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Architectural mosaic

Indian immigrants in North America, while trying to fulfill their religious needs, are changing the landscape of the U.S., says OMAR KHALIDI.


The Islamic Centre in New York

ALTHOUGH the Indian presence in North America dates back to at least two centuries, large-scale migration did not begin until the landmark immigration reforms of 1965. Today, in the early 21st Century, there are estimated more than a million Indian immigrants, in the United States majority of whom are Hindus and Sikhs, not surprising due to the overwhelming Hindu majority in India and the long-standing Sikh tradition of immigration to foreign lands.

Since most Indians were and remain economic migrants, their first and foremost concern remains obtaining professional education and employment, rather than attending to religious requirements. However, as time passed and numbers grew, they began to pay attention to their collective religious needs. Soon, abandoned churches, warehouses, Masonic lodges, even unused theatres were purchased and converted into Hindu temples, gurdwaras, and mosques after appropriate changes to fit the liturgical functions.

A further wave of affluent immigrants ushered in an era of purpose-built temples, gurdwaras, and mosques, adding new stones in the ever-rich American city without these religious buildings or plans to erect one. It is impossible to get an estimate of the exact number of temples, gurdwaras, and mosques. However, estimates of temples are in hundreds; there are scores of gurdwaras and some 2,000 mosques throughout the U.S.

Architecture is site-bound, it must respond to the climate, the local building material, changes in building technology and be sensitive to the existing built environment. All the religious traditions — Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam — have an ancient architectural tradition, bBut are new to the U.S. as far as architecture is concerned. Thus, they have had to import, adapt or innovate.

Temples: The standard Hindu temple has remained fundamentally the same from the 6th Century to our own times. One enters through an ornate gateway into an open courtyard that leads into the heart of the temple — a small dark chamber, called garbhagriha that contains the chief deity. Devotees visit the shrine and make an offering to the sculpted statue of god, called murtis. The chamber is surrounded by a circumambulatory, vestibule or antechamber, called antarala. Since Hindu worship is not fundamentally of a congregational nature, the only essential part of a temple is the shrine proper with its symbol-laden threshold and doorway, normally facing east. However, in all but the most basic temples, other elements are present, at least a porch, and often an antechamber or antarala, a hall or mandapa, a dwajasthamba or a flag-mast, usually a pillar fixed outside the main shrine in the sanctum. The whole conception is set in a rectangular courtyard, which sometimes contained lesser shrines.

Despite the continental dimensions of India, temple architecture is remarkably uniform. However external architectural features differentiate two main styles: the Northern or Nagara style and the Southern or Dravida style. In the U.S., only few richly endowed temples can afford most of the architectural features of a traditional temple. The most famous American Hindu temples are: Sri Mahavallabha Ganapati Devasthanam, Flushing, New York (dedicated in 1977); Sri Venkateswara in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (dedicated in 1976); Sri Venkateshwara Temple, Malibu, California, on the west of Los Angeles (dedicated 1984); Meenakshi Temple, Pearland, Texas in the greater Houston area, (dedicated in 1982); and Sri Lakshmi Temple in Ashland, Massachusetts in the greater Boston area; Hindu Temple and Cultural Centre in Wappinger Falls, New York, (built 1995). The most well known architect designing the Sri Venkateswara temples is Padmasri Muthiah Stapathy, an architect from Chennai. Ravi Verma designed the Sri Laxminarayan Temple in Riverside, California, and the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Malibu. The Wappingers Falls, the New York temple was built by Barun Basu of New London, Connecticut. Sculptors, called silpis, play a major role in carving the images of various deities. Often pre-carved deities are shipped directly from India to be assembled on site by experienced silpis who help install the deities.

In the American setting, the two traditional features of the temple design have been retained and at least two added. The first is the east-west orientation of the main sanctum and the second is the circumambulatory around it. Unlike India, where there is a general absence of congregational religious service or prayers, the interior spaces of the temples are designed to be more group-oriented as compared to the more intimate Indian temples spaces. This innovation reflects the changing ritual practices among the highly heterogeneous Hindu communities here. Most temples in India are windowless, but many in the U.S. have large skylights and windows drawing light from the auspicious eastern direction. The Sri Mahavallabha Ganapati Devasthanam has an expansion project in 2001, which includes the introduction of skylights.

Gurdwaras: The Sikh place of worship called gurdwara, which means doorway to the guru, teacher, in Punjabi. Unlike the temples and mosques, the design scheme of the gurdwara is fairly simple — it can be any roofed structure. The gurdwara contains — on a cot under a canopy — a copy of the Adi Granth, sometimes called Granth Sahib, or the old book, the sacred scripture of Sikhism. No special space requirements are needed. When Sikhs enter the main gate, they wash their hands and feet if water is available. Both men and women cover their head and proceed into the main hall in a reverential manner. Upon entering the main hall, they kneel down before the Granth Sahib. They also make an offering in cash or kind. The prototype of the gurdwaras, is the famous Golden Temple in Amritsar built in the 16th Century. It is built in a Mughal fort style. However, no conscious attempt seems to have been made to imitate the prototype in North America.

Mosques: Like the Hindu temples and the Sikh gurdwaras, the mosque as an architectural type, despite centuries of evolution, is a novelty in North America. The archetype is Prophet Muhammad's mosque in Madina called Masjid al Nabawi. Originally was a simple structure with flat-rectangular space for worshippers to pray in the order of standing, kneeling, and bowling to God Almighty facing Mecca. Thus the essential requirement for a mosque regardless of time and space is its direction facing Mecca. Inside the mosque, a niche called mihrab orients the worshippers toward Mecca.

Barring luxuries like the carpets, mosaic tiles, Arabic calligraphic panels — all mosques in the interior are identical from Malaysia in the East to Morocco in the West, and everywhere in between like in India. The exterior design elements in mosque that have come to be associated — but not religiously required — with the mosques generally are the dome, minaret, and the arched entrance or an arcade. The dome is of pre-Islamic origin, and Muslims learnt it from previous civilisations of the Near East such as the Byzantines.


The Sri Lakshmi temple, Ashland.

The minaret, or the stepped tower was often — but not always — used by the muazzin, the caller to prayer, daily to summon the faithful to prayers. All adult Muslims — female and male — are required to pray every day. However, women may pray at home. Since electronic public addresses systems cannot be used in public spaces in the U.S., the minaret has become obsolete here both due to municipal laws and the fact that there are no Muslim-concentrated neighbourhoods to justify the use of a public address system. However, for sentimental reasons, many large mosques install minarets to evoke a sense of mosque as known to the immigrant Muslims from practically all parts of the world.

Another architectural innovation in the American mosque design is the designated space for women and female children — generally at the mezzanine level. Though certainly not an architectural innovation per se, it certainly is when found in a mosque. By this architectural innovation, it can be claimed that Muslim women have gained a rightful place in the mosque. An overwhelming majority of mosques in India and the Middle East do not have enough space for women to join the prayers in congregation. A handful do have a symbolic and only a small portion of the mosque for women. But the American Muslim family is nuclear — consisting for the most part of parents and two children, they tend to worship, visit, and picnic together.

Since there is no set criteria for mosque design — other than a Meccan orientation — mosques have come in various external forms. These range from highly traditional implantations — like the Islamic Centre of Washington, D.C. to a mosque whose design approach seeks to adapt traditional forms to American context such as the Islamic Cultural Centre of New York.

Other architects have decided to completely break both from the traditional and adaptation approach in favour of innovation, as exemplified by the case of the mosque in Albuqurque, New Mexico. The highly acclaimed Islamic Centre of Washington, D.C. was designed by Egyptian engineer and built with donations from around the Muslim world, including the handsome $50,000 donation, a large amount in the 1950s, from the Nizam of Hyderabad. Its Mamluk façade, Andlusian metaphors, Persian carpets, and Turkish tiles are highly evocative and give the impression of being a straight implantation of a foreign building typology onto an American site. In contrast, the Islamic Centre of New York, designed by Mike McCarthy of Skidmore, Owing and Merrill, seeks to adapt and reinterpret traditional design elements — dome and minaret — to fit in with the Manhattan skyline. Thus its well-proportioned dome and an Americanised minaret blend effortlessly with the rest of the built environment. The Albuqurque mosque is conspicuous by the absence of outward symbols associated with mosques. From a distance it looks like a giant set of bleacher reaching skyward in tiers topped by towers that contain tall, narrow windows.

Inside, the mosque — like everywhere else — is essentially one large hall divided at prayer times by a temporary partition separating the genders. Daylight pours through the narrow windows. It is a simple, elegant building, functional, and completely at home in its environment. South Asian immigrants are thus changing not merely the demographics but also the architectural landscape of North America through new building typologies.

The writer teaches journalism

at the Massachusetts

Institute of Technology.

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