I found myself in Chhatarpur, a district in South Delhi. It was a comfortable taxi ride from the Old Delhi Railway Station, and cost us 200 rupees. Junaid mentioned that he will be staying with some friends and he suggested I tag along since “these were nice people”. He knew I had reservations, for who wouldn’t when you don’t personally know them. I have issues regarding freeloading off others, even with close friends. I hate the idea of bothering others, and, to be honest, I’d rather be on my own. I am too independent and too proud to accept charity, when they're mere acts of hospitality. I’d rather find my way around. Make my mistakes. Curse the unpalatable. Praise the amazing. Learn from them. In traveling as a solitary soul, my actions aren’t compromised by conventions of being polite to others who offer hospitality.
On the other hand, “free accommodation” and the company of a friend were considerations that eventually influenced my decision. I was a virtual ignorant in the ways of Delhi, and this capital of some 14 million souls had a way of intimidating people. For the time being, I can acclimate myself before the eventual culture shock. This was, after all, my first time in India. I knew I’d ruminate solo very soon.
Upon reaching Chhatarpur Mandir Road, we were taken right in front of the Tivoli Garden Resort. We walked the road beside it then turned left at a residential compound until we found a 2-story house. Junaid’s friend met us outside, then we climbed up to the 2nd floor. We were to stay there. The floor upstairs had 4 rooms, each one occupied by 3-4 young guys who were either students or new workers. They were renting the place for 3,000 rupees a month. Not bad for a concrete-and-tiled digs. I’ve seen expensive hotel rooms worse than this. They hired a maid who would tidy the house, wash the dishes and polish the floor twice daily. There’s nothing much to clean, but the bathroom and the kitchen. Except for a television, there were no living room set; no tables nor chairs. The bedrooms didn’t have electric fans; good thing it was chilly in mid-November Delhi. Junaid told me it had started snowing in Kashmir which is 876 kilometers (544 miles) from Delhi.
CAMPING OUT INSIDE
Sleeping cushions were laid down the floor for us. That’s where we would huddle and talk, all crouched down the floor. I relished on the experience. It conjured sensations of camping out; only, we were indoors. That night, we were served our meal (see photo below), and since I was a guest, my tray had rice instead of roti. But the usual dhal was there, it was my viand. Though that was no food for me, I was more than grateful to the guys.
In the morning, Junaid took it upon himself to take me around Delhi. Though I didn’t appreciate the places all that much at that time, I’ve realized they were in my mental checklist as per Lonely Planet recommendations: Lotus Temple, Chandni Chowk, Jama Masjid, Qutub Minar (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Red Fort (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Connaught’s Place, Palika Bazaar, even the lesser known Lala Laipat Rai Market. In the succeeding posts, these places will be shared here.
For some reason, Junaid was testy the good part of the day. Something was bothering him, and his phone kept ringing. I also noticed that he wasn’t like most travelers who basked in getting photographed ad nauseam. In the succeeding years since this trip, I’ve somehow managed to “convert” him into someone who loved photos. He would copy hundreds of our photos on a disc while visiting Nepal, a year after we first met. But I digress.
Our first order of the day: The Lotus Temple, aka the Baha’i House of Worship.
The Lotus Temple (also known as “Lotus of Bahapur” since it stands on the village of Bahapur in South Delhi area) owes its popular name from its flower-like shape, an architectural design that somehow reminds me of an upturned Sydney Opera House. Baha’i is a religious denomination that welcomes all religious sects. It is designed as a universal house of prayer; a “gathering place” where people of all religions may worship their God with no denominational restrictions. It’s like a free-for-all church. But to fully enforce this “universality”, words are not to be spoken at any time inside the church. Talking is strictly prohibited. In fact I’ve been shushed several times even for simple queries like, “Can I take photos inside?” I was actually annoyed. Silence is indeed strictly enforced here.
There are some basic tenets in a Baha’i House of Worship. Silence is golden, and every one should keep to themselves. That only Holy Scriptures from such religious sect can be chanted inside when necessary. Readings and prayers are to be kept to oneself – or set into music and sung by a choir. No musical instruments are to be played. No sermons nor rituals are to be delivered and performed therein. There’s just a single common room filled with benches under the dome of the building.
The building was designed by Iran-born Canadian architect Fariborz Sahba who was chosen by the Baha’i Community in 1976 for the design and construction of the temple. It took him 10 years to finish the project which opened in 1986.
The building has specific architectural characteristics that were to be followed by the succeeding Baha’i Houses constructed all over the world (about 6-8 of them) – a nine-sided (nonagon) circular shape; a dome (although considered not essential); no photographs, no statues or images displayed; no pulpits. The “lotus petals” are 27 free-standing marble clad "petals" arranged in clusters of three to form nine sides. There are nine doors that open onto a central hall slightly more than 40 meters tall. This hall is capable of holding up to 2,500 people. The surface of the House of Worship is made of white marble from Penteli Mountain in Greece. The Lotus Temple property, surrounded by ponds and gardens, comprises 26 acres (10.5 hectares).
Shogi Effendi, an Israeli, was the “Guardian” of the Baha’i faith until his death in 1957. So far, no successor has been appointed.
The Lotus Temple is visited by 4 million visitors every year – or 13,000 every day! In fact CNN once labeled it the world’s most visited building, surpassing even Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal.
But it didn’t feel congested at all. Sure, there was a queue from outside and as you move your way inside the premises, but the movement of the crowd was far from frenetic. I loved the open space every where - from the sprawling gardens of green lawns to the pious interiors of the temple. I was able to sit down and offer a silent prayer, before walking around the nonagon surrounding. I felt the presence of a ubiquitous entity that somehow guides through our existence. It felt peaceful to gather around a common place where “prayers” aren’t categorized into religions; where a homogenizing structure makes prayers universal, thus eliminating prejudices. It was reassuring.
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Other Baha’i Houses of Worship all over the world (from top left to right): Wilmette, Illinois; Kampala, Uganda; Sydney, Australia; (From bottom left to right) Langerhain, Germany; Panama City, Panama; Tiapapata, Samoa. Some 123 additional sites have been planned for future houses of worship all over the world, including those in Tehran (Iran) and Chile.
They have their website for further concerns: http://www.bahaihouseofworship.in/ Opening hours – 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM daily, except Mondays (when it’s closed). Telephone number 26444029. This photo only courtesy of www.mytripexpert.com.