One of the outstanding structures of the 20th century is the Bahai Temple in Delhi, popularly known as the Lotus Temple. Indeed, it has been referred to as the modern day Taj Mahal, a comparison which would seem improbable but one which is justified in reality. The Baha’i Mother Temple at Kalkaji in New Delhi is a place for assembly, contemplation & prayer. The Baha’i faith is said to embody in itself the nine major faiths of the world and in order to symbolise this, each component of the temple is repeated nine times. The temple manifests itself as a half open lotus flower, afloat, surrounded by its leaves. Designed by architect Fariburz Sahba, the structure is a complex form, one which would have been very challenging to conceive, solve and ultimately construct. Yet, today it stands testament to the ingenuity of all the people involved that it is one of the modern marvels of construction.
The temple complex consists of the main House of Worship, the ancilliary block which houses the reception centre, the library and the administrative building. Set in the middle of a large sprawling lawn, the temple rises up on its large basement cum plinth to a lotus shaped superstructure which houses the assembly area. All around the structure are walkways with beautiful carved balustrades, bridges and stairs which surround the nine pools representing the leaves of the lotus.
The lotus as seen from the outside, has three sets of leaves or petals, all of which are made out of thin concrete shells. The outer-most set of nine petals, called the entrance leaves, open outwards and form the nine entrances all around the outer annular hall. The next set of nine petals, called the outer leaves, point inwards. The entrance and the outer leaves together cover the outer hall. The third set of nine petals, called the inner leaves, appear to be partly closed. Only the tips open out, somewhat like a partly open bud. This portion, which rises above the rest, forms the main structure housing the central hall. Since the lotus is open at the top, a glass and steel roof at the level of the radial beams provides protection from the rain and facilitates entry of natural light into the auditorium.
The finishing is in the form of exposed concrete on the interiors and white marble cladding on the outer surface of the shells as well as the inner surface of the arches. For the walls, columns, and soffits of slabs in the basement, the grey concrete surface shows an exquisite pattern of joints of planks and the grains of wood. Above the basement, the inner surfaces of of white concrete of all the shells have a uniform bush hammered surface with architectural patterns.
Fariburz Shahba’s own words – ‘It was an Indian Baha’i friend in a small city who for the first time spoke to me about the lotus flower as an idea for the temple. Next, in the Ajanta & Ellora caves the impression of the lotus flowers on the surface walls depicting the ‘throne of flowers’ drew my attention to this flower. In South India, another Baha’i gentleman showed so much enthusiasm that he took great pains to locate a pond covered with this beautiful flower, and brimming over with excitement, took me to view the magnificent blooms. His earnest description and explanations of whatever he knew about the lotus impressed upon me the deep rooted significance of this flower in India. Later, I studied the art, culture and religions of India from books I had collected. The deep respect for the lotus that spontaneously evoked from Indian hearts everywhere, the excitement in the eyes and their loving attachement to this sacred flower kept me from considering other ideas for the design. May attention was now focussed upon this concept. However, the critical question had yet to be answered as to how a flower could be translated into a building. However symbolic and sensational it may be, such a design could also be regarded as trite and formalistic and consequently vulgar and bereft of any architectural value.
The lotus represents the manifestation of God and is also the symbol of purity and tenderness. Its significance is deeply rooted in the minds and hearts of Indians. In the epic poem of the Mahabharata, the Creator, Brahma, is described as having sprung from the lotus that grew out of Lord Vishnu’s navel when that deity lay absorbed in meditation. There is a deep and universal reverence for the lotus which is regarded as a scared flower, being associated with worship throughout many centuries. In Buddhist folklore the Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara is represented as born from a lotus and is usually depicted as standing or sitting in a lotus pedestal and holding a lotus bloom in his hand.
The temple superstructure is so designed as to function as a skylight. The interior dome is spherical and patterned after the innermost portion of the lotus flower. Light enters the hall in the same way as it passes through the inner folds of the lotus petals. The interior dome therefore is like a bud consisting of 36 petals and light filters through these inner folds and is diffused throughout the hall. The central bud is ringed by three sets of nine petals as they appear in a natural flower – the just-opening petals, the semi-open petals and the completely open petals. The just-opening or inner petals constitute the external dome; the semi-open or outer function as high skylight; the completely open or entrance petals form a canopy over each of the nine entrances’.
Regarding the use of water, the nine pools around the building form the principal landscaping. At the same time, they represent the green leaves of the lotus plant, thus completing the picture of a lotus afloat on water. Moreover, the pools with fountains in them help to cool the air that passes over them into the hall. The superstructure, the podium and the pools are designed as an integrated whole and the parts cannot be separated’.