Culture and religion are indistinguishably linked to India’s architectural language. Some preceding decades have witnessed the emergence and rebuilding of several worship places in the modern architectural style. One such example is the Narayantala Thakurdalan in Bansberia, West Bengal. Abin Design Studio has replaced the 100-year-old temple with a modern upgrade in glass, steel, and latticed concrete.
Abin Chaudhuri, the founder of Abin Design Studio, grew up in Bansberia. Since childhood, he had attended the Narayantala Thakurdalan, joyfully engaging in religious celebrations, and saw how people spilled out onto the street, causing accidents and jams due to its location on a busy street corner. He knew that it wasn’t the crumbling brick and plaster construction that made the place unprecedented. Hence, to make the most use of the resources on hand, the studio incorporated modular concrete panels and precast Jali units into the structure.
‘Thakur Dalan’ translates as ‘permanent covered podium’ in Bengali. Religious idols are placed inside the temple twice a year during celebrations, but often it is visited for daily prayers and meditation. Instead of designing the new Narayantala Thakurdalan as a ‘temple,’ design was guided purely by context and function. The aim was to protect this sacred space. Over several weeks, the studio observed the relationship of locals with space – how few people would offer their prayers twice a day, while others either visited only occasionally or bowed their heads as they rode past on their vehicles. The Thakurdalan played diverse roles in each person’s daily life, which acquainted the studio’s architectural sensibilities while conceiving its design.
The design is a carefully tailored response to the community and its activities. Much scantier than the original temple, 71 sq. m with a capacity of 40 people, it offers much more usable space. To encourage congregation during festivals, the corner is composed as column-free and porous. It experimented with modular pre-cast Jaali units, and the local craftspeople made the customized formwork. Although the existing structure held extensive sentimental value, the people of Bansberia were quick to take on Abin’s suggestions on the redesign, which would solve the congregation’s problem spilling out onto the street during religious festivals.
The porous facade allows people to perceive the shrine even when passing by, maintaining a dedicated space for daily worship from the bustling intersection. Temple’s design is a simple open plan that puts its users first, as created by architects Abin Design Studio for Bansberia’s local community. There is a sense of demarcation that does not privatize but instead releases space in both directions, from sacredness to civic-ness, and from the public street to the idol’s ritual center.
No prominent element or component of the temple architecture imagination is included in this design. It is carved out of a quadrilateral cuboid mass and allowed to dissipate and disappear into the street, the street junction, and the neighborhood. It is subtracted out of the volume rather than imposed on it. The public urban sides of the shrine are architecturally asserted as Jaalis — a perforated matrix. Precast concrete Jaalis, or lattices, are piled to create a screen wall around the shrine. The pavilion’s finishes were designed to be simple with a natural purity, keeping construction and maintenance costs minimum.
The low-maintenance structure was designed and completed within six months, opening in time to host the annual Durga Puja, a 10-day-long festival honoring the goddess of protection. It is simple yet an expression of tradition and craft, seen in the chunky lattice-work façade that acknowledges traditional Indian architecture. The jumble of rectangular concrete modules was pre-cast at the Adisaptagram Workshop, set up by Abin Design Studio in training and employment for local artisans to ensure the best craft and skills.
This glass temple’s design responds to a neighborhood’s idea — a complex network of community, society, memory, and the land’s politics. It isn’t a standalone building in a landscape, but it sits quietly in an urban neighborhood thick. The glass temple is much like an urban shrine tucked into a busy street corner, very much a part of the hustle and bustle of the streets around it. This temple-shrine is meant to define a street corner that articulates its presence very powerfully within the urban fabric. The shrine became an urban corner of publicness and sacredness simultaneously, bringing the divine and human in conversation rather than defining one as central to the other. Private and personal spaces are complex scenarios, and the ongoing negotiations between public and private spaces are the reality of neighborhoods.
While well-received by Bansberia, some local people took a while to acclimatize to the new glass temple. The redesigned Narayantala Thakurdalan is exemplary in its blend of modern architecture and local craft traditions. Long-term sustainability is critical for communal spaces in smaller localities. By building a low-maintenance structure to fit the specific needs, Abin Design Studio created a thoughtful archetype for present-day worship places in India.