The Darkhana, Canada: A Building of Graceful Architecture and Spiritual Nobility

by Pervis Rawji

It was Chandraat, the night of the new moon, which brings with it immense spiritual peace and barakah (happiness). I was dropping my great aunt home after Jamatkhana ceremonies, and decided to visit her before scooting off. Inside her cozy apartment, I saw an unexpected and surreal art-scape. Perfectly framed by her window was a most ethereal and beautiful sight. It was a simple dome, rising majestically out in Burnaby. “What is that building?” I asked, incredulous, because I did not recognize it. “That’s Darkhana, of course,” was her reply. I had to look again.

What appeared as a gigantic dome to my perception was actually the illuminated half cupola of the entrance portal. You see, camouflaged by the deep twilight, the immense portal frame completely disappeared. Now a trick played with the eyes as the illuminated cupola created the optical illusion of a softly lit ‘dome’ rising into the night sky. I was wonder-filled and had to say a silent salwat in my heart for all the graces that we have in our lives as murids of Mawlana Hazar Imam. As you read further along and view the photos on this page and the photo gallery, the architecture of Islam is not defined or constricted by recognizable elements of design such as domes and minarets. However, on close inspection of Shia architecture, one cannot help but notice the emphasis on the gate.  In Shiism, the portal is symbolic of the concept of Imama. In a well-known and reliable hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said, Ana Madinat al-’Ilm wa `Aliyu babuha (“I am the City of Knowledge and Ali is its Gate”).

Now in its 26th year, the Burnaby Jamatkhana and Ismaili Centre, which was designated as the ‘Darkhana of Canada’ by Mawlana Hazar Imam, was the first custom-built house of worship for the Ismailis of Canada. Vancouver architect Bruno Freschi, himself of Italian background, was commissioned by Mawlana Hazar Imam to design a prestigious building that would capture the significance of an important moment in the history of Ismaili settlement in the West. The Burnaby Jamatkhana embodied all the hopes and aspirations of the new community.

As a Burnaby resident, I watched and participated in the development of this building, which means so much to my community all over Canada. Set back forty feet from the property line, the Centre is a solid, though modest building sunk into a garden. So, although there are three floors, the Jamatkhana does not impose over the environment, but gracefully complements the architecture surrounding it, which consists of a school, a Finnish home for Senior Citizens, and a prestigious townhouse complex.

The process of planning and building the Jamatkhana was collaborative. Leaders and members of the community were consulted by Mr. Frechi as to their needs and concerns, and there was a lot of feedback and communication back and forth. The center, constructed on a 1.4 hectare site, houses a prayer hall with loggia, social hall, religious education classrooms, a library, kitchens, institutional offices and meeting rooms. This centre, the first of its kind in North America and the second to be built in the Western World after the Ismaili Centre in London, is an example of modern Islamic architecture. It is inward looking in many ways, particularly because the Ismaili faith is an esoteric expression of Islam. Before the believer enters the final sanctuary, which is the prayer hall, he or she has to physically and psychologically pass through several ‘walls’ or ‘gates’. For me, this layering effect of enclosures is extremely effective, especially when I have had a hectic day in the busy world outside. 

The outermost ‘wall’ is not a complete enclosure, but open at many places for cars, pedestrians and service vehicles to have easy and quick access. One side is only a high berm to keep out some traffic noise from the main road, Canada Way, and to maintain privacy for the community. This outermost ‘courtyard’ is actually a parking lot that is beautifully landscaped and maintained. The trees and ground cover soften the unaesthetic impact of a paved parking lot, and attract birds. As the vegetation goes through its annual cycles of shedding, renewal and flowering, it reminds the believers of the passing of the seasons, and the temporal nature of life on earth. At this point already, the mu’min, or believer has entered a safe place. 

Next comes an inner wall, which encloses a huge courtyard, geometrically laid out with a garden, fountains and benches for people to sit on. The octagonal pattern of design is going to be repeated throughout the site and structure of the building. A garden path meanders throughout the garden, welcoming children and adults to enjoy its delights. In Islam, a garden is symbolic of the paradise promised in the hereafter. The permanence of the building, which is deliberately sunken to filter out the noise of traffic, is juxtaposed with the ephemeral — the flowers and nature around it which undergo a process of decay and re-birth.

The building itself is constructed of concrete, but the entire outside is clad with enormous, unbroken slabs of local sandstone, which gives a solid message of permanence. This is very important to the psyche of the community, because a lot of them came to Canada as refugees or other unfavourable circumstances in Uganda and Tanzania. “For us and our children, it is a strong symbol that we are here to stay. We are not a group of transients”, said Farouk Verjee, then President of the National Council. (The Vancouver Sun, 1985)

The front portal (graced by enormous oak doors, see top photo) is at least two storeys high, and made of white marble. The doors, which are made of white oak, are inlaid with brass, reading Allah and Ali in Islamic calligraphy. Upon entering this doorway, the mu’min is in the loggia, or antechamber to the prayer hall. In the loggia, devotees can meet and greet, and take off shoes and coats.

The final and most important enclosure is still beckoning. This is the prayer hall, actually an extension of the loggia, but partitioned off with some heavy oak screens inlaid with brass in abstract calligraphy.

This inner-most sanctuary is designed to create a contemplative environment. It is square in plan, and double-storey in height. Panels of sandblasted coral and rose marble inlaid with brass create the Mihrab (niche indicating the direction of prayer). The walls are still concrete, but again, softened by a base wall of solid oak inlaid with brass. There is adequate but very gentle incandescent lighting, mostly hidden behind the oak base walls. There are four windows in the entire prayer room, designed to look like oil lanterns.

Architect Freschi, who says that the project was probably his most fulfilling achievement, describes the ‘ lamps’, which are framed by panels of ivory-coloured marmorina (marble dust tiles) thus:

…those window lanterns are three-dimensional — that is,
they project outwards: they are not bay windows for a view,
but rather to capture the light. They are made of one-inch
thick opalescent glass and, when the sunlight comes through,
as you can see on the south side, they turn to gold. It is the
arsenic in the glass which converts the light into a golden hue.
The glass is fired with a calligraphic set of patterns, which
we worked on, and those patterns have then evolved into the
tile work which is cast in white marble dust and surrounds
those lantern windows. (CBC, 1993)

For me, the treatment of light and the attention paid to the windows is deeply symbolic of Ismailism’s mystical understanding of Islam. I am reminded of Sura Noor of the Glorious Qu’ran which, in its reference to light and a lamp, allegorically alludes to an esoteric aspect of the faith.

The ceiling is made up of thirteen octagonal domes, which are made of copper. These will gradually oxidize, turning green like the roofs and domes of some other pieces of Vancouver architecture, such as the Art Gallery and the Hotel Vancouver. These domes do not attract attention, and are modestly sized. Looking at the domes from the inside, one notices brass rings outlining the bases, which has a softening effect on the concrete. Perched upon these brass rings are little lights, spaced at intervals, at once reminding one of traditional mosque lamps. Throughout the building, the treatment of light is given great consideration. Hours were spent in observing the effect of natural light upon the interior of the building during different times of the day and year. Artificial lighting was then determined as a complement, as well as to intensify the creation of a serene and passive environment.

I attend the Jamatkhana in the evenings to pray and socialize, and in the mornings to meditate. The gentle lighting intensifies my spiritual experience, and gives me a feeling of ‘having come home’. The entire floor is covered with a one-piece rose-coloured wool carpet, which was handwoven in China. It is not printed, but embossed in the repetitive octagonal pattern characteristic of the plan of the entire center. This also echoes the pattern of the coffered ceiling. The whole building is unified in its geometric layout, and the use of materials that will not deteriorate rapidly.

Burnaby’s Ismailis are extremely proud of this building in their midst, and the utmost care is taken to maintain it and keep it looking good, in spite of its varied and heavy usage. Teams of volunteers come in everyday, to replace light bulbs, dust, polish, vacuum and clean. The children in the community are growing up with a sense of stability; the women are involved in activities at all levels, and the seniors have a place that they can go to everyday for spiritual and social fulfillment.

Burnaby Jamat Khana employs all the elements of Islamic architecture, such as: symbolic decoration; geometry; symmetry; mass; enclosure; gardens; fountains; serenity; public and private spaces; and varied surface textures. However, it is a modern building, designed for contemporary use, by people who accept science and technology as a continuum of the Islamic civilization that spurred medicine, education, literature and the arts. It illustrates the concept that the modern and the Western have a definite place in Islamic architecture, that they are just a continuum of a wonderful tradition.

As I write this piece, I cannot help but reflect upon this magnificent place of worship and community gathering. The Jamatkhana certainly had its birth pains and challenges, starting with the re-zoning permit. At City Hall there was confusion and even alarm. Here was a new community applying to build a multi-purpose centre. What did City council know about these new immigrants, their habits and aspirations? What would these people bring? What would they take? How would they behave? Real estate agents working in the neighbourhood seized the opportunity of gaining listings by inciting fear and mistrust. The realtors claimed that cars would be driving in and out of the centre at all hours, causing traffic jams and disturbance. Letters to the editor appeared in the papers. For Sale signs went up in some gardens. Petitions went to City Hall. One by one, through all this, step by step, all the hurdles were successfully passed and the building rose, majestic and solid but unpretentious or loud. Over the years, the Centre has been embraced by the larger Burnaby and Vancouver community.

For me the building holds incredible memories and many defining moments – the weddings I have attended, seminars, board meetings, library, guided tours, contemplation in wonderful gardens – all these are my experiences of this amazing building. Among them is a memory I have of my beloved late twin sister, Shamim. She got married in 1980 at the old Burnaby Jamatkhana. Seventeen years later, when she died in England, the Darkhana was where our family performed the samar ceremonies in her remembrance. About a thousand people attended the ceremony to pay tribute to her, to console me and my family and to pray for the eternal peace of her departed soul. It was a touching day. But I found comfort from the voices of my own family and the hundreds who reached out to me from the depth of their hearts. Thus in both joy and sorrow, the Darkhana has deeply moved and inspired me. It is where I have experienced moments of rapt meditation and spiritual peace, and found meaning and joy in my life.

Date article posted on Simerg: May 7, 2011
Last update: May 9, 2011

© Simerg.com

Click Photo Gallery for more photos including a handwritten message by His Highness the Aga Khan.

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Pervis Rawji

About the writer: Born in colonial Uganda, Pervis Rawji (née Patni) went to Aga Khan Nursery and Primary schools before immigrating to Canada with her parents and siblings in 1969. Graduating from New Westminster Secondary School, she went for a BA and Teacher Training(PDP) at Simon Fraser University.

Pervis taught elementary school in greater Vancouver, got married, had two children. During this time she got a Montessori diploma as well as an MSc in International Policy from the University of Bristol, UK. Pervis also teaches ESL and yoga. Pervis Rawji has taught English to Ismailis in Iran, India and Syria, and has worked one autumn at the Roshan Clinic in Kabul. Her hobbies are skiing, logic puzzles, badminton and gardening. 

Article(s) by Pervis Rawji on this Website:
Hazrat Ali’s Example: What We Can Do Today

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We welcome feedback/letters from our readers on the above Darkhana, Canada, piece. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears below. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters. We invite your contribution to the Jamatkhana series. Please click  The Jamatkhana: A Place of Spiritual and Social Convergence.

To view more photos, click Photo Gallery. Please also read Voices: Bruno Freschi, Architect of the Ismaili Centre in Burnaby, in Conversation with Simerg

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9 thoughts on “The Darkhana, Canada: A Building of Graceful Architecture and Spiritual Nobility

  1. Inshahallah, one day we will have a similar Ismaili Centre in Kabul, Afghanistan, with the help of the Jamats.

  2. The article is marvelous as is the Jamatkhana. I had visited Darkhana London, Dubai, Karachi and Lisbon. They are amazing and Inshallah one day I will visit this Darkhana. This is our culture and spiritual heritage, Ya Ali Madad to all.

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