The Classic India series portrays the panorama of India's cultural heritage. For centuries India was perceived as the land of fabulous riches, of wisdom, of mystique and romance. It is this magic that the series captures. It provides a window to one of the world's most ancient civilizations - anachronistic at times but most often vibrant and alive today. A collector's item, each book in this series is a visual delight.
For thousands of Amritsar's inhabitants, the day begins at dawn, with a visit to the Golden Temple, a tradition that has not changed for centuries. This holiest of holy Sikh shrines was built in the sixteenth century though it acquired its name much later, after its dome was plated with gold leaf. It has survived a turbulent history to remain the most powerful symbol of the Sikh faith.
The creator of Sikhism, the first Sikh Guru, was a gentle saint called Nanak, a contem- porary of Babur, founder of the Mughal empire. His teach- ings, consisting of more than 900 hymns, form a part of the Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs that is the object of worship at the Golden Temple.
It was the third Sikh Guru, Amar Das, who took the first steps to found the shrine. Some accounts hold that he was drawn by the tranquillity of a small pool set amidst forested terrain, where the Golden Temple was ultimately built. The waters of the pool have been credited with miraculous powers of healing.
Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru, undertook the building of a centre of pilgrimage at the site of this pool. It is believed that the benevolent Mughal emperor, Akbar, convinced that the new Sikh religion was not subversive of Islamic ide- als, had offered the land as a gift, but Ram Das had declined the offer in keeping with the Sikh tradition of self reliance. According to other accounts, Ram Das bought the land on the payment of seven hundred rupees, from zamindars of Tung village.
Arjan Deu, the fifth Guru, made the obscure hamlet that was to become Amriisar, a great place of pilgrimage. He built a small structure in burnt brick and lime in the centre of theAmrit Sarooartpoolcfnec- tar) and a causeway over the water to reach it. This was to be the Harmandir, the temple of God. Arjan Dev' s object in constructing the temple in the midst of the Amrit Sarouar was to combine the spiritual and temporal realms of hu- man existence.
He invited a Sufi saint of Lahore, Mian Mir, to lay the foundation. Instead of building the shrine on a high plinth, as was the Hindu custom, he had it built on a level lower than the surrounding land, in keeping with the Sikh spirit ofhumility. And unlike Hindu temples, the Harmandir was opened on allfour sides, signi- fying that all four varnas (castes) were welcome. Along the four sides of the pool the ground was levelled for the parikrama (paved passage- way).
The participation of the Sikh community in building the Harmandir took two forms: sewa (voluntary labour) at the site, or daswandh (dona- tion ofa tenth of their income) in the name of the Guru. Both these practices have endured since. After the temple was constructed, the pilgrimage site was given the name Amritsar, derived from amrit and sarovar. It has been since, to the Sikhs, what Benares is to the Hindus and Mecca to the Muslims, their most im- portant place of pilgrimage.
Arjan Oev next arranged the various writings ofhis pre- decessors. He added to them the compositions of religious reformers, scholars and saints of the preceding centuries in- cluding Kabir, Namdev, Kalidas and Sheikh Farid. This was called the Adi Granth, or the Original Book, and con- sisted of 1,948 pages, with more than 7,000 hymns. It was written in a powerful style, was simple and eclectic, and found ready acceptance among the masses. Thehymns were arranged according to the ragas or measures of In- dian classical music as they were meant to be sung. The Adi Granth was installed in the Harmandir in August 1604.
The sixth Guru, Hargobind, built the Akal Takht (the throne of the Time- less God) across the Harmandir which he declared to be the seat of temporal au- thority. While ensuring that the supremacy of the Harmandir, an expression of spiritual grace, would be un- affected by worldly concerns, he acknowledged the impor- tance of the latter in the scheme of things. The Sikhs were thus introduced to the concept of religion-based politics.
Initially, little notice was taken of the changes in the complexion of the Sikh organisation. But when the numbers of the Guru's armed bands increased, local officials began sending reports to the Emperor jahangir. The Guru was imprisoned in the fort of Gwalior on the pretext that he was unable to pay a fine of rupees of one lakh that had been imposed on his father. He was released a year later and his return was celebrated with great rejoicing at the Harmandir, a tradition that has continued since.
The increasing strength of the Sikh community was seen by the Mughals as a threat and a turbulent relationship between the two continued for several years. This was fol- lowed by a series of invasions by the Afghan, Ahmed Shah Abdali. During this period the shrine was attacked repeat- edly. The fortunes of the Sikhs remained at a low ebb. The community was persecuted and to come to Amritsar for a holy dip was like wooing death. It was only in the nineteenth century, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh came to power, that the Harmandir took its present form.
Priceless gifts presented by Ranjit Singh-including a canopy embedded with twenty pounds of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls; a bejewelled headband; a gold sword studded with jewels and pearls; golden portals with flo- ral designs-are now stored in the Toshakhana (treasure house) above the Darshini Deori and are displayed on festive occasions.
The architecture of the Golden Temple is a happy blend of Hindu and Muslim styles. Three walls of the Harmandir are plated with gold provided by the Maha- raja. The lower storeys have marble panels, many of which were also provided by the Ma- haraja, and are inlaid with onyx, mother-of-pearl, and other semi-precious and colouredsiones, ina variety of designs and motifs. The finest artists were employed for naqqashi (fresco painting), and that their work has sur- vived more than 150 years is testimony to their skills. 300 patterns adorn the walls of the Harmandir. The murals were made bypainters of the Kangra school of art. One such minia- ture, commissioned by Ranjit Singh, shows Guru Gobind Singh on horseback with a reti- nue of attendants.
There are two storeys above the ground floor of the Harmandir. In the interior, on the ground floor, is the Guru Granth Sahib, placed under a decorated' canopy studded with jewels. On the first floor is the Sheesh Mahal, the hall of mirrors. Barely twenty square feet, its ceiling is inlaid with small pieces of reflecting glass, and its walls are richly embellished with paintings, inlay and mirror work. Above rises the golden dome of the Harmandir. The upper storeys are surfaced with copper panels gilded with gold. Above the gilded walls rise dozens oflarge and small domes and kiosks, reflected in the water below.
With Ranjit Singh 's death and the defeat of theSikhforces in the two Anglo-Sikh wars, Sikh sovereignty was de- stroyed and the Sikh kingdom became a part of Brit ish India. The massacre at Jallianwalla Bagh in 1919 had a profound effect on the Sikh psyche, and brought home to them the need to free their gurudwaras from official control. In the ensuing years the Harmandir and the Akal Takht became major cen- tres of Sikh political activity.
Notwithstanding the tur- moil of political strife in the Punjab, the devout continue to throng the Golden Temple which remains the fountain- head of spiritual inspiration, the symbol of a living faith as it has been for 400 years.
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