In 1980, Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba met with English engineer Anthony Flint to discuss his untested theory for building a proposed Baha´i Temple in Delhi, India.
President of the Institute of Structural Engineers, builder of theatres and bridges all over London, and possessing decades of experience, Flint had only one word for it, “impossible.”
The plan was for the 40-metre-tall petals of the lotus-like structure. Sahba wanted to pour the petals as one singular piece of concrete in order to avoid the seams that would result from multiple pours.
An exasperated Flint left the meeting with instructions to call once he “came to his senses.”
Sahba was only 28 years old.
In only six years, Sahba would be overseeing the finishing touches on a building that famed Canadian architect Arthur Erickson has described as “(proof) that the drive and vision of spirit can achieve miracles.”
Officially known as the Baha´i House of Worship, the world has come to know it as the “Lotus Temple.”
Fariborz Sahba was in Whitehorse Friday, speaking to a small gathering about the six-year odyssey he and his workers undertook to complete the “impossible” temple.
The temple consists of 27 petals of white concrete rising from a ringed arrangement of nine blue pools.
Having welcomed more than 50 million visitors since it first opened its doors to public worship in 1989, the temple has quickly surpassed the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower as the world’s most visited structure.
Sahba first made the transition from architect to project manager after his initial project manager went “half crazy” after only three months.
The difficulties were certainly almost Babel-esque:
India has 18 completely distinct official languages, meaning that most workers were unable to communicate with one another.
The heat was vicious. Some days it could rocket as high as 46 degrees Celsius. Workers had to be constantly supplied with mineral water to prevent them from collapsing from dehydration.
Under the rules set in place by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, many foreign imports into India were strictly prohibited. Barred from using the modern power tools of the West, workers used primitive implements that had been unchanged for hundreds of years.
Where a Canadian worker would use a cordless drill, an Indian worker would use a rudimentary drill bit and a bit of rope, said Sahba.
Concrete, instead of being pumped, was carried in, pan by pan, balanced on the heads of Indian women.
As in the rest of India, religious tensions were high.
“If you want to start a riot in India, just throw a cow’s head into a Hindu temple, or a pig’s head into a mosque. The next day, I guarantee you, over a hundred dead,” said Sahba.
And of course, workers had to maintain almost superhuman perfection in order to complete the temple using Sahba’s unorthodox principles of concrete pouring.
In order to form the massive petals in one seamless form, workers had to move around the clock, pouring the concrete in precise increments of 15 centimetres every hour.
A single mistake could have compromised the entire structure.
Sahba was particularly concerned about paan, a red-leaf chewing snack enjoyed by almost every Indian worker. As a result of paan, the ground at Indian construction sites is often slick with the remnants of expectoration.
If only one of the temple’s hundreds of builders had spit into the white concrete mixture, a large red spot would have scarred the structure of the completed building.
Workers also had to protect their construction from the torrential monsoon rains that threatened to dilute the wet concrete.
Where once there was division, brotherhood spawned. Workers banded together, united in the singular purpose of completing the magnificent temple. Nowhere was the temple’s message of unity more potent than in the unprecedented devotion of its workers.
“Gradually, all of these workers who had just looked at us as strangers … started to like what they were doing and became closer (to the project),” he said.
“People began to see that there was no problem in working together,’” he said.
To this day, Sahba declares the successful building of the Lotus Temple to be a testament to the Baha´i principle of the inherent nobility of the individual.
Sahba described visiting the worksite and being approached by a carpenter.
Under Indian custom, it is forbidden to accept money in order to build a religious temple, said the carpenter, who was paid $3 for every 12 hours of work.
The carpenter stressed that he needed his salary to feed his children, but that in return, he would work all the harder.
“What other than nobility would make someone come and say such a thing?” said Sahba.
The lotus structure itself would stand as the most potent symbol of the workers’ triumphs over insurmountable challenges. A member of the water lily family, the lotus is revered for its unique practice of growing slightly above the water.
Even though the lotus may grow among muddy water, it rises above the muck in order to blossom, said Sahba.
And blossom it did. When finally completed in 1986, the temple was a marvel of perfection. Not one air bubble, not one mistake and not one careless expectoration of paan had made its way into litre after litre of the snow-white concrete.
Constructed as a Baha´i temple, the Lotus Temple was designed to serve as a unifying place of worship for peoples of all faiths. Sahba and the other builders dreamed of a place of prayer and meditation for Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Baha´is alike.
Sahba takes pride that it is the one place in the world where a beggar will share the same bench as the President of India.
The dreams, devotion and work now stand as a shining white beacon to the central Baha´i tenets of unity and perfection.
Standing for 500 years more, the petals of Fariborz Sahba’s Lotus Temple reach upwards not for one man, one race, one caste, or even one religion.
“It is a building in the name of God.”