Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lotus Temple of New Delhi, India

The Lotus Temple located in New Delhi, India
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz ©2008
All Rights Reserved
Among the world's most ancient surviving civilizations is India. And as such contains some of the worlds most amazing structures devoted to worship. It is a land defined by both tremendous spirituality and an extraordinarily rich intellectual tradition. In the capitol city of New Delhi, as the sun rises, an amazing structure glistening white of marble can be seen from many directions. It was constructed in the shape of the most venerated and appreciated flower of India. It is the glorious Lotus Temple of the Bahá'í Faith. As dawn approaches it opens its doors allowing visitors to enter into a space of tranquility and peacefulness, much appreciated in the bustling city.  It is quiet, calm, and serene and its visitors indulge in its beauty and spiritual atmosphere.

The Lotus Flower
To appreciate the architectural grandness of the building, one must understand the importance and significance of the lotus flower. It is considered as one of the most ancient and deepest symbols of great beauty and purity. The flower grows in soft soil water and rises above the surface to bloom with remarkable beauty. Once it has glistened in the rays of the sun for the entire day, at night it closes its delicate petals and sinks underwater as if blanketing itself for the night's slumber. At dawn it rises from its water garden bed and opens again. Untouched by impurity, the lotus flower symbolizes the purity of heart, mind, and soul. It has long been regarded as the representative of long life, good health, honor and good fortune.

In many cultures, the lotus flower is considered a symbol of spiritual unfoldment. The Egyptians called it Sesen, and in their mythology it is the symbol of the sun, of creation and rebirth.

In the East, to the Tibetans it is considered sacred and represents their holy mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum, meaning, "Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus".

The Indian lotus flower symbolizes divinity, fertility, wealth, knowledge and enlightenment. In Hinduism, it is associated with the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi whom brings prosperity. She sits on a fully blossomed lotus flower. It is also revered and represented with Vishnu. Used as an example of divine beauty, Vishnu is described as the Lotus-Eyed One. It's unfolding petals suggest the expansion of the soul. Most deities of Asian religions are depicted as seated on a lotus flower. The white and pink lotuses are national flowers of India.

The Lotus Temple
Taking into consideration the cultural and spiritual beliefs of the lotus flower, the international Bahá'í Faith adopted this symbolism in the architectural design of The Lotus Temple in New Delhi, India. The magnificent structure is considered internationally as the Mother Temple of the Indian subcontinent.

It is located in the Kalkaji sector of the capital city, and its monumental structure can be appreciated from afar, given its large size and easily recognizable shape. The temple was carefully planned and designed to have the appearance of the revered lotus flower.

Since its completion in 1986, the temple has received recognition from all over the world. It is listed among the most visited monuments of India. The mastermind for building the beautiful and impressive temple of peace was the Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba from Canada.

The purpose and intention of the building of the temple was to provide a sacred place for people from all religions and faith, a space for meditation, worship, wisdom, peace and love.

The design is in the shape of a half open lotus flower with 27 freestanding petals constructed out of marble. The architect took into account the importance both culturally and spiritually of the flower and labored diligently with a team of 800 engineers, technicians, workers and artisans. It took ten years for completion of the temple. It is considered to be one of the most complex edifices of the world, integrating awe inspiring aesthetic and technological values.

Surrounding the beautiful structure are nine reflecting pools, representative of the flower growing from the water garden. Converting the geometry of the design that did not have any straight line to the actual structure needed a lot of effort and precise engineering.

There are nine doors all the way around that open to a central hall accommodating nearly 2500 people. It is about 40 meters high and it appears to be floating in water. Since its inception, it has been continually visited by people from many countries.

The Bahá'í Faith
Recognized as an independent world religion, the Bahá'í Faith, its leaders and followers are to be credited with ordering the glorious temple to be built. The religion has existed over 150 years and according to the Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook, it is the second most widely spread religion in the world, with five million members residing in 232 countries and dependent territories.

The Bahá'í Faith began in ancient Persia, now known as Iran. Its history is intimately connected with the lives of it's leading figures:

'Alí-Muhammad, Titled the Báb.
Born in southern Iran in 1819, in 1844 he announced that he was the promised one or Mahdi expected by Muslims. He wrote scriptures in which he promulgated a new calendar, new religious laws, and new social norms. Opposed by Iran's Muslim clergy and ultimately by its government, thousands of the Báb's followers were killed; in 1850 the Báb himself was put to death.

Mirzá Husayn 'Alí, Titled Bahá'u'lláh.
Born in northern Iran in 1817, Bahá'u'lláh became a follower of the Báb in 1844 and was imprisoned for his beliefs. In 1853 he had a vision that he was the divine teacher the Báb had promised; he publicly declared himself a messenger of God in 1863. He spent the rest of his life in exile and prison, where he wrote over 100 volumes of scripture.

'Abbas Effendi, Titled 'Abdu'l-Bahá.
Son of Bahá'u'llah, 'Abdu'l-Bahá was born in 1844 and accompanied his father on his exile to Palestine. Bahá'u'llah appointed 'Abdu'l-Bahá his successor, the exemplar of his teachings, and the interpreter of his revelation. Under 'Abdu'l-Bahá the Bahá'í Faith spread beyond the Middle East, India, Burma to Europe, the Americas, southern Africa, and Australia. He died in 1921.
Portrait of Abdu'l- Bahá
Central Baháí teachings are the "oneness of God," that there is only one God and that God is actively concerned about the development of humanity; the "oneness of religion," that God sends messengers such as Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, the Báb, and Bahá'u'lláh to humanity to educate it in morals and in social values; and the "oneness of humanity," that all humans come from the same stock and deserve equal opportunities and treatment.

The Bahá'í Temple in New Delhi, occupies a unique position. Not only does it embody the spiritual aspirations and basic beliefs of the world-wide Bahá'í community, but significantly in a land of myriad religions, it has begun to be seen as providing a unifying link, bringing divergent thoughts into harmony by virtue of its principle of oneness. This, perhaps, is the reason for its unabated popularity among its visitors.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Tortas - The Mexican Quintessential Sandwich

Torta al Pastor
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2011 All Rights Reserved
In Mexican gastronomy, a torta is a kind of grilled sandwich.  It is usually prepared with a telera roll, although depending on the region of the country, it is also prepared with other types of bread such as a bolillo, birote, micha, pambazo, etc.  The bread is split in half and filled with a kaleidescope of fillings that are limitless, then further grilled to a crunchy perfectness.  

It is a culinary "antojito", prepared street side on gourmet food carts or in establishments called "torterias".  Although for a Mexican, the torta is considered a street snack, don't confuse this with fast food.  It is far from that.  Epicureans consider it a gourmet feast as the ingredients are all fresh, grilled, and include all the exotic ingredients you can imagine. 

Like all mexican food, the torta has a unique history well described by "Tortologo" Roberto Ayala in his book: "El Gran Libro de las Tortas".   According to his findings, there is an account that dates back to the sixteenth century:

Leonardo Da Vinci
It happened one day that Leonardo Da Vinci wanted to surprise his guest and protector Ludovico Sforza with something to eat, but he did not have much to offer.  He improvised a quick delightful snack that consisted of placing a piece of bread between two hard pieces of meat as hard as cobblestones and covering the entire dish between two larger pieces of bread.   This could be considered the initial stages  of the torta, placing Leonardo Da Vinci in the culinary history books as its inventor. 

From then on people began placing ingredients between two pieces of bread to conceal what was inside, especially if the ingredients were not very impressive.  Eventually, the torta or sandwich has been prepared in some variation in many parts of the world.

Leonardo Da Vinci may have had the ingenious idea of putting a piece of meat between two buns, but who reinvented the torta and turned it into a popular and exotic dish were the Mexicans.  The torta is so important for Mexicans that an annual festival is organized in the esplanade of the delegation of Venustiano Carranza in Mexico City.  

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico in search of riches, they brought with them wheat, a Spanish staple and religious necessity, the only grain recognized by the Catholic church as being suitable for the Euacharist wafer.  One important way of colonizing and christianizing the natives, was to replace the native grains such as amaranth with wheat.  

Bread production began in Mexico with the new grain, but it wasn't until the arrival of the french colonizers in Puebla in the 1800's, that Mexican bakers soon developed a baking tradition unique in its own way, making it one of the most inventive in the world.  

From the Mexican and French marriage in Puebla, the telera was born.  It is highly prized for its flavor and crusty golden outer shell with which the tortas are made.  Even though Puebla may take the credit for introducing the torta,  it is Mexico City whom is the superstar for being the most inventive in making the most impressive tortas.  

Not only are the ingredients with which the tortas are filled raised to a higher level of cuisine, but their names are also the most ingenious reflecting the culture of Mexico and their love of humor.  

There are an endless array of tortas, but some are more famous than others.  The creativity of the Mexican does not have borders but it does contain a lot of humor:

"La Chancla" (flip flop), consists of shredded chicken cooked in "guajillo"  chiles and spices.  The telera roll is stuffed with the chicken filling and avocado slices.  Then it is topped with guajillo salsa.

"La Ahogada" which translates to the "drowned one", was invented in Guadalajara, Jalisco.  The torta is called that because it is submerged in a "chile de arbol" salsa.  A hard and crunchy birote roll, characteristic of the region, is filled with fried pork, then submerged in the spicy red liquid.  The consistency of the bread permits the torta to be submerged without crumbling or dissolving. 

"La Guajolota" the name given to a torta that consists of a telera roll stuffed with a tamal. (literally it translates to a large turkey hen).

"El Chavo" (the kid), a torta that is a favorite among children, but also made famous by the Mexican television farcical sitcom.  It consists of a telera or bolillo roll, ham, and avocado slices.   

"La Hawaiiana",  called that because it is filled with grilled pineapple and ham, then topped with asadero cheese.

"Lambada", aptly named after the famous brazilian dance craze.  It consists of grilled meat, chorizo, and asadero cheese.

"La Cubana", no translation needed, just about every ingredient you can name stuffed into the bread.  

Then there are the tortas named after certain places even though, they are all Mexican: "Michoacana, Española, Rusa, Alemana, Suiza, La China, etc"

But it does not stop there, in the "torterias", you will find yourself amused at all the humorous names: "La Gringa (the name given to a foreigner of English descent), Mariachi, La Tejana, La Negra, La Mora, La India, La Tortuga, Francis, La Torta Loca, La Macha, la Pobre, Cantinflas, Pachuqueña, La Arabe, La Milanesa, Al Pastor, La Capulina, La Barbi, etc..."

All tortas are usually served with lettuce and tomato, queso fresco, avocados, onions, fiery hot salsas, pickled jalapeños, and even crema.  But when you visit a torteria, no dictionary is needed, just bring a huge appetite. 

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