An Architectural Marvel

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The Bahá'í House of Worship at New Delhi is one of the marvels of modern architecture. The temple gives the impression of a half-open lotus flower afloat, surrounded by its leaves. The shining pure white marble, the majestic dome, the petals clearly standing out create a sense of grandeur and awe. All around the lotus are walkways with beautiful curved balustrades, bridges and stairs that surround the nine pools representing the floating leaves of the lotus. It is a remarkable tabernacle of peace and beauty and an engineering feat that will set standards for centuries.

Capturing the imagination with its simplicity and elegance this monument in marble is dedicated to the purpose of prayer, meditation and spiritual upliftment. From within its hallowed precincts rise in praise and glorification of the Almighty voices in unison, of Hindus and Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Zoroastrians people of all castes, colours and cultures. There is no clergy in the temple, no idols, no pictures, no sermons, no rituals. It is a place for communication between man and his Creator, God. The daily public services include selections from the holy books of all religions. 

Since its dedication ceremony on December 24, 1986, which was attended by some 8000 people from 125 countries, this House of Worship has been endearing the hearts of all its visitors. It is now popularly known as the Taj Mahal of the twentieth century. The shrine, in fact a dream come true in concrete, has been designed by a young architect, Mr. Fariburz Sabha, a Canadian citizen and a Bahá'í of Iranian descent, who was selected from among the world’s top architects. The temple took six years and eight months to be completed at a cost of Rs. 10 000 000. The Flint and Neill partnership of London were the main consultants and M/s Larsen and Toubro of the ECC Construction group were the main contractors. Forty engineers and 800 labourers along with many skilled Bahá'ís worked day and night to erect this splendid edifice. The marble used to cover the petals was quarried from the Mount Pentitikon mines in Greece and thereafter sent to Italy, where each panel was cut to the required size and shape before being transported to the site at Delhi.

The Lotus, as seen from outside, has three sets of petals. The outermost set of nine petals, called the entrance leaves, open outwards and form the nine entrances all around the outer annular hall. The next set of nine petals, called "inner leaves", which appear to be partly closed, rise above the rest and form the main structure housing the central hall. Since the Lotus is open at the top, a glass and steel roof provides protection from rain and lets in natural light in the auditorium.

To the Indian taste the lotus flower has always been the fairest flower; it has enjoyed an unparalleled popularity through the length and breadth of the country from the earliest times down to the present day. Besides being the national flower of India, it has been inseparably associated with religion, be it Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism or Islam. The lotus set and pedestal have an almost universal application in connection with the figures of Hindu mythology. Brahma, the Creator, is described as having sprung from the lotus that grew out of Vishnu’s navel when the deity lay absorbed in meditation. Hence one of the epithets of Brahma is lotus born whose name is, accordingly, Padam Nabh (louts-naveled). The most sacred prayer of the Buddhists extols a sanctified jewel in the lotus flower: O jewel in the lotus". In brief, the lotus symbolises the purity of spiritual reality as it rises, untouched, unblemished from the stagnant pools and quagmires of the earth. It reminds man that he, too, can achieve this state while still living in this material world.

Therefore, to describe merely the beauty and symmetry of the architecture of the Bahá'í shrine is not sufficient. The story it tells to the hearts of the people is also important. Says Mr. Fariburz Sabha, "To design a temple which would reflect the rich cultural heritage of India and, at the same time, be compatible with the cardinal principle of the Bahá'í Faith, that is the unity of religions, was a most unusual and remarkable chance. I wanted… it should, on one hand, reveal the simplicity, clarity and freshness of the Bahá'í revelation as apart from the beliefs and man-made concepts of many divided sects and, on the other, should show respect for the basic beliefs of all religions of the past and act as a constant reminder to the followers of each faith that the basic principles of all the religions of God are one."

At the core of the Bahá'í teachings is the acceptance of the oneness of mankind, oneness of religion and oneness of God. The faith, founded in Iran by Bahá'u'lláh (Glory of God), raises worship above ritualistic and communal forms. It advocates an unfettered search after truth, condemns superstition and prejudice, teaches that the fundamental purpose of religion is to promote concord and harmony hand-in-hand with science. It inculcates the principle of equal opportunity, rights and privileges for both sexes, advocates compulsory education and exalts work performed in the spirit of service to the rank of worship. It recommends the adoption of an auxiliary international language and provides for the necessary agencies for the establishment and safeguarding of a permanent universal peace.

To capture this theme of unity in the design of the Bahá'í House of Worship, Mr. Sabha travelled extensively in India to study its architecture before he selected the lotus shape. He recalls, "At the outset, in a small city of India, a simple and good-hearted teacher spoke spontaneously to me about the lotus. On that day his purity and friendliness more than his ideas attracted my heart, but from then on the image of the lotus seemed to grow in my awareness more and more persistently, however much I tried to resist this idea…." Ultimately he settled on the idea of building this lotus temple because it represented the unity of all religions.

A mention of the Taj Mahal in the context of the Bahá'í shrine is only natural. Besides the obvious resemblance, there is no doubt that the interest which 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the eldest son of the founder of the Bahá'í faith and his successor, had expressed in the Taj Mahal had a significant influence on the design of the Bahá'í temple. He is reported to have extolled its virtues at length and likened it to "a white dove soaring in the blue sky." Mr. Sabha explains, "In designing the House of Worship in India, the seat of that historical monument, how could one forget that 'Abdu'l-Bahá liked this splendid monument?"

The temple complex consists of the main house of worship with its basement and the ancillary block, which houses a reception centre, a library and the administrative building. The library contains a rich collection of religious books. Besides, there is also an hourly introductory audio-visual presentation for the visitors. The inner dome is spherical and patterned after the innermost portion of the lotus flower. It is like a bud consisting of 24 petals and light filters through these inner folds and is diffused through the central hall. While the flooring inside the auditorium is of white marble, the finish of the walkways and stairs of the outer portion is of red sandstone, offering a majestic contrast.

The design of the lotus temple employs the symbol of the lotus, the emblem of divine birth, in unprecedented fashion. The most basic idea in the design is that light and water are used as its two fundamental elements that are also responsible for the ornamentation of the temple in the place of the statues and carving found in other temples. The pools and the fountains also help to cool the air that passes over them into the hall. This is the cheapest method of having a pleasant temperature in the temple.

At present the Bahá'í temple is purely a place of spiritual sustenance; in future, however, it will also be a centre of social service. Around it will eventually come up a home for pilgrims, a school, a university, a hospital, and old people’s home and an orphanage, things which are associated with the Bahá'í community and humanity. The theme being that worship is complete only when prayers are coupled with deeds of stainless purity.

The remarkable aspect of all this is that all the work done so far has been funded through voluntary contributions made only by Bahá'ís throughout the world with a large sum having been provided by the believers in India. An Indian scholar visiting the temple summed up this spirit of universal participation among the Bahá'ís when he told the architect, "The Taj Mahal was built with the power of a king, but you are building this majestic edifice with the power of love.

Today Bahá'ís reside in more than 340 countries, territories, islands and dependencies in more than 1,12,000 centres all over the world. The Bahá'í holy writings have been translated into more than 800 languages and dialects. Encyclopaedia Britannica in its 1992-Year Book has shown the Bahá'í Faith to be the second most widely spread religion geographically, after Christianity. In India, Bahá'ís reside in more than 35,000 centres, guided by about 10,000 Local Spiritual Assemblies functioning under a National Spiritual Assembly situated at New Delhi through various state-level committees. Apart from the House of Worship in Delhi, there are six others in Panama, Kampala, Illinois, Frankfurt, Sydney and West Samoa, all of which are well-known for their architectural beauty and nine-sided design, symbolising perfection.

The Bahá'í House of Worship at New Delhi, now popularly known as the Lotus Temple, is only a continuation of this rich heritage and has received many international awards during a short span of a few years. On October 18, 1987, Mr. Sabha was presented the award for excellence in religious art and architecture by the US-based Institute of Structural Engineers in the UK, for producing a building "so emulating the beauty of a flower and so striking in its visual impact" which was presented to him in January 15, 1988.

Thousands of visitors come to see the Lotus Temple every day. Among its prominent visitors have been the Ambassadors of Tanzania and Hungary, the Foreign Minister of Yugoslavia, the Minster of Culture of the USSR and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bulgaria. Indian visitors have included members of Parliament, state ministers, governors and industrialists. The legendary jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie said, "I cannot believe it: it is God’s work". Pandit Ravi Shankar, the sitar maestro, wrote, "I am so deeply moved visiting this great, beautiful place that I find no words to express my feelings. I am sure people visiting here will find intense joy, love and peace."

©Prof. Anil Sarwal
First published in The Tribune, Chandigarh
Updated: 28 Sep 1998

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