Among the most popular temples in Delhi is this one - Hanuman Mandir, dedicated to the monkey god.
As temples go, I find this structure pretty ugly. Look at the incongruous metal and cement structures jutting out from the temple. They are an aesthetic disaster in architectural style and materials. There's a ramshackle plastic-sheet covered structure in the right foreground; not to mention several others to the left of the temple. An electricity tower on the right, and a crooked signboard, detract further from the serene feeling that a temple should evoke. In the photo below, clicked from a different angle, there's also an ugly building on the left with the clothes hanging out to dry.
These photos are clicked during the afternoon, when the temple is closed. If you go during temple hours, the place is crowded and chaotic. Combined with the ugliness of the buildings, I find that Hanuman Mandir has none of the spirituality that I want from a place of worship.
When you look at the astounding beauty of India's older temples, I wonder how we ended up with this kind of ugliness. It's not just Delhi - this is the sort of mess you see all over the country, whether it is Mathura-Brindavan, Haridwar, or Varanasi.
I am tempted to put forth a thesis here - that as long as we were building with stone and wood, and basing our construction on the shilpa-shastras, our aesthetics were exemplary. But when modern materials came our way - cement and glass and plastic - and when we stepped out of proven architectural guidelines, we started to produce extraordinarily ugly and depressing structures.
If you go back to the first photo in this article, you'll see that behind the horrible red and green facade, the temple itself looks nice, because, thank God, it's built largely based on traditional architecture.
So - should temples be static? Should temple design continue to reflect old practices, with no "modernisation"? When you look at the newly built Akshardham, you're tempted to say yes. Akshardham is stunningly beautiful, because the architecture is traditional, and it is executed in traditional materials.
But then again, if you look at the Baha'i Lotus Temple, you'll see that the design is undoubtedly modern, and so are the materials, but the end effect is of serenity and peace.
What this tells me, then, is that it doesn't really matter whether temple architecture is old or modern, Western or Indian. What matters is whether the architecture is coherent or not. What matters is that the people who build and run temples pay attention to aesthetics, or at least, understand better, the relationship between aesthetics and spirituality. Our sages understood this very well, building their retreats and hermitages in places of natural beauty. Kings and emperors built temples on hilltops, set amongst greenery. Even large temples complexes inside cities were beautiful, because they were walled enclosures, that created a spiritual haven inside.
Today, temple trusts all over India lack this sort of attention to beauty. As temples become more popular, their trusts, with a view to creating new amenities, or adding new admin blocs, play havoc with the structural composition of the original temple. Contracts are awarded to local builders, and I am sure there is a lot of graft. The end result is a hotch-potch of downright ugly structures.
Fortunately for temple authorities, the public doesn't care about beauty or cleanliness. People throng routinely to the dirtiest of temples, because they believe in the power of the specific God that supposedly resides there. The area outside Hanuman Mandir, for instance, is home to several beggars and wastrels. Partly-eaten food from roadside stalls is strewn about. There are street dogs, mendicants, astrologers, henna vendors, and stalls selling religious kitsch. It's more like a mela or marketplace than a temple. But that doesn't stop the long queues at the temple, especially on Tuesdays and Saturdays, which are popular days for worship of Hanuman.
Saturdays: Between 5:00 a.m. and midnight
Tuesdays: Between 5:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m.
Other days of the week: 5:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
If you plan to visit the temple on a Tuesday or a Saturday, be prepared for a long wait. And when you get to the sanctum for darshan, add a little prayer that some day, our temples become places of beauty once again.