New Delhi, India – With dozens of mosques, four churches and a temple to his credit, Govindan Gopalakrishnan, 85, is hardly your typical architect.
Instead, what has driven the octogenarian – popularly known as the “Mosque Man” – in his career spanning six decades is his love for “the oneness of humanity”, as he puts it.
The elderly builder, who keeps copies of Quran, Bible and the Hindu scripture Gita at his modest home in India’s southern city of Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, says he is a firm believer in religious harmony.
“I observe roza (fast) during the holy month of Ramadan as well as the 41-day fast during the Sabarimala pilgrimage. My wife is a Christian, so I join her for the Easter fast as well,” he smiles toothily, referring to Jaya, his spouse of 60 years.
“One of my two sons is married to a Muslim lady. I welcome all religions to my home and give them equal respect.”
The self-taught builder’s career, he says, began soon after finishing school as he could not afford going to college due to financial hardships faced by his family.
Instead, he joined his father, a building contractor, as an apprentice.
Young Gopalakrishnan began by tracing the blueprints of buildings being constructed by his father in his notebook. He would then compare their details with the original structures, bombarding his father with questions on techniques, silhouettes and colour schemes.
Meanwhile, he also struck up a friendship with LA Saldana, an Anglo-Indian draughtsman of repute in the 1960s, who taught him the basics of sketching and drawing.
“I also worked as an unpaid apprentice at the Kerala Public Works Department which helped me in my craft and later started assisting my father in the reconstruction of Kerala’s iconic Palayam mosque,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The structure took five years to rebuild and was a great learning experience. It made me realise that architecture was my calling,” recalls Gopalakrishnan, who has amassed a sizeable body of work comprising commercial and residential spaces as well as shopping malls and community centres.
It was matter of great pride for the father-son duo when the Palayam mosque was inaugurated in 1964 by the then-President of India, Dr Zakir Hussain.
“I believe it was divine intervention that led me – a Hindu – to construct a masjid with the support of a Christian friend (LA Saldana) and build a mosque that is juxtaposed between a temple and a church – a shining example of religious harmony,” says Gopalakrishnan.
Despite no formal degree in architecture, the builder’s intuitive grasp of architectural techniques, his uncompromising work ethic and an ability to deliver beyond the client’s expectations fuelled his success.
His first solo assignment, he recalls, was the construction of a three-storeyed residence in Thiruvananthapuram, which, he says, impressed the owner.
However, the turning point in his career came in 1976 when he led the construction of Beemapally Juma Masjid in Thiruvananthapuram. A massive piece of work, it required 18 years to complete as funds trickled in slowly through donations.
Despite budget challenges, Gopalakrishnan infused freshness and novelty into his work while trying to break away from staid architectural stereotypes. He also innovated on each of the mosques he built.
The Sheikh Masjid at Karunagappally, for instance, has the Mughal monument of love, the Taj Mahal, as its muse. The Ziyarathumoodu Mosque near Kollam is a mélange of Indo-Saracenic styles, while the Chalai mosque in Thiruvananthapuram follows contemporary architectural vocabulary.
The builder has also made his work inclusive. In addition to embellishing the mosque facades with scriptures from the Holy Quran written in Arabic, Gopalakrishnan also inscribed Malayalam (Kerala’s local language) translations of the scriptures on the structures he built.
Though the devotees have been thrilled with Gopalakrishnan’s innovations, some critics raised objections.
A controversy erupted when he used the lotus motif in the Beemapally mosque. “The lotus is a beautiful flower, India’s national flower. So as an artist, I saw no harm in using it to express my reverence for it. But clearly some people saw it otherwise,” he told Al Jazeera.
Lotus flower appears with the images of various Hindu gods and is also the election symbol of the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
However, despite resistance to his reinvention of old traditions, the builder says he “continued following his heart while building mosques as God’s house should be free of prejudices”.
What is even more remarkable about Gopalakrishnan’s work is that he has not visited nor seen any Islamic architectural construction outside Kerala.
Learning by trial and error, as well as through his sharp observations, he invented a new aesthetic for the structures he designed.
He says he follows the Indo-Saracenic model of architecture and considers the pathbreaking book, Indian Architecture: Islamic Period, and Indian Architecture: Hindu Period by renowned British scholar and historian Percy Brown as his Bible.
As his style evolved, Gopalakrishnan’s work was underpinned by an attempt to create a new generation of places of worship. He also played with hues, replacing the traditional colours of his mosques with a pastel palette of pinks and pistachio greens.
In these challenging times, as the pandemic upends lives around him, how is he managing his work?
“I get up by 6am and wrap up newspaper reading and breakfast by 8:30am after which I am at my table designing my book, Njaan Kanda Quran, which literally means: ‘What I have seen and understood from Quran’.”
The 1,200-page book, which has taken Gopalakrishnan over six years to complete, “will help readers understand the Quran in a simple and meaningful way”.
“While reading the Quran,” he says, “I was struck by the similarities of its teachings with the Bible and the Gita. I took each phrase of the Quran and compared it to the other two religious texts while making a detailed note of my findings. This forms the core of my book. I hope it can be published some day.”
Gopalakrishnan is also the founder of Maanavamaitri, a social and charitable organisation that promotes religious understanding and tolerance, the antithesis of a world view increasingly coloured by race, religion, caste and creed.
After devoting a lifetime to building shrines, Gopalakrishnan says he still has one unfulfilled task: laying the foundation of a school of religious thoughts where the Gita, Quran and Bible can be taught to students.
“One day,” says the elderly builder, “I hope to realise this dream of mine as well. It will be great if all of us can realise that God is ultimately one, no matter which religion we use as a vehicle to reach Him.
“The moment we realise this and respect all religions, all strife will end. And the world will be a richer place for it.”