Artefact in a neighbourhood
Located in Bansberia, a busy town on the west bank of the Hooghly river, a small corner on a plot belonging to a community became the site for an architectural intervention that realises the neighbourhood as the confluence of the sacred and human, the celestial and political.
The Narayantala Thakurdalan in Bansberia, West Bengal, is not simply another temple in the mileu of contemporary design. The design of temples in more contemporary languages is an important area of discussion and some interesting designs as well as research (here, I refer to the more recent work by A. Srivathsan as well as Annapurna Garimella) on the subject exists. The design of this particular temple by Abin Design Studio adds one more interesting approach to an existing repertoire — the play with elements, components, detailing of more traditional temple designs to present and articulate a contemporary sense of ritual, sacred spaces, and forms. One peculiar observation about the case at hand is that it isn’t a standalone building in a landscape — either more natural, or rural — but it sits rather quietly in the thick of an urban neighbourhood. The temple is much like an urban shrine that is tucked into a busy street corner, very much a part of the hustle and bustle of the streets around it.
The design of this temple responds to the idea of a neighbourhood — a complex network of community, society, memory, and the politics of the land. Abin Design Studio has been working in the larger neighbourhood, with some important interventions, and that larger context becomes important to understand the sense of space and architecture, the design produces. The temple-shrine here is meant to define a street corner, and in a way it articulates its presence very strongly within an urban fabric, making itself an urban artefact. The urban artefact punctuates and then penetrates into an urban spatiality that which already exists and is probably negotiated everyday by its residents. Private and personal spaces are complex scenarios, and the ongoing negotiations between public and private spaces are the reality of neighbourhoods. In this situation how does a temple or a shrine sit in an urban location?
No shrine ever can be contained within a bound space; a shrine always produces a zone of activity and habitation around it, which it soon co-opts into its own
institutional structure and the practices of ritual in everyday life. This nature of an urban-shrine, or sacredness within an urban-everyday of movement, interaction, exchange and negotiation, is an important urban-sacred typology. Often these shrines emerge from positive or negative political interventions, or from a complexity of community identity politics. Positive political intervention, and the openness to the nature and form of this shrine (the house and space) can also generate important attitudes within the community and social relationships that shape our everyday existence in life.
The design for this temple produces a certain kind of non-form — a simple and humble rectangular box, with largely two of its adjacent sides removed and partly converted into a jali. No obvious element or component of the temple architecture imagination is included in this design. The shikhara — which is the quintessential temple element and component, and that defines visually, formally, as well as ritually the sense of space and form in a temple building — is absent here. In fact the shikhara here is emphasised through its formal absence. It is carved out of the rectangular cuboid mass, and allowed to dissipate and disappear into the street, the street junction, and the neighbourhood at large. It is carved out of the volume rather than imposed on it. The shikhara creates spaces of entry and engagement in this case — as the removal of the shikhara as volume and mass from the cuboid creates occasions for entry into the temple, but also opens up the corner of this new building to allow for road interaction of the paserby-devotee. The shikhara that otherwise produces a ritual space — one that is not for entry, and a visual form — one that articulates the temple within a cosmography of divine
beings and celestial spaces, is converted here into a human artefact, an artefact defined by its absence, and artefact of publicness. The volume of the shikhara subtracted from the most public corner of this urban and sacred insert actually best combines sacredness with publicness. The absent shikhara, or the memory of the shikhara, is the point of entry, the point of viewing the idol at all times through the day!
The two public and urban sides of the shrine are also architecturally articulated as jalis — a perforated matrix. As much as the jali flows down to us from a history sacred and royal spaces but also the everyday segregation of publicness and privateness, the jali here is also the most urban of all architectural elements and artefacts. The jali — not as the geometry carved in stone or cast in plaster, but the jali created by metal grilles in a hypersensitive urban environment of maximising space usage, as well as producing an sense of safety in a hyper-security-conscious world
is also the important reference here. The decision to mark the two urban and street edges of the shrine by a semi-open wall system of grids, allowing ample visual flows and connections between the interior of the shrine and the exterior of the street, makes for an important urban artefact again. There is a sense of demarcation that does not privatise but rather releases space — in both directions — from sacredness to civic-ness, as well as from the public street to the ritual centre of the idol. Today, where often religious intervention in public or civic everyday-life is a matter of concern along with political opportunism, this humble yet definitive design of the shrine releases the sacred as civic, while adopting the civic as the human component in the cosmos of divine beings in worldly geographies. This becomes much more evident when one learns how the architect’s intervention vis-à-vis the templeshrine is part of a larger socio-political engagement with the neighbourhood, in their capacity of designers.
Shrines emerged in human civilisations out of a need to comprehend the relationships between the human and the divine, the everyday and the magical, to articulate and locate the sense of material geography we walk every day, in the cosmic imagination of creation. The design of this shrine is particular in the context of today as it articulates urbanity and social interactions through the sacred as an artefact of human ecology. The design of this shrine may redefine the concept of the axis mundi so central to understanding shrines and temple architecture — the central axis that holds all universe and all creation in centrepetal and centrifugal interactions. The shrine, in becoming an urban corner of publicness and sacredness simultaneously, brings the divine and human in conversation with each other rather than defining one as central to the other.