Reviews have described the temple blueprint as ‘truly unique’, yet the architecture is so guarded, so traditionally conventional in design, it could be anywhere
One of the true indicators of secular democratic behaviour is how a country and its people treat its minorities. After the tragedy of 9/11, a mosque on the periphery of the old World Trade Center was damaged. To make the point that Muslims were equal citizens, and not to be made potential targets of racism, the New York authorities were quick to provide relief to the damaged mosque and restore it for prayers, despite strong opposition from local right-wing groups. It was an important civic statement, and a just settlement of an issue that could have become contentious and overblown. Compare this to the Chinese government’s approach to its Muslim minority. With the Han Chinese in a majority, the government has incarcerated more than a million Uyghur Muslims from the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region in vast concentration camp-like facilities set up to convert them to a Han mindset.
India’s muddled secularism falls somewhere between these extremes; it is often jolted out of its stagnant slumber to be pushed in the Chinese direction by the government, and then put on a corrective course by journalists and NGOs who cry foul. The Ram temple saga carried on for so long that the tale went sour long ago. Its recent inaugural stone-laying was the jaded conclusion of a resigned storyline, where everything had already been said by everyone.
However, as widely reported, thousands celebrated the temple’s bhumi pujan on August 5 like Diwali. The Prime Minister added his endorsement by actively participating in the ceremony. As with many recent construction projects, size matters. The ₹300 crore mandir will be twice the size of the original 1988 design, and will involve thousands of masons and other craftspeople over a three-and-a-half-year period.
Designed by the Ahmedabad-based Sampura family and built of Bansi sandstone from Rajasthan, the structure will sprawl across 10 acres of the 57-acre site. The vast additional acreage around it that has been acquired from the Sunni Waqf Board will remain a public garden.
Is this exclusionary design a reasonable proposal for a place of such contentious history? Would a more deliberate inclusionary project, and one with multiple identities and functions, have been more effective in a situation exhausted by the heightened religious polarities it has seen? It would have been so much better if we had learnt the values of religious engagement from the inclusive ideas of architectural history.
The Alhambra in Spain went through numerous historic interventions. It was built on top of Roman foundations in 889 as a Muslim palace; 600 years later, it was converted into a Christian royal court for King Ferdinand II of Aragon, and later, in the 16th century, a Renaissance palace was added to the grounds. Now a world heritage site, the complex is an Islamic original, with a Christian palace and a Moorish garden, all sitting on Roman foundations. Such intrusions enlarge and engage with human history and give spaces — whether religious or secular — the feel of real life.
Sadly, a narrow religious view seems to be on the rise everywhere today, especially in places where the majority rules. In Turkey, the Hagia Sophia was built in 537 AD under Roman emperor Justinian I as a Christian church. The building remained a cathedral for a thousand years, till the Ottomans converted it into a mosque. Early in the 20th century, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — eager to build a secular nation — turned the mosque into a museum, open to everyone. Barely a few weeks ago, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reopened it as a mosque.
In India, we remain partial to a sanitised view of history, where architectural symbols are cleansed and made visible in immodest and monumental perfection. The Ram Mandir begins and ends on a clean slate, on ground scrupulously prepared for a glittering new structure with a permanent future. Reviews have described the temple blueprint as ‘truly unique’, yet the architecture is so guarded, so traditionally conventional in design, it could be anywhere. It could be a model, it could be a plaster cast or a replica, built in the 18th century or the 21st. A temple so perfect, without the scars of time or any evidence of its tumultuous past, with no reflection of the site’s bloody battles, in court and on site, the demolitions, the intrusions or acquisitions.
What would have happened if the ruins of the mosque had been allowed to remain in the undergrowth of the proposed garden near the new temple? What would it take to make a museum display on site attesting to the shifting physical record of the place, documenting its pained history? Only when we learn to accept history as a changing process — and not a perfect product — can we reveal who we really are.
The writer is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.