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Gur Panth Parkash

Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Translated by
Prof Kulwant Singh



The Architecture of Golden Temple

Dr S S Bhatti

The International TV Channel “DISCOVERY” posed a questionnaire on the structural concept and the Design of Sri Harimandir Sahib, Amritsar.  Dr S S Bhatti, former Principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture has provided vital information.– Editor

Help us trace the chronology of events in the construction of the Golden Temple: foundation, landmark moments, milestones in building & inception of the Guru Granth Sahib in the Sri Darbar Sahib, etc.

  1.   It took five years to complete the compilation of the Adi Granth, and it was installed in Sri Harmandar Sahib (which means The Adorable Abode of Lord God), popularly known as the Golden Temple, on September 1, 1604, with Baba Buddha as the first Granthi, or head priest.

2.   The foundation of Sri Harmandar Sahib was laid by Hazrat Mian Mir, a Muslim Sufi Saint.

3.   Sri Harmandar Sahib was built between 1588 and 1604.
4.   Afghan invader Ahmed Shah Abdali demolished the shrine seven times.
5.   The last demolition took place in 1764.

6.   The story of the Amritsar from its foundation in late-16th century until the establishment of the Sikh Rule (1802-1849) is the story of its foundation and survival.

7.   Amritsar is the Vatican City of the Sikh Faith.

8.   The excavation for the construction of the Amrit Sarovar began on 06 November 1573 and was completed in 1577.

9.   The original kuchcha pond was turned into a masonry structure in 1584.

10. Kar Seva [voluntary labour as community service] is a unique feature of the Sikh Faith.

11. The Amrit Sarovar was desilted by Kar Seva in 1923, 1973, and 2004.
Salient Features of Amrit Sarovar

a.   The bottom of Amrit Sarovar being kuchcha, it is anatural reservoir which contains sulphuric potentialities on the side of the Dukh Bhanjani Beri [Jujube tree]. The growth of underwater green plants, bacteria and fungi is thus prevented. Other tanks are: Ramsar, Bibeksar, Kaulsar, and Santokhsar.

b.   The material used for the lining of the retaining-walls of the tank is claimed to be weed-resistant.

c.   Fresh water from Haansali (aqueduct) taken out of Ravi river contains minerals and chemicals which afford good protection against germs.

d.   Varied Fish species preserved in the tank consume algae and other micro-organisms and keep its water clean.

e.   In the earlier stages of its life, the tank used to be filled with rainwater only. The tank would dry up during winter and summer if the rainfall was inadequate. The tank became almost dry in 1783 AD.

f.   During the British regime, the Haansali was connected with Upper Bari Doab canal. Since 1866 water-supply had been taken from a canal out of Jethuwal distributory of UBD. This aqueduct was made pucca in 1919.

g.   The substructure of the Holy Shrine as well as the Causeway that connects it with Darshani Deorhi has been built of numerous vaulted tunnels, with the inner aqueducts being lower than the outer ones. This network of ingeniously-designed tunnels facilitates easy and free flow of the Amrit Sarovar water. The water-thrust on the substructure is thus minimised making it considerably more durable.

h.   It is hard to figure out how the masons accomplished this task because no research has been done on this aspect so far, but it true nevertheless that the superstructure of the Holy Shrine is absolutely free from the problem of dampness.

What are the various design styles that have been used in the construction of the gurudwara? What are the main influences from the styles of other religions?

1.   There is only one design style, and that is Sikh Architecture.
2.   There are no influences from the styles of other religions.
3.   The concept and design of Sri Harmandar Sahib is not a routine architectural creation. Neither is it a derivative nor a synthesis of Hindu and Mughal styles of architecture as has hitherto been erroneously believed by all scholars and historians, big and small.

4.   Sri Harmandar Sahib is a Marvel of Sikh Architecture.
5.   The source of its concept and design lies in the sacred scripture, the Bani of Guru Nanak Dev, who founded the Sikh Faith as a Religion of Revelation [Ilhaam].

6.   The precursor of Sri Harmandar Sahib is Dharamsaal [literally, the Resort of Righteousness] that was developed as a community halting-place for pilgrims of the Sikh Faith. Earlier, such structures were called Ramsaals.

7.   The present design of Sri Harmandar Sahib has been in place since 1764. The causeway and Darshani Deorhi [glimpse-catching gateway] were completed in 1776. The greater part of the Holy Shrine’s decoration was added in the early years of the nineteenth century as an historic contribution of Maharaja Ranjit Singh who got the shrine copper-gilded. This distinguished feature has made Sri Harmandar Sahib known throughout the world as ‘Golden Temple’. The design of the Holy Shrine has remained by and large unchanged ever since.

8.   For my third PhD titled “SRI HARMANDAR SAHIB: A Study of Architecture, Engineering, and Aesthetics”, which I did from the Panjab University in 2008, I studied Places of Worship of major World Religions spanning over 46 centuries.

9.   Since Guru Arjan Dev was designing Sri Harmandar Sahib himself he derived the concept of the design for the Holy shrine from Gurbani. With his sole excepion, in no other Place of Worship in the world had any architect drawn his inspiration from the sacred scripture of the religion he was designing the Place of Worship for. However, there is a cursory mention by Antonio Gaudi, the architect of Sagrada Familia, that his design of the stated church in Spain is his humble offering to Lord God.

10. I have thus established through an illustrated analysis and the comparative method how Sikh Architecture is an independent historical style of architecture in the same sense as people recognise other architectural styles like Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.

Building Design has Three Basic Elements – Space, Structure, and Form:
  a.   According to the convention of architectural drafting, Space is delineated in Plan; Structure in Section; and Form in Elevation. Accordingly, Space produces Architecture; Structure develops from Engineering; and Form expresses Aesthetics.

  b.   Architecture springs from a distinct concept of ‘Space’ dictated by the unique requirements of a given Place of Worship, and is Community-specific by virtue of its view of Godhood. ‘Structure’ produced by Engineering is universal because it is based on scientific principles, and is thus exempt from the polemic subjectivity of artistic creation. ‘Form’ is the enclosing and roofing element, and springs from a community’s notions of beauty.

  c.   Thus, Architecture is the ‘Soul’; Structure, the ‘Skeleton’; and Form, the finished ‘Body’ of Building Design.

How places of worship of other Religions are Differently Designed?
  a.   Architecture of a Hindu temple is dictated by the analogy of the female anatomy, whereby its sanctum sanctorum is appropriately called the garbha-griha or the womb-room  in which the idol of the presiding deity is installed.

  b.   A Buddhist stupa is an earth-mound “where all the Buddhas [and their relics] are abiding. Those beings who don’t have the karma actually to see Buddha need the holy objects of body, speech and mind: statues, scriptures, stupas—as a field for accumulating merit.”

  c.   A Christian church is modelled on a typical basilica, which was a Roman court. Its plan is either a Greek Cross or a Latin Cross. In the former, the intersecting shapes are of equal length whereas in the latter the vertical side is longer than the horizontal.

  d.   An Islamic mosque is developed on the design of courtyard of residence of Prophet Muhammed, the founder of Islam.

  e.   The church and the mosque are designed for collective worship, but a traditional mandir [Hindu temple] admits only individuals to pay their obeisance. In all the three Places of Worship the sanctum sanctorum is located towards the end.

The orientation of places of worship distinguishes one building-type from one another associated with different religions.

  1.   Church: Since the earliest period, the custom of locating the apse and altar in the eastern extremity of the church was the rule.

  2.   Mosque: The direction, qibla, of the Mecca, meaning the area that surrounded the Ka’ba, is indicated by the mihrab, a niche in the wall. Next to the mihrab is placed the mimbar, a pulpit from which the Friday prayer is held. So wherever a mosque is built the mihrab must be towards the Mecca. In India, it is towards the west.

  3.   Hindu Temple must face the rising sun.

  4.   In a stupa the devotees do not enter the structure. They circumambulate round it following the sun-path. The stupa has become a strong symbolic form to be revered so much so that in Rock temples its replica is placed in their interiors invariably

Several design details in the building symbolize spiritual principles contained in Sikhism – e.g.: the main entrance symbolizing humility, the 4 entry points symbolizing the secular nature of Guru Nanak’s teachings, the centrality of Sri Darbar Sahib where the Guru Granth Sahib is kept etc. Please elaborate and explain other such elements.

1. Guru Nanak Dev, who founded the Sikh Faith on his Revelation [Ilhaam], made Humility the cardinal principle of the new religion. Architecturally, this is expressed by the elliptical dome that crowns the sanctum sanctorum. This dome-shape is unusual because the dome in Mughal architecture is onion-shaped, and is raised on supporting structure called the drum so that it can be easily seen without interruption. A Buddhist stupa is a hemisphere. A Hindu temple has a shikhara, not a dome. A Christian church has a spire, a tall slender architectural structure tapering to a point.

2.   The tenet of Humility is expressed also in the modest scale of the Holy Shrine. It gains an added significance when seen in the light of the prescriptions in the Shilpa Shastra (ancient Hindu treatises on architecture). “In the Shilpa Shastras, the social stratification and the sense of belonging to a class of people are not only reflected in the plan but also in the vertical section. Thus the kings were supposed to have buildings of the ground floor and seven and a half storeys; Brahmins, the ground plus six and a half floors; the Kshatriyas ground plus five and a half floors; and the Shudras the ground plus two and a half.” However, Sri Harmandar Sahib has ground plus one-and-half floors—a size smaller than even the one prescribed for the lowest class of the Shudras: two-and-a-half floor structure. Thus, the physical built-Form of the Abode of The Formless One (Nirankaar) is closer to that of the Shudras’ and very distant from a temporal king’s.

3.   This point too is crucial in understanding the significance of Humility as the Cardinal Principle of The Sikh Faith.

4.   The four entrance doors express the plain truth that God dwells everywhere, in all directions, and at all times—far beyond its secular symbolism.

5.   This fact is underscored by the orientation of the Holy Shrine, which faces west unlike a mandir or a mosque.

  6.   This distinguishing architectural feature also points to the respect that the Gurus gave to Ecology of the place. Ecology, in my view, is the pious personality of Great Mother Earth [the Gurus called Mata Dhart Mahat].
  7.   Dukh Bhanjani Beri marks the original eastern extremity of the pond that existed there, and required that the Amrit Sarovar be created towards the western side.

  8.   Also, since the pond was a starting point environmental planning, the low-lying site was not materially altered, and Sri Harmandar Sahib was built on an extremely low plinth in sharp contrast to the high-elevation base of a Hindu temple, or an Islamic mosque, or other Places of Worship.

  9.   The central place where Sri Guru Granth Sahib resides is about 15-foot square, and the total size of this part of the building on the outside is 40-foot square.

10.  Humility as spiritual grandeur is exalted manifold when one sees the soul-stirring shimmer of reflections of Sri Harmandar Sahib in the Amrit Sarovar which is a near-square of about 500-foot side. It is surrounded by 60-foot-wide parkarma or circumambulatory of which 10-feet-wide space is covered for use in inclement weather.
11.  An aerial view of the sacred precincts reveals that the Holy Shrine is comparatively very small with respect to the total expanse of the precincts, and its smallness is further minified by its shimmering reflection. This is the most beautiful architectural way of underscoring the primacy of Spirit over Body and Mind, which experience is available only to an individual steeped in Humility as God’s most magnificent endowment!

What are the key zones or areas in the layout of the premises that need to be highlighted in our film? What is their significance?

  1.   Akal Takht is a key area in the layout of the premises, and has come to stay as an integral part of the design of Sri Harmandar Sahib, representing as it does the Temporal aspect of human life. This unique tenet of the Sikh Faith makes it a life-affirming religion exhorting all Sikhs to pursue Spirituality as householders in the thick of workaday existence by following the three-pronged formula: Kirat Karo [honest livelihood]; Vand Chhako [sharing with the under-privileged], and Naam Japo [Contemplation of the Holy Name].

  2.   A noteworthy feature of the layout plan is that Sri Harmandar Sahib is visible from the Akal Takht, but the Akal Takht cannot be seen from Sri Harmandar Sahib. Between the two, Darshani Deorhi [gateway from which glimpse of the Holy Shrine can be had] is the intervening structure, which marks the crucial point where you leave the Temporal world of materiality behind to enter the Universe of Spirit that Guru Nanak Dev tersely named Sach Khand, the Realm of Truth.

  3.   Dukh Bhanjani Beri is very important historically, for it is the sine qua non of the environmental planning and architectural design of the sacred premises.

  4.   Ber Baba Buddha is the historic spot from where Baba Buddha directed and supervised the construction of the complex.

Sri Darbar Sahib: Gives us an idea of the various embellishments within the sanctum sanctorum: the carvings inlay work, gold leaf plating, golden canopy etc.

  1.   Various embellishments include fresco paintings, repousse work, inlay-designs, etc. Although fresco paintings are an adaptation of the Hindu, the Persian, and Mughal motifs yet their distinctive setting and combination of plants, flowers, leaves, human figures, birds and animals bear the impress of originality. Coloured stones, bright colours, and cut-glass have frequently been used. The contribution of Sri Harmandar Sahib to the art of fresco painting lies in the preservation of the native tradition and is an extension of the art of the Kangra and allied schools.

  2.   Limestone work has also been done with pieces of glass and mirror set therein, and painted in golden and other colours afterwards.

  3.   Inlay work [jaratkaari] in white marble has been done using semi-precious coloured stones of different colours, with motifs of plants, flowers, leaves, etc. Apparently, they resemble the Persian tradition of such art of embellishment but a careful look reveals major differences. Islam forbids the use of natural elements and thus Persian designs are always geometrical, but in the case of Sri Harmandar Sahib natural elements have been used in utter profusion.

  4.   Repousse work involves the beating of sheet-metal into relief so that the resulting art-form assumes the third dimension. When it is copper-gilded, as in the case of Sri Harmandar Sahib, it becomes a thing of beauty which is a joy for ever! 

  5.   Jaratkaari work on the ceiling has been done with mirrors of various shapes and sizes set in plaster of Paris.

  6.   The embellishments on the interiors, including every nook and corner, and jambs of doors and windows, cills, lintel-soffits, ceiling, etc, have been done more profusely and exquisitely than on the exterior walls and panels. In this preferential treatment of decorative work lies the subtle suggestion that the inner life of the Spirit is infinitely richer than the misleading allurements of material existence of the world of forms and colours which lie outside the human body.

  7.   This interpretation finds support from the fact that the Parkash Asthan, where Sri Guru Granth Sahib is installed, has been expressed as an architectural volume with an upward thrust of Space that shoots up across the mezzanine floor towards the ceiling of the sanctum sanctorum. This distinction, which goes unnoticed by the untrained eyes, points to the exhilarating upliftment that one experiences by listening to the soulful melodies of Shabad Kirtan.

What are the major renovations and reconstructions that have happened on the Golden Temple from its inception till date?

  1.   Major renovations were carried out during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s reign [1802-1849]. He got the shrine’s upper storey copper-gilded, and introduced exquisite interior embellishments of the Holy Shrine.

  2.   A major reconstruction took place when Akal Takht, the Seat of Temporal Power in the Sikh Faith, was destroyed by the infamous Operation Blue Star in 1984, and had to be built again.

What space does Sri Harmandar Sahib occupy in the Sikh psyche & on the Sikh landscape?

  1.   Sri Harmandar Sahib does not occupy space in the Sikh psyche. It is the Sikh psyche itself – always in charhdi kala, spirits in progressive ascendance.

  2.   The Sikh landscape is a many-splendoured psycho-emotional extension of Sri Harmandar Sahib into the ever-active arena of workaday existence in which a Sikh unrelentingly wages a never-ending war against injustice on the dictates of the Cosmic Moral Law called Dharma.

  3.   Since Humility is an unconditional surrender to the Divine Edict-Fiat [Hukam], a Sikh is constantly engaged in socially-beneficent activities in creative partnership with Wah-e-Guru [The Wondrous Lord] in fulfilment of His inscrutable Will [Reza].


ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2011, All rights reserved.