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Narainsamy Temple (Vartharaj Perumal Temple)
Newlands, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal

Kristappa REDDY: Architect
Type:Hindu Temple
Street:Sea Cow Lake Rd

(Grossert 1942:29, 37 ill; SAAR Jul 1965:23-26).

His third temple was the Narainsamy Temple, Newlands, in Durban, built 1906-08.

When Reddy was offered a commission for a temple he would submit a charcoal or pencil sketch of the proposed design to the trustees; he did not use conventional drawings with plans and elevations in the European manner to show details of construction. With only a very simple sketch to guide him, he would lay out the foundations and proceed to erect the structure he had visualized - relying on experience and training.

In common with Indian temples, this has a sculptural as well as an architectural quality. The walls are treated simply. The stucco modelling and elaborate detail of the steeple and domes rise up from a classical and simple podium.

(J W Grosser in UIA, 1985: 58)

The Narainsamy (Tamilian) temple is situated in Newlands in the northern peri-urban area of Durban, about five miles inland.

As one approaches the Narainsamy temple, one is immediately aware that it is the edifice of a major deity for Narainsamy (Narayana Swami) is Vishnu, the second person of the Siva. The lovely pyramidal koroborum is flanked by two small domes, and rises high above the flat roof which stretches out in front of it.

Looking at the temple itself one feels, that like so many of those in India, it has a sculptural, as well as architectural quality. The walls of the temple have been treated very simply. The stucco modeling and elaborate detail of the steeple and domes rise up from a classical and comparatively simple pedestal. Above the main entrance is a decorative feature made up of three arched panels which form a short parapet to the flat roof of the hall, and it has two small stucco figures standing at either end. The flame motif of the arches is repeated as a dominating theme in the decorations of the spire, and is a form of the well-known mandala, Vishnu is Surya, the old Aryan Sun God, and these mandalas with a grotesque head for a keystone, are undoubtedly sun symbols. The fiery curve of the mandala is the path of the sun, and the flames forming the tongue hanging from the grotesque head signify the burning heat of midday. These mandalas repeat the silhouette form of the lotus dome and can also be associated with the sacred syllable Om. In a series of small bronzes of the Lord of the Dance, Siva-Hataraja, made in South India between the tenth and twelfth centuries, one also sees the figures surrounded by a ring of small tongues of flame, the prabhamandala. There is probably some common significance in the allegorical meanings ascribed to these flame symbols.

The most impressive feature of the temple is the koroborum, or steeple, about fifty-three feet high. It rises like a many tiered wedding cake, with its rich stucco : modelling glistening in the sunshine. The first tier above the base is a frieze, with a wide overhanging, dentilled cornice, supported by caryatid figures. In the centre of each section are niches in which small modelled figures of deities have been placed.

Above the frieze are two more storeys of diminishing size, dominated by mandala motifs on the four sides and corners. The dome springs delicately from a frieze of lotus petals and is terminated above by the bell-like inverted lotus which supports the sikhanta, or finial. The fixing of the sikhanta takes place at a special ceremony of dedication, which is the climax of forty days of preparation by a Brahmin who has been specially instructed in Hindu ritual. If for any reason the temple should fall into disuse, the sikhanta is removed. In contrast to similarly shaped finials of stucco on other parts of the building, this sikhanta, above the steeple, is of gilded metal. It is the emblem of the Three Spheres, rising one above the other and separated by amilakas, the flattened pericarps of a lotus, and it terminates in a small cone, pointing upwards.The two small domes like pieces of statuary on either side of the koroborum are masterpieces of the plasterer's art. Around the bases quaint cows with one head that shares two bodies lie at the corners. It is a device reminiscent of the lions at the entrances to Babylonian palaces which were given five legs to convey the appearance of solidity from front and side views.

Within the mandabulum (hall), four heavy square columns with capitals and bases similar to those on the pilasters and columns outside, support beams which run the length of the hall. These, in turn, support the flat concrete ceiling decorated with variations of the lotus theme. As a repeating motif it is used again in the form of small rosettes along the narrow frieze at the end of the hall, and on the face of the transoms above the openings to the image cells. The interior architecture is also painted pure white, providing an atmosphere of austere simplicity, but a little colour is brought in in various ways.

The temple has many other interesting little architectural details. There is a refreshing freedom in the way decoration has been added and the building set out, giving a personality which is found in freehand but not in mechanical drawings. One senses the hand-made product and the personal expression of builder in every part of the structure and one realises that studying the architecture gives but one aspect of the religious life of the Hindus. The temple building is the body, and unless a heart is beating within it and blood coursing through the veins, it is a lifeless thing. There is a spiritual as well as a physical metabolism, a regeneration, a building up of cells and a growing. The Hindu temple is an expression of a spiritual faith by the Indian people of this conviction, and a reflection of their tradition.1

  1. Grossert, J.W. 1965. The Narainsamy Temple, Newlands. South African Architectural Record. 50.7, July.

[Schalk LE ROUX, October 2010]

All truncated references not fully cited below are those of Joanna Walker's original text and cited in full in the 'Bibliography' entry of the Lexicon.

Writings about this entry

Beck, Haig (Editor). 1985. UIA International Architect : Southern Africa (Issue 8). London: International Architect. pg 58