Some years ago, I needed to spend three whole days in the Kukke Subrahmanya temple in southwest India. Faith here takes the form of idol-worshipping rituals that have sustained over centuries, supervised and conducted by Brahmin priests. I have never been an adherent of such orthodoxy, being personally drawn more to the nirgun (beyond form or attribute) tradition in Hinduism. And while the temple is considered religiously significant, when compared to many others in the region its architecture is not ranked very high. So I went in wondering how to sustain the tolerance to last through three days.
Toward the end of the first day my perception began to radically change. Spending many hours there led to a slowly inculcated awareness of a cadence of bodies, sounds, scents and light that moved to a different rate of time when compared to the world outside the temple. Outside, time made you aware of its assertive pace, persistently shoving its face in front of yours with a degree of unsettling unpredictability that forced continual adjustment to its demands. Inside was so different: time moved so much slower. Your immersion in a rhythm that had sustained over centuries, one that showed no signs of rapid change, meant you were now in a time whose cycle was in tune with the wind and the stars: a slow tempo tuned to an eternal energy whose scale was far beyond that of paltry individual lives. Each person in the temple seemed alone amid a teeming crowd; but not lonely, for they were firstly secure in the internalized and intensely personal companionship of this primordial rhythm, and secondly the resonance of others in the crowd heightened their own intimate vibrations.
My earlier visits to temples had always been short and specific, to participate in a puja (ritual of worship) that lasted maybe an hour or two, and that short duration did not provoke me to think beyond the scale of the ritual. This led me to believe that people went to a temple because the liturgical practices within it provided access to the divine, and the architecture of spaces of worship was subservient to liturgy, acting primarily as its container. This, I sense, is the prevalent perception among contemporary architects. Earlier, and even today, liturgy is perceived as springing from established spiritual tradition, and therefore design often follows traditional idiom. But now there is a greater openness, and while liturgy has not changed radically, architecture uses the freedom of modernity to explore new possibilities. But the earlier subservience to liturgy remains, and the impulse is to explore how space, light and material can heighten the experience of liturgy.
Looking back at my experience at Kukke Subrahmanya, and the investment of time I put into being there, I wonder if we are looking at it correctly. Architecture is not subservient to liturgy. Both seek to serve the same purpose: to shift the speed of time, reducing it from the pace of everyday life down to a slow and transcendental pulse.
This short essay was originally published in the 50th anniversary issue of Faith & Form, No. 3, 2017