20 May 2012

Lotus Temple, New Delhi


“In the heart of New Delhi, the bustling capital of India, a lotus-shaped outline has etched itself on the consciousness of the city's inhabitants, capturing their imagination, fuelling their curiosity, and revolutionizing the concept of worship. This is the Baha'i Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, better known as the "Lotus Temple". With the dawning of every new day, an ever-rising tide of visitors surges to its doorsteps to savour its beauty and bask in its serenely spiritual atmosphere..Against the backdrop of a religious milieu which encourages the fragmentation of the Supreme Reality into innumerable gods and goddesses, each personifying a specific attribute of the Almighty, the Baha'i Temple, with its total absence of idols, elicits bewilderment as well as favourable response.”
Eliza Rasiwala, “The Lotus of Bahapur – A magnet for the heart"

The Lotus Temple, or the Baha’i House of Worship, one of the most beautiful places I have visited in the country and perhaps the only architectural marvel that I can visit time and again despite being there several times, had been long on my radar but the visit just couldn’t materialize because of other commitments – that is, till now. Prodded on by my cousin and sister-in-law Prateek and Hitika (pretty accomplished writer-photographers both) who recently hosted a photo walk with our photography club “Strobe Wizards” at the temple complex, finally I did visit the magnificent temple. It was an uneventful sunny day and I had little to do at office where I was interning, so I tiptoed out and got on my way. The temple, also known as "Kamal Mandir", takes one’s breathe away even from afar – in fact, you can see people travelling on Delhi metro's Violet line that zips past on lofty over-bridges turn their heads to gaze at the attractive sight of the pristine marble lotus blooming amidst deep lush greens. The unbridled amazement when one looks at the splendid architectural marvel from up close is indeed indescribable.


The Baha'i Mashriqu'l-Adhkar


The temple is situated in the village of Bahapur (Kalkaji) on a gentle hill on land bought with the money donated by Ardishir Rustanpur of Hyderabad (Pakistan) who gave his entire life savings for the construction of the shrine. It is perhaps the only temple where people go for photography and sightseeing visits rather than for prayers – this has a lot to do with the Baha’i principle of keeping their shrines open for people of all faiths and their strict shunning of advertisement of their religion or forced conversions and indoctrination – this is what makes the temple incredibly popular among tourists, locals and photographers alike. The number of tourists visiting the complex puts it even above Taj Mahal of Agra in terms of popularity index. An important constituent of Baha’i beliefs is the concept of a single creator and the equality of all human beings, and thus their places of worship equally welcome followers of all religions and cults – one can spot Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, old and young queuing up to enter the temple complex and the main shrine and there couldn’t be a sight more colorful, more vibrant and more secular than this. A matter of great pride and interest is the fact that the meticulously-planned 27-leaved lotus figure is one of the only seven Baha’i Houses of Worship spread throughout the world (the other six being in Australia, Germany, Samoa, Panama, Uganda and USA). Architecturally, one of the most accredited buildings in the world, the temple has won numerous awards and distinctions for the same and has been a sensation amongst architects, designers, engineers and laymen alike. Since it was thrown open to the public in 1986, the number of tourists flocking to it have soared, and the proximity to Kalkaji Metro station (just 5 minutes’ walk away) has made reaching the place even easier. The monument was designed by Fariborz Sahba, an Iranian-Canadian architect and a firm believer in the Baha’i faith. He drew his motivation from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, which together make lotus one of the most recurring symbols in the Indian culture. Construction News, a British technical journal, described Lotus Temple as “the Taj Mahal of the 20th Century' in its 1986 issue, a title that has been subsequently used by numerous other publications.


Grace and symmetry


Structurally, all Baha’i Houses of Worship, including the Lotus Temple, share certain architectural elements, some of which are specified by Bahá'í scriptures – the essential architectural characteristic of a shrine is stipulated as its being a nine-sided structure neither displaying pictures, statues or images nor incorporating in its scheme pulpits or altars. Before entering the central hall underneath the lotus structure, visitors are required to remove their shoes – an underground room divided into numerous counters has been constructed midway between the entrance and the superstructure and is manned by volunteers who receive the footwear and provide tokens for the same. Visitors to the central hall are usually amazed at the gigantism of the structure and the striking symmetry achieved through the use of arches and angles – most of them are also confused by the absence of idols, religious symbolism and priests inside the central chamber, but perhaps the biggest jolt is the sheer crushing silence that the massive chamber affords. The hall, approximately 40 meters high and capable of housing 2,500 people at a time, is marked by rows upon rows of benches stacked directly underneath the gigantic roof that features a nine-pointed star (symbolic of Baha'i faith) inset with a sparkling symbol (referred to as “Ringstone symbol”) composed of three patterns – two five-pointed stars (“Haykal”) representing Bab and Baha’ullah and a simplistic line design between them representing to the followers of the Baha’i faith the intersection of the three worlds of God, His messengers and men.


A touch of glitter - The spiritual symbol embedded in the temple roof (Photo courtesy - Flickr.com/Adib Roy)


Only 100 people are allowed at a time within the prayer hall in order to maintain the decorum of the shrine and before entry they too are explained the rules – “No shouting”, “No photography”, “No mobile phones”, “No sitting on the floor” and such – by the volunteers managing the crowds. All volunteers are themselves members of the Baha’i faith and come from different parts of the world; they are friendly and knowledgeable about the religion and the House of Worship and share facts and entertain discussions about the same. I had the opportunity to meet a volunteer from Canada (whose name I never asked!) who answered many of my questions and increased my information base about the faith and its operations. (Edit: On another photo walk (dated September 13, 2014) with our photography club “Delhi Instagramer’s Guild”, we were introduced to the Baha’i faith and the temple by Prashant, a volunteer from Bihar – extremely soft-spoken, Prashant’s knowledge of the faith is exemplar and very updated, and he himself strived to be an excellent human being and motivated us to do the same with his in-depth understanding of his religion and its tenets). There is no time limit as to how long an individual can stay inside the hall; photography is strictly prohibited but most people do click when the volunteers are busy elsewhere – I intend to visit the temple again after obtaining permission to click the hall interiors, until then a photo borrowed from another website shall grace this article. One can sit on the benches, but sitting/squatting on the floor (as one might do in a Hindu temple) is not allowed; also prohibited is the use of musical instruments, preaching of sermons and creating a nuisance. It is generally disorienting for most Indians when they visit the temple since we have become so used to face an idol or a wall indicating the direction of prayers – though incredibly mesmerizing, the hall, with its long rows of benches and utter silence, is slightly daunting for most. Baha’i teachings are occasionally recited in prayer sessions organized at the temple along with extracts from Bhagavad Gita, Quran, Buddhist teachings and Bible.


The volunteer from Canada


The 27 petals, constructed of reinforced concrete, are clad on the outside with pure white marble plates sourced from Penteli Mountain, Greece and stand free from each other in three concentric circles to form a nine sided flower. Nine water pools surround the temple to impart the semblance of the leaves of a lotus flower when seen aerially. As is apparent with the figures employed in the temple’s construction, the number nine is considered sacred in Baha'i faith since it is derived from the word “Baha” (“splendor”). The area surrounding the temple has been beautifully landscaped and efficiently maintained by the authorities – the lush green lawns soothe the eyes and the rows of shrubbery and flowering plants along the pathways frame the temple to lend it an even picturesque setting. Palm trees and small artificial hills adjacent to the main entrance draw a curtain over the temple so that it is gradually revealed in its true majesty when a visitor has walked a little towards it. Numerous security guards and volunteers posted around the temple prevent the visitors from trampling on the grass and keep prodding them to walk only on the designated walk ways. Near the parking lot is an underground information center – drenched in dim orange light and draped with large placards intimating the visitors about the main religions of the world and their association with Baha’i teachings, the Information Center displays numerous books and manuscripts published by the Baha’i publication centers and is manned by numerous volunteers well-versed with the faith and its scriptures. One can also avail of sermon booklets and brief introductory sheets in almost all Indian and most major languages from here. The temple property, inclusive of the pools, gardens and the information center comprises 26 acres.


The Information Center (Please note that photography is strictly prohibited inside the Info. Center and prior permission has to be solicited for the same.)


After exiting from the hall, one can revert to clicking the celebrated exteriors, take a stroll around the complex to admire its construction and layout, or step down the stairs surrounding the lotus structure to reach the considerably cool water pools. Underneath the prayer hall are kiosks selling souvenirs – postcards, plastic models of the temple, key rings and books detailing the Baha’i faith and construction of the Lotus Temple. I bought a rather boring, but delightfully illustrated book “The Dawning Place of the Remembrance of God” – numerous photographs chronicle the construction of the imposing temple and several essays capture the perennial joy one experiences on witnessing the splendor of the blooming marble lotus.

The tranquil environment of the temple proves to be a soothing relief from the chaotic hustle-bustle of the city. As many would attest, sitting on the stairs leading to the pools around the temple is an enjoyable experience, further amplified by the cool afforded by the water and the striking temple for company. Somehow, one tends to forget all worries, reflect on the intricacies of life and experience a calmness spread over every frayed nerve while seated around the temple. The architect indeed triumphed in his pursuit!


Lights and reflections


A brief history of the Baha’i faith –
The year was 1844 and the setting a fiercely Islamic Iran when a 26-year old trader Mirza Saiyyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi claimed to be the Shia sect’s prophet (“Mehdi-Khwaja”) whose appearance was promised in the scriptures. He was already renowned as a scholar-writer and soon thereafter his declaration, took up the title “Bab” (“Gate”) and declared that another prophet too shall appear soon after him. Bab was bitterly criticized and opposed by the Iranian Shia clergy who pressurized the government to arrest and physically punish him; nonetheless the Bab movement continued to gain followers and he himself wrote numerous books and letters expounding upon his beliefs and interpretations of the scriptures. He spent several years in imprisonment during which most of the provincial Governors and jail superintendents who came in touch with him were readily impressed by his spiritual knowledge and messianic claims and immediately became his religious followers. Considering his considerable popularity and spiritual authority a threat to the established religious order, the government finally relented to the clergy’s demands and ordered his execution along with a follower who had exclaimed his wish to be martyred with him – interestingly, legend goes that when the smoke from the rifles used to fire upon Bab and his companion settled, it was noted that the bullets miraculously only cut the ropes that had tied the two! Bab had disappeared from the firing chamber and his companion stood there startled but unharmed – later Bab was found in an adjacent room dictating a final message to his secretary following the completion of which he agreed to the execution and tied up again – this time the bullets actually pierced his body and he died of the gunshot wounds. He was only 29 years of age at the time of his demise. Following his execution, a group of his followers (“Babis”) resorted to terrorism and plotted to assassinate the Shah of Iran, but the attempt failed and led to extremely violent repercussions from both the administration and the Shia public who considered the Babis heretics . Almost all of them, numbering several thousand, were arrested and beaten; fearing imprisonment and intensive persecution, many fled and requested asylum in other countries; rioting followed and 2,000-3,000 of the Babis were killed (the unofficial figure is significantly higher – 20,000 killed, the remaining imprisoned). 


Petals


Fettered in a dark underground prison was one of the most notable personalities of his time – an eminent religious scholar and a firm believer in Bab’s sayings, Mirza Hussain Ali Nuri of Iran who was said to have been made aware of his divine inheritance as God’s prophet and Bab’s successor by angels while he was in prison and took up the title “Baha’ullah” (“Glory of God”). Originally an affluent merchant, he wrote numerous voluminous books and religious interpretations after he was freed from prison several months later and travelled to Kurdistan under the alias Darvish Muhammad-i-Irani where he was immediately recognized as an unparalleled intellectual in spiritualism and Islamic jurisprudence. Baha’ullah’s influence continued to grow even though he was exiled and transferred from one distant region to another – in parallel, the Baha’i belief, originating from Baha’ullah’s teachings, too grew as a separate identity within the Babi movement until it finally attained the status of a distinct religion. Observing the propagation of divergent religious ideas by members of the Baha’i faith and the growing disenchantment of several foremost Babi leaders which could lead to disorder and public agitation in future, the authorities again imprisoned Baha’ullah in 1868, subject to which he lived till his demise in the year 1892.

As enumerated by Bab and Baha’ullah, the Baha’is believe in three fundamentals – God is one, all religions are different methods to reach to that same God, and lastly, all humanity was created equal without any distinctions of caste, color, creed or gender. Additionally, Baha’is believe that Bab and Baha’ullah were the most recent in line of God’s Prophets which also includes the Abrahamic triad, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna and Buddha. The Baha’i faith is amongst the youngest of world’s religions, slightly over 150 years old; but it also is amongst the fastest growing religions and there are around 7.3 million Baha’is scattered throughout the world. Following the death of Abdul Baha, Baha’ullah’s son and political successor and an exemplar human being according to Baha’is, the faith has been governed by a partly-elected, partly-appointed administrative council of eminent Baha’is, while Shoghi Effendi, Abdul Baha’s grandson, assumed the position of the first and last “Guardian of the Baha’i faith”.


Another night click. It really is worth requesting permission for a night visit since the temple is beautifully lighted and outlined against the dark expansive lawns.


2.2 million, or around a third of the world’s Baha’i population lives in India – India has been associated with the faith since its inception since four of the foremost eighteen followers of Bab were Indians and Baha’ullah too dispatched numerous emissaries to the subcontinent. As mentioned before, the Lotus Temple is one of the seven Houses of Worship of the Baha’is and acts as an ambassador of their faith. Yet there is little knowledge among the tourists as well as the local population about who the Baha’is are and what is it that they do – this has more to do with the Baha’i principle of not advertising their religion nor attempting to convert anyone. The Baha’is have neither clergy nor any rituals that would bring them public visibility. To become a Baha’i, one cannot just go to the Lotus Temple or other Houses of Worship and demand to be allowed in the faith – instead one has to recognize that all religions are meant for the advancement of human society and that Baha’ullah was a messenger of god, besides undertaking an “independent investigation of the truth” where, if found credible, an elected administrative body of nine members referred to as a “Spiritual Assembly” shall grant admission to the faith and record the personal details. Regular religious meetings are held in numerous Baha’i centers around the world – the center in Delhi is at Canning Street. Other centers are located in Chandigarh and Bihar – Bihar is rapidly converting into a major Baha’i settlement and one of the seven new Houses of Worship to be opened throughout the world is conceived to be located in Bihar.


Behold beauty unparalleled! (Photo courtesy - Mydecorative.com)


The central theme of Baha'ullah's message – all humanity is one single race and the day has come for its unification into one global society – finds resonance in most sane thoughts throughout the world, but from what I have observed, though Hindus are rather easy going about the Baha’i claim of Baha’ullah being the “Kalki” incarnation promised in ancient Hindu scriptures, Muslims generally express shock and disbelief at the claim of his being the promised Islamic prophet “Mehdi-Khwaja” and this might be a major reason for the slow uptake of the faith in Islamic territories. Given the faith’s origin from Muslim Shia sect, most Muslims, Shia as well as Sunni, consider Bahá'is heretics and deserters from Islam, which has led to extreme persecution of the Baha’is in most Islamic nations, especially in Iran, the country of the religion’s origin.


One of the marble plaques installed in an artificial mound near the temple complex's entrance


Location: Bahapur, Kalkaji
Nearest Metro station: Kalkaji Mandir (500 meters away on a straight road)
Open: Tuesday–Sunday
Timings: Summers: 9 am – 7 pm; Winters: 9:30 am – 5:30 pm
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil (Prohibited inside the prayer hall)
Time required for sightseeing: About 1 hour
One can also visit the ISKCON and Kalkaji temples located nearby (refer Pixelated Memories - ISKCON Temple)
Suggested reading - 
  1. Abhinavgauba.com - Reflections: Service at Baha’i House of Worship (Part 1)
  2. Bahai.in (Official website of the Indian Baha'i community)
  3. Bahai.in - "The Jewel in the Lotus" by Fariborz Sahba
  4. Bahai.in - "The Lotus of Bahapur - A magnet for the heart" by Eliza Rasiwala
  5. Bahaikipedia.org - India
  6. Bic.org - Current situation of Baha'is in Iran
  7. News.bahai.org - Baha'i Temple in India continues to receive awards and recognitions
  8. P4panorama.com - 360° panoramic view of Lotus Temple exteriors and interiors
  9. Thearchiblog.wordpress.com - Lotus Temple, New Delhi
  10. Wikipedia.org - Abdul Baha
  11. Wikipedia.org - Bab
  12. Wikipedia.org - Baha'i faith
  13. Wikipedia.org - Baha'i faith in India
  14. Wikipedia.org - Baha'i symbols
  15. Wikipedia.org - Baha'ullah
  16. Wikipedia.org - Lotus Temple
  17. Wikipedia.org - Shoghi Effendi (Guardian of the Baha'i faith)

4 comments:

  1. Very informative. Should have mentioned more about the 'greens' around the place.
    I loved the pics. As already said- u have a knack,cultivate it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. 27 leaves...never knew that...the post is quite informative and yet interesting to read..keep it up!!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you for the post on the Lotus temple. The pictures are beautiful. Marvellous architecture, absolute peace and a surreal serenity welcome you to this lovely house of worship!

    ReplyDelete