Unique Architecture of the temple dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna

Concept to Creation - A note by our architect Shri Narendra Dengle

Designing a temple in the 21st century has several issues connected with it. The common man sees a temple as something totally traditional not only conceptually but also in craft and detail. Traditionally, temples were conceived and built by sthapatis who were not only well versed with the ancient way of building temples but were familiar with the philosophy and scriptures which explained the principles and the details of temple design and construction. The contemporary architect is trained differently. Some what cut off from the sthapatis tradition, he envisions his designs with contemporary concerns that involve technology as well as imagery. Hence for me, the temple dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna offered a unique opportunity to interpret the tradition of Ramakrishna temples that began with the Belur Math.

Strictly speaking, the Ramakrishna Temple is not a Hindu temple since it is proclaimed to be a Sarvadharma temple. Ramakrishna temples all over the country have a tradition of their own. The original temple at Belur which was designed by Swami Vijnananandaji under the direction of Swami Vivekananda with the help of M/S Martin Burn & Co., architects - builders of Calcutta, was aimed at the fusion of various visual ideas represented in the temples of different religions. The Belur Math temple, which combines the features of religious architecture from different religions, is founded on concerns, which are totally different from the foundations of the Hindu temple. It combines, for instance features from churches, Buddhist Chaitya halls, people's architecture, Rajasthani palace architecture etc. and therefore presents a completely new form of religious architecture. At Belur Math, the Natmandira became a congregational hall and was not to be detached from Garbhagriha, like in the Hindu temple, thus connecting both in a continuous space like that in a Christian Church. The Garbhagriha had a domical roof like that of S Maria Del Fiore at Florence of Italian Gothic style, and the architectural detailing especially the roof forms and chajjas incorporated several elements from the Hindu temples and the palaces of Rajasthan.

The initial concept prepared by well known Architect Shri Achyut Kanvinde envisaged a Sabhamandapa, Garbhagriha and the rear utility rooms. It also included a basement to be used for gatherings and discourses. It was at Shri Kanvinde's suggestion that I took over from him as the Architect to further develop the design incorporating the needs of the Math. The present architectural design prepared by me therefore, is based on the interpretation of the visual imagery associated with the temple at Belur Math. The design has retained the octagonal Sabhamandapa with its roof ventilation system proposed by Shri Kanvinde, added the frontal edifice at the entrance pavilion and changed the geometry of the rear rooms. The approaches to detailing have been so devised as to carefully and subtly fuse some of the visually compatible features of the religious temples belonging to all religions. The elements do not therefore come together to make a visual hybrid of forms but a fusion. They merge into one another rather than retain individualistic identity as elements identifiable with different religions.

The Sabhamandapa and the Garbhagriha have been retained in their intended relationship in the design. The domes have been designed in pre-cast Ferrocrete shells and the main Shikhara consists of vertical ribs and horizontal fins that are meant to evoke the imagery of the Belur Math dome. The Shikhara has been made lighter with the gaps between the horizontal fins. This would filter artificial light through its fins at night to create a sublime effect.

Functional Distribution
The frontal entrance edifice holds rooms for footwear and storage of musical instruments, carpets etc. (The rooms are now used for distribution of Prasad, a small book sales counter etc. - Editor) The main Sabhagriha is at the ground floor level where, inside the Garbhagriha the idol of Sri Ramakrishna is located. It is built in white marble and seated on a lotus pedestal. The Sabhagriha can seat about 450 persons. A similar hall is located in the basement for spiritual retreats, lectures and devotional music programs. Together, the halls would create the facility for about 900 persons. Both the halls are ventilated through vertical shafts. This mechanical ventilation system is intended to circulate air within the halls by bringing in fresh air from roof level, but, it is not breeze. The hall at the basement is accessible directly by ramps. There is a large oil painting made by Shri Mrigank Joshi, a renowned senior painter, which depicts the life and events from Sri Ramakrishna and his disciples. Elaborate water proofing measures are taken to keep the masonry and the inner rooms dry. The rear rooms in the basement are meant for washing and drying the garments of the deity. The waste water from the basement is lifted up to the natural drainage level by means of submersible pumps. There is a Pradakshina path that goes around the temple which is connected to the three entrances to Sabhamandapa.

The Torana gateways attempt to reinterpret the ancient Tao and Torana gateways. For elderly and disabled devotees access has been provided by means of a ramp leading to the eastern entrance of the Sabhamandapa. At the rear end, an independent access for the sadhus and people connected with worship and care of the shrine room, leads to the service zone behind the Garbhagriha.

Construction/Finishes

Shri Vishnu Joshi has imaginatively designed the structure. The shikharas and domes consist of pre-cast ferro cement elements, which were cast well in advance and lifted up to place in position after the construction of the basic structure. Traditionally, the shikharas used to be heavy being built in stone.

The present shikhara does not need to be so heavy. Therefore a system was created by which domes and shikharas were designed in lightweight construction. This was also utilized for the aesthetic impact by evolving doubly curved shells as well as fins and ribbed method of construction. The shikharas are treated and finished in glass tiles that render a surface that does not need maintenance.

The colour of the glass tiles is chosen to match the colour of the stone used for cladding the walls. The construction of walls has been in hollow concrete blocks with RCC frame structure. The external face of the building has a cladding of Newase stone to establish a visual base of the temple while Dholpur and Agra stone slabs are employed to clad the walls, sills and lintels. The stone cladding has been secured to walls with stainless steel clamps that are specially designed for the purpose. The columns have been designed in exposed concrete to evoke the traditional Hemadpanthi column. The entire external surface has been given a protective coat of silicon that makes it water repellent. The surface of the Pradakshina Path and the surrounding paving has been made of a combination of left over stone and Mandana stone. At the entrance, for instance, exposed aggregate finish has been used that is made of stone chips from Dholpur and Agra stone. All windows are built in timber and ply. There is a stained glass panel designed for the entrance door. The motifs on the paneled doors evoke the geometry of the temple in plan and hence reflect squares, rectangles and octagons. The railings have been built in pre-cast exposed concrete in combination with mild steel frames. Together, these evoke a variety of oriental images. The flight of the steps at the main entrance has long treads made up of Dholpur stone.

The interior of the temple is simple and serene. The flooring is in mirror polished Kotah laid in designed panels. Motifs are made in white marble. The walls are plastered and painted. The ceiling of the basement slab is in wood wool slab that absorbs sound. The Garbhagriha can be closed by means of long and tall sliding doors. On both sides of Garbhagriha are located framed pictures of Sharadamata and Swami Vivekananda. A specially designed niche has been made to install the pictures. Immediately below the pictures are located the Pranami or offering boxes. The amalas and kalashas are designed to suit the character of the shikharas. The main kalasha over the Garbhagriha has been gold plated. The total built up area is 1240 sq. m. while the height of the shikhara (excluding the kalasha) is approximately 18.0 M. The total number of domes that adorn the roof line of the temple is 24. The construction commenced in December 1999 and has been completed in April 2002. The total cost including the electrification and illumination is approximately Rs. 4 crores.