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The Story of the Lotus Temple in Delhi

Lotus Temple, Bahāʾī Faith house of worship, in New Delhi was designed by Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba and completed in 1986.  A stunning creation of expressionist architecture, the building is symbolic, functional, beautiful and integrated with its natural environment. Join me in discovering everything there is to know about this marvel of modern architecture. 

The temple is one of eight Bahá’í House of Worship facilities in the world and has welcomed over 70 million visitors since its completion, making it one of the most frequented architectural landmarks in the world.  From a denominational standpoint, the Lotus temple is open to all practitioners regardless of religious affiliation and functions more as a gathering place of worship to interested visitors. On first glance, there are notable similarities between the Mother Temple of the Indian subcontinent and Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House — in keeping with Bahá’í scripture, the Lotus temple is organized as a nine-sided circular structure that is comprised of twenty-seven “leaves” (marble-clad free-standing concrete slabs), organized in groups of three on each of the temple’s nine sides.  The structure is inspired by the lotus flower and is arguably one of the most visible instances of biomimicry in contemporary architecture.

Funded almost entirely by private donations, the structure is sited on a magnificent 26-acre landscape including native vegation and a series of nine ponds surrounding the temple.  Appropriately, the Lotus Temple and Sahba have been the recipient of multiple international design awards, included an award in excellence from the Instituation of Structural Engineers (1987), a special citation from the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (1988), designation as one of 100 canonical works by the Architectural Society of China (2000), and an architect award from the GlobArt Academy in Vienna (2000).  With a capacity of 2,500 practitioners, this seminal architectural work is well-equipped to be a global architectural masterpiece for years to come.

 

The Structure of The Lotus Temple

The aforementioned “leaves” are integral to the organization of the space and are classified into three categories: entrance leaves, outer leaves, and inner leaves.  The entrance leaves (nine in total), demarcate the entrance on each of the nine sides of the complex.  The outer leaves serves as the roof to the ancillary spaces, complemented by the inners leaves which form the main worship space.  These inner leaves approach, but do not meet at the tip of the worship space and are capped with a dramatic glass and steel skylight. The temple is constructed primarily of concrete and clad in Grecian marble, resulting in the Lotus Temple’s pristine white exterior while the interior of the structure is revealed in true Expressionist fashion, with the precast ribbed roof exposed in the worship spaces. Along with its nine surrounding ponds and gardens, the Lotus Temple property comprises 26 acres.

 

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The temple is located in the village of Bahapur in New Delhi, National Capital Territory of Delhi. The architect was Iranian born Fariborz Sahba who now lives in La Jolla, California, after living some years in Canada.  He was approached in 1976 to design the Lotus Temple and later oversaw its construction. The structural design was undertaken by the UK firm Flint and Neill over the course of 18 months, and the construction was done by ECC Construction Group of Larsen & Toubro Limited at a cost of $10 million. The major part of the funds needed to buy this land was donated by Ardishír Rustampúr of Hyderabad, Sindh(Pakistan), whose will dictated that his entire life savings would go to this purpose.  A portion of the construction budget was saved and used to build a greenhouse to study indigenous plants and flowers that would be appropriate for use on the site. Of the temple’s total electricity use of 500 kilowatts (kW), 120 kW is provided by solar power generated by solar panels on the building.  This saves the temple ₹120,000 per month.  It is the first temple in Delhi to use solar power.

In 1976, Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba was hired to design a new Bahá’í temple in New Delhi. A Bahá’í practitioner, Ardishír Rustampúr of Hyderabad, donated his life savings in his will toward building a new temple, which the faith used to purchase land in the Bahapur village of New Delhi. Construction on the temple began shortly after.In 1986, the Lotus Temple was dedicated and opened to both practitioners of the Baháʼí Faith and the general public. Soon after its completion, it won several architectural awards, including the Institution of Structural Engineers’ award for excellence in religious art and architecture and the GlobArt Academy 2000 award.

 

The lotus temple is characterized by a few different architectural styles and principles. First, biomimicry characterizes the shape of the building, as it mimics the form of a lotus flower. Deliberately built to reflect the beauty and symmetry of the lotus flower, which is important to many Eastern and Indian faiths, including the Bahá’í Faith, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The Lotus Temple is one of the most famous examples of biomimicry in modern architecture. Numeric symmetry is also introduced to play both a symbolic and aesthetic role. The number nine is sacred in the Bahá’í faith. Thus, the Lotus Temple (like many other Bahá’í houses of worship) incorporates the number nine in a symmetrical pattern for balance and beauty—for instance, the building is shaped in a nine-sided dome. The 27 concrete-and-marble petals that make up the structure are split into three different types: nine entrance leaves (which mark the doorways), nine outer leaves (which form the roof space), and nine inner leaves (which enclose the central hall in an interior dome). The Lotus Temple may look delicate, but the construction team spent considerable effort ensuring that the building was sturdy enough to withstand regular earthquakes in New Delhi. To ensure the security of the building, construction teams formed each petal as a free-standing marble and concrete structure. In taking so much inspiration from nature, the building itself is also mindful of its environment. In design, the Lotus Temple aimed to prioritize environmental sustainability, generating 20 percent of its electricity needs through a set of solar panels on the roof, using openings at the top and bottom of the building to encourage natural ventilation, and installing a large glass and steel skylight at the top of the structure to let in natural light.

 

What is Expressionist Architecture?

Expressionist architecture is a tradition concurrent with expressionist painting, which occurred in the late 19th century. Centered primarily in Germany and the Netherlands, Expressionist architects, just like their mainstream International Style colleagues, tried above all to cope with the industrial age. However, like their namesakes in painting, they attempted to express this age instead of representing it.

 

The most significant heritage of Expressionism is that it attempted to solve the problems of the world through mainly symbolic architecture. Architects felt that they had to act on behalf of society and believed that they had to force people to realize their happiness through building. In those years, the spiritual realm was very far removed from reality. Expressionist architecture had a strong Utopian urge. It was the search for a new reality, a new sense of life, and a new ethics of humanity. Many of the projects are indeed on a cosmic scale. This stemmed primarily from architects aiming to create their designs directly from their own visions. They let their hands draw the designs automatically and tried to exclude the mind from participating in the sketching. Their designs came out of an uncontrollable inner necessity and an inner spiritual life. The architects felt themselves to be the instruments of an absolute, metaphysical will and saw their task as transforming this spirit into reality. They wanted to achieve the direct transformation of consciousness into pure activity and did not pay much consideration to the objects that resulted from this. Theirs was an architecture that appealed to the intellect through feeling. With such practices, Expressionist architects found their modernity independently, unlike the International Style, which found its modernity through representation. Like the International Style, Expressionism avoided the literal imitation of traditional styles, but it also focused on expressing ideas. The Expressionist conception of the building was that of a total work of art that would present an aesthetic unity and thus become communal art. In this sense, architecture was spiritual.

 

In terms of form, Expressionist architects had a preference for cavelike interiors and towerlike exteriors. Inside their buildings, one felt enveloped not by walls and ceiling but by an encompassing membrane. Interiors felt physically oppressing on the inhabitant, who had to use sight, touch, and other synesthetic senses to understand his or her whereabouts. The theme of the cave was articulated in the exterior through a tectonic treatment of the building surfaces. The tower shape was articulated mostly by fashioning buildings as crowns, be they in the city or on the top of mountains. As such endeavors suggest, Expressionism was a romantic movement. It can rightfully be criticized for not having been able to resist the seduction from formal aspects of architecture at the expense of all other concerns. Many Expressionist designs look like they are ready to depart. This notion of mobile architecture was aimed to symbolize metamorphosis and transcendence. Taut’s early apartment buildings of the 1910s exemplify these goals. In these large structures, he attempted to engender a communal impression through color and facade articulation. Similarly, Erich Mendelsohn’s early sketches express a dynamic feeling. These designs show forms that are derived from structure and the expression of the purpose of the building. They are rather abstract renderings of these intentions. The essence of the projects is artistic, not architectural, as they are not primarily meant to be realized. However, there are many expressionist buildings that have become reality in architectural form. The material innovations that were produced in the American war industry finally allowed architects to build expressive formal fantasies. Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal (1962) at Kennedy Airport in New York and Utzon’s Opera House (1973) in Sydney testify to this situation. Original Expressionists, such as Hans Scharoun and Mendelsohn, realized their earlier visions in such designs as the Philharmonic Hall (1963) in Berlin and Park Synagogue (1953) in Cleveland. Another significant part of neo-Expressionism is centered around the Waldorf Schools, which had been founded by Rudolf Steiner and which continue to imbue its school buildings, especially in England, with values identical to those that informed Steiner’s Goetheanum.

What is The Bahá’í Faith?

The Bahá’í Faith (founded in the nineteenth century in Iran) teaches that all religions are valuable as manifestations of God. Hence, the Lotus Temple is open to all visitors, regardless of religious affiliation, to use for worship. Eleven other Bahá’í places of worship exist worldwide, including temples in Kampala, Uganda; Wilmette, Illinois; and Panama City, Panama.Bahāʾīs believe that all the founders of the world’s great religions have been manifestations of God and agents of a progressive divine plan for the education of the human race. Despite their apparent differences, the world’s great religions, according to the Bahāʾīs, teach an identical truth. 

Throughout history, God has sent to humanity a series of divine Educators—known as Manifestations of God—whose teachings have provided the basis for the advancement of civilization. These Manifestations have included Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muḥammad. Bahá’u’lláh, the latest of these Messengers, explained that the religions of the world come from the same Source and are in essence successive chapters of one religion from God. Bahá’ís believe the crucial need facing humanity is to find a unifying vision of the future of society and of the nature and purpose of life. Such a vision unfolds in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh. The writings and spoken words of the Bāb, Bahāʾ Allāh, and ʿAbd al-Bahāʾ form the sacred literature of the Bahāʾī Faith. Membership in the Bahāʾī community is open to all who profess faith in Bahāʾ Allāh and accept his teachings. There are no initiation ceremonies, no sacraments, and no clergy. Every Bahāʾī, however, is under the spiritual obligation to pray daily; to abstain totally from narcotics, alcohol, or any other substances that affect the mind; to practice monogamy; to obtain the consent of parents to marriage; and to attend the Nineteen Day Feast on the first day of each month of the Bahāʾī calendar. If capable, those between the ages of 15 and 70 are required to fast 19 days a year, going without food or drink from sunrise to sunset. The Nineteen Day Feast, originally instituted by the Bāb, brings together the Bahāʾīs of a given locality for prayer, the reading of scriptures, the discussion of community activities, and the enjoyment of one another’s company. The feasts are designed to ensure universal participation in the affairs of the community and the cultivation of the spirit of brotherhood and fellowship.

The Bahāʾī religion originally grew out of the Bābī faith, or sect, which was founded in 1844 by Mīrzā ʿAlī Moḥammad of Shīrāz in Iran. He proclaimed a spiritual doctrine emphasizing the forthcoming appearance of a new prophet or messenger of God who would overturn old beliefs and customs and usher in a new era. Though new, these beliefs originated in Twelver Shiʿi Islam, which asserts a belief in the forthcoming return of the 12th imam (successor of Muhammad), who will renew religion and guide the faithful. Mīrzā ʿAlī Moḥammad first proclaimed his beliefs in 1844 and assumed the title of the Bāb. Soon the Bāb’s teachings spread throughout Iran, provoking strong opposition from both the Shiʿi Muslim clergy and the government. The Bāb was arrested and, after several years of incarceration, was executed in 1850. Large-scale persecutions of his adherents, the Bābīs, followed. One of the Bāb’s earliest disciples and strongest exponents was Mīrzā Ḥosayn ʿAlī Nūrī, who had assumed the name Bahāʾ Allāh when he renounced his social standing and joined the Bābīs. Bahāʾ Allāh was arrested in 1852 and jailed in Tehrān, where he became aware that he was the prophet and messenger of God whose coming had been predicted by the Bāb. He was released in 1853 and exiled to Baghdad, where his leadership revived the Bābī community. In 1863, shortly before being moved by the Ottoman government to Constantinople (now Istanbul), Bahāʾ Allāh declared to his fellow Bābīs that he was the messenger of God foretold by the Bāb. An overwhelming majority of Bābīs acknowledged his claim and thenceforth became known as Bahāʾīs. Bahāʾ Allāh was subsequently confined by the Ottomans in Adrianople(now Edirne, Turkey) and then in Acre in Palestine (now ʿAkko, Israel).The Bahāʾi Faith underwent a rapid expansion beginning in the 1960s, and by the early 21st century it had more than 180 national spiritual assemblies (national governing bodies) and several thousand local spiritual assemblies. After Islamic fundamentalists came to power in Iran in 1979, the 300,000 Bahāʾīs there were persecuted by the government.

Who is the Architect of the Temple? 

Fariborz Sahba, a Canadian Architect, was born in 1948. Sahba has a master’s degree from the Faculty of Fine Arts from the University of Tehran. In an interview with Mithaq Kazimi, he has stated that, at a very early age, he was encouraged by his mother to be an architect.

Mr. Sahba has received many international awards, among them the First Honor Award in 1987 for “Excellence in Architecture” from the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture, an affiliate of the American Institute of Architects. Articles about his work have been published in almost 400 magazines and newspapers throughout the world. In 1987 the Institution of Structural Engineers of the United Kingdom granted a special award to the Baháʼí Temple in India, with a citation: “a building so emulating the beauty of a flower and so striking in its visual impact.” He has also received the Paul Waterbury Outdoor Lighting Design Award from the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America in June 1988. In 1990, Bahaʼi House of Worship of India was recognized by the American Concrete Institute as “One of the finest concrete structures of the world”. In 2000, the GlobArt Academy of Vienna, Austria granted him the GlobArt Award, for “Overcoming religious barriers” and ” promoting the unity and harmony of people of all nations and social strata, to an extend unsurpassed by any other architectural monument worldwide”. Fariborz Sahba has written and published several books. He has lectured extensively on the topics of Art, Architecture, Project Management, Culture and Environment as an official guest speaker in universities, institutes of architects, professional international conferences and organizations all over the world. 

 

In 1974 he was recognized by Iran’s Ministry of Housing for his design of a low-cost housing system. Fariborz Sahba was Associate Architect for the design of the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the administrative centre of the Bahá’i Faith in Haifa, Israel. In 1975, he was appointed Manager of the design team for the construction of Iran’s largest cultural centre, the Negarestan Cultural Centre in the Marble Palace. As head of the design teams of various architectural firms in Iran, he was involved in the design of a wide range of prestigious buildings, including: The Centre of Handicraft Production and Arts Workshops Tehran, Iran, The Iranian Embassy Beijing, China, The New Town of Mahshahr, South-Western Iran, The Pahlavi Cultural Centre Sanandaj, Iran, and The School of Art – Sanandaj, Iran.

After completion of the Mount Carmel Projects and its inauguration in an outstanding international event in which every country of the world sent 19 delegate representing all races and ethnic population of those lands and which was covered by the media from all over the world, Mr. Sahba returned to Canada. Since then as per invitation of several universities and professional organizations he has traveled intensively all over the world in particular Australia, India, USA, Papua New Guinea, Austria, Italy as well as many provinces and cities of Canada and shared his views and experiences in the field of architecture, art as well as project management in particular with young students and professionals. Mr. Sahba is currently engaged in a project which is his personal initiative and has dedicated most of his creative talent to research and development of a system of housing for the Inuit’s of Canada. In an intensive interview with CBC radio in Iqaluit in the month of August of this year, he underlined the need for creating a system of housing which while practical, and economical relates to the way of life and reflects Inuit’s art and culture gives them the sense of belonging and identity and can be built by themselves allowing them to express their own taste and choice of space. He is also engaged in restoration and renovation of Toronto Bahá’í Center, a 200 years beautiful building in downtown Toronto. 

 

The Lotus Temple is not only a symbol of excellence in modern Indian architecture but also one of the most visited religious buildings in the world. The Bahá’í faith is perhaps a lesser known faith internationally, but the temple certainly put it on the map, both literally and figuratively. 

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