The Lotus of Bahapur - A magnet for the heart
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 revolutionising 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.
Since its dedication to public worship in December 1986, this Mother Temple of the Indian sub-continent has seen millions of people cross its threshold, making it one of the most visited edifices in India. From its high-perched pedestal, this 'Lotus' casts its benevolent glance over vast green lawns and avenues covering an expanse of 26 acres of land. Its soothingly quiet Prayer Hall and tranquil surroundings have touched the hearts of the Temple's numerous visitors, awakening in them a desire to trace its inspirational source and capture a bit of its peace for themselves.
As an evocative symbol of beauty and purity, representative of divinity, the lotus flower remains unsurpassed in Indian iconography. Rising up pure and unsullied from stagnant water, the lotus represents the manifestation of God. The architect used this ancient Indian symbol to create a design of ethereal beauty and apparent simplicity, belying the complex geometry underlying its execution in concrete form. Twentieth-century architecture has been characterised by a high degree of technological prowess; however, it has been, by and large, unexceptional in aesthetic value. The Lotus Temple provides one of the rare exceptions with its remarkable fusion of ancient concept, modem engineering skill, and architectural inspiration, making it the focus of attention amongst engineers and architects the world over. In the absence of sophisticated equipment, the extremely complex design called for the highest order of engineering ingenuity to be implemented by means of traditional workmanship. No wonder, then, that the Lotus Temple, as a symbol of faith and human endeavour expended in the path of God, became the recipient of accolades and world-wide acclaim.
Early international recognition came its way soon after completion, when the International Federation for Religious Art and Architecture, based in the United States, conferred upon Mr. Sahba the award for "excellence in religious art and architecture for 1987". In 1988, the edifice received its second international award, this time for its structural design, from the Institute of Structural Engineers of the United Kingdom. The citation award reads: "For producing a building so emulating the beauty of a flower and so striking in its visual impact". That same year, the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America conferred its international award on the Temple for the excellence of its outdoor illumination. In 1990, the American Concrete Institute presented an award to the Temple as one of the most finely built concrete structures. In 2000, GlobArt Academy of Vienna, Austria, granted its "GlobArt Academy 2000" award in recognition of "the magnitude of the service of [this] Taj Mahal of the 20th century in promoting the unity and harmony of people of all nations, religions and social strata, to an extent unsurpassed by any other architectural monument world-wide".
The value of beauty and symmetry in architecture by itself is not sufficient to immortalise a building. What is important is the response the structure evokes in the hearts of the people. Ravi Shankar, the sitar maestro, recalls that he was "so deeply moved visiting this great beautiful place, that I find no words to express my feelings". All that Dizzy Gillespie, the late renowned Baha'i jazz musician, could exclaim was: "I cannot believe it! It is God's work". An Indian diplomat was moved to describe the Temple as a "symbol of spiritual refinement of mankind". Indeed, the construction of the Baha'i House of Worship of Bahapur was a significant chapter in the making of Baha'i history on the Indian sub-continent.
Obedient to the command of Baha'u'llah enshrined in the most holy book of the Baha'i religion, "0 people of Creation, build ye houses as perfect as can be built on earth in the Name of Him who is the Lord of Revelation...", Baha'is have endeavoured to their utmost to build houses of worship as beautiful and distinctive as possible. They have been inspired by the divine outpourings from the pen of Baha'u'llah and His son 'Abdu'1-Baha, and by the noble example set by Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith, who initiated the process by raising up the magnificent edifices at the World Centre of the Baha'i religion in Haifa, Israel. The houses of worship in North and Central America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Western Samoa each reflect a pristine beauty and freshness of approach. This flowering of Baha'i architecture was further perpetuated by the blossoming of the 'Lotus of Bahapur'.
The Baha'i Temple in New Delhi, however, occupies a unique position. Not only does it embody the spiritual aspirations and basic beliefs of the world-wide Baha'i community, but, significantly in a land of myriad religions, it has begun to be seen as providing a unifying link, bringing divergent thoughts into harmony by virtue of its principle of oneness - of God, religion, and mankind. This, perhaps, is the secret of its unabated popularity.
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. When the main entrance gate was first opened to the general public on 1 January 1987, visitors flocked to the 'Lotus Temple' out of sheer curiosity. The vast lawns, the massive white structure, the high-ceilinged Central Auditorium and a Temple without idols standing so near the ancient 'Kalkaji Temple' aroused the interest of all.
Indian visitors, from the most urbane to the simplest rural folk, expressed perplexity at the absence of any deity. Explaining the all-pervasive nature of the Creator which defies deification became a challenge. Many times guides helping to maintain decorum inside the Prayer Hall were startled by the astonished exclamations of visitors wondering aloud where the object of adoration was. Some of them, in their simplicity, paid obeisance to the lectern, surreptitiously placing a flower or two - an amusing as well as a touching sight. Awed by the beauty and grandeur of the edifice, they struggled to grasp the spiritual significance of this material structure.
As understanding dawned, a typical response became: "Few temples radiate the atmosphere of sublimity, peace, and calm so necessary to elevate a devotee spiritually as the Baha'i House of Worship". Other repeated comments included: "Where there is silence, the spirit is eloquent" and "One feels one is at last entering into the estate of the soul, the state of stillness and peace". The visitors were aided in their efforts by the serenity of the Prayer Hall and the assistance of volunteer guides and staff who explained the raison-d'etre of the Temple. The innate sense of reverence of the Indian for the Omnipresence often manifested itself in the act of reverently touching the steps leading into the Prayer Hall.
Visitors from the West often came to critically appraise a structure which had gained fame as a marvel of 20th-century architecture. For them it was sometimes a grudging, sometimes a spontaneous realisation that the phenomenon called faith transcends logic and that the universal ethic of love envelops all. They, too, were humbled at this altar of faith and love.
No matter what the identity of the visitors, from the Orient or the Occident, from North or South, of humble origins or exalted positions, all have been unanimous in their appreciation of both the physical grandeur as well as the lofty purpose of the House of Worship. One visitor commented: "The most beautiful experience. Its magnificence, charm and glamour are awe-inspiring. It reflects the dream of all humanity to bring together a new civilisation for all people." A renowned visitor from India opined, "Architecturally, artistically, ethically, the edifice is a paragon of perfection."
One reason for the immense popularity of the House of Worship of Bahapur is the fact that media attention, both Indian and foreign, focused on it even before its completion. Construction News, a technical journal from the United Kingdom, was the first to give the Lotus Temple the appellation of Taj Mahal of the 20th Century' in its April 1986 issue, a description that has been subsequently used by many other publications. The comparison brings to mind the words of the famous Indian poet and philosopher, Rabindranath Tagore, who described the Taj as "a teardrop on the cheek of eternity". Considering that the Baha'i House of Worship is an affirmation and a celebration of man's love for his Creator, and not a mausoleum, the Lotus Temple could be described as "a dewdrop on the brow of eternity". Indian Express, in its issue of 20 November 1986, aptly referred to the fact that "while the Taj is an expression of deep personal love, for the Baha'is the Temple symbolizes love between Man and God". In World Architecture 1900-2000: A Critical Mosaic, Volume 8, South Asia, the Lotus Temple appears as one of the 100 canonical works of this century. The book is part of a series of 10 books organised by the Architectural Society of China and endorsed by the International Union of Architects, in co-ordination with the XX World Architects Congress convened in June 1999 in Beijing, China. Part of the text reads: "A powerful icon of great beauty that goes beyond its pure function of serving as a congregation space to become an important architectural symbol of the city".
The physical sun, resplendent in its halo of light, has traversed the expanse of heaven from east to west in its fiery chariot. As it pauses awhile on the horizon before plunging out of sight, it casts its luminous shadow on a white 'Lotus', standing majestically on its red pedestal, giving it a warm glow. An intangible aura of fulfilment surrounds the 'Lotus'. Ark-like, it had ridden the waves of people swirling around it during the day with composure. The last ripples are slowly moving away, casting longing glances behind at the 'Lotus' as if beseeching it to take them back into its fold.
by Eliza Rasiwala