Notable for its flower-like shape and very reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House, the Lotus Temple in Delhi is the first memorable building I recall seeing on my very first trip to India back in 2005. At the time I was part of a tour group undertaking the standard “golden triangle” itinerary, taking in the sights of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. This impressive structure was not included in the tour, the only glimpse of it came from my lofty bedroom window at the nearby Eros Hotel. Ever since then I have always vowed to one day see this temple up close, which I finally managed to do 15 years later in early 2020.
Opened on January 1st, 1987, the structure itself comprises of 27 free standing marble-clad “petals” which are arranged in clusters of three to form nine sides. Each of these sides has a doorway leading in to a massive central hall with a capacity of 2,500 people (1,300 seated). The marble chosen for the Lotus Temple came from the Penteli mountain in Greece, the exact same marble that was used in the construction of many ancient monuments, including the Parthenon. The temple is surrounded by nine ponds mirroring each of the sides, and set within 26 acres of gardens.
Since opening over 30 years ago the temple has become a major tourist attraction in Delhi. Some claim this is the most visited building in India, with some 4.5 million visitors a year surpassing even that of the Taj Mahal in Agra. CNN have gone a step further to claim this is the most visited building in the entire world.
This is a Baháʼí House of Worship, one of eleven that have been built around the world, including one in Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) that has since been destroyed. Of the ten currently standing, eight are continental temples (including the Lotus Temple here in Delhi), and two are considered local temples. All Baháʼí houses of worship are open to all, regardless of religion or any other qualification. They are considered spaces for people of all religions to gather, reflect, and worship. Sacred writings of any religion can be read and/or chanted, regardless of language. Choirs can also sing musical renditions and prayers, but no musical instruments can be played inside. Worship services have no set pattern, and ritualistic ceremonies are not permitted.
I have to confess I had never heard of the Baháʼí faith prior to my visit to the Lotus Temple. Luckily there is a museum in the temple grounds that gives some insight into how this faith was started and evolved. It’s a complex and nuanced story and probably not one that I am qualified to fully repeat. There are however some excellent Wikipedia articles that can furnish you with as much detail as you may need should you wish to know more about the faith. What follows is a very brief introduction to the Baháʼí faith
The catalyst of the Baháʼí faith is known as The Báb. Born Sayyed `Alí Muḥammad Shírází in 1819 in Shiraz, Iran, he claimed to be a messenger from God at the age of 25 and took the title Báb (meaning “Gate” or “Door”). He began preaching that God would soon send a new prophet to the world, similar to Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad. His ideas had roots in Shaykhism and possibly Hurufism, and his writings were characterized by their extensive use of symbolism including the use of numerical calculations.
In many respects the Báb appears to fill a similar role to John the Baptist or Elijah in Christianity, being a forerunner of the Baháʼí faith. The Persian government fiercely opposed his teachings, and he was eventually executed by a large firing squad in 1850. Eyewitness reports of his execution state that it took two firing squads to kill the Báb, all the bullets from the first attempt missed him. This failure of the first firing to kill Báb is believed to be a miracle. Thousands of his followers, known as Bábis, were also executed by the Iranian authorities. For decades the Báb’s remains were hidden by a handful of Bábis, and were secretly transported to Israel where he was enshrined in a special tomb on Mount Carmel in 1899.
Born in Tehran in 1817, Baháʼu’lláh is considered to be the founder of the Baháʼí faith. At the age of 27 he converted to the Babi faith and became a follower of The Báb’s teachings, resulting in him facing exile from his native Iran. In Baghdad in 1863, Baháʼu’lláh suddenly proclaimed to be the prophet the Báb had fortold. He declared he was the manifestation of God, fulfilling all the eschatological expectations of Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrisnism, and other major religions.
Baháʼu’lláh was indeed subsequently exiled, and relocated to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (1863), and then to Adianople (also 1863) before finally to Akka (a “prison city” in modern day Israel) in 1868.
For the rest of his life until his death in 1892, Baháʼu’lláh continued to communicate this teachings prolifically, including writing letters to leaders of the world including Queen Victoria, Pop Pius IX, Napolean III, and Alexander II.
Born ʻAbbás in 1844 in Tehran, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was the eldest son of Baháʼu’lláh and served as the head of the faith from 1892 until his death in 1921. After the death of his father, the Baháʼí faith began to get a stronger following across the world, and particularly from young high society Americans who made pilgrimages to Israel to visit ʻAbdu’l-Bahá.
He continued to be in constant communication with Baháʼís around the world, helping them to teach the religion, and in later life travelled extensively himself to spread his father’s teachings. In 1912 he famously declined an offer of passage on the RMS Titanic by Baháʼí followers, telling them to instead “Donate this to charity”.
ʻAbdu’l-Bahá died on Monday, 28 November 1921 in Haifa, Palestine. An address by Sir George Stewart Symes at his funeral, which was addended by many thousands, gave the following tribute :
“Most of us here have, I think, a clear picture of Sir ʻAbdu’l‑Bahá ʻAbbás, of His dignified figure walking thoughtfully in our streets, of His courteous and gracious manner, of His kindness, of His love for little children and flowers, of His generosity and care for the poor and suffering. So gentle was He, and so simple, that in His presence one almost forgot that He was also a great teacher, and that His writings and His conversations have been a solace and an inspiration to hundreds and thousands of people in the East and in the West.”
He is buried in the front room of the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel, a temporary interment until his down mausoleum can be built in the vicinity.
Shoghi Effendi, the grandson of ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, was born in 1897 at Akka. He was appointed the role of Guardian of the Baháʼí Faith after the death of his Grandfather in 1921, until his own death in 1957.
During this time Effendi oversaw the global expansion of the faith, translating and providing authoritative interpretation of many writings of the Baháʼí central figures. He is reputed to have sent more than 17,500 letters, mostly in Persian and English, both directing and keeping up to date with the progress of Baháʼí communities.
With the rapid expansion of the faith, Effendi recognised that he alone could not spearhead the teaching efforts. This resulted in the establishment of the Baháʼí World Centre in Akka/Haifa, and the appointment of 32 living individuals (collectively known as “Hand of Cause”), responsible for overseeing teaching of the faith and protecting it from attacks. It is estimated that during his leadership the Baháʼí faith grew from 100,000 to 400,000 followers.
Shoghi Effendi died unexpectedly London in 1957, a victim of the Asian Flu pandemic which killed over two million people worldwide.
That concludes an all too brief overview of how the Baháʼí faith started. There is much more to read on Wikipedia and other sources if anyone wishes to dig a lot deeper into the subject. The museum gives a good overview of the history of the faith, together with lots of information regarding the construction of the iconic Lotus Temple itself.
The Lotus Temple is usually open 8am – 12pm and 2pm – 5pm, everyday except Sunday.
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