The higher the hair, the closer to God.

by Sara Clarke

A Christian shrine in Kerala, India. Photo by Alexander Nagel

When most people think of India, they think of Hinduism. But India is a very diverse country, religiously. Traveling through the countryside, you’ll see typical Hindu temple architecture, but you’ll also see mosques, Sikh gurudwaras, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and even churches.

A Tibetan Buddhist shrine in Darjeeling, India. Photo by Sara Clarke.

Each has its own distinctive form of architecture, though there are endless variations in different regions as well as between city and country. All of these religious buildings are equally likely to be either old-style or modern, globally classic or designed in the vernacular of that part of the country. And then you have the wild cards, where someone decided, “hey, I’d like to design a temple to look like a lotus blossom!” or whatever.

Another Keralan Christian shrine, India. Photo by Alexander Nagel.

NYU Art historian Alexander Nagel recently returned from Kerala, where he photographed these groovy modernist churches. He’s under the impression that they are a reaction to classical Hindu temple architecture. I’m not so sure — Indian ideas about religion, art, and culture are too complicated for that. Also, Christianity has had a long history in Kerala. It’s not as simple as “out with the old, in with the new.”

A dargah, or Muslim shrine, in Hyderabad. Photo by Eric Parker, via Flickr.

Also, a lot of his photos look like shrines rather than proper churches. Which complicates matters further, since Christian streetside shrines are a relatively indigenous thing in India. They’re not really like anything else, and so there’s no architectural template for them. If you’re starting from scratch, why not get as wild as you want? These also don’t look too different from Christian, Muslim, and Hindu shrines I saw all over India. They’re more space-aged, it’s true. And maybe that’s where Nagel’s thesis comes in.

I wish I knew more about Christianity in Kerala.