How traditional form and modern technology exist together in Delhi’s ISKCON temple

Shiny Varghese
Reaching for heaven: Delhi’s Radha-Parthasarathi Temple, popularly known as the ISKCON Temple.

There is never an easy way to reach god, and New Delhi’s ISKCON temple doesn’t take you there directly. You walk through the Krishna Jayanti Park, lined with flowering rain trees, up towards the temple complex, and even then you don’t see the entrance till you go around it.

It took 880 tonnes of steel, 5,500 tonnes of cement, 25,000 sq ft of marble, 75,000 sq ft of stone to build the Radha-Parthasarathi Temple, popularly known as the ISKCON (The International Society for Krishna Consciousness) Temple. Sitting on a hill, its red-and-white latticed towers rise high. It sits in the middle of two equally important religious sites, the Lotus Temple, with its modernist twist to the Baha’i faith and the Akshardham temple, which recalls the traditional designs of Gujarat.

When architect Achyut P Kanvinde accepted the commission to design the temple complex in 1993, he was conscious that traditional form and modern technology would exist side-by-side. Kanvinde believed that a temple is not just a sacred space but also where people congregate as a community, and, therefore, the design had to synthesise those needs. This was the time when he was withdrawing from his regular practice at Kanvinde, Rai and Chowdhury. For the temple project, therefore, he set up an independent unit. Sanjay, his architect son, recalls the days he would see Kanvinde reading the voluminous Bhagvad Gita, interpreted by Swami Prabhupada, which was gifted by Gopala Krsna Goswami, of ISKCON, who was at the helm of the project.

The basic requirements included the temple with space for its deities, parikrama and sabha mandaps, with a prasadam hall. There would also be an auditorium, a library, dormitories and a guest house, restaurants and shops. Spread across nearly 2.9 acres, the undulating rocky site was landscaped by architect Ravindra Bhan and his team, with water features and gardens. Stone pergolas and gateways provide the pause spaces on site. Kanvinde, who loved to sketch and doodle, did extensive freehand drawings in his study of the temple shikharas. The project had become an internal journey for him. He didn’t believe that philosophical rootedness should take on superficial forms in a building. He once said: “When we don’t believe in it ourselves, it’s like taking one’s great grandfather’s clothes in the name of culture.”

Architect Ashok Lall in his book on Kanvinde (Achyut Kanvinde Akar; Niyogi Books, 2017) writes: “The decorative motifs and openings formed into the face of the shikhara were to be ‘Hinduistic’ but need not adhere to the rules of any traditional style. The openings that split the faces of the shikhara at the corners, and the large chaitya (stupa)-like openings, deliberately declare the hollow behind the shikhara face….and the surface rendering of carved red sandstone and white marble insets recalls the frame and infill of brutalism.” How then do the abstractions of modernism sit with the literal transformations of history? One finds the answer in Kanvinde’s reply to how he sees himself: “I see myself learning, searching. It is a work of art.”

This article appeared in the print edition with the headline 'Where the Bells Ring'