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  • SJK Architects

Building In Bodhgaya

Bodhgaya is known for its brick making and its country tiles. The chimneys of Brick kilns dot the landscape on the drive from Patna to Bodhgaya. The Buddhist trail along the way is a testimony to the use of brick - in stupas, the large domes of brick encasing the remains of a learned soul – in the Nalanda University, and in the various monasteries and temples that stud the countryside – memoirs of the enlightened man’s journeys of teaching.

Remains of Nalanda University
Remains of Nalanda University

We were tempted to use brick in the construction of a resort at Bodhgaya. The reasons – other than the obvious patronage of local economies was the wonderful details - from vaults to corbelled arches to stepped jambs that soften the edges of buildings and make them welcoming and timeless. However, the construction of a building holds surprises at every turn. A million voices contribute to it - all ensuring its technical health, even if these inputs have the potential to shatter the vision of the architect.

We discovered sandy soil with a poor bearing capacity – which would require us to go 10 feet below the earth to set up our foundations – the cost of brick for which was prohibitive. We discovered that brick vaults are not acceptable in the Indian Standard Codes for earthquake resistance even though vaults have stood the test of many earthquakes over the ages. And the final nail in the coffin was the Air Conditioning consultant who proved that lightweight concrete blocks would insulate the structure 1.5 times better than brick and lead to much lower air-conditioning costs.

As we grappled with all of this, we realized that though the brick industry provides employment, it does much environmental damage through the firing process which releases carbon into the atmosphere in large quantities. As an unregulated industry it also uses bonded and highly underpaid labour. Despite all this, brick has a romance and an earthiness that leads one to believe in its environmental and social correctness. The alternatives – Compressed Stabilized Earth Blocks etc are much more expensive and difficult to procure, especially when the earth at site is not conducive to compaction.

The industrial age has created these dilemmas – does one promote the crafted and the local against the industrially produced. The romance of the former is often a mirage, and the decision is not always cost based. The standardization and specification guarantees of industrially produced materials provide a security for the user and every industry faces this – from clothing to food to shelter!

Our solution was to use each material to its full potential – a combination of concrete, locally made brick and aerated concrete blocks made up our structure. We replaced brick vaults with coloured concrete ones mixing pigment into concrete and casting beautiful large terracotta vaults that were then covered with roof tiles for insulation. These half round clay tiles – often called “country tiles” are almost invisible in other parts of India. They are now visible only in less industrialized states like Bihar, where the cost of labour is so low that craft based industries can actually be cheaper than industrially produced materials. Since these clay tiles were made in the surrounding areas, we ventured to understand their processes and the economics of using them. The industry is based on part time farm labour, as families use the earth from their fields, and a potter’s wheel to create cylinders of clay that are then cut and fired into half round tiles. The process – entirely intuitive and skill based relies on the potters knowledge of the clay and his sense of when it is long enough and wide enough to take off the wheel. The end result, naturally, is a set of fairly uneven but delightfully diverse tiles.

Building In Bodhgaya

For this project, the tiles were a last layer of insulation over an RCC vault roof. We were not depending on the tiles for protection from rain and the tiles were far cheaper than the industrial alternatives. Each tile cost us Rs 5 as opposed to Rs 12 to 15 for the machine made ones. We were committed to their earthy, crafted visual appeal and the possibility that they would support a local economy. We met some resistance due to the sheer quantities required within the time frame of the project, Ultimately, some emotional coaxing and the commitment of the site team, enabled the order to be placed and the tiles were procured in a gradual manner. 12 villages and 26 families worked on the order. Despite all the odds, the beautiful earthy honesty of the tile has graced our project providing us with an appropriate, locally crafted solution. Several non local industrial solutions were more appropriate in other areas of the project. The opportunity of choice is perhaps the crux of today’s globalized economies. The choice to be open to all possibilities - the local and the crafted as well as the mechanized and the global – each has its place, though undoubtedly, the crafted could do with technology and empowerment or it will get drowned out in the lull of romanticisation and the hum of mechanization.


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