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Dharamsala : An Early Sikh Religious Centre

Balwant Singh Dhillon

The institution of the gurdwara has always been the main source of socio-religious and political way of life of the Sikhs. Even a cursory glance at the early history of the Sikh Panth shows that the Sikh religious establishment, called the gurdwara, gradually evolved from its earlier counterpart known as dharamsala. Early Sikh sources are replete with accounts that the dharamsala stood at the very centre of the community life of the early Sikhs. Moreover, historical experience of the community confirms that it proved to be such a perfect precursor to the gurdwara and so easily slipped into its role that transition from dharamsala to gurdwara is hardly noticeable in Sikh literature. Hence, the study of the institution of dharamsala, its origin and functioning with reference to its role in early Sikh history has become imperative for better understanding of gurdwara and its legislation. This may help us to solve the contentious issues concerning gurdwara management. The results obtained can also lead us to find ways to revitalise the role of the gurdwara in the modern times.

Genesis and Growth
Theologically speaking, for a Sikh the whole of this earth is veritably a dharamsala — a place to practise dharma. However, the origin of dharamsala where the early Sikhs used to meet for worship and devotion, can be traced back to the times of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. A cursory glance at the Sikh sources reveals that during the itineraries of Guru Nanak, quite a few people felt attracted to his faith. Wherever Guru Nanak found his disciples, he not only organised them into congregational circles (sangats), but motivated them also to build a religious centre — the dharamsala. Obviously, the dharamsala presupposes a Sikh sangat which was in fact a pre-requisite for its emergence at a particular place. We come across instances in Sikh history where neophyte Sikhs took upon themselves to found the dharamsala, so that mission of the great Guru could be carried on. Bhai Gurdas remarks about its origin :

“Wherever Guru Nanak visited, that place became a place of worship. The most important centres including those of the jogis visited by the Guru became spiritual centres. Even houses have been turned into dharamsalas where kirtan was sung on the eve of Vaisakhi.”

After his sojourn to different lands and people, Guru Nanak settled at Kartarpur (now in Pakistan) where people from different walks of life belonging to different denominations, coming from far and wide, gathered around him to hear his sermon. Subsequently, he founded a religious centre known as dharamsala which became a nucleus of his ministry. Evidently, the origin of the dharamsala is not obscure, but a well-known fact of Sikh history.

The Sikh sources confirm that the dharamsalas initially came into being at the instance of the Sikh Gurus. In fact, to organise the Sikhs into well-knit units, such centres were an utmost necessity. Towards the close of the 16th century, besides Kartarpur, there were Khadur, Goindwal, Ramdaspur, Tarn Taran, Kartarpur (Doaba) and Sri Hargobindpur, which developed into important Sikh centres primarily because they had been founded by the Sikh Gurus themselves. With the introduction of the institution of manji and later on the masand system, the Sikhs appointed to these institutions played a significant role to build dharamsalas in their respective areas and zones. There is every likelihood that some of the early devout and spirited Sikhs performed yeoman’s service to found dharamsalas at different places of Punjab and the rest of the country as well. With the return of the Udasis into the fold of the mainstream, Guru Hargobind and the Sikh Gurus following him, deputed them to preach the Sikh mission in distant lands. It seems, the Udasi preachers proved particularly useful to rejuvenate the dharamsalas established by Guru Nanak outside Punjab which may have become disfunctional due to lack of contact with the central Sikh religious authority. Unfortunately, scholars are not aware of the fact that in spite of the hostile attitude of the Mughals, Guru Hargobind had a remarkable success to expand the network of dharamsalas not only in the Punjab region but in other parts of India as well. Guru Tegh Bahadur’s missionary tours in the Malwa region of Punjab and North-eastern India proved very fruitful to add a few more centres to the already existing centres in these regions. Besides, the Punjabi khatris who embraced Sikhism and had settled at the major trade centres of the country, especially those situated on the trade routes, also contributed in a very significant manner to establish dharamsalas at their respective places. In modern times, the diaspora Sikhs, who migrated to settle in different parts of the world, are performing the same function to spread the message of Sikhism among the immigrant Sikhs and natives through the institution of gurdwara.

As expected, the dharamsala pre-supposes a Sikh congregation. In other words, dharamsala without a Sikh sangat, is hard to conceive. The dharamsalas might have come up at those places where the Sikhs had a sizeable number, particularly at those places which had been sanctified by the Sikh Gurus themselves. They were built either to commemorate their sacred memory or to enshrine the holy relics associated with them. Hence, such dharamsalas were an attraction of special reverence, and subsequently got prominence over the local or community dharamsalas. If we search into the history of various dharamsalas, we will not be surprised to find that every dharamsala is a living testimony to the glorious saga of the Sikh tradition and has much in store to inspire future generations of the Sikhs.

Though the institution of dharamsala flourished in time and space, yet to ascertain its purpose and status, observations of the B.40 Janamsakhi are very significant. While describing Guru Nanak’s interview with God, the author of the above Janamsakhi writes how God revealed Himself to the Guru :

“You are Nanak and your Panth will flourish. Your followers shall be called Nanak Panthis and their salutation shall be g?oh gT[Dk ;fs ;fsr[o{. I shall bless your Panth. Inculcate men’s devotion towards Me and strengthen their obedience to dharma. As the Vaishnavas have ramsal (temple), the Jogis have their asans (seats) and the Muslims their mosques, so your followers shall have their dharamsala.”

Two very significant points emerge out of this. Firstly, for the Sikhs the dharamsala was a divinely ordained institution. Resultantly, to build it or contribute towards it in any manner was to participate in a divine mission. Secondly, it provided the Sikhs an alternative locus for worship which was quite distinct from those of the other denominations. Thus, to evolve as well as preserve Sikh identity at an earlier stage of Sikh history, the institution of dharamsala has played an important role which is equally needed now in the gurdwaras.

The evidence at our disposal suggests that the institution of dharamsalas was introduced in the Indian sub-continent almost simultaneously with the foundation of Sikhism. In the century that followed, with the active involvement of the Sikh Gurus and the hard work put into them by the Sikh missionaries, the dharamsala had become an essential and distinctive feature of Sikhism. Within a short span of time the entire country, especially the Punjab and trade routes running between Chitagong and Kabul on the one hand, Agra and Burhampur on the other, were studded with Sikh dharamsalas.

Obstacles in Growth
Notwithstanding the phenomenal success in founding the dharamsalas in different regions and cities of the country, the Sikh mission had to face strong opposition from some vested interests. Traditionally, the Sikh Gurus were least interested in assistance of any kind from the Mughal State for this purpose. The sakhi of Karoria opposing Guru Nanak clearly depicts that some of the local Mughal officials working at the lower rungs of the administration were not favourably inclined towards the dharamsalas coming up in the areas falling under their jurisdiction. Similarly, Goinda Marwaha, a chaudhry of Goindwal, wanted to drive away Guru Amar Das simply because the Guru had declined to part with a share from the offerings of the dharamsala. Noorudin’s attempt to forcibly take away the construction material meant for the dharamsala of Tarn Taran shows the jealous and hostile attitude of the Mughal officials. For Emperor Jahangir, the Sikh dharamsala was no more than a dukan-i-batil which he desired to shut down at the earliest. The desecration of a Sikh dharamsala by erecting a mosque in its place at Lahore is a clear testimony to religious vandalism of the times of Emperor Shah Jahan. Even the general order of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb of 1669 to demolish the temples of infidels had no less effect on the Sikh religious places of worship. Although, the above examples are sporadic, yet they are a pointer to the fact that politically the situation has not always been congenial for the development of dharamsalas.

Furthermore, the diverse elements within the Sikh Panth, especially the disgruntled direct descendants of the Sikh Gurus, posed a serious threat to the smooth functioning of the dharamsalas. Besides their claim for succession to guruship, they asserted their hereditary claim to centres founded by the Gurus, and declined to part with their possession. Most of the Sikh Gurus had to move out of those centres which had been founded by their predecessors. For instance, the Minas were very serious contenders for guruship, and in the absence of Sikh Gurus from the Majha and Doaba regions of the Punjab, most of the dharamsalas including those at Amritsar and Kartarpur (Doaba) fell into the hands of the Minas and Dhirmalias. At some places, the Sikh dharamsalas were also an eye sore to the men of other religious denominations. Goindwal and Nanakmatta are two such examples where the Shaikhs and Jogis, respectively, opposed the Sikhs from developing their centres. Perhaps they feared that by establishing their dharamsalas, the Sikhs were invading the religious boundaries of their spiritual domains. Such ugly situations were averted by the persuasive skills and timely intervention by the Sikh Gurus. In future such type of opposition to the gurdwaras may develop in any part of the world, but the Sikh leadership has to face the crisis in the light of the path shown by the Sikh Gurus and their missionaries working in difficult times.

Physical Structure
As mentioned earlier, for the Sikhs the entire earth is as sacred as a dharamsala, where they are supposed to perform their religious and temporal activities in accordance with dharma. Secondly, Sikhism does not believe that God resides at a specific place or in a particular direction. Only because of that, unlike the Hindu temples and the Muslim mosques, the Sikh dharamsalas were not built on axis oriented directions. The early dharamsalas may have been a small and simple structure usually consisting of a single room large enough to hold a congregation of the local Sikhs. Most of the early Sikhs belonged to working classes, and were not financially so well off. Presumably, the local or community dharamsalas which had popped up in the countryside, small towns and qasbas, were simple oratories for daily prayers. With the codification of the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth became the soul of the dharamsalas, which was duly installed at the congregational hall. These dharamsalas generally did not have any elaborate furnishings which we observe in modern day gurdwaras. In an urban or rural setting, the dharamsala was a landmark to establish the identity of Sikh populace residing in the immediate neighbourhood. We do not know whether to build a dharamsala, permission from the administration was necessary or not, but one can visualise that it certainly constituted recognition or consent of a group of Sikhs or the local Sikh community.

Since Sikhism has enjoined upon its followers to observe external as well as internal purity, eventually isnan, customary bath in the early morning, has developed into an essential religious practice. Early Sikh literature abounds in evidence about the merits of isnan and its popularity among the early Sikhs. That was the basic reason that the dharamsala complex often included provisions for public bath. Wherever natural sources of water were not available, the dharamsala complex has a baoli, well or rahat (Persian wheel) in its courtyard or a water-pool adjoining it, which besides supplying water for customary bath, overcame the scarcity of water of the locality.

The dharamsala right from its very inception had a langar (community kitchen) attached to it. Later on, langar acquired the status of an essential institution and formed an integral part of the dharamsala complex. Similarly, the dharamsala also comprised a hospice, a common resting place where, besides the Sikhs, the way-farers could stay irrespective of caste and creed. Contemporary Sikh sources confirm that the Sikh faith had progressed vigorously in the Punjab and on the trade routes intersecting the country at various points. Almost all the important towns falling on these routes had come to have dharamsalas. With the development of the Sikh Panth, the sangats led by their respective manjidars and masands had started paying annual visits to the Sikh Gurus on the eve of religious festivals. For smooth movement of the Sikh sangats from any direction, arrangement for boarding and lodging was needed. Resultantly, on the pattern of premier dharamsala, almost all the dharamsalas found located on or near the highways also set up langars and caravanserais. Both the langar and caravanserai functioned within the precincts of the dharamsala, and formed an essential feature where hospitality and food was freely available to the visitors.

Interestingly, some of the dharamsalas also had arrangements to look after the sick and infirm. Some of the sangtias carried on their medical services for the people from the precincts of the dharamsalas. Readers will not be surprised to note that to meet the requirement of cots, some of the dharamsalas also contained small carpentry workshops.

Administration and Functionaries
Some main dharamsalas of historical significance that had come up at places directly or indirectly connected with the lives of the Sikh Gurus, were generally administered by the Gurus themselves. During the period under review, the most important office at the premier dharamsalas was that of the Guru, while the others were looked after by the sangtias, masands or the local Sikhs. At the central level, besides leading the Sikhs in the daily morning and evening prayers, the Guru was to oversee all religious services, namely, the kirtan and recitation of Gurbani. The Guru also received visitors to the dharamsala, held dialogues and delivered sermons to explain the quintessence of Sikhism to them. Besides generating the financial resources of the dharamsala in the form of daswandh, kar-bhent, etc., he ensured proper functioning of the langar. Since the office of guruship combined multifarious responsibilities, there were a number of Sikhs at the dharamsala to assist the Guru. Firstly, there were hazoori Sikhs, who remained always in attendance to carry on the jobs assigned to them. With the codification of the Adi Granth, the office of the granthi became necessary. He was the chief custodian of the scripture, and presided over the liturgical services. The practice to recite the scripture had also come in vogue among the early Sikhs. Possibly there were some pathis (reciters) at dharamsala to perform the duty. Since kirtan was one of the popular modes of worship some professional ragis and rababis were retained to perform the job at the dharamsala. Likewise, there were some expert theologians and preachers who explained the message of the Sikh Gurus to the general masses. Printing technology had not yet been invented, so there were also some scribes to prepare copies of the scripture for distribution among the sangats. Some of the scribes gifted with good penmanship and scholarly attainments were entrusted to draft the hukamnamas addressed from the central dharamsala to various Sikh sangats. As the langar was an essential part of the dharamsala, preparation of food and its distribution was an important duty which was always assigned to a senior and most resourceful Sikh. Towards the end of 17th century, the traditional Sikh sources refer to the office of Diwan at central dharamsala, who perhaps assisted the Guru to manage the finances.

The community or local dharamsalas were known by the name of place to which they belonged. Some of them gained prominence after the name of a leading Sikh responsible for their maintenance. Financially, these dharamsalas were not dependent on the central authority, rather they were self-dependent units. Their maintenance and administration were the obligation of the local Sikh community. Since the Sikhs had no clergy or priestly class to manage their religious places, any learned Sikh adult, possessing proper knowledge of the Sikh scripture and theological matters, could lead the Sikhs to perform the religious services at the dharamsala. At an earlier stage, the Sikhs who had dedicated their lives to the service of the dharamsala or those who had joined it for their spiritual betterment, played an important role to look after the dharamsala affairs. Their role was not that of any professional nature, because they carried on their worldly pursuits also to earn their livelihood. With the introduction of manji and later on the masand system, the management of these dharamsalas came under the purview of the Sikhs holding these institutions. However, some of the dharamsalas remained in charge of trusted Sikhs who were well-known for their knowledge of Gurbani, personal piety, honesty and dedication to the Guru. Besides the dharamsala, they also headed the Sikh sangats of their respective places; hence they were known as sangtias.

There is no denying the fact that in the pre-Khalsa period, the most important person to administer the dharamsalas at regional or provincial level was the masand. The masands were the appointees and representatives of the Guru, and carried on missionary work on behalf of the Guru at distant places. Primarily, they collected the daswandh (tithe) and bhent (voluntary offerings) from the Sikhs of their respective areas and submitted the same to the Gurus at their centres. Besides, they managed the dharamsala finances and looked after the proper functioning of langar and hospice as well. Akin to the diocese and wilayats of the Christians and Sufis, respectively, the masand system contributed a lot to the development of dharamsala in different parts of the country. As the masand combined in himself multifarious duties, they were authorised to appoint their deputies or gumashitas to assist them. They in return exercised the authority of their masters in dharamsala at qasba or small towns. The chief masand stood at the apex of the whole system and controlled a net-work of dharmsalas spread over the region or province assigned to him.

We observe that the masands of Patna, Burhanpur and Kabul had attained such prominence that the dharamsalas falling in North-east, South and N.W.F.P., were administered by them from these centres. Thus, a hierarchy of functionaries had come to exist to administer the dharamsalas in different regions and cities of the country. Every dharamsala was headed by an official who could be a manjidar, masand or sangatia. Their office was not professional and hereditary. Invariably, they were the leaders of the sangat to which the dharamsala belonged. However, these leaders could not claim a divine status to indulge themselves in self-aggrandisement. Even now a system needs to be devised to train the administrative personnel (machinery) for proper management of the institution of the gurdwara in India and abroad.

Financial Resources
Building of dharamsala, its maintenance, the langar and hospice, projects of water pools and wells and to support the functionaries involved, required large outlays of funds. To seek state patronage has never been the policy of the Sikh Gurus. Who bore the costs ? What were the fiscal resources ? And what was the mechanism to collect them ? These are some of the questions which draw our attention. The policy of refusing state help speaks of all the Sikhs contributing towards dharamsala and its allied institutions. Historical experience of the Sikh community suggests that to raise, maintain and run the dharamsala complex had always been the obligation of the Sikh sangat. The Sikh Gurus had enjoined upon their Sikhs to earn their livelihood honestly and share it with others. It is worth noting that dan (charity) was and is one of the cardinal virtues of the Sikhs. In Sikhism, dan has never been reserved for a priestly class. It should be given either to a deserving person or spent for a rightful cause. Resultantly, the virtue of dan found its manifestation in the services of the dharamsala. It provided a definite direction and meaning to the charities given by the Sikhs. Hence, at an earlier stage, dan in the form of voluntary contribution was the major fiscal source of the dharamsala. It was an act of piety and goodwill and there was no binding of exact amount. Presumably, it was given in cash or in kind. During the pontificate of Guru Arjun, dan was supplemented with daswandh (tithe), which was made obligatory on the part of the Sikhs and its collection was entrusted to the masands.

Besides the daswandh, there were some non-obligatory donations which enhanced the financial resources of the dharamsala. Firstly, there was a golak, a box meant for collection of offerings. It was kept in the dharamsala hall where the Sikhs on their visits used to put in something voluntarily. Secondly, we come across sukh-manat, a sort of thanks giving tribute which the Sikhs offered on fulfilment of their desire. Thirdly, there was a practice among the Sikhs to donate some amount for the welfare of dharamsala on the occasion of marriage or kurmai. Fourthly, there was chulia, vow to donate something in the memory of dead. Fifthly, there was a strong practice among the Sikhs to set apart some amount from their earnings in the name of the Guru and present the same to the dharamsala. Sixthly, there was kar-bhent, a special campaign to collect money or material to fulfil the specific needs of the central as well as local dharamsala. Lastly, charity in the form of grain and produce was also a big source of income of the dharamsala. An early 17th century source exhorts the Sikhs to carry something in kind while visiting the dharamsala. Obviously, it added to the provisions of the langar.

Collection and Disbursement
In the beginning, there was no agency to collect the offerings and transmit the same to the local or central dharamsala. Charities came to dharamsala voluntarily either in cash or in kind — grain, produce, cloth or other commodities. It was during the days of Guru Arjun Dev that the masands were entrusted to collect the daswandh from the Sikhs. Afterwards, the practice of bringing obligatory and non-obligatory donations to the central dharamsala came into vogue. The masands of the various regions and cities used to visit the Sikh Gurus on the eve of Vaisakhi or any other annual festival and used to present the offerings collected from the Sikhs to the Guru at his court. The amount collected as charities was also submitted through the Hundi, bill of exchange. It seems the masands or sangtias who were not in a position to visit the Guru personally sent their collections through hundis.

Though there were no specific directives to utilize the dharamsala funds, yet we can visualize that they were spent for the propagation of the Sikh faith and public welfare. Obviously, the dharamsala funds were used for building the dharamsala complex, to run langar and hospice, to promote the study of the Sikh scripture and other educational and missionary activities. It could also be used to meet the expenses of mewras, who travelled long distances to deliver the hukamnamas and messages of the Gurus to the various Sikh sangats. Dharamsala funds could also be used to finance specific requirements of the Gurus. In the days of armed Sikh struggle with the Mughals, the Sikh Gurus made effective use of these funds to replenish the military resources of the Sikh Panth. Interestingly, most of the masands or sangtias responsible for the collection of the offerings were engaged in some profession. They were not supposed to appropriate the offerings on their personal well-being. However, those who had no other means of livelihood, were allowed to use the offerings other than cash. The masand or sangtia in charge of the dharamsala was only a trustee, and he was not supposed to misappropriate the dharamsala funds. Bhai Gurdas has decreed in strongest terms that it was totally unlawful to covet the offerings brought to dharamsala.

Cultic Activities
The dharamsala was the main centre of religious activities of the Sikhs. Fortunately, in the medieval Sikh literature, details of the daily routine of the dharamsala are available. Sikhism formally prescribes both personal and corporate way of worship. Individual worship was to be carried out at home, whereas the congregational worship was to be performed in the dharamsala. Significantly, both the individual and congregational worship were similar in contents. Though the Sikh tradition does not specify any standardised benediction linking God to specific circumstances of the moment, worship was carried out daily in the morning and evening. At the dharamsala worship was centred around the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth. Besides the recitation of the sacred texts, we find that the Japu had come to form an integral part of the morning service. Similarly, recitation of Sodar, Aarti and Sohila in the evening were practised by the early Sikhs. Wherever the trained Sikh musicians, well-versed in the Sikh tradition, were available, kirtan sessions became a part of the daily programme of the dharamsala. Since the Sikh Gurus always encouraged their following to recite and listen to Gurbani, eventually a serialized reading of the scripture from the beginning to the end became a practice in the religious way of life in a dharamsala. Similarly, to explain the basic tenets of Sikhism or subtle meaning of gurbani to novices and inquirers from other traditions, exegetical assemblies, debates and inter-faith dialogues began to be held in the dharamsala. In fact, the fulcrum for the whole system of worship at dharamsala were the pothis of gurbani and later on the Adi Granth. We come to know that besides the daily programme, additional or special services were also conducted on gurpurbs and religious festivals such as Vaisakhi, Diwali, Maghi and Holi.

We may summarize that the classic Sikh mode of worship centred on the bani, the Word of God. In a way, God’s Word (bani), coupled with a share from His bounties, were presented to God at dharamsala and in return God’s commandment (vak) was proclaimed. The Word of God, as manifested in the bani of the Sikh Gurus, constituted the subject matter of worship and religious services to be conducted at the dharamsala. Towards the end of service, prayer was offered and karah parsad (consecrated pudding) was distributed among the assembled people to mark the Grace of God.

Social and Educational
It needs to be underlined that the dharamsala was not merely a religious place, but a centre of social and educational significance as well. It occupies a pivotal place in the temporal as well as religious life of the Sikh community. As described above, the sangat is a concept basic to the dharamsala. Consequently, sangat was generally the centre for temporal as well as religious practices.

Our sources suggest that the dharamsala had always served as centre of education and Sikh learning. In fact, dharamsalas were guidance centres wherein the participants and entrants were ushered into the Sikh way of life. They had also arrangements to impart teachings in Gurmukhi, Sikh music and the scripture. For this purpose, dharamsala served to be the most continuous and reliable centre of education for the students of Sikhism. We can visualize how the study circles gathered around the granthi in the courtyard of the dharamsala and went through the learning process. We notice that some of the dharamsalas emerged as famous centres of educational activities. Teachings in dharamsalas continued even after the proliferation of schools and colleges. In modern times, the educational functions of the community dharamsala have been taken over by specialized institutions. However, to transmit the knowledge of Gurmukhi, gurbani and Sikh cultural values, the gurdwaras can still play a vital role, but to attract the students we have to upgrade its educational system.

Besides this, the courtyard of the dharamsalas also had been the favoured place of public assembly where the diwans (religious assemblies) and jor melas (religious festivals) were held to address issues of politics, war, religion and so forth. Even the Sikh Panchayats held their courts there to pronounce decisions on the contentious issues concerning the Sikh community. The issue resolved at these assemblies reflected not only the common will of the Sikh community, but also carried divine sanction because it had been thrashed out and proclaimed from the holy precincts of the dharamsala. Hence, the Sikhs had religious obligation to submit to the decision.

Unlike the religious places of some other traditions, the dharamsala did accommodate the services related to family life. The ceremonies of marriage, birth, death and initiation were perhaps arranged in the dharamsala compound.

While visiting the dharamsala, the Sikhs had to perform two types of duties — personal religious obligation and the collective management and maintenance of the dharamsala and its allied structures. Bhai Gurdas provides a graphic account of the odd chores performed by the Sikhs to run the dharamsala properly. He observes how the Sikhs used to wave fans to comfort the sangat in the heat. Someone was drawing water to help the Sikhs to wash their feet or to take customary bath. Similarly, some were busy in grinding corn to prepare food for the langar. Some one was bringing fuel wood for the community kitchen. They did not feel shy of feeding the oven for cooking in the langar. They happily shook the dust off the prayer carpets of the dharamsala. Even they did not hesitate to massage the tired visitors. They always lent a helping hand to distribute food in the langar. In a way, the institution of dharamsala provided an ample opportunity to the Sikhs to practise the virtue of sewa.

Sikhism does not propagate the notion of obligatory pilgrimage to a particular site. Unlike the Hindu notion of pilgrimage, mere visit to the dharamsala without imbibing the higher values was not considered a way to liberation. From the contemporary records we find that besides Vaisakhi, Diwali, Maghi and Holi, auspicious days (Gurpurbs) related to the lives of the Sikh Gurus were celebrated by the Sikhs publicly at central as well as provincial level dharamsalas. On these occasions, Sikhs were required to appear before the Guru, bearing offerings and presents, at a pilgrimage centre inhabited by the Guru. Those who could not make the annual pilgrimage celebrated these festivals at the community dharamsalas. Since the new month, whether of solar or lunar calendar, was considered auspicious by the people, the Sikh tradition made effective use of this to celebrate in a different manner at dharamsala.

Spiritual Environment
The dharamsala always served as a centre of Sikh spirituality. It led the way to achieve summum-bonum while residing in the family and society. It was a place where higher values like dhiraj (serenity), dharma, truth, etc., dominated the environment. Guru Arjun Dev refers to the atmosphere at dharamsala where instead of rancour, humility prevailed all around. In the words of Bhai Gurdas, the dharamsala alone possessed that spiritual tranquillity which a seeker longed for in the atmosphere of worldly tension. He is very emphatic to state that the disturbing effect of worldly wealth (maya) on the minds of men could be removed only by experiencing the spiritual environment of the dharamsala. He compares it with Mansarover lake where Gursikhs like swans assemble in the congregation. Throughout the Sikh literature, the dharamsala and its successor institution, the gurdwara, has been referred to as the abode of God. According to Bhai Gurdas, the dharamsala served as an earthly residence for God and atmosphere designed to replicate His celestial kingdom. It was perfectly natural, therefore, that the Sikhs who were disgusted and frustrated with their personalities torn by inner conflicts, thronged to dharamsalas in search of spiritual solace. A cursory glance at the Sikhan di Bhagatmala affirms that the spiritual atmosphere of dharamsala not only soothed their excited nerves, but also integrated their personalities to the highest point of inner harmony to transform them into Gurmukhs. Unfortunately, the spiritual functions and environment that the Sikh Gurus evolved for the institutions of dharamsala are lacking in our present-day gurdwaras. The spiritual base of the community is eroding very fast. We have to devise ways and means to turn the gurdwaras into spiritually vibrant centres because it is the only antidote to save future generations of Sikhs from the ills of the materialistic advancement of mankind.

Entry and Quorum
The dharamsala and its allied institutions were open to any one, any time of the day. There was no restriction of caste and creed for entry. Women were not debarred, rather they were encouraged to join the congregation at dharamsala. Significantly, unlike the Muslim mosque, the dharamsala did not use a separate enclosure specially screened off for women devotees. In fact, Sikh Gurus enjoined upon women not to observe purdah while visiting the dharamsala. The Sikh dharamsala, in the eyes of Bhai Gurdas, was such a unique religious place where Guru and disciples, men and women, high and low, young and old, all worshipped together. Sometimes we find that in some religions sanctum sanctorum or innermost area of the shrine is prohibited to the general public. Only clergy, priests or a few privileged persons have access to it. Contrary to the above custom, every nook and corner of the dharamsala was open for public view.

Unlike the synagogue and mosque of the Jewish and Muslim community, respectively, to hold the religious service at dharamsala no specific quorum has been fixed. The underlying idea behind it was that the dharamsala services are a continuous process. It should not distinguish between a small and large assembly. Even the needs of an individual visitor should be taken care of. However, to decide on community matters, five Sikhs comprised the quorum to constitute a representative body of the community.

The dharamsala complex was considered a sacred place. One was required to approach it with complete humility and purity of mind. Before entering the dharamsala, the visitor has to ensure physical purity by taking customary bath (isnan). Similarly, to demonstrate proper reverence and respect, the devotee has to take off shoes and cover his / her head. Disrespect to bani or the Adi Granth in any manner, interference in the functioning of dharamsala leading to break in regular or obligatory religious practices, were considered to be sacrilege. Similarly, use of intoxicants and tobacco in the complex of the dharamsala formed a religious taboo. To preserve and protect the sanctity of their dharamsalas has always been the sacred duty of the Sikh community. Following any defilement, purification of the dharamsala complex and its courtyard was necessary to consecrate the complex afresh.

Besides celebration of congregational worship, the dharamsala has also been the favoured place for public assembly where historically Sikhs have gathered to debate religious as well as temporal issues concerning the community. Primarily, it was a fountain-head of Sikh spirituality which motivated them to cherish higher values. Every one in need of sympathy and help turned to it, since it was believed that the prayer performed by the sangat at the dharamsala could heal the sick souls. Its role has been instrumental to evolve and preserve the Sikh identity and has contributed a lot to its transmission to the successive generations of Sikhs. While suggesting any amendment to the present Gurdwaras Act, we have to keep in mind the very purpose for which the institution has been established. Secondly, to find an effective role for the gurdwara in the scenario developing the world over, we have to draw heavily on the historical experience, especially the role of the dharamsala in the history of the early Sikhs. No doubt the gurdwara has always occupied a pivotal place in the religious life of the Sikhs, but it has enormous potential to contribute to the social, cultural, educational, political and economic well-being of the Sikh Panth, which must be tapped.




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