Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya

Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya

Religious buildings always played a significant role in the organizational structure of ancient civilizations. Indulgence in prayer and reflection provided relief from day to day suffering, calamities and sorrow that engulfed various communities from time to time. Hence sacred buildings held a foremost position in the social structure of the island as places of public gathering and places of seclusion for inner reflection. 

 By Chiranji Abeywickrema

The architectural traditions of religious buildings were always influenced by its patronage in Sri Lankan history. The prevalent political circumstances had their influence on the arts and architecture of the regions. The religion that enjoyed royal patronage stood out over the other religious groups and reflected its influence in religious architecture. This is evident in the evolution of the Sandakada pahana, where the symbol of the bull was introduced in the Polonnaruwa period with the influence of Hinduism.

Some of world’s largest structures were buildings of religious importance in the past. Ruwanwelisaya in Anuradhapura, is one such example. The structural magnitude contributes to the overall impression that intimidates the worshipper and evokes humble response. The scale and proportions of religious buildings gave them prominence and created an iconic presence. In a traditional Buddhist village the temple was located on high ground and the chaitya was visible from a distance establishing its hierarchy among other buildings.

A path of ceremonial progression infused a sense of entry as observed in the Ambekke Devalaya and Kotte Raja Maha Viharaya even today. This ceremonial axis was used for the periodic processions and provided a platform for social interaction. The spaces along the ceremonial axis promoted public gathering while providing a buffer zone which shield the inner sanctum of the temple from the hustle and bustle outside.

The approaching can heighten the spiritual transcendence. The journey uphill through the forest monastery of Ritigala in north central province of Sri Lanka is one such example. The meandering paths lined with stone paving aid the progression through the forest. The journey along a winding path is one that encourages spiritual contemplation. It represents the state of the mind which is gradually elevated to a state free of defilement through the practice of meditation in Buddhist philosophy. The pathways are clearly defined with rectangular blocks of stone paving while trailing off in certain areas to avoid boulders or trees respecting the natural terrain. The architecture is one that is determined by the landscape.

The layout of the Buddhist temple is based on the concept of ‘mandala’ in the ‘Vastu’ sciences.A temple is entered through a ‘bihi dora’ or gateway that has developed during the Jaffna and Kandyan kingdoms. The chaitya is the most prominent structure in a temple complex. It is the foremost place of worship housing the relics of the Buddha or the Arahats. Secondly, the Bo tree is venerated by the Buddhist remembering Buddha’s enlightenment under this sacred tree. Thirdly the Buddhists pay their respect to the image house which accommodates Buddha statues. It is customary of the Buddhist to take offerings of alms to the monks and observe sil on poya days. The sabha provides space for such activity and preaching. The preaching halls were perceived as tiered structures, sometimes three storeys high.The volume helps the acoustic levels while hot air is exhaust through stack effect from the upper tiers. The ordination hall and the residential quarters in a temple complex are dedicated for the use of the monks.

Lighting plays a dominant role in religious buildings. Masterly manipulation of light articulates the interior

The newly built hall for the use of the devotees in Kolonnawa Raja Maha Viharaya (2011), is a thoughtful planning intervention by the architect. Archt. Kannangara has paid due respect to the historic context of the temple preserving the existing trees including the Bodhi tree adjacent to the hall. The Buddha statue is housed in an interconnected series of open hallways that provide shelter to the worshipers. The choice of materials and proportions contribute to the overall character of the temple. The finishes comprising of cement floors, timber columns with cement bases and tiled roofs create rhythm and subtle elegance in a tranquil environment focusing on the bodhi tree. Ambience lighting creates a soothing effect enhanced by the offerings of oil lamps in the evenings.

The plan form of the church is symbolic of the crucifix form. The chapel at Trinity College, Kandy is a variation but a context generated approach that respects nature and architecture of the region. Spiritual fulfillment is achieved through the creation of a tranquil environment. The chapel is open on three sides, shielded from the elements by the traditional Kandyan roof. The sheer stability of the elaborate stone pillared structure with its axial symmetry has succeeded in providing an orderly and serene atmosphere. Simplicity of the chapel with its alter piece by David Paynter provides a welcoming gesture and a serene environment for deep contemplation.

Lighting plays a dominant role in religious buildings. Masterly manipulation of light articulates the interior of Ronchamp chapel, Notre Dame designed by Le Corbusier. In the western philosophy spiritual engagement takes one closer to the creator. Light is an important factor in the creation of a spiritual environment.

‘Light, God’s eldest daughter, is a principal beauty in a building’ (Thomas Fuller).

The artful manipulation of light has resulted in spiritual satisfaction. The designer’s intervention is a significant contributor in the aesthetics of space that have produced a transforming effect in religious buildings.

Archt. Valentine Gunasekara’s design of the Jesuit church (1960) in Colombo 4 is a different approach in church buildings given a densely populated area down a narrow lane in the heart of the city. The result of amalgamating a few residential plots wedged between two roads provided a site for the church. It is therefore flanked on one side by Clifford Place and the entrance to the forecourt is created on the side. The axial progression to the church had to be overlooked in this limited urban space. But the inner sanctum has successfully been shielded from noise, dust and physical disturbances with the thick Moroccan curved exterior walls providing an ideal chamber for prayer. The prayer hall features high walls with a vaulted ceiling, the repetitive exterior vaults rhyming with the wave patterns of the nearby sea. A vertical concrete shaft bearing a cross strategically placed above the alter channels day light in to the interior emphasizing the focus on the altar.

The expansion of Church of St. Mary of the Angels (1999) by WOHA architects is a project that boosted community bonding. The existing parish centre is connected to the new columbarium and church buildings with a community space which forms the heart of the church complex. The connecting walkways that define this central open space provide plenty of shade for community gatherings and festivity. Three sided arrangement of the pews encourage interaction, so that the members of the parish can closely participate in the service. The modern interiors consist of blackened steel, oak and plywood in contrast with the white washed walls that generate a sense of warmth while augmenting aesthetic appeal.

Water is considered a tranquilizer that soothes the mind. Reflective pools are used as a spiritual aid in meditation. The church garden features an Easter Flame reflective pool that encourages outdoor festivity during Easter where a large number of church goers participate in the celebrations.

Church of the Gesu (2003), Philippines has established an iconic presence in the Ateneo de Manila University. The open spaces around the church are utilized for the social needs of the school while the church located on a hillock provides a soaring backdrop. The tetrahedron outer shell is constructed out of steel frames clad in metal deck panels sprayed with concrete. The uses of materials provide the required thermal properties in the harsh tropical climate. A low energy design approach has been adopted by Recio – Casas Architects with louver shades fixed on to the skylights to filter harsh light. The well lit and ventilated interiors hollowed out from the pyramidal geometry of the outer core are designed for quiet prayer and reflection. The aisle is highlighted with timber veneered surfaces creating a focus in an otherwise monochromatic interior. Fan folded finish of the ceiling together with the timber veneer has resulted in desirable acoustic levels. Natural light filters in on the altar from a strategically positioned sky light. The progression through its spaces is an experience of simplicity and elegance. The transition spaces are cleverly manipulated with its structure framing views of the landscape, an experience that aid spiritual transcendence.

Archt. Tan Kok Hiang’s design of the Assyafaah Mosque (2004), Singapore is a contemporary building that is imbued with the essence of traditional Islamic art and architecture. The entrance is marked by a minaret with receding layers of metal plates in keeping with the modern approach. It also minimizes the cost of maintenance. A minaret is used make calls for prayer and generally capped with a dome for acoustic purposes and ventilation. The mosque features a ribbed and arched fair faced concrete structure that supports three upper storeys while facilitating a column free prayer hall at ground level. The floor of the main prayer hall is finished in black granite providing a sharp contrast, enhancing the mihrab wall at the far end. A modern interpretation of traditional arabesque calligraphy, a universal symbol of Islamic art and architecture has been used in contemporary white aluminium screens that envelopes, lights and ventilates the interiors.

Archt. Kashef Mahboob Chowdhury’s design of the Chandgaon mosque (2007) in Chittagong, Bangladesh is an innovative design which is the result of intensive research. An open fore court representing the traditional riwaqs or colonnaded arcades of shade are used as a public gathering space that leads to the prayer halls. The forecourt in juxtaposition with the simple geometry of the contemporary mosque connects with the surrounding landscape through a series of openings while a large circular skylight creates a central focus. The prayer hall features a split dome that harmonizes with the circular skylight of the fore court. This is used to direct day light into the prayer hall and to ventilate the interiors by extracting hot air. The internal lights filtering out through the dome illuminate it at night, a beacon in the night sky. Chandagaon mosque is a spirituality fulfilling experience and a place of public gathering for the local community.

The need for places of religious contemplation and their architecture evolved with time catering to the varying requirements of the communities. The spatial organization underwent continuous development with changing needs. The contemporary religious buildings that have successfully adapted to evolving needs are enthusiastically explored by the communities that have resulted in bonding and well being.