Saturday, 6 December 2014

Incredible India: Part 14: Delhi–The Lotus and ISKON Temples

world-map delhiGreetings!

I'm still in Delhi this week, checking out two unusual temples that were, if I am to be be truly honest, not really to my liking. Still, each to their own and the Lotus Temple in particular has many admirers.

In real time I am also putting the final chapters together of the account of my trip around Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh and Georgia with Paul. As always, it shall be featured here first.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

map_india_northwest 8


In Delhi's south-eastern suburbs is another architectural talking point which, unfortunately, Dalrymple never bothers to comment upon. Built in 1986, the Lotus Temple is one of only a few houses of worship around the globe dedicated to the Baha'i religion and it is so called because it was designed to look like an enormous lotus flower. It is a distinctive-looking place and since I knew very little about the Baha'i faith, I was determined to check it out.

I'd had two other brushes with the Baha'i prior to my visit to Delhi. The first was in Haifa in Israel, a port city dominated by the Shrine of the Bab, the tomb of of the Bab, the founder of the Baha'i faith and one of the holiest sites on earth for the Baha'i. I recall visiting and finding its cascading Italianate gardens pretty, but annoyingly at the time I was not remotely interested in discovering anything about the religion itself.[1] And my second encounter was during my time as a journalist for the Burslem Local Edition in which I had a column on faith groups in the area. I contacted the local Baha'i representative for an interview and although the chap would not grant one, we did talk informally at great length on the phone and the religion that he described sounded extremely liberal and non-judgemental or, as he put it, “like a group of Muslim Quakers”.

So, what were my impressions after this third encounter? Well, the temple grounds were exquisitely maintained and the Lotus Temple did look pretty stunning from the outside, a sort of symmetrical Sydney Opera House, and there were some exceptionally pretty young ladies who marshalled the visitors and gave a brief overview of their faith, but I have to admit that, once inside, I was sorely disappointed.

Of course, I should have expected it from the description “Muslim Quakers”. Quaker theology is pacifist, it is liberal, it is non-judgemental and it emphasises silence and personal devotion. All of which I laud, but the problem is that such a philosophy doesn't make for great religious buildings; our local Quaker Meeting House is a room with a circle of chairs in it. It is bare and functional. In fact, before it was a Quaker Meeting House it was the headquarters of a local lads' and dads' football club.

And so it was with the Lotus Temple, (without the lads and dads aspect of course). Inside it was a vast hall with nothing in it save for chairs and a table with flowers on it. Silent, simple and conducive to meditation perhaps, but at the same time, boring. Quakerism was the product of an iconoclastic Protestant revolution this place drew on similar influences in Iran. It was like on of those naff modern cathedrals thrown up in concrete and glass since the war, and like with Liverpool, Coventry and Clifton, I was distinctly underwhelmed.

And I was even more underwhelmed when I attempted to learn something about the Baha'i faith for there were no exhibitions that told me anything beyond a broad universalist message and no one to ask. In the end all that I could do was purchase a little book entitled 'The Baha'i World Faith: An Introduction' and hope that that could answer my questions. And so it was that I wandered off thinking that the Baha'is get good marks for substance but a very definite “must try harder” for style.
Much like the Quakers I suppose.

The Lotus Temple

Next door to the Lotus Temple is the Hare Krishna ISKON Temple Complex and if the Baha'is are a lesson in minimalist simplicity, then this lot are a departure off in completely the opposite direction: a riot of sculpture of the cheapest kind, signs telling you where to go in English and adverts for a sound and light spectacular of the Bhagavad Gita, this was Krishna meeting Mickey Mouse, a Disneyesque parody of a traditional Hindu temple.

I've never known quite what to make of the Hare Krishnas as ISKON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness) are commonly referred to. Founded in 1966 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, they are the most visual of the Hindu groups that headed west on the tides of hippy counter-culturism and gained many notable converts such as George Harrison of Beatles fame whose famous track 'My Sweet Lord' was a hymn to his ISKON beliefs.[2] Like with so many of the New Religious Movements that popped up at that time, it has always struck me as a tad cult-like with its own translations and commentaries on the Gita which its devotees learn off by heart as well as its strict vegetarianism and chastity. But then again, I've never heard any horror stories such as seem to surround groups like the Scientologists or even the more mainstream Jehovah's Witnesses, and all the (non-ISKON) Hindus that I've spoken to have no issues with the sect. Walking around that temple complex in Delhi though, I felt uneasy with the brash plastic Hinduism that it seemed to present alongside rampant commercialism, (the fees to enter the sound and light spectacular were the equivalent of a week's wages to a poor India). However, on the other hand I saw vans and minibuses that took out free food to the slums so some of the money at least was being used for good purposes. In the end I surmised that perhaps my unease was the same as I feel at certain evangelical churches with their cheery slogans and atmosphere more akin to a rock concert than a Gothic cathedral: it ain't evil but at the same time, it ain't me.

The ISKON Temple

[1] To be fair, I was 19 and in Haifa waiting to sail off to Greece to enjoy a summer of sun and sport on the island of Corfu so it perhaps wasn't surprising that spiritual experiences were not top of my priority list...
[2] And was also a favourite of my grandmother's who mistakenly thought that he was singing about Jesus.

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