‘Appa Deepo Bhava’– “Be a lamp unto yourself” - Shakyamuni Buddha
Offering light (such as lighting a candle) has since the Buddha’s time symbolised not just an outer offering, but the most sacred dawning of inner wisdom, clarity, and awareness that awaken all beings from darkness of ignorance.
Along this sacred belief, the Mahabodhi Mahavira Temple in India’s eastern city of Bodh Gaya - the site significantly connected to the life of the Buddha as the place where he attained enlightenment, meditating under a fig tree (since revered as the Bodhi Tree) - is being presented by a long-lasting light offering through a first of its kind project, titled Lighting the Mahabodhi (LTM).
Conceptualised by Siddhartha’s Intent India - an educational society working towards preserving and propagating the country’s rich classical wisdom traditions, with active support from non-profit Vana Foundation and Khyentse Foundation, LTM intends to illuminate the UNESCO World Heritage site with impressive, quality lighting to enhances the temple’s aged infrastructure.
The present architecture, which consists of a 50-m high grand temple, the Vajrasana (the throne which sits on the area where Buddha reached enlightenment), the sacred Bodhi Tree and other six pious sites surrounded by numerous stupas, will receive an immersive lighting scheme as part of the project, giving the thousands of pilgrims who visit the temple every year, a unique touch of divinity.
Bangkok-based Be Lit conceived the lighting design of the project, where their process began with the painstaking task of mapping the ancient facility, some of whose present architectural features date back to the seventh century CE or much earlier. With no archival drawings, layouts or details on record, the complex exercise took two years before the designers began to ideate its lighting from the ground up.
Be Lit sought inspiration in the alteration of the moon cycle, imitating the natural phenomenon that affects architecture during the night. “The purpose of this concept is to signify the laws of nature and principles of Buddhism through the use of architectural lighting conveying that everything always changes,” says Tippaya Prasertsuk, Managing Director at Be Lit.
The architecture of the temple will be illuminated through a mixture of warm and white light that will constantly alternate corresponding to the moon phase. “White light will be brightly illuminated during the full moon, and gently lit during crescent moon,” added Prasertsuk.
The daily, as well as annual activities of the visitors on site were given functional thought. For events such as the Siddhartha Festival - an annual cultural gathering that celebrates the life and teachings of the Buddha - suitable lighting around different areas of the temple, including an alluring stage lighting, has been provided as part of the design. For those who are on a single-day tour, lighting has been orchestrated to create immersive visual scenes that captivates the attention.
Design Matrix, a New Delhi-based lighting design practice, came on board in 2018 to conceptualise this concept into a real project. They held the responsibility of dealing with the complex site issues that arise from the tremendously old infrastructure, the massive footfall, and in keeping the sensitivity and the sanctity of the pilgrim experience intact to an ingenious execution of the proposed lighting with no to minimal interventions in the existing architectural features.
“The design of the lighting would be such that it brings a sense of coherence, and at the same time looks into all aspects involved when designing lighting for a public space with respect of ease of movement of pilgrims around the premises, security and most importantly maintenance,” says Sanjeev Nangia, Principal at Design Matrix.
The temple has developed its existing lighting infrastructure over the years from the various light offerings that Buddhist pilgrims from across the world have donated in the form of light fixtures. “Many of these fixtures have outlived and are non-functional presently, or some are difficult to maintain due to non-availability of spares and replacements,” adds Nangia.
To combat the operating costs of these fixtures, which compared to readily available LEDs is quite high, it was envisioned to provide a permanent well-designed lighting installation within the temple complex. The installation comprises of an automated system equipped with durable, energy compliant and weather-resistant light fixtures to ensure minimal light pollution, and systematised controls.
To keep the sacred ritual of the light offering intact, suitable donation matrix has been proposed so that people can sponsor the light scenes. “The offerings which were earlier done by bringing light fixtures,” says Nangia, “could now be done by donating to light the premises for few hours or more.”
Lighting the Mahabodhi, which is expected to be entirely executed on ground by September 2020, is set to manifest a new avatar of the historic monument, which having influenced Buddhist architecture across the world continues to reinforce the faith of thousands of devotees seeking the elixir of nirvana.