I came to know about the Baha’i faith just by chance.
In the early seventies, immediately after my initial training at Grindlays Bank (Now Standard Chartered), I was asked to man the foreign exchange desk. Those days the foreign exchange business could only be transacted at banks and hence the desk was mostly busy. On that day, a young boy, probably in a hurry, was trying to jump the queue. He told me that he had to attend his class and had no money for bus travel. I told him to get the consent of the girl standing next to her, which she very graciously gave.
On checking her passport, I observed that she was an Iranian national and her name sounded like some Indian Parsee girl. I asked her if she was one of the Zoroastrians from Iran!! She said she was a Baha’i. I scratched my head for a second and said “Like the Baha’i House at Curzon Road (Now K G Marg). She said “yes” and invited me to a congregation that evening at Baha’i House, their regional center.
There were not many persons in the audience and one, Mr. Sethi (if I remember correctly) told those present about the organization and its founder, Baha’u’llah (meaning “the glory of God” in Arabic), a Persian nobleman from Teheran, who gave up a princely existence of comfort and security to preach the new faith. Being young and basically involved in work and family life, I didn’t pay much attention to what he said, till the construction of a lotus shaped structure at Kalkaji, in the heart of the capital city of New Delhi, which was formally opened for public worship in December 1986.
I have visited this place over half a dozen times, but last week after re-visiting the temple along with a cleric friend from Connecticut, US and discovering a few new things, I thought of writing this post.
Before we talk about the making of the temple, it would be pertinent to say a few words about the Baha’i faith.
The Baha’i Faith is a religion founded by Baha’u’llah in the nineteenth century in Persia (now Iran), emphasizing the spiritual unity of the mankind. It is an independent monotheistic religion with its own sacred scriptures, its own laws, calendar and holy days (like Hindus’ bi-annual Navratras and Muslims’ Ramzan, the Baha’is too have an annual fasting period, which falls in March every year). The religion has three core principles: the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the unity of mankind. The notable thing is that it has no clergy and its affairs are administered by freely elected governing councils that operate at the local,national, as well as international levels.
The Baha’i faith teaches that prayer and meditation are two important instruments for the progress of the human soul.
Worldwide there are around 5.5m Baha’is and in India they number around 2.2m.
Since it was my friend’s first visit to the temple, for better understanding of Baha’i faith and to have an introductory knowledge about the temple, I thought it prudent to take him to the “Information Center” rather than going straight to this magnificent opus.
We were welcomed at the gate by a girl from North East, who guided us to the reception, where we were told a very brief history of the temple and were asked to see the exhibition. We were also told that a short film on the making of the temple was being shown at the auditorium. Since it was scheduled to start in the next two minutes, we opted to see the show before heading for the exhibition.
From the film and the exhibits, we learnt that this very recent architectural marvel of the Baha’i faith situated in the sprawling lush green 26 acres campus (this privately owned property was purchased by the Baha’i community in 1953, without any sort of grant from the Government), was designed by Fariborz Sahba, a Canadian architect of Iranian origin. He visited hundreds of temples all over the country with a view to discover a concept that would be loved by people of the different religions and would also reveal the simplicity, clarity and freshness of the Baha’i Revelation.
During his travels, he met a simple looking Indian Baha’i, Kamrudin Bartar, whom he had spoken to for the first time. Bartar suggested the lotus form for the temple. For Sahba, he was like a messenger of his master, sent especially for this. Probably it was destined that the temple be built in this shape.
The lotus flower is a manifestation of God, and is a symbol of purity and tenderness. Its significance is deeply rooted not only in the hearts of Indians, but even in some other countries this sacred flower has been associated with worship for many centuries.
The architect chose to use this ancient Indian symbol to create a design of ethereal beauty and apparent simplicity.
The construction work on the project started in 1980 and was completed in 1986. During the construction of the marvel, several traditional Indian means of construction were deployed together the most modern Western engineering design and appliances. Around 800 persons were involved in the construction activities.
The music for the inaugural function was conducted by the famous Sitar Maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar, who was so much touched when he said “I was deeply moved visiting this great beautiful place, that I find no words to express my feelings”. The inaugural Baha’i conference was attended by over 10,000 Baha’is from all over the world.
From the Information centre we headed for the temple passing through some of the most exquisite lawns, full of flower beds of petunias, pansies, sweet sultans, flocks, white roses, etc and lush green grass.
The lotus, as seen from the outside, has three sets of leaves or petals, all of which are made of concrete shells. The temple is 34. 27m from floor to the apex, 70m in diameter and has a seating capacity of 1300. Twenty seven lotus petals form the walls. The architectural blossoming of the lotus has been very neatly described by S. Naharoy as:
1. The outermost set of nine petals, called “entrance leaves”, open outwards and form the nine entrances all around the outer annular hall.
2. The next set of nine petals, called the “outer leaves”, point inwards. The entrance and outer leaves together cover the outer hall.
3. The third set of nine petals, called the “inner leaves”, appear to be partly closed. Only the tips open out, somewhat like a partly open bud. This portion which rises above the rest, forms the main structure housing the central hall. Near the top where the leaves separate out, nine radial beams provide the necessary lateral support. Since the lotus is open at the top, a glass and steel roof at the level of the radial beams provides protection from rain and facilitates the entry of natural light into the auditorium. “
As per the normal practice in most of the religious places in India, shoes are required to be removed before entering the temple. There are requisite arrangements in place to help the visitors put the shoes in bags, which are kept in safety deposit at a room at the basement level, just before the entrance. This ensures absolute cleanliness of the temple complex. The best thing is that there are volunteers at all the strategic points to assist the visitors.
Right before the steps leading to the temple entrance, there is a fairly large library, where the visitors can sit and peruse the books borrowed from the library.
The real marvel starts once the visitors step on the huge pure white marbled elevated platform. The edifice is surrounded by nine beautiful pools, which signify the green leaves of the lotus. From a distance, it looks like a huge pond, out of which the lotus flower is just blooming out. These pools are not only an attractive feature, but also keep the building cool. There are nine archways to the temple, of which only one is used as entrance (perhaps to streamline the crowds) and another one as the exit.
The figure of “9 “ seems to have some significant meaning as we could see the temple surrounded by nine pools and there were nine archways into the temple. Another interesting thing is that a simple nine-pointed star is generally used by the Baha’is as a symbol of their faith. At the Information center, we were told that “nine” is chosen because it is the highest single-digit number and in many countries symbolises comprehensiveness, oneness and unity.
The most astounding thing is that this beautiful edifice has no pillars or beams. The petals are made of white concrete and are covered by marble (the same quality of marble as used in the Parthenon, mined in Greece, cut and polished in Italy and 10,000 pieces were brought to the site and assembled as a jig saw puzzle).
The volunteers at the entrance tell the visitors to maintain absolute silence in the temple, though every one is free to meditate or pray as per one’s religious practices.
On entering the temple, some of the visitors are perplexed on the absence of any idols, deities or altar in the temple. This perhaps is owing to the fact that the Baha’i faith is inspired by the basic tenets of monotheism. Also we were told that the most basic idea in the design is that light and water are used as its two fundamental elements and these two elements alone are responsible for the ornamentation of the edifice. Accordingly, there is just a microphone and rows of sitting chairs in the prayer hall, where the visitors can peacefully pray and meditate.
The large prayer hall, which is an embodiment of peace and tranquility, is cool, even in the peak summer season. Ventilation and cooling is perhaps based on the age old technique of fresh air getting cooled as it passes over the fountains and pools. It is drawn in the openings in the basement and goes up into the central hall and expelled through vents at top of the interior dome.
This magnificent edifice is not only one of the most visited places in the country, but also has been accredited with some of the most coveted awards. The International Federation for Religious Arts and Architecture, a US based organisation, gave very early recognition to this great work of architecture and conferred on Sahba the award for “Excellence in Religious Art and Architecture for 1987”. In 1988, this opus received award for structural design from the Institute of Structural Engineers of the United Kingdom.
(Some of the pictures have been received through the kind courtesy of the Director, Public Relations, Baha’i House of Worship. Our most grateful thanks to them.)
It would be pertinent to add that Baha’is have seven other places of worship located at Illinois (USA), Western Samoa (South Sea in the pacific), Panama City, Kampala (Uganda), Sydney and Frankfurt. The one at Santiago is at the drawing board stage and construction is likely to start there shortly. Like all these temples, the lotus shaped temple at New Delhi was also constructed using the voluntary donations of Baha’is of India and abroad. The most interesting feature is that only the Baha’is are eligible to contribute to the Baha’i funds. No wonder there are no entry fees, no parking or any kind of other charges. It is very fondly said that the House of worship is a gift from the Baha’i community to the world.
As our next port of halt was the ISKON Temple, we quietly took a last look at this magnificent edifice, which looks particularly spectacular at dusk, when it is floodlit.
We passed through the ancient Kalka ji temple, which is less than a Km away from Lotus Temple and reached ISKON Temple on time to attend to the evening “Aarti” and watch the sound and light show on “Shreemad Bhagwat Gita”, which in itself is an experience of life time. I would endeavour to write about this in my next post.
Thank you for visiting.