in the heart of Mumbai and comes second to only the Buckingham Palace with respect to estimated value. The sheer opulence of the residence makes a statement for the power and authority of the Ambani’s. The Facebook HQ, iterates and consolidates its position as the world’s largest web-based company through its brilliant form.
The world is strewn with numerous such specimens… the names and contexts are endless, and thus the views, portrayals, and impressions left by these various structures on people are also infinite, based on the demographics, sociopolitical and cultural backdrops of these people. Amidst the unhindered diversity, there is, however, one large-scale unifying factor – that of religious beliefs.
Humankind is considered the smartest species to walk the earth. However, at every instance that man has failed to explain a phenomenon, almost cent percent has attributed the phenomenon as a deed by a greater power, unmatched and indomitable. While concrete evidence of religious structures is missing in the pre-historic era, yet there is considerable data to substantiate the existence of religions, cults, and God. And as man gradually left behind the nomadic way of life and became farmers, their belief in god was greatly strengthened.
With the dependence on God and religion on the rise, man began to build shrines and sanctuaries for gods. Slowly these places of worship began to be regarded as the major structures in the settlement; focal points to the developing landscape. Ziggurats, placed high and centrally, became points of growth, focus, and belief in the Mesopotamia. Thus enters the imposing nature of religious architecture on the human mind.
Eventually, a section of the masses realized how much could be gained by milking this blind faith. Worshipping ‘God’ was not enough. Prayers from one’s home, though heartfelt, was apparently falling on deaf ears. Pilgrimages, offerings, sacrifices and the likes came into existence. Religion, vested by common interests, was and is still being commercialized, feeding on the people’s apprehension of the unknown, growing by the second.
A section of the masses realized how much could be gained by milking this blind faith. Worshipping ‘God’ was not enough.
One such example from contemporary India is a temple that is currently being constructed in Mayapur, its scale and grandeur far surpassing that of its existing sister shrine. On completion, it will be recognized as the largest temple of Asia. This is the Chandrodaya temple, under the religious sect of ISKCON.
There already exists a temple at Mayapur, under ISKCON. The temple, at present, is a moderately large temple, having prayer halls, kitchens, an ayurvedic medical center and even cowsheds. The present temple holds three main festivals- Jhulan, Rakhi, and Janmashtami every year. Daily prayers, food offerings, and other holy chores are performed; this temple attracts thousands of devotees every year from all over the world to offer their prayers to Lord Krishna.
What, therefore, is the purpose of creating a temple having such enormous proportions, close to the existing temple? Seemingly just the one – to intimidate the people visiting it, to invoke awe by its sheer size.
In the Romanesque period, the churches were architecturally less grand, and only the functional aspects were given importance. However, when we analyze the churches built during the Gothic age, we realize that as the church grew in its influence, so did the size and height of the vaults. Extensive flying buttresses, high ribbed vaults, and turrets did nothing except create a sense of awe in the minds of the people, inducing respect for the church. The intricate details on the walls of the church, the rose windows, and plate tracery were used to emphasize the importance of the church. The church structure was used as a tool to express what the clergy preached-respect for the Pope and ultimate importance to the religion.
Reverting focus to the temple in question, we can easily interpret the reason behind the opulence of the temple. The temple demands respect and awe beyond question from the devotees of Lord Krishna. ISKCON is a worldwide confederation with more than 550 centers preaching the ideals of Bhakti and Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. Indeed, what better way to express its global influence than by building the second largest religious structure in the world?
Structurally the building under construction surpasses some of the most famed architectural wonders of the world. Its height is greater than the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul), our very own Taj Mahal, and St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The only structure larger than it remains the St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the residence of the Pope himself, and the epitome of the Christian religion. It remains the only structure catering to the Bhakti movement to achieve such gargantuan proportions.
Let us now compare the temple to similar such existing structures.
The Jagannath temple at Puri, Orissa is one of the most prominent functional temples of today, which attracts millions of devotees during the festival of Rath Yatra. Undoubtedly, its fame is global. This temple can be aptly compared to the Chandrodaya temple as it also employs the concept of huge structures to project a sense of its power and induce humility in the hearts of the devotees. Devotees are overcome with wonder once they enter the main prayer hall. However, the hall is simple and focuses the three idols of the gods. In the Chandrodaya temple, however, the prayer halls are to be made ornate with intricate detailing inside.
What is the influence of the Chandrodaya temple on the minds of its devotees?
It cannot be determined what its authority over the people will be because the temple is still under construction. However keeping in mind the sway of similar structures, we can certainly draw a number of hypotheses, with a marginal chance for error. The Chandrodaya temple may turn out to be so colossal in its proportions that it overawes its followers. This would be in theory, erosive, as the purpose is to bring the human existence to the submission of the Supreme. Something humble, which draws the people to itself, would have served better. Considering the international levels, the Chandrodaya will receive millions of visits, in spite of the psychological dysfunctionality being a probable hindrance. Being the largest functional Hindu temple in existence, the foot count will be presumably gigantic, surpassing the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam and Angkor Vat, Cambodia, in its glory. Thus the structure itself could strategically influence people to join the Bhakti movement. Just like the Vatican is to the Christians, and Mecca is to the Muslims, ISKON, Mayapur endeavors to become the hub of the Bhakti faith in the world after the completion of Chandrodaya.
The Chandrodaya temple may turn out to be so colossal in its proportions that it overawes its followers. This would be in theory, erosive, as the purpose is to bring the human existence to the submission of the Supreme.
If we view the techno-economic part, we will realize that the size and structure of the temple would greatly influence it as well. In a country like India, there exists an interesting relationship between religious cultures and economic behavior. Building a mammoth sized temple would influence the God loving (or fearing?) Indian people to come in hordes and bow down in “sajda” in front of the sheer size of it. Religious dominance is extremely important to the economy in India, as people here do whatever they can to attain salvation. Religious rites, donations, penances are common here. ISKCON is involved in a large number of welfare activities and the money required largely comes from the devotees. So it is extremely important to ensure that religion continues its dominance.
In a country like India, there exists an interesting relationship between religious cultures and economic behaviour.
While it may not directly influence politics in India, it certainly brings out a different aspect of the country’s democracy. A structure this enormous, requiring international funding to be erected in a country like India suffering from long drawn political rivalry and clash of interest, cannot be completed if not backed up by a single or a conglomeration of political parties. And, when a religious group or a secular political party backs up such a sect, it goes without words, the influence on vote banks. When we build a huge structure which is a representation of the religious influence on the people, it paints an entirely different picture altogether. It goes on to show that religion still has the upper hand in India.
A structure this enormous, requiring international funding to be erected in a country like India suffering from long drawn political rivalry and clash of interest, cannot be completed if not backed up by a single or a conglomeration of political parties. And, when a religious group, or a secular political party backs up such a sect, it goes without words, the influence on vote banks.
In the end, what we have to consider is why this massive temple is being built at all. It can be viewed as religious arrogance, but one must delve deeper into the philosophy of the masses before any such hurried conclusion. What happens, really, when we come face to face with a massive structure? We are daunted by it, we bow down to the monstrosity that makes us seem so insignificant. Further thought leads us to wonder whether the building is a measure of the influence propagated by the religion, or whether the building is built so as to exercise a greater control on the minds of the followers. While it could be either of the two, it is more likely that the building is used to illustrate how much an effect the Bhakti cult preached by ISKCON, has on the ideals and beliefs of its followers. It attempts to use the building as a platform to prove its might and power over the common mass.
The essence of a typical temple in the ancient Vedic era was to create a one to one relationship between man and god. This temple, while based on Vedic principles, hardly considers the singular relationship between man and God. Large prayer halls and lavish interiors may well defeat the purpose of building a temple. Generally, a shrine is considered to be a place where the common people go to achieve peace of mind. When the prayer hall itself is so ornate and huge that one cannot help admiring its size and intricacy of detailing, it defeats the purpose of prayer itself. The Bhakti movement taught its followers to lead a simple and more natural way of life. But if the halls for preaching this are themselves contradiction to this very rule, it does not do justice to the thought or the concept of Bhakti. A devotee chanting “Hare Krishna” is supposed to concentrate on this mantra only. Instead, he is so overcome by the temple that his thoughts go astray. One might argue that it is a test that the devotees must face, but such an argument seems a little too farfetched.
The Chandrodaya temple is a perfect epitome of the imperialistic behavior of architecture on human minds. It portrays very clearly how human nature can be manipulated, subjugated through the construction of colossal and flamboyant structures. Ancient philosophies enumerate deep relations between God, and his human child, achieved in peace, and seclusion. However, an economically controlled country, aiming towards building a politically willed supremacy through such an unnecessary large structure will be missing its point of creating the sense of tranquility. It will create a sense of domination successfully, it will make the human awestruck. But the parallel existence of the creator with his creation misses its mark. God would probably never want us to be so overwhelmed by him, that we are diverted from our prayers or are coerced us into submission by tales of the self-proclaimed religious preachers. He would want to coexist with us. And that fine thread somehow stays absent here, unintentionally or otherwise.