Three axis mundi: symbol of Hinduism, Islam and the Age of Reason

It is easy to take the familiar for granted. In my home town, Durham City in the North of England, the castle stands above the banks of the River Wear, unremarked upon by natives but admired by tourists. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My grandfather, an architect, helped to preserve it by shoring up the castle and preventing it from slipping into the Wear.

Most of the time the British Council building in Delhi goes unremarked upon. But it is a remarkable building. Take a close look at it next time you are here. Architect Charles Correa’s idea was to have three “axis mundi” through the length of the building. The first, a spiral representing Bindu in Hinduism, is beside Stephen Cox’s massive granite sculpture of a meditative face against the back wall. The second is embodied in the traditional Islamic Char Bagh (Garden of Paradise). The third is in the floor of the foyer, a symmetrical inlay in marble and granite that represents the European Age of Reason. At the front of the building are the familiar black shadows of the boughs of Howard Hodgkin’s giant tree of life and knowledge.

It is a wonderful building and we are going to preserve every aspect of it throughout our refurbishment work over the coming year. We are in the middle of phase one, which is largely out of sight – in the basements and annexes. We have had to relocate our café to a temporary container at the front – apologies for this. The new café will be on the ground floor, inside a new gallery space that will extend from the current gallery area all the way through to the Char Bagh. In November, we will need to start decanting our staff around the building when we start to refurbish the upper floors, and there will be disruption. We don’t currently plan to close our public facilities.

We will soon be putting the plans for our refurbished building onto our website, so look out for them. The work we are doing will result in a better place for visitors to come and learn, read, talk and think. Inside, it will be strikingly different to now in many respects, but we have a huge responsibility to preserve the building. Durham Cathedral has sat astride the same outcrop as the castle since the 11th century. Our own cathedral of learning and cultural relations on Kasturba Gandhi Marg may not last that long, but it is not a bad ambition.

Post by: Paul Clementson, Assistant Director Operations

British Council India

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