Sameep Padora on ‘doing more with less’ while building the Temple of Steps in India

Designed by Mumbai-based sP+a and pictures captured by Edmund Sumner, the project explores the relationship between water and temple,solid and void, to create social spaces.

by Meghna MehtaPublished on : Feb 01, 2021

The Balaji Temple in Nandyal, Andhra Pradesh, India, also known as the Temple of Steps, has received much recognition across the world. Designed by Sameep Padora and Associates (sP+a), the project creates an analogy much beyond what was to be its scope of work. While the brief was to design a temple for the residents of villages around Nandyal, the designers have created a kund, a waterbody which generates groundwater recharge, stores and provides water to the cotton and chilly farms in the region. While the natural canal system had dried up, the kund not only acts as a rejuvenating resource for the locale, but also creates a social space, in the manner of the traditional ghat, seen along the bank of Indian rivers. This water infrastructure is able to harvest roughly 13,70,000 litres of water.

  • Balaji Ttemple lies within a kund or the waterbody which helps recharge the groundwater | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps | Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
    Balaji Ttemple lies within a kund or the waterbody which helps recharge the groundwater Image: Edmund Sumner
  • The stepped façade of the temple is used for rituals as well as social interaction | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps | Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
    The stepped façade of the temple is used for rituals as well as social interaction Image: Edmund Sumner

STIR speaks with Sameep Padora on the eminence of water in the project, how he attempts to create discourse through his work, the idea of ‘solid and void’, and what he believes the architecture of today should be about.

Meghna Mehta (MM): I found it fascinating that the project description from an architect includes a critique. Is this a conscious way of trying to create a dialogue around your work and make it a part of an architectural discourse, which something not everyone is open to. What made you do so?

Sameep Padora (SP): What happened was Praveen Bavdekar, a friend and architect who runs ‘ThirdSpace Architecture Studio’, wrote this description after seeing a published article of the project and what he had written about was an aspect of the project that I myself had not thought about or it did not occur to me while working on the project. I sent him a message asking him to elaborate more on it - as a critique for the project.

The concept of traditional Indian river banks being incorporated | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps by Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
The concept of traditional Indian river banks being incorporated Image: Courtesy of sP+a

MM: What would be your takeaways after receiving such critiques? Do you think about your practice and where it is going?

SP: After we did Projective Histories (an exhibition), one thing was very clear to us that we would continue to have this attitude towards ‘doing more with less resources’ to see how frugality becomes a means to approach a project. I think this is particularly evident in the temple project. You can clearly see that there is only one material with one form that structures the entire project, not just the project but also the environment and landscape around it.

And while we were looking at the idea of the kund - the waterbody, we were referencing the idea of the waterbody to the temple. The metaphoric associations that Praveen was making through the solid and the void was something I had never thought of, at least not consciously. Other conversations reminded me about temples that I visited as a child when we used to go to Srinagar (where I am from), which was on the banks of rivulets and that temple also sat on the steps. May be that was somewhere in the back of my mind.

  • The temple surrounded by a waterbody | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps by Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
    The temple surrounded by a waterbody Image: Edmund Sumner
  • The temple complex saves the water that was left out from the nearby quarry | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps by Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
    The temple complex saves the water that was left out from the nearby quarry Image: Edmund Sumner

Also, when the temple was first published, we initially got trolled by writing groups online about how ‘un-Indian’ and ‘un-Hindu’ the temple was; it was strange but almost expected that since it is not a traditional temple. However, what was very interesting was that later during a panel discussion on the Architecture of Temples, the dialogue was about how we were trying to establish a rationale for Hindu temples in India. So now our project is in the middle of these interpretations, which is very interesting!

Miniature drawing of the Balaji Temple | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps by Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
Miniature drawing of the Balaji Temple Image: Courtesy of sP+a

MM: A certain kind of symbolism or typology is repeated but not replicated - in the case of this project how do you think that fits?

SP: Despite the limitations of the kind of typology, there is a certain structure that exists between these really traditional forms of architecture, which you operate within. Even within that kind of strict structure, there are a lot of ways to articulate that structure as well as to fit in.

Sketch of the solid and void analogy drawn by Sameep Padora | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps by Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
Sketch of the solid and void analogy drawn by Sameep Padora Image: Courtesy of sP+a

MM: Oscar Niemeyer’s Brazilian Congress project deeply talks about the idea of an oxymoron and the idea of contradiction, where he had these two inverted concave and convex shells in the National Congress building. This was something I had seen and when I saw your project, it reminded me of this structure. What do you think about that analogy?

SP: I completely agree. Praveen also talks about the emergence of the topological condition where the ground seems to do both, become the void and the actual form. And the National Congress has the same impulse as well. It is really strange that you can figure out that there are some commonalities in the way that you approach an idea or a project that is not restricted by a typology and geography for that matter. So, if you break it down or reduce it to its essentials, it is about the solid and the void.

One thing is about that strong notion of place and also certain universal values that prevail in architecture throughout the world. – Sameep Padora
  • Visitors and priest using the space | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps | Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
    Visitors and priest using the space Image: Edmund Sumner
  • The shrine area within the stepped temple | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps by Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
    The shrine area within the stepped temple Image: Edmund Sumner

MM: The visitors use the space in different ways - a beautiful rangoli right at the entrance and the steps used to perform rituals. The project is true to the idea of ‘sense of place’ especially because of the relation of the water and landscape going up towards the sky.

SP: When we started working on this project and went for a site visit, we saw that there was almost a wetland landscape-like condition emerging. Quarries of limestone where they produced water as the by-product in the quarrying process, was being pumped and left out wherever the pipe would take it randomly.

There were birds coming in and sitting on the water and that really prompted us to see how water really becomes the agency for the project and how we could look at this landscape condition of the formative position of the project. We were also conscious that the built form of the project and the landscape operated at completely different time scales.

The relationship of the landscape with the temple | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps by Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
The relationship of the landscape with the temple Image: Edmund Sumner

What I found really interesting for the project is to see this imagination of landscape evolution and how that tries to take over the project after a certain time and that then there is a carry-over effect when people start to see that and you realise the potential to be able to harness that thought. We looked at groundwater recharge in the area, which is very low and the streams around have dried up so now they are growing crops that do not require much water.

We wanted to see whether we can add a layer of performance through the project that looks beyond the program such as the temple but now imbibes the idea of ecological remediation of the landscape as well. – Sameep Padora

MM: I believe that in terms of its relationship with water, it is something that you all as architects initiated and it was not part of the brief.

SP: A UK-based publication is soon to cover this project and they are looking at it as part of their Landscape and Gardens issue and so it is really not about the architecture, it is really about the landscape. It is a completely different point of view and the project is operating at different scales.

  • The premises create a ‘sense of place’ | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps | Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
    The premises create a ‘sense of place’ Image: Edmund Sumner
  • The Balaji Temple complex in Nandyal, Andhra Pradesh, India | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps by Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
    The Balaji Temple complex in Nandyal, Andhra Pradesh, India Image: Edmund Sumner

MM: What do you think has been the most significant to this project, and why?

SP: The water, because we could build a temple - it’s a function of a certain kind of economy and time but to remediate an ecology now that is something that is beyond the scope of the project and it should not be. Ideally, every project should respect its context, whether it is a temple, house, community centre, school or otherwise. So, for us, the base program has always been important so that you can investigate the base program to the extent that you do but the layer that you can add creates additional value beyond the value of the program itself. And I think that is critical, like I said earlier how do you do more with less’?

MM: Did the clients see the benefits?

SP: I remember when we had our meeting with the clients Anushree (Jindal), who is the driving force behind the temple and Parth (Jindal) as well. We shared with them this idea of water being an additional value to the temple and the people around and they were instantaneously supportive. I think that is critical, as patronage is important, specifically for architecture.

Top view of the temple premises | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps | Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
Top view of the temple premises Image: Edmund Sumner

MM: There is another project that the firm has worked on in terms of its typology, the Shiv Temple. How would you compare and say these two are similar or different?

SP: Actually, they are very different but also very similar. Both the projects are about landscapes. If you see the Shiv Temple, the shrine sits in that temple that we have but everything else is about the setting of that landscape. In fact, there is an amphitheatre that is negotiating the grade of change within the site. There are a lot of symbolic elements and also an entire group of trees growing around that site. There is an enclosed space where the trees become walls and the sky becomes the roof. It is still in some sense very similar but I think we have been able to add a layer of programming through the water, the kund in the second project, more than the previous project did. Looking at the second project, it is way larger than the first project but it still operates in the sense that it tears down that monumentality.

The temple being used by the locals | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps | Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
The temple being used by the locals Image: Edmund Sumner

MM: Even when Louis Kahn designed the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, water played an important role. It was an institutional structure but that is when water became one of the elements, in his words ‘a material of the building’. Your thoughts…

SP: I feel, we are at a point where, both in terms of ecology and resources, the value of water, especially in our context is unique than just being a kind of metaphorical or sceptical consideration. I feel that the more we start looking into resources, not just water for architecture, the society would be far better. Today, I would struggle to have any project, even if it’s institutional like the Assembly Building to have that quantum of water….mainly due to the times we live in. I believe, Kahn today too, would also have a different outlook towards it.

The plan of Balaji Temple | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps by Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
The plan of Balaji Temple Image: Courtesy of sP+a

MM: Where do you think are our religious structures headed to in terms of architectural discourse?  

SP: I have to confess that I am not an expert in religious architecture and what we are responding to is a certain set of constraints or opportunities within a site and to operate just through a lens of a singular programme, is no longer valid. You have to start looking at what the project can do beyond what the program invites. And how does it perform or work?

For us, I think the idea of the working of a building takes far more importance than the visual. I think the visual is just really an outcome of how it works.

  • Sectional perspective of the Temple of Steps | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps by Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
    Sectional perspective of the Temple of Steps Image: Courtesy of sP+a
  • Section of the Temple of Steps | Balaji Temple or Temple of Steps by Sameep Padora and Associates | STIRworld
    Section of the Temple of Steps Image: Courtesy of sP+a

MM: Where do you think architecture is going in the current times?

SP: I think as a species we have the ability to normalise very quickly and I would be surprised if things do not normalise quickly after the vaccine though, that being said, all of us have seen the benefit of a world that has less pollution, beautiful skies, less traffic during this lockdown. However, we have also seen inequity, what we see as benefits for us might be losses of income possibilities for daily wage workers or migrant labourers and many others.

It is impossible to see the world through these lenses of binaries and if we are able to understand that, if by readjusting and by being more inclusive, there are changes with which we could help create less pollution, I think that in itself would be a big source.

Project Details

Name: Balaji Temple (Temple of Steps)
Client: Anushree Jindal, JSW Cement
Location: Nandyal, Andhra Pradesh, India
Area: 2.5 acres
Architects: Sameep Padora & Associates

Design Team: Sanjana Purohit, Vami Sheth, Aparna Dhareshwar, Kunal Sharma

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