Hindu Temple Design & Construction.

The Monks of Kaui's Hindu Monastery
The Monks of Kaui’s Hindu Monastery, from their website.

By Peter Cipes, AIBD

During the month of November 2010 I had the amazing experience of visiting a Hindu monastery on the island of Kauai. I was invited by one of the monks who lives there who happens to use the same software I use and am a trainer for (Vectorworks). He had contacted me by email to ask for some assistance and tutoring. As I was already planning a trip to the islands, I suggested we meet in person. He was excited about our upcoming meeting and offered to take me on a private tour of the monastery.

Yogi (left) and Peter
Yogi (left) and Peter

I arrived at the monastery in the morning and spent about three hours walking around the beautiful grounds and learning a little about Hinduism from my host, Yoginathaswami, or “Yogi” as he likes to
be called. The most exciting aspect of the tour was viewing and learning about the temple that is currently under construction there, and for which Yogi is responsible. He oversees all the Kauai side of construction work done there and supervises the Indian craftsmen.

Hindu Temple Design under construction.
The Temple under construction.

Yogi explained that the carving of the temple began in 1990, in India, and that each piece is made from solid granite stone. Subsequently the parts were shipped to Kauai for assembly beginning in 2001. The planned date of completion is 2017. In the assembly there are no fasteners of any kind used. All the stone is fitted and balanced in the old way. The workers there use single-point chisels to cut and fit all the various pieces together. These men have learned their craft from their fathers, who learned from their fathers. They are specially chosen by the monks to come to the island for a specific period of time and do this very specialized work. In exchange for their services they are paid, housed and fed. Yet more importantly, while engaged in this work, the most frugal and financially savvy among them will have a home built back in India on a piece of land he will own at the end of his tenure working on the temple. Yogi said that these men will end up being fairly well-to-do and very well respected because they have worked here.

A Temple Craftsman
A Temple Craftsman

According to Yogi there are only about 200 “Stapati”, or Master Builders, who are qualified to design a Hindu temple in the South Indian Chola style. These architects use ancient formulas and techniques only known by a few. It was explained that each temple has a “module” (a length measurement) which is unique. This number is derived from a secret formula which takes into account the astrological casting of the location, the diety installed, and certain measurements of the founder. In this case the number was 11’-7 1/4” . This module must be used for all the spacings of columns, and other distances in the design of the temple. Yogi laughed when he told me that even though the number must be used, there is no stipulation of exactly how it is applied. Therefore, he said that some columns are spaced center-to-center and some are spaced edge-to-edge while others may be spaced center-to-edge, etc.

Because iron-based materials are considered inauspicious, and because steel rebar does not have the desired longevity for a Hindu temple, only copper, silver or gold are allowed to be used. In fact the entire crown of the temple is adorned with gold leaf! Yogi explained that the concrete foundation and slab floor was designed by an engineer. The monolithic concrete slab is 48” thick, made from a high-volume fly ash mix, with no reinforcement, and is placed on a 36” deep bed of compacted structural fill. Even though all of the construction was “old school” it was still required to meet the strict planning and building codes currently in effect in Kauai, which it did!

Tiger stonework carved from a single block
Lion stonework carved from a single block

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the temple are the carved granite panels and ornamentation. These objects are often huge, and always carved from a single solid piece of stone. Some are used to form entire wall sections, while others act as columns, railings and other architectural elements. This most exciting elements to me were the full-sized carved lions. Each of them has it’s mouth open, showing a sharp set of teeth. But inside of each mouth is a solid granite ball which was carved in there! I can’t even imagine this task. How long must it take to achieve such a feat? And what happens if the chisel slips? I assume the carver must start all over with a new piece of stone. Not a trivial decision, since the larger and more elaborate stones weigh as much as seven tons and take four men two to three years to carve. Yes, up to 12 man-years for a single element!

5All in all my tour of the monastery was very educational, and I was grateful to Yogi for being my guide and teacher. After the tour we went to his office to sit down for an hour or so at his computer so that I could be his teacher and show him a few new things about the CAD software Vectorworks. Believe it or not, these are very modern monks who use (but do not abuse) technology. Yogi told me that there is saying there, that when a new monk arrives at the monastery, having shed all worldly possessions and taken vows of celibacy, he is “given his robes, his beads and his MacBook Pro”. Then he laughed and so did I.

To discover more about the Hindu Monastery of Kauai, and the temple being built there, go to their website.

Peter Cipes, AIBD, has been designing custom homes for over 25 years. He lives in Ashland, Oregon.

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