by Anmol AhujaApr 23, 2022
Forbearance, resilience and patience manifest generously within the Hotel at Bodhgaya in India; its humble, pure vocabulary of architecture drawing from the rich, historic legacy of the site. Bodhgaya, a village in the Indian state of Bihar, is considered to be one of the most important Buddhist holy pilgrimages, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under a sacred Bodhi tree (the tree of “awakening”). The commemorative area is dominated by a trail of institutions, most notably the ancient brick Mahabodhi Temple Complex, and his influence went on to birth monasteries and stupas, values of which are evoked through the resort’s gentle being. It appears almost as a consecrated space, brimming with piety and peace.
As is evident in their latest endeavour, the Indian architects are known to sculpt environments rooted in the earth, where the sun, wind and nature choreograph themselves to create spaces bathed in light, built by contemporary innovations that draw from Indian traditions and spiritual metaphors.
"To build in Bodhgaya is an honour - the land where history and memory resonate in the fertile Gangetic plain that was the seat of ancient Indian democracies and kingdoms from 600BC. The earth, conducive to the skill of brick making in this region led to a distinctive architectural vocabulary of corbelled arches and brick vaults, best known through the Nalanda University of the fifth century, two hours away from the site. These inspirations generated a gentle and timeless architecture that is reflected in the project through shaded courtyards, arched verandas and tender waterbodies, with a Bodhi tree creating a fulcrum,” explains Shimul Javeri Kadri, Principal Architect, SJK Architects, who drew soft balance between the corporeal and spiritual with the Hotel at Bodhgaya.
Kadri also shares that despite being a pilgrimage site, Bodhgaya - a temple town with unrivalled cultural heritage visited annually by thousands of tourists from the world over - remains peaceful and unhurried. The brief required SJK Architects to create a 78-key hotel on this five acre property situated on the banks of River Falgu, not far from the Mahabodhi temple, to cater to these pilgrims in particular. The functions included guest rooms and suites, banqueting facilities, a health centre with a spa, a meeting room, library lounge, gym and swimming pool, one restaurant and a banquet with lawns.
“The hotel’s design needed to resonate with the sensibilities of the Buddhist pilgrim. But we felt that it also needed to celebrate the rich historic roots of Buddhism in India,” she continues.
Two unique architectural lyrics reveal themselves at play within the design of the hotel – first, of 'memory', where the structure taps into the rich historical roots of Buddhist architecture laden rich in brick details, which became the genesis of the project. The skill of brick making prevalent in the region led to a distinctive, coherent architectural vocabulary of corbeled arches, brick vaults and stepped jambs that accompany unsullied, stark white walls, to represent the “now” that remembers the “then”. The other lyric flows with “emotion”, inspired by the Buddhist ethos of simplicity, peace and compassion, through its unostentatious structure and bare choice of materials.
The hotel’s architecture unravels through a series of layers that behold gentle transitions from the outside to the inside, through verandahs and framed openings. “The banyan tree – the ultimate symbol of the power of Bodhgaya, can be viewed from the entrance through several frames and a serene courtyard that forms the emotional and physical heart of the project,” says Kadri.
Philosophical teachings of Buddhism, personified in Dhyani Buddhas, who express themselves through a mudra (gesture), a colour, a symbol, an element and a season seeps down into the essence of the Indian architecture, where each space represents a teaching - the public spaces, comprising the reception, library, spa, banquet, and café sees this is in action - namely, Abhaya (fearlessness, in the illuminated lobby and reception area), Varada (giving and sharing, symbolised in the restaurant), Dharmachakra (wisdom of dharma, in the lounge and library), Dhyana (unity with oneself, expressed in vaulted banquet hall) and Bhumisparsha (oneness with the earth, witnessed in the spa, pool and gym).
“These teachings are integrated into the design of each space through colour, material and symbolism. These guide the spiritual journey from self to divinity and here they are expressed through symbology and material in each space,” elaborate Vaishali Shankar and Roshni Kshirsagar, Design Directors, SJK Architects.
For instance, there’s the tree-shaded spa, hinged on a symbolic representation of the Bhumisparsha Mudra, where the associated colour is a piercing blue, as well as a thunderbolt symbol, resonating with the element of water and the season of winter. “These symbols and colours have been incorporated into the design of the spa to evoke the emotion of the mudra. This has been done to ensure that the qualities of the religion are kept alive in the project and the deeper tenets of Buddhism resonate throughout,” Kadri elaborates.
Pockets of water bodies dot the site, accompanied by the dominance of natural light, bathing surfaces built of local materials and a colour palette of terracotta bricks, ensuing a pureness of being and a commanding sense of composure. The resultant space is reflective as it is powerful, seeped in the site and its rich spiritual legacy.
The Hotel at Bodhgaya is designed with passive strategies to reduce energy consumption and its consequent impact on the environment – visitors often come to the village during cooler months from September to March, to avoid the scorching Indian summers and intense monsoons. SJK Architects optimised this seasonality by naturally ventilating all circulation spaces, to reduce dependence on air conditioning and allied electrical consumption. “We worked with our consultants to study wind movements using computer simulations (CFDs) for absolute accuracy. Several courtyards were introduced to allow cross-ventilation,” shares Shankar. The site was also introduced to heavy greens and intense landscaping that allows the earth to soak up rainwater. This is carried in semi-pervious swales to water harvesting pits that dot the site.
The residential blocks of the hotel orient towards the north-south, minimising heat gain. These aid the employed material palette and interventions of aerated block walls, double-glazed windows, clay tiles, roof insulation and bricks sourced from Varanasi and Bodhgaya, to create a well-insulated envelope that helps combat soaring temperatures. The brickwork was also carried inside the hotel’s interior, as a quiet masonry backdrop for the bedrooms and café.
The restrained architecture of the Hotel at Bodhgaya, its subtly powerful and resonating interior design, serene exterior as well as harmonious landscaping of lotus water bodies and quiet lawns merge with soothing colour palettes, refined aesthetics to emerge as a mindful and soulful retreat. Aspects of the Vajradhatu Mandala, a metaphysical space where the five Dhyani Buddhas are housed are soulfully incorporated into the design, “creating a magical symphony to complement and resonate the simple, serene and tranquil essence of Buddhist philosophy and values,” summarises Kadri.