Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Preview: the Lotus Temple

The lotus flower has long been revered in India and by the religions that originated from there. Regarded as a symbol of divine beauty and purity, it can be seen on numerous Buddhist monuments, usually in the form of Buddha sitting cross-legged on a lotus seat, and on the likes of the five lotus bud-like towers on the Hindu monument of Angkor Wat, as well as a decorative motif on sculptures on the small but ancient Jain religion. And in Delhi, representing the Baha'i Faith, we have the Lotus Temple.

The Lotus Temple (actual name, the Baha'í House of Worship, but nobody seems to call it that), if the photos are anything to be believed, is very pretty. Constructed from a whole bunch of marble, cement, dolomite (a sparkly, crystal-like rock) and sand all expertly combined by a team of 800 engineers, technicians and artisans, and no doubt a whole bunch of workmen, it was built between 1980 and 1986 for the bargain price of $20 million, or about £30 million in today's money. That's about 1/26th the cost of the Millennium Dome/O2 Arena, and would be just enough to buy half of this:

White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950, 205.8 x 141cm, by Mark Rothko, sold for $72.84 million in 2007 making it the 24th most expensive painting ever. I'll take the top half.

To my eyes the Lotus Temple looks like somebody grabbed the Sydney Opera House and gave it a thorough "remix". It is nine-sided, with nine doors opening onto nine pools of water (representing the green leaves of the flower), with each side comprising a cluster of three "petals". The whole structure curves gracefully - there are virtually no straight lines anywhere in the temple. It is clean and elegant and, as far as I know, wholly original.

It was designed by an Iranian architect, Fariborz Sahba, a Baha'i architect otherwise known for designing the terraces of the Shrine of Bab, in Haifa, Israel. I'll forgive you if you've not heard of it, but I happened to visit it ten years ago when travelling through Israel, and can confirm that it is very pretty indeed. The shrine itself is a domed structure atop a steep hill, built in the early 1950s, but the building takes second place to the series of gardens designed by Sahba that stretch from it up and down the hill. Nineteen terraces stretching almost a kilometre up the hill, they are unerringly symmetrical and absolutely immaculately maintained. They are beautiful in a perfect way as with freshly fallen snow on a lawn, you are scared to touch it for fear of spoiling the perfection - and accordingly most can only be entered as part of a guided tour.

This pristine quality appears to be one shared by the gardens of the Lotus Temple, which from what I can gather are not for walking or sitting on, and just for appreciation. This sense of fun extends to the the temple itself, which from what I can gather is designed for silent reflection, unless reciting from holy scriptures (from any religion, not just Baha'i). Musical instruments too aren't allowed, so that's my plans for some freestyle banjo-rap scuppered. However, in the midst of chaotic Delhi, this sense of peace and serenity would appear to make some refreshing sense, and after all there'll be plenty of time for the banjo outside of the grounds.

How big is it? I may have to take my own measuring tape, as nobody seems willing to give me a straight answer. As far as height goes, many online sources offer the precise figure of 34.27 metres with lots of other offering the vaguer "over 40 metres". Perhaps the former relates to the interior ceiling height and the latter to the overall building, but this isn't yet clear. A figure of 70 metres is thrown about for the diameter but, confusing, sometimes also for the circumference. A 70 metre circumference must surely be incorrect - Usain Bolt could run around the entire temple in about 7 seconds if that was the case. An inside capacity of 1500 people is usually quoted, which seems a respectable number but it's not made clear if that would involve stuffing every corner with dwarfs or if everyone would get a nice seat and some leg room. 1500 people, after all, is not even the attendance of some lower league football matches in England. The total area of the temple plus the grounds is 26 acres, which suddenly makes things sound much bigger - inside the temple might hold less than a small football match but outside is enough space for two-and-a-half Wembley stadiums. Finally, for a really big number: since opening in December 1986, it's claimed to have attracted 70 million people, that's an average of almost 3 million a year or almost 8000 people per day - about equal to the Taj Mahal and more than Angkor Wat. It suddenly sounds a little less serene.

I'll be visiting the Lotus Temple in Delhi in January, and will give a more full account of its history and with any luck its actual size then, along with my own impressions.

Reviewed 11th February 2012.

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