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Monday, Dec 22, 2003

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This Hindu builds mosques

Anitha K. Moosath

Meet the master-builder whose faith flows beyond borders of the mind and helps him craft exquisite mosques, churches and temples.

The Kali temple in Thiruvananthapuram

The magnificence of scores of mosques rests lightly on his shoulders. And age has not worn out his creative spirit. At 66, G. Gopalakrishnan is brimming with confidence and busy sketching away `sacred designs', adding to his impressive tally of over 70 mosques in Kerala. "It's all pre-ordained," he says, quite religiously. That's the best he can explain as to why he has been building mosques for over four decades now. "Being a Hindu has never posed a problem," he adds.

His two-room office in Thiruvananthapuram is just a few yards away from the Palayam Juma Masjid, where he learnt the ropes under his contractor father. "As a child, I used to trace blueprints drawn by my father. On holidays, I used to hang around at the worksites, comparing the sketches with the completed structures," he says.

Way back in 1960, Gopalakrishnan's father bagged the contract for restoring the Palayam Masjid — this became the launching pad for the designer-architect. The State's first chief engineer, T.P. Kuttiamu, the brain behind the project, spotted the young talent and encouraged him to take up mosque construction as a vocation. Then on, he got hands-on training and a chance to make drawings for many a mosque. The builder in him was slowly taking shape and the man felt that this was his calling. Moreover, by then, financial strain had forced him to give up his AMIE aspirations.

The renovation was completed in 1965. And the dome was seen as a welcome shift from the sloping tile-roofed mosques of the day.

G. Gopalakrishnan at a mosque construction site in Thiruvananthapuram.

Gopalakrishnan was flooded with offers and it has been so ever since. "There has not been a single day in the past 40 years when I have not been involved in construction work," he says. Currently, he is working on eight mosques, a church, a few houses and shopping complexes.

The first major work he undertook was that of the Beema Pally Juma Masjid, which is now a major pilgrim centre in South India. The edifice, which rests on a podium, has a massive façade, huge domes, tall minarets, pillars and `jaali' work. The walls and ceilings are rich in floral inlay and Arabic inscriptions. No mean feat for a 29-year-old.

Catering to popular demand, Gopalakrishnan has been striking a harmonious blend of Indian and Saracenic styles. The lotus motif runs almost throughout his designs and this came in for criticism after the Babri Masjid demolition. But he convinced his detractors saying, "The lotus is our national flower and placing the dome inside it is a mark of respect, a symbol of religious harmony."

It is hard to believe that Gopalakrishnan has not seen any Islamic-style architecture outside the State. His inspiration has been Percy Brown's Indian Architecture: Islamic Period. "It's more than enough to study a plan in detail. Seeing a structure as such is not that important," he feels.

Innovations mark each of the mosques he has built — the Sheikh Masjid at Karunagapally is modelled on the Taj Mahal; the Ziyarathumoodu mosque, near Kollam, is a brilliant mix of Indo-Saracenic features and sloping roof and the Chalai mosque in Thiruvananthapuram has a more contemporary profile.

The Vavar Mosque at Erumely

The most daunting task in his career has been the renovation of the Vavar Mosque in Erumely. Legend has it that Vavar was a follower of Lord Ayyappa and hence pilgrims to the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple stop there to make oblations.

"It was a touchy issue, for the work had to be carried out in such a way that the Hindus who circle the mosque do not disturb their Muslim brethren during namaz," he says. He had an easy solution — a roofed verandah around the mosque for the Ayyappa devotees.

He has to his credit three churches too, the most imposing of them being the St George Orthodox Church at Chandanapally in Pathanamthitta district. Gothic and Kerala features merge in this marvel, which looks a lot like the St Peter's Basilica in Rome. He has also constructed a Kali temple, shaped like a chariot, near his house in Lenin Nagar in the city.

This builder of harmony upholds a philosophy that transcends all religious barriers. No better proof for this than that he observes the Ramzan and Easter fast and the 41-day vrat during the Sabarimala pilgrimage season.

Two years ago, Gopalakrishnan floated `Maanavamaitri', a forum for promoting universal brotherhood. He believes that the tenets of all religions are the same. Perhaps that's why he has given freedom to his three boys to follow the religion of their choice. Incidentally, his wife is a Christian.

To Gopalakrishnan, "work is worship" and the completion of each work gives him "the satisfaction of a long prayer". His only worry all these years has been that he has to find a licensed architect to get his blueprints approved. But now he may not have to look far for that. His eldest son has completed B. Arch. and has applied for licence; he has started helping out his father at their construction firm, Architekton.

Exuding humility he says, "It has been a long learning process for me and now I am taking lessons from my son on computer-aided designing."

This master-builder stays away from the limelight in his small ancestral house and moves around in a white Fiat, gifted to him 17 years ago by eight jamaats.

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