Temple melds ancient and modern building concepts

August 01, 2004 |

The 22,440-sf BAPS-Shree Swaminaryan Hindu temple in Bartlett, Ill., reflects the junction of ancient building principles and modern architecture. Hidden within the structure's pristine exterior and intricately hand-carved designs are such modern technologies as radiant flooring and fiber-optic lighting.

The $7 million temple (or "mandir") is just one element in a planned 30-acre campus, according to Harish Patel, spokesperson for Chicago-BAPS, an India-based religious and service group. A $7 million, 100,000-sf meeting center ("haveli") was completed in 1999, and a visitor's center is in the planning stage, he says. The temple and haveli were funded by donations from the group's members.

The most compelling aspect of the temple is that it was designed, engineered, and built almost entirely by volunteers. Aside from a few local electrical and mechanical subcontractors, hundreds of BAPS members from India, the U.S., and other countries donated their time and skills to the project. "It's a labor of love," says Patel.

Incorporating elements of modern buildings into a traditional Hindu temple to meet local building codes was a challenge for the Building Team, says Patel. In India, for example, certain codes require a temple to have lights, but not heating and cooling systems.

Construction on the mandir was done according to Hindu tradition, using astrologically auspicious times based on planetary positions and the cycles of the Hindu calendar, says Patel. This created scheduling challenges for the Building Team.

For example, the arches between the pillars inside the temple were installed before the statues of Hindu gods in the central dome went up, says Patel. This required precise scheduling. Using computer programming, the Building Team made sure the logistics of the project were done correctly, so that the next component could be installed without delay.

To illuminate the temple and highlight the ornate, handcrafted stone pillars and ceilings, the team opted to use a fiber-optic lighting system instead of traditional fluorescent fixtures.

"All the boxes were installed at the roof level with small pipes coming through the columns, which highlight the ceiling and columns," says Patel. "All fibers are hidden in the center of the column, and the light fixtures are inserted in the stone piece with a special hole so that nothing will be visible except actual lights coming at ceiling level."

Other building systems, including central air, plumbing, and radiant floor heating, are cleverly tucked inside the temple and out of public view, according to Rohit Patel, general contractor and project engineer for the BAPS temple.

Technological innovations aside, the Building Team designed the temple in the "Paschimi" style, a form of ancient temple architecture used in the western region of India, says Harish Patel. Paschimi temples differ from other temples in that they require numerous marble carvings and are usually only one story in height. (The BAPS temple has a basement to house the various facility systems, says Harish Patel.) Also, Paschimi temples have several triangular pinnacles on top of the building (five on this temple), whereas other temples incorporate a single central pinnacle.

"This temple was built on ancient Indian scriptures of engineering text," says Harish Patel. "We used the same stone technology. We were blending ancient Indian technology with new technology." Such attention to traditional building methods is not even observed in India today, he says. When certain elements of the temple were installed, such as the altars, the Building Team would perform a series of prayers, or pujas, says Harish Patel, to bless the temple.

Hindu statues are mounted on marble altars, situated in the back end of the interior. Each of the 39 ceiling panels is adorned with different stone designs. A dome, accented with carvings of Hindu gods, rises 12 feet above the ceiling in the center of the structure. Four balconies and 151 pillars are dispersed throughout the temple, and a moat circles the structure, providing security and "architectural beauty," says Harish Patel.

The temple is embellished with 16 smaller marble domes and 40,000 carved stone pieces, each of which was shipped by boat and rail from India. Skilled craftsmen in India completed the carvings for both the temple and haveli, using such exotic materials as Burma teakwood, Italian Carrara marble, and Turkish limestone. For the exterior, Turkish limestone was chosen for its ability to withstand the area's harsh temperatures, according to Harish Patel, while the interior consists of both Italian Carrara marble and Indian Makrana marble. Granite and teakwood adorn the interiors and exterior of the haveli.

No steel was used in the construction of the temple, so each stone had to fit like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, says Harish Patel. The temple's engineers say that such construction should last a minimum of a thousand years.

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