Monday, July 30, 2007

Houses of Worship

Churches, Mosques, Temples, Synagogues, Gurdwaras, and even outdoor circles have one thing in common: they offer a place where people may gather in peace and prayer to honor their Creator in the way they find most fitting for their population and culture.

British/Celtic – Druid Circles

Most people, when contemplating Druid Circles, think of Stonehenge. That may have been the biggest, but it is far from the only stone circle once used by Druids.

Here are photos of a Druid stone circle in Lancashire, "A very neat little ring of small, white stones, the tallest at the north being just over 1m high. There are no central structures within the circle but there is an outer concentric ring of stones that is mostly hidden by the bracken. These outer stones are smaller than the stones of the central circle.

"Although the stones are not large it is an excellent circle to visit with a pleasing 'fairy ring' type of appearance. A circle that is a long way in time and perhaps original purpose than the other, more well known, massive rings of the lake district.

"It also commands excellent views over Morecambe Bay."

Buddhist temples

You won't find regular daily prayers at Buddhist temples. Buddhist temples are places for personal devotion, ancestor worship, meditation, and offerings for the monks and for the Buddha. Individual devotion is so important to Buddhism, in fact, that Buddhists can construct shrines in their own homes. These shrines, like the great temples, help believers remember their ancestors and Buddhist scriptures.

Visit to a Tibetan Buddhist Temple

by MichaelJM on May 3, 2005

The Lama Temple is a massive site and requires determination to view all the buildings and a strong olfactory. Initially this was the residence of an influential official who became Emperor in 1723. In 1744 Yonghe Gong became a lamasery and is now the finest Tibetan Buddist Temple outside of Tibet. This is a working temple and the amount of incense in use is absolutely phenomenal. It is important that you respect the worshippers as they approach the different temples and give them “right of way”.

As we entered the complex, the drum tower and bell tower have pride of place, and there are three temples on the other compass points. There’s an interesting picture gallery of the Lama with a description about how he was called to his divine occupation at a very young age (less than 10). The description is a little hard to understand, but it’s worth sticking with. A lone tower houses a revered Bixi (mythical tortoise-like creature) and superb bronze lions look toward the entrance from the complex’s first temple building.

Moving through the complex, each courtyard had its own fire to enable the many worshippers to light their incense sticks. The protocol was fascinating--bless the incense in one of the side temples and then pray to the Buddha with the incense burning. The Buddhas in the Lama temple were amazing, but one in particular has figured in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest Buddha carved out of a single piece of wood. The 55-foot statue is made from sandalwood and is quite unique and so large that I assume the building was created around the Buddha. Whilst we were there, one of the many monks paraded around the temple chanting prayers as he went. The atmosphere in this temple was humbling, as pilgrims knelt before the statue and gazed in awe at its magnificence.

To the rear of the Buddha was a large-relief mini-sculpture depicting Tibetan country scenes with people engaged in “meaningful tasks”. It’s incredibly intricate but, amazingly, is not given a high profile. Indeed, many people who had not explored the temple in detail would have missed this masterpiece.

There was a great museum of religious artefacts with photographic and pictorial representations of all the Dali Lamas. A sombre life-size golden effigy looked down on us from a central stage, and high in the eaves sat a couple of elf-like figures, apparently looking out for the central figure.

Although we’d seen dozens of temples, we were thoroughly enchanted by this one. There is some amazing workmanship on show here, and the bright colours of the rooftops and decorated ceilings just scream for your attention. We saw Buddhas surrounded by lotus flowers, swathed in extravagant fabric, and dwarfed by fan-shaped costumes. There is simply loads to feast your eyes on and a constant reminder that this is a dynamic and active religious place. An uplifting experience, and surprises in every crevice of every building!


A church is an association of people who share a particular belief system. The term church originated from the pre-Christian Germanic kirika. The term later began to replace the Greek ekklesia and Basilicae within Christendom, c300 AD.

The Greek term ekklesia, which literally means a "convocation" or "called out assembly", was a governmental and political term, used to denote a national assembly, congregation, council of common objective (see Ecclesia (ancient Athens), Ecclesia (Church)) or a crowd of people who were assembled. It did not signify a "building".

The Christian use of this term has its direct antecedent in the Koine Greek translation of the Old Testament (see also Septuagint), where the noun ekklesia has been employed 96 times to denote the congregation of the Children of Israel, which Christians regard as a type of the "Body of Christ", as they also call the Christian Church of Christ.

Some minority traditions of Christianity have maintained that the word translated "church" in scripture most often properly refers to local bodies or assemblies. "Church" is a derivative of the Early Greek word "κυριακον", meaning Lord's house, which in English became "church". The Koine word for church is εκκλησία (ecclesia). Before Christian appropriation of the term, it was used to describe purposeful gatherings, including the assemblies of many Greek city states. Christians of this stripe maintain that a centralizing impulse in the church, present from the early days of the church through the rise of Constantine represented a departure from true Christianity. They therefore reject the authority of the Nicene Creed or the Apostles' Creed.

A common architecture for churches is the shape of a cross (a long central rectangle, with side rectangles, and a rectangle in front for the altar space or sanctuary). These churches also often have a dome or other large vaulted space in the interior to represent or draw attention to the heavens. Other common shapes for churches include a circle, to represent eternity, or an octagon or similar star shape, to represent the church's bringing light to the world. Another common feature is the spire, a tall tower on the "west" end of the church or over the crossing.

Daoist Temples

Instead of locating a description of a Daoist Temple, I will let you take a tour of one!

[I had the great honor and privilege to visit The Temple Among the Trees Beneath the Clouds in 2005 in Weaverville, California. ~M~]

"The Weaverville Joss House, a Taoist Temple of Worship, is now a state park and is the oldest still-in-use Chinese Temple in California. The adjoining priest's quarters and community meeting room was also a combination social hall, fraternity house and travelers' hotel, and served as a home for the priest and his family." Even though it is a state park, it is still in use as a Daoist temple, that being one of the stipulations of selling the property to the state in 1956, that the local Daoist community be allowed to use the temple for spiritual ceremony and ritual. The day that I visited, in front of the main altar, there was a special smaller altar for the recently deceased father of a member of the community.

A fellow named Don Smith visited the Joss House in 1969 and took many wonderful pictures. Having visited just a few years ago, I can attest to the timelessness of Mr. Smith's photos! Please visit his website to view the photos of The Temple Among the Trees Beneath the Clouds at

Synagogues: Jewish houses of prayer

A Jewish house of prayer, study, and gathering has many names: beit kenesset, shule, kehilat kodesh, Temple, Congregation, Jewish center, and more. The Greek word synagogue is the most generic; it's also the one most people are likely to recognize.

The synagogue is a place of study (beit midrash), a house of gathering (beit kenesset), and a house of prayer (beit tefilah). The most important thing in a synagogue is the ark (aron hakosh), a container or cabinet that contains the Torah scroll:

  • The ark represents the Holy of Holies (originally, the inner sanctum of Solomon's Temple that contained the original tablets holding the Ten Commandments). As such, it's the most sacred place in a synagogue and the focal point of prayer.
  • The ark has doors as well as an inner curtain, called a parokhet. This curtain is named after and modeled from the curtain in the sanctuary in the first temple in Jerusalem.

During certain prayers, the doors and/or curtain of the ark may be opened or closed. Typically, a member of the synagogue opens and closes the doors (or pulls the curtain); being the person to do this is considered an honor.

  • The ark also has an eternal light (ner tamid) that symbolizes the eternal flame that once burned on the Temple Mount.
  • In most synagogues, the ark has a raised area in front of it called a bima. In orthodox synagogues, the bima is often in the middle of the congregation. This is where the Torah is read on Mondays, Thursdays, and on the Sabbath. In other synagogues, the bima is up front.
  • Synagogues try to put the ark on the wall that faces Jerusalem so that worshippers face Jerusalem during prayer. If the synagogue can't be arranged that way, worshippers face the ark.
In synagogues, you won't find exact representations of any of the holy objects that were once in the Temple (it's forbidden). For example, if a synagogue has a menorah (a candelabrum), it can't be seven-branched like the menorah in the Temple at Jerusalem.

Muslim Mosques: Places of ritual prostration

The word mosque comes from the Arabic masjid, which means a place of ritual prostration, and that, in a nutshell is what a mosque is. Although mosques, since Muhammad's time, have served various functions — political social, and educational, as well as religious — the main function of a mosque is as a place devoted to the praise and worship of Allah.

A mosque is any place devoted to prayer. It could be a house, a community building, or an open area of ground that was marked off as sacred. In fact, the early mosques were based on the place where Muhammad worshipped: the courtyard of his house. The builders kept the basic design — open space — and added a roof.

Many mosques have domed roofs, atop of which is the symbol of Islam: a star cradled by a crescent moon.

  • The star has five points, reminding Muslims of the five obligations of Islam.
  • The crescent moon reminds Muslims of Allah the Creator and the lunar calendar that marks Islamic holy days.

Attached to many mosques in Muslim countries is a tower, called a minaret, where the muezzin (or crier) calls people to prayer. Most mosques also have an ablutions room, a place where the faithful can perform the ritual washing before prayer.

When you enter a mosque, you may notice the following:

  • Mosques don't have furniture. Everyone sits on the floor, not in pews or chairs.
  • In larger mosques, the carpeting often has a design that marks out the prayer lines so that people know where to sit to leave enough room for someone else.
  • The wall that faces Mecca (and the wall Muslims face when they pray) is called the qiblah. Set in this wall is a niche or an alcove, called a mihrab that points in the direction of Mecca. The mihrab is not an altar (even though it kind of looks like one). Its function is to direct Muslims' minds and thoughts toward God.
  • To the right of the arch is a raised platform called the minbar. Similar to a pulpit, this is where the imam reads the prayers and gives sermons.
  • Mosques don't have statues or pictures. You won't find images of God, Muhammad, or any of the prophets, for example. Instead, you'll find beautiful calligraphy of verses from the Qur'an.

Ablution facilities

As ritual purification precedes all prayers, mosques often have ablution fountains or other facilities for washing in their entryways or courtyards. However, worshippers at much smaller mosques often have to use restrooms to perform their ablutions. In traditional mosques, this function is often elaborated into a freestanding building in the center of a courtyard. This desire for cleanliness extends to the prayer halls where shoes are disallowed to be worn anywhere other than the cloakroom. Thus, foyers with shelves to put shoes and racks to hold coats are commonplace among mosques.

Sikh Gurdwara

[I had the honor of attending the opening of a Sikh Temple in Anderson, California in April 2007. It was a marvelous experience, and I met many wonderful people who were full of warmth and hospitality. ~M~]

A Gurdwara, meaning "the doorway to the Guru", is the Sikh place of worship and may be referred to as a Sikh temple. The most famous and the holiest gurdwara is the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar, in northern India.


The Guru Granth Sahib is housed in the main hall known as the Darbar hall. In most modern gurdwaras, the hall is large and will house many hundreds of visitors.

Most Sikh temple buildings will have the following important features:

  • 1. A triangular orange flag with a Khanda, a Sikh emblem in the middle of the flag. The flag is referred to as a Nishan Sahib - literally meaning Mark or Symbol.
  • 2. Langar Hall is a large dining room where communal meals are served. Some temples may have tables and chairs but most will expect the devotees to sit on the carpeted floor.
  • 3. Darbar Sahib - A hall which houses the SGGS, the Sikh holy book. This hall in most modern temples is large and will house many hundreds of visitors. Devotees will sit cross-legged on the carpeted floor. All those who enter the Darbar Sahib must remove their shoes and cover their heads before entering. The devotees normally on entering this hall will walk slowly and respectfully to the dominant throne on which is placed the SGGS. They then stand before the Holy Scriptures, say silent prayers, offer some coins and then bow humbly before the SGGS. The Sikhs treat their holy Book like a living Teacher or Guru. This act of respect is not to be taken as an act of worship as Sikhs are only allowed to worship the One God, who they call Waheguru.
  • 4. Night Room for the SGGS: A room where the Sikh Holy Book is placed overnight. This room is sometimes called "SachKhand" (which translates to True/Pure Domain/Paradise).
  • 5. Various utility rooms, washrooms, kitchen, etc. Some of the larger Sikh temples may also have bedrooms for the devotees to stay overnight with bathroom facilities.

The Sikhs treat their Holy Scriptures like a living teacher or guru. This act of respect is not to be taken as an act of worship as Sikhs are only allowed to worship the One Creator, for which the word in Punjabi is Waheguru. At night, the Guru Granth Sahib is placed in a resting room known as the Sach Khand (which translates to True/Pure Domain/Paradise).

Customs and etiquette

Devotees will sit cross-legged on the floor. All those who enter the hall must remove their shoes and cover their heads before entering. On entering the hall, devotees walk slowly and respectfully to the main throne on which the Guru Granth Sahib rests. Devotees then stand before the Holy Scriptures, often say a silent prayer, offer a donation (if able), then bow humbly. These manners and practices, though seemingly ritualistic in modern times are actually a well preserved extension of the ancient Punjabi practice of respect (for elders, ruling or religious persons).

If you have not previously visited a Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, below is a brief guidance for all first time visitors:

All visitors to a Sikh Gurdwara should be aware of the following guidelines when visiting:

  • Please dress appropriately so that you can comfortably and with decency sit on the carpeted floor. It is recommended to wear loose fitting clothing which covers most of your legs to reduce distraction and thoughts of lust and kaam.
  • While entering the main Prayer Hall (Darbar Sahib or Darbar Hall), all visitors will have to remove their shoes and place them in the shoe racks provided, for which a token will be issued depending on which gurdwara you visit.
  • Visitors cannot enter the Gurdwara while under the influence of Alcohol or Drugs. You should not take cigarettes or tobacco or smoke while in the Gurdwara or soon before going into the Gurdwara.
  • All visitors will need to cover their heads while in the Darbar Hall and Dining Hall (Langar Hall) inside the Gurdwara.

Head covering for men/boys will normally be available in the Gurdwara but a knotted handkerchief is acceptable. (The Gurdwara may provide handkerchief sized cloth to cover the head). Ofgvhcfdfggther hats (eg baseball-style caps) are not appropriate.

Women/Girls will need to wear a headscarf or such head covering but they can also wear a knotted handkerchief. The Gurdwara usually has a box of scarves, but you should bring your own headscarf for this purpose.

  • On first entering the large prayer room (called the Darbar Sahib), a small bow to the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy book) shows respect to the 'Guru'. It is normal to sit cross-legged in a yoga style. It is recommended to practice this at home if possible before your trip to the Gurdwara.
  • Visitors will be offered Kara Parshad (sweet flour and oil based food offered as prashad) in the worship hall, which is usually given into the cupped hands of a visitor. If you are uncertain about your ability to eat a lot of this prashad – Say "thoda" “very small portion” to the Sewadar (volunteer) serving the Kara Parshad. You should take a small plastic bag (or ask for one from the Sewadar serving the Kara Parshad) to save your Kara Parshad for consumption later.
  • You may be offered Langar (vegetarian food from the communal kitchen). If not too certain about consuming this food you can ask to be excused although most people should take langar as it is regarded as a blessing by the Guru. When in the Langar Hall, it is better to ask for less rather than take too much and waste the food. Say “very little” to the Sewadar serving the Langar. If you require more later, just wait for the Sewadar to come around.
Also within the Gurdwara is a learning center for Sikhs to learn more about their religion, as well as a library.


meninweb said...

Hi..This is a wonderful information especially need attention to this matter in the entire world. All kind of religions should totally respect each other. (of course, exceptions are there all over the world). Are you doing any research on this ??
You have a broad mind, else you can not do it."

Michelle said...

Hi Cipson,

Thanks for leaving a comment. You have a nice website, too.

I believe it is very important that people of all religions honor and respect each other. We need to come together in peace and friendship not war and hatred.

I do enjoy studying the beliefs of all religions, too. Every time I do, I find more information that shows me how most of them hold similar ideas and values.

Also, yes, I do research when I write each article. I choose a topic and then see what I can find that shows the similarity in many religions.

If people of many religions can see and understand that religious beliefs from many traditions are more similar than they are different, perhaps we can eliminate the need to fight and go to war over them.