In the shadow of the lotus, peace and calm prevail

19 March 2008

NEW DELHI — Every day, the people come. Thousands of them. At times it's a constant stream of humanity. Eight thousand people a day, 10,000, sometimes 15,000. On holidays 30,000, even 50,000. And once, 150,000.

Yet everyone is calm, orderly, sometimes waiting in line to leave their shoes in a hidden checkroom and climb the stairs to the building they call the Lotus Temple. Inside, the mood is one of serenity. Considering the vast numbers of people who make their way around the property, the peacefulness perhaps is surprising.

"We are impressed - the discipline," said Ramesh Cheruku, who with his wife and young son had come from Hyderabad in the south of India for their first visit to the Baha'i House of Worship, located in the capital city of New Delhi.

With more than 4.6 million visitors last year, the temple is one of the most popular spots on earth, in a league with St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and not far behind the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Many of the visitors are from India, but people come from all over the world. They are Hindus, Christians, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, and, of course, Baha'is. There are families, couples, single people, schoolchildren, tour groups.

Many come to see a stunning piece of architecture - and stunning it is. Still, their behavior suggests something more.

"Peace of mind," murmured Reeta Singhai when asked how she felt after her first walk through the temple, whose outward form is like a lotus flower. It has 27 "petals," arranged in threes so that the structure has nine sides, just like the other six Baha'i houses of worship around the world.

It is exactly this feeling of peace that the public relations director, Shatrughun Jiwnani, mentioned as he pondered the question about what appeals to visitors, most of whom are inside the temple only a few minutes.

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Mohan Vijaykumar, right, works in security and when circumstances permit likes to welcome visitors. He speaks half a dozen Indian languages as well as English, and knows phrases in many more languages. Thousands of visitors have heard his friendly greeting.

"They suddenly find themselves in a place that is quiet," he said. They pause "and maybe for a few moments look inside themselves."

"You can almost start to hear your own thoughts," agreed Sarang Joshi. A native of India now living in the United States, he was impressed by what he called the "spiritual nature of the building."

"It's really interesting how that's captured by the architecture," he said.

Mr. Jiwnani said most people stay inside for only a few minutes, but such a visit can still be meaningful.

"Maybe two hours of quiet at home means nothing, whereas two minutes in the temple can move you," he suggested, noting that there are many people who visit frequently.

"People like it that there are no sermons or lectures here. They are able to bring their own religion and sit and pray or meditate."

India - with 1.1 billion people the second most populous nation in the world - is a country rich in religious tradition. More than 80 percent of the people are Hindus, with Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, the Baha'i Faith, Buddhism, Judaism, and others also represented.

All Baha'i houses of worship are built for people of all religions to worship to God, reflecting the belief that the different religions come from the same God and in fact represent unfolding chapters in one divine reality.

It is envisioned that in the future, such Baha'i temples will be the center of a group of facilities, including, for example, hospitals, educational and scientific institutions, perhaps a home for the aged. (A few visitors have heard this and promptly called to see if they could get on the list for such a home. Shaheen Javid, the general manager of the House of Worship, says he must tell them that it is a vision for the future but there are no actual plans yet for the auxiliary institutions.)

Inside the temple

Inside the Baha'i House of Worship in New Delhi, the main indoor space is called the Prayer Hall and has seating for 1,300 people. On most days, there are readings for five or six minutes each hour - from Baha'i, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holy writings.

Visitors are briefed before they enter, partly about what they will not see. There are no statues, no photographs of major Baha'i figures, no altar, no representations of Hindu gods, of Buddha or of Jesus.

This fact disappoints some of the visitors. Seven-year-old Akhil Rekulapelli, on holiday from the United States with his family, was a bit perplexed. "I thought there would be gods there," he said.

The simplicity of the interior is striking, highlighting the beautiful lines of the arches, the different textures of the materials, the design and height of the dome. Millions of visitors have walked through the building since it opened 21 years ago, but the temple still seems fresh, unsullied. Some would say uplifting, spiritual.

Around the periphery, in simple lettering in both Hindi and English, are quotations from the writings of Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith, about the nature of life and religion.

"Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven, yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face," reads one of them. "Busy not thyself with this world, for with fire We test the gold, and with gold We test Our servants," says another.

Baha'is believe that Baha'u'llah is the most recent in a line of Divine Messengers that includes Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and the Bab, all of whom came to teach the unfolding plan of God for humanity.

Visitors to the House of Worship are told that it is dedicated to the oneness of God, the oneness of humanity, and the oneness of religion - beliefs at the heart of the teachings of Baha'u'llah.

"The purpose of the Baha'i House of Worship is to remind the people that we are one human family created by the one true God - we should come to this place and forget our differences," said Mr. Jiwnani.

The lotus

Mr. Jiwnani thinks that most people do go away from the temple with a sense of the place and what it stands for.

"It ends up being a spiritual experience, although that is not why most people come," he said. "People understand that the House of Worship stands for respect for all the faiths."

In India, the fact that the temple is shaped like a lotus flower is significant, he noted, explaining that Asian religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrian - all have special associations with the lotus flower.

The lotus represents purity, and since the flower is often found in dirty and stagnant water, the symbolism of a pure human spirit rising above the dross to its true station is especially meaningful, Mr. Jiwnani said.

"The House of Worship is not designed in any traditional religious architecture," he continued. "It has a universal shape, so everyone feels welcome."

Fariborz Sahba of Canada, the architect for the temple, said he chose the lotus shape precisely because of its myriad spiritual connotations.

"The lotus represents the Manifestation of God, and is also a symbol of purity and tenderness," he has said in published comments. "Its significance is deeply rooted in the minds and hearts of the Indians."

Mr. Jiwnani said people sometimes ask about similarities between the Baha'i House of Worship in New Delhi and the Sydney Opera House in Australia, which opened in 1973, some 14 years before the Baha'i temple.

The concept of each building is different, he said: The Baha'i temple was inspired by the shape of a lotus flower and is round; the opera house is meant to suggest sails on a ship, "billowing" in one direction. Construction methods also were different, Mr. Jiwnani noted.

The temple and the Baha'is

India has more than a million Baha'is, the largest number of any country in the world, but there is no question that the temple has increased awareness of the religion, said A.K. Merchant, one of the nine members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of India.

"It has given us an identity," he said of the House of Worship. "Now we need to teach what the inspiration behind the building was."

Briefly

Day to day at the temple

The Baha'i House of Worship in India is open to the public every day except Monday. Holidays are popular times for visiting.

Entry is free of charge. The property is operated solely with funds provided through the voluntary contributions of Baha'is around the world.

Shaheen Javid, general manager of the temple, said there are about 100 paid workers, some of whom are Baha'is or have become Baha'is since working there.

There are also about 40 Baha'i volunteers, virtually all of them young people who, at their own expense, come for a few months to serve as guides or helpers. Last year, volunteers came from about 70 countries. They stay on the premises in a dormitory-like facility built for the purpose.

The Information Center

Visitors to the House of Worship may request a pamphlet explaining the basic teachings and history of the Baha'i Faith, but otherwise - unless they ask to go to the nearby Information Center - there is no particular attempt to teach them about the religion.

"You come and experience the place, and if you have the curiosity, you ask," said Shatrughun Jiwnani, the public relations director. "One of the principles of the Baha'i Faith is the individual investigation of truth. People have to find out for themselves."

The Information Center provides extensive displays about Baha'i history, teachings, and sacred writings, as well as information about social and economic programs in various parts of the world. Films in both Hindi and English are screened at regular intervals.

Visitors may fill out an optional card requesting more information or asking how to join the Baha'i Faith. A number of visitors have asked to take part in Baha'i study circles or sign up their sons and daughters for children's classes or youth groups. Such gatherings are held in many locations throughout New Delhi and India, including on Sundays at the temple property itself.

The auditorium at the Information Center is sometimes used for special events, including a series called "One Ocean: Celebrating Unity Through the Arts." The series offers performances of music and dance, often from other countries and often sponsored by a foreign embassy or international group.

Construction of the temple

The temple site was purchased in 1953 and covers 26 acres. Construction on the House of Worship began in April 1980, and the temple opened to the public on 1 January 1987. The cost of construction was about $10 million, with all funds coming from Baha'is in India and around the world.

The architect was Fariborz Sahba of Canada, who was also the project manager for construction.

The temple has been the subject of hundreds of articles in publications around the world, and has received the following honors:

-- Award for excellence in religious art and architecture from the International Federation for Religious Art and Architecture. 1987.

-- Award for structural design from the Institute of Structural Engineers of the United Kingdom. The citation honors Mr. Sahba "for producing a building so emulating the beauty of a flower and so striking in its visual impact." 1988.

-- From the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, its international award for the excellence of the temple's outdoor illumination. 1988.

-- From the American Concrete Institute, award for a finely built concrete structure. 1990.

-- From GlobArt Academy of Vienna, Austria, 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 worldwide." 2000.

Other Baha'i houses of worship

The Baha'i House of Worship in India is one of seven Baha'i temples in the world. The others are located in Australia, Germany, Panama, Samoa, Uganda, and the United States. Baha'is refer to the individual temples as a Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, an Arabic term meaning the "dawning place of the mention of God."

For general information about Baha'i houses of worship, including a photo gallery, go to http://www.bahai.org/faq/community_life/temples.