New Delhi, India – 85-year-old Govindan Gopalakrishnan (Govindan Gopalakrishnan) owns dozens of mosques, four churches, and a temple. He is hardly a typical architect.
On the contrary, what motivated this man in his eighties—commonly known as the “mosque man”—in his 60-year career was his love of “human unity”, as he said.
The elderly construction worker kept copies of the Quran, the Bible and Hindu scriptures in his humble home in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, southern India. He said he believed in religious harmony.
“I observe roza (fast) during Ramadan and the 41-day fast during the Sabarimala pilgrimage. My wife is a Christian, so I also spend Easter with her,” he said with a smile, referring to his 60-year-old His spouse Jaya.
“One of my two sons is married to a Muslim lady. I welcome all religions to my house and give them equal respect.”
He said that the self-taught builder started his career shortly after completing his studies because he could not go to university due to family financial difficulties.
Instead, he joined his father, a construction contractor, as an apprentice.
The young Gopalakrishnan began to draw blueprints of the building his father was building in his notebook. He would then compare their details with the original structure and ask his father questions about technology, contours and color schemes.
At the same time, he also established a friendship with LA Saldana, a well-known British and Indian draftsman in the 1960s, who taught him the basics of drawing and painting.
“I also worked as an unpaid apprentice in the Ministry of Public Works of Kerala, which helped my craft, and later started assisting my father in rebuilding the iconic Palayan Mosque in Kerala,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It took five years to rebuild this building and it was a great learning experience. It made me realize that architecture is my mission,” Gopalakrishnan recalled, who accumulated a lot of work, including commercial and residential spaces and shopping malls. And community centers.
When the Palayan Mosque was inaugurated in 1964 by the then President of India, Dr. Zakir Hussein, the duo was very proud of the father and son.
“I believe that God’s intervention led me-a Hindu-to build a mosque with the support of a Christian friend (LA Saldana) and build a mosque juxtaposed between the temple and the church-religious harmony A glorious example of this,” Gopalakrishnan said.
Although there is no formal degree in architecture, the architect’s intuitive grasp of construction technology, his uncompromising professional ethics, and the ability to deliver beyond client expectations have driven his success.
He recalled that his first single task was to build a three-story house in Thiruvananthapuram, which he said left a deep impression on the owner.
However, the turning point of his career came in 1976, when he led the construction of the Beemapally Juma Mosque in Thiruvananthapuram. This is a huge task, and it will take 18 years to complete, because funds slowly flow in through donations.
Despite facing budgetary challenges, Gopalakrishnan, while trying to get rid of dull architectural stereotypes, injects freshness and novelty into his works. He also innovated every mosque he built.
For example, the Sheikh Mosque in Karuna Gapali uses the Mughal Love Monument Taj Mahal as the muse. The Ziyarathumoodu Mosque near Kollam is a hybrid of Indo-Saracenic style, while the Chalai Mosque in Thiruvananthapuram follows contemporary architectural vocabulary.
The builder also makes his work inclusive. In addition to decorating the exterior walls of the mosque with the Quran written in Arabic, Gopalakrishnan also engraved the Malayalam (local language of Kerala) Bible translations on the buildings he built.
Although devotees are excited about Gopalakrishnan’s innovation, some critics have raised objections.
When he used the lotus pattern in the Beemapally Mosque, it sparked a controversy. “The lotus is a beautiful flower, the national flower of India. So as an artist, I don’t think there is any harm in using it to express my respect for it. But obviously some people don’t think so,” he told Al Jazeera. .
The lotus flower appears in the image of various Hindu gods and is also an electoral symbol of the ruling Indian Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
However, despite his opposition to his transformation of the old tradition, the builder said that he “continues to follow his own heart while building the mosque, because God’s house should be free of prejudice.”
What is more striking about Gopalakrishnan’s work is that he did not visit or see any Islamic architecture outside of Kerala.
Through trial and error and keen observation, he invented a new aesthetic for the structure he designed.
He said that he followed the Indo-Saracenic architectural model, and considered Percy Brown’s seminal works “Indian Architecture: Islamic Period” and “Indian Architecture: Hindu Period” as his bibles.
As his style evolved, Gopalakrishnan’s work was supported by attempts to create a new generation of places of worship. He also played with colors, replacing the traditional colors of the mosque with a soft palette of pink and pistachio green.
In this challenging era, as the pandemic disrupts life around him, how does he manage his work?
“I wake up at 6 in the morning and finish reading the newspaper and breakfast at 8:30 in the morning. After that, I will design my book “Njaan Kanda Quran” at the table, which literally means:’I see and understand from the Quran.’ “
This 1,200-page book took Gopalakrishnan more than six years to complete and “will help readers understand the Quran in a simple and meaningful way.”
“While reading the Quran,” he said, “I was shocked by the similarities between its teachings and the Bible and the Sanskrit. I compared every phrase in the Quran with the other two religious texts, and at the same time I recorded my findings in detail. This forms the core of my book. I hope it will be published someday.”
Gopalakrishnan is also the founder of Maanavamaitri, a social and charitable organization that promotes religious understanding and tolerance, contrary to a worldview that is increasingly influenced by race, religion, caste, and creed.
After devoting his life to building the temple, Gopalakrishnan said that he still has an unfinished task: to lay the foundation for a school of religious thought, where Gita, the Quran and the Bible can be taught to students.
“One day,” the old architect said, “I hope to realize this dream of mine. If all of us can realize that God is unique in the end, no matter what religion we use as a tool to reach him, then It will be great.
“Once we realize this and respect all religions, all conflicts will end. The world will become richer because of it.”