Peeling Back the Petals

The Lotus Temple is an unmistakable architectural wonder, but the religion it celebrates remains lesser known

The Bahá’í House of Worship will commemorate its 25th anniversary this {{name}}
01 November, 2011

ON A HOT SUNDAY MORNING, tourists wait in queue for 30 minutes to get inside the Bahá’í House of Worship in Kalkaji, better known by its unofficial name, the Lotus Temple. Once inside, many spend less than 30 seconds before exiting. The tourists, who include burqa-clad women and sadhus in saffron, don’t seem to be in need of a multi-faith prayer hall, especially one whose interior is so disappointingly unremarkable compared to its facade. The multi-faith service, held thrice a day, is itself sparsely attended.

Among the volunteers, even the Indians speak in foreign accents as they try and ensure an orderly entry and exit. Gathering 100 or so visitors at a time, they explain that this is a temple, and that once inside they should pray in silence. But tourists find it hard to suspend their holiday gaiety. They come to the Lotus temple not for god but to marvel at its architecture. In a country with no dearth of historical monuments, one that is turning 25 this December gets more visitors than the Taj Mahal. And thanks to the Kalkaji Metro station that opened last October, the number of visitors at the Lotus Temple is likely to touch six million this year, as compared to the Taj’s four.

The monument’s 25th anniversary will be commemorated on its lawns on 13 and 14 November, and its Iranian Bahá’í architect, Fariborz Sahba, who lives in Canada, is likely to be in attendance. Sahba worked on the project for 10 years and won numerous awards for its expressionist architecture.

A third of the world’s six million Bahá’í live in India. The Lotus temple acts as an ambassador of the faith, yet there is little knowledge among Indians about who the Bahá’í are and what it is that they do. The Bahá’í have neither clergy nor any rituals that would bring them public visibility; and without a tradition of proselytising, controversy rarely arises.

Men in formal clothes prevent you from entering the information centre if you haven’t yet returned from the temple with a free exit pass. The centre resembles a museum, with a guided walk to familiarise you with the Bahá’í faith and to explain the teachings of other religions. Its director, Shatrughun Jiwnani, a Sindhi from Greater Kailash who wears a tie and speaks in a foreign accent, is hard pressed to explain what the faith is about. It is not a sect, he emphasises, but a religion. To be a Bahá’í you have to recognise that all religions are meant for the advancement of human society and that the Iran-born Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) was a messenger of god.

“We don’t make Bahá’í,” he says. “We discover them.” To become a Bahá’í you have to undertake an “independent investigation of the truth”. An elected administrative body of nine, a Spiritual Assembly, will give you admission and record your name. You can’t just land up at the Lotus Temple and demand to join the faith; it works through word of mouth. Meetings are held in Bahá’í centres spread across cities around the world; the one in Delhi is on Canning Lane. The Spiritual Assembly “witnesses” marriages which, according to the faith’s basic tenets, cannot be held without the consent of both parents, even if they are not Bahá’í. The dead are buried, the prayers are prosaic.

Many see the Bahá’í faith in India as being open only to the elite, but Jiwnani claims there are poor, rural folk who are members too. A large part of the funds to build the temple were donated by Ardishír Rustampúr of Hyderabad who gave his entire life savings for the construction. But Jiwnani says there were also those who donated just one rupee.

Whether we can trace the money or not, it’s certain that the architectural glory of such a little-understood faith will continue to attract a crowd. “Didi let’s leave for India Gate now,” a girl tells her sister, who replies, “I am telling you there is nothing at India Gate!”