Wednesday, 18 January 2012

15. Wonder: The Lotus Temple

(For the Lotus Temple preview, please click here.)

Perhaps the Lotus Temple makes more sense in summer. Delhi's temperature reaching well into the 40s, the air exhausting with humidity and the streets congested with humanity, traffic fumes and a cacophony of horns, the city is like a hyperactive dog that can't stop barking, running around and biting your leg. The Lotus Temple must be a sanctuary from all of that. Amidst 26 acres of gardens (around 2/3 the size of the Taj Mahal complex), it is a single flower nestled in the centre, the silent and cool interior a world away from the chaos outside. Delhi is not a peaceful city; the Lotus Temple is all about peace. If the hustle-bustle, argy-bargy, and 24-hour-non-stop of Delhi is getting too much for you, the Lotus Temple is a perfect haven of harmony, where you can switch off and ponder the heavens in blessed silence. Or, simply, just sit there and enjoy the silence.

The Lotus Temple, or the Baha'i House of Worship to call it by its correct name, has been standing in the Bahapur village suburb of Delhi since its completion in 1986. Calling it a village suburb wrongly insinuates a kind of rural charm; in reality this is just part of the ongoing sprawl of noisy Delhi. Getting there inevitably involves an auto-rickshaw or taxi pushing its way through Delhi's traffic. On a bright January afternoon, Danielle and I opted for an auto-rickshaw, and after over forty-five minutes of horns, near-death experiences, and Delhi smells it was a delightful relief to see the distinctive petals of the Lotus Temple appear into view. Entry is free, with a rudimentary security check, and suddenly we were at the beginning of a path leading up to the Lotus Temple, a final stairway leading to the main structure elevated above the flat land around it.

This was about as good as it got, alas. From a distance, the Lotus Temple looks pretty good. It's certainly original, any similarity to the Sydney Opera House is very superficial (it's white and has curved bits; they differ otherwise). And it looks great in photos. All pictures I'd previously seen were taken from the start of this path, or from an aerial view. Against a bright blue sky and using a good camera, the Lotus Temple looks resplendent. Even better, from above, the nine blue pools in view, the nine-sided symmetry and clean design of the temple is evident. The Lotus Temple, and all Baha'i Houses of Worship, are characterised by being nine-sided, with the Lotus Temple having nine entrances beneath its lotus petals, and nine pools symmetrically arranged outside. Nine is the highest digit and so for the Baha'i faith represents comprehensiveness, oneness, and unity. Looks great if you happen to be in a helicopter. And in fact, on paper, the Lotus Temple should be great too. At 34 metres tall - around 40 metres if you include the podium its on - and a 70-metre diameter, it's sufficiently large. It is innovative, the structure built with 27 marble-clad petals to form nine sides in clusters of three. And it has won various architectural awards, being (rather lazily) compared to the Taj Mahal on more than one occasion.

Unfortunately, the Lotus Temple is also pretty boring.

Danielle put it best, after some pondering upon reaching it close up. "It reminds me of a conference centre," she said. There's no reason a conference centre shouldn't be beautiful, but the usual association is with, well, conferences, and they usually don't inspire fist-pumping adrenalin rushes. Everything is very clean, orderly, a little stiff, and really not much fun at all.

The Lotus Temple is, according to the on-site literature, the latest of seven temples built across the world, representing the Baha'i faith but open to all religions for worship. The Baha'i faith is a small but very globally spread-out one, originating in mid-19th Century Iran with a "radiant youth" known as "The Bab" ("The Gate" in Arabic). He claimed he was setting the scene for a new major spiritual leader to appear, and seemed to attract plenty of followers, but also plenty of negative attention and was executed in 1850. After his death, his word continued to spread, largely due to the efforts of a fellow called Baha'u'llah ("The Glory of God") who spread the word, until suddenly revealing that he was the Promised One. He was succeeded by his son, 'Abdu'l-Baha ("Servant of God") whom he authorised as the only interpreter of his teachings, and 'Abdu'l-Baha continued the word-spreading and bewildering apostrophes, taking the Baha'i faith to the West. The Bahai's scriptures are an accumulative effort of these three people. The message espoused is basically of peace and oneness, tying in all religions of the world and bringing universal equality, while having love and understanding with an unknowable god. While mystical deities don't really do it for me, there can't be much argument with their basic principles.

The problem is that, based on visiting the Lotus Temple at least, it all seems so serious. Baha'i followers don't drink - fair enough - and only seem to manage wise, knowing smiles. I can't shake from my head the image of a sci-fi future in which everything is bathed in soft white light, the people wear flowing white robes and move slowly, and everything is very ethereal in a nothing-happens kind of way. This isn't at all reflected in my own small sampling of Baha'i people. I've met three Baha'i people in my life, an American, a Korean, and, just recently, a Malaysian in a hostel in Kuala Lumpur. All of them were friendly, fun, and not at all dull. They didn't drink and being Baha'i was obviously a part of their life, but there was no preaching, no seriousness, and no floaty sci-fi future mannerisms. I can't see any connection between them and the writer of the po-faced comment at the end of the paper pamphlet handed out on-site: "This pamphlet contains Holy Writing, please preserve its sanctity." I mean, really?

So there is a whiff of conference centre and po-facedness about the Lotus Temple. This isn't dissipated by entering it, but inside does redeem the experience a little. Joining a queue just outside the single public entrance, two Baha'i volunteers arrange the gathering into rows of people before launching into a spiel, first in Hindi and then in English. The gist of this is a brief surmise of Baha'i beliefs and that the Lotus Temple is for open for worshippers of all faiths to pray, in silence. In you go, to a cavernous single-hall interior, making you realise that the Lotus Temple is kind of like a giant concrete tent. The nine-sided symmetry is abandoned here, as the seats all face in a single direction. It would be difficult to describe the interior as attractive, but there is a starkness to it that is striking.

The most striking thing, however, is the absolute silence. A couple of volunteers man the space, threatening to hush you down for insubordination, but the inherent silence of the arena is enough for self-regulation of everyone, even excitable Indians. As well as the silence, the coolness is immediately apparent. It is very peaceful, with just the very distant sound of Delhi horns audible, and during the swelter of a north Indian summer, the cool and calm would be of welcome contrast. Delhi's intensity is not so great during January, so the impact is less. Like a cathedral, the space and peace allows for moments of reflection: believers can close their eyes and make prayers or meditate, people like myself can think about stuff like boobs and money.

I applaud the openness of the Baha'i faith and the Lotus Temple in extending to all religions, but wonder why this can't apply to the temple experience. As well as being aesthetically disappointing, the Lotus Temple is not much of an experience. It could be so much better. Surrounding it are acres of gardens. Their condition during our visit was decent, though not immaculate, but in a less dry season I would imagine it would be a lot more attractive. However - they were closed off! Acres of garden that would be ideal for sitting in, relaxing, taking in the unique view of the Lotus Temple, and enhancing enjoyment of the experience. The large crowds that visit would also be more spread out. I could understand even if it was a "Don't Walk On The Grass" policy, but all the pathways are barriered off. What a pity. It means that a visit to the Lotus Temple is very restricted: follow the crowds up the main path, deposit your shoes in a cloakroom, listen to a spiel and enter the temple for some silence, then exit the temple, get your shoes, and walk back down the main pathway with the crowds.

The only real freedom of movement allowed is by the pools outside, where you can sit on the steps. You can't even walk around the Lotus Temple - only the approach facade is explorable. One way in, one way out... so much for nine entrances. In fact, me and Danielle somewhat messed up the system. After sitting for a while inside, we took the wrong door out. I'd been following the lead of another couple, who instead of exiting through the open door, took one that was closed. Outside, it was immediately clear that this was the wrong exit, and all routes were roped-off. Unfortunately, just behind us was a large bunch of Indians, who began filling up this roped-off area, expressing varying degrees of confusion. Myself and Danielle quickly ducked back into the temple, and exited via the correct door, leaving the confused mass to sort itself out, likely to the horror of the Baha'i volunteers.

Delhi is a city packed with fantastic religious and historical monuments, that my very limited time there did not permit me to see. I would have loved to have seen the Red Fort, the Rashtrapati Bhavan (formerly the Viceroy's House), the precursor to the Taj Mahal - Humayun'sTomb, and the Qutb Minar for a start. Because of time and my Wonders quest, I only saw Akshardham and the Lotus Temple, twice. I certainly do not regret Akshardham, but it's difficult to justify the Lotus Temple. Except to say - look at the promotional photos.

It takes a pretty nice photo, if you're a professional. And go to Delhi and look at the tours available. It's ubiquitous. In all the hotel and travel agents it is second only to the Taj Mahal in terms of exposure. Its picture is everywhere, and it looks distinctive and great. Attracting several millions visitors every year, it's clearly a big draw. But unless you're looking for a bit of peace and quiet on a hot summer's day, I can't really recommend it.

Some criteria.

Size: Roughly 40 metres tall by 70 metres in diameter, it's big enough, but not vast. However, it's just a hollow shell with only a single space inside, seating 1300 people, which makes it seem smaller.
Engineering: Built in six years of concrete, clad in white marble, at the impressively thrifty price of $20 million (£30 million in today's money), by 800 engineers, technicians and artisans, many of them volunteers. Well designed.
Artistry: Clean and stark, and very original, it unfortunately looks pretty cheap and plain close up.
Age/Durability: Just over 25 years old now, it seems like a modern construction - especially close up - without the gravitas of timelessness.
Fame/Iconicity: It has a pretty high profile in Delhi, and is probably the most famous building in the Baha'i faith (perhaps tying with the Shrine of Bab in Haifa). However, there isn't much awareness outside of these circles.
Context: A haven of peace amidst the hubbub of Delhi, its cool and calm make a welcome contrast, especially set amidst large and attractive gardens.
Back Story: A full understanding of the background inevitably involves understanding of the history of the Baha'i faith, but the temple itself is a bit more straightforward: the land was bought in 1953 with a devotee's life savings, and the temple finally constructed, seemingly without major problems, between 1980 and 1986.
Originality: The Lotus Temple's strong point. I've not seen anything quite like this before.

In a whole world of buildings, the Lotus Temple stands out for being striking, original, and very photogenic. Alas, in the world of Wonders, it doesn't really rate. It's a shame, as based on pictures it promised so much, as well as comparisons to the Taj Mahal and its architectural awards. But the only thing that really matters is impact upon visiting, and the Lotus Temple has little. It's not a bad building, but it's simply not a Wonder, and has neither the depth or charm to even qualify as a legitimate candidate. I feel a little bad slating it, as it should never have made the list, like a three-legged dog being entered into a greyhound race. But like old Rover posing with his furry pegleg, the Lotus Temple and its photos flattered to deceive, and it's been entered into the contest regardless. And, alas, it has turned out to be the first major disappointment, and a clear bottom of the list so far.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Angkor Wat
3. Sydney Opera House
4. Borobudur
5. Akshardham
6. Petronas Towers
7. The Golden Temple

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Shwedagon Pagoda
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces

Interesting Places
Ananda Temple in Bagan
Marina Bay Sands

Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple


  1. omg. to much info. bluddy hell

  2. Thanks Anonymous, it's great to get an educated response. If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy my many other brief and snappy Wonder reviews elsewhere on this website!

  3. Great write-up, thanks. I hadn't heard of the Lotus Temple before today (or your site), and it was interesting to learn about it.


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