Akal Takht Jathedars — Yesterday and Today
Dr Man Singh Nirankari
Before the Gurdwara Reform movement (1920), all the historic Gurdwaras in Punjab were being administered by Mahants. They were either hereditary or by virtue of the Guru-chela ‘parampara’. In some Gurdwaras this system worked very effectively whereas in others there was mismanagement, and they were misused as personal property for self aggrandisement of the Mahants.
In this paper, I am going to focus on the restructuring that was exercised by the British in the administration of not only the Golden Temple, but also the auxiliary Gurdwaras that were associated with the Golden Temple. The restructuring was detailed in a document - “Dastur-a-Amal”1, that was issued by The East India Company in 1854. The task force responsible for the functioning of the temple was divided into four hierarchical categories :
3. Ragis, Rubabis, Ardasis etc.
4. Langaris, cleaners, watchguards etc.
Overseeing the functioning was the Sarbra (manager), or the chief administrator. This position was honorary. The first Sarbra was a highly respected Amritsar citizen, Sardar Bahadur Sunder Singh Ramgarhia.2
Karha Parshad was prepared and sold by the halwais, to the devotee, who then brought it to the Golden Temple, and the Akal Takht. The scheduled castes were not allowed this practice of offering the holy food and this continued until 1920. This division of the man on the basis of caste and creed, even in the house of God, pained the liberal minded intellectuals of Amritsar. The Khalsa College, at that time nurtured free thinkers, who realised how irrelevant prejudices and small minded thoughts were disturbing the fabric of a healthy society. They were led by Professor Bawa Harkrishan Singh.3 To emphasise their convictions and beliefs, they gathered together a group of cobblers, and other workers belonging to the scheduled caste and took them to the Golden Temple with an offering of the holy parshad.
This led to total mayhem, the traditionalist argued vehemently. It was a clash between the establishment (the Pujaris), and the new winds of change that were blowing through the land, driven by Western Education and exposure. To resolve the issue, it was decided to use Guru Granth Sahib as the ultimate judge. This notion was acceptable to all. Bhai Fatha Singh, the Head Granthi was asked to read a Vaak from Guru Granth Sahib4, Sorath 3rd Guru Do tuki (page 638) :
“Putting them to the true Gurus service, the Lord himself forgives the meritless one. Sublime is the true Gurus service since it attaches ones to the Lord’s name. The Lord Himself forgives and unites the mortals with Himself. I am a virtueless sinner, O brother the perfect true Guru has united me with His congregation.”
The voice of God had given his oracle, and no one wanted to question the saying of the Guru. The pujaris of the Akal Takht were aghast. They were not willing to accept this change, and decided to resign from the services of the Akal Takht. Despite this minor impediment, it was a tremendous victory for human values and principle.
Jathedar, Teja Singh Bucchhar who had initiated this action, alongwith like minded people, decided to take charge and distributed this prashad among the gathered congregation at the Akal Takht. He then decided to take matters into his own hands, and with ten associates took over the reign of administrating the Akal Takht., This was the first step that led to the ‘Gurdwara Reform Movement’. As Teja Singh Bucchhar, was the head of a “jatha”, he came to be identified by the people and the Sikh Sangat by his position as jathedar, and hence began to be called “jathedar of the Akal Takht”. Before this there had never been any tradition or history of a Jathedar as head or in-charge of any office of the Golden Temple complex.
Thereafter, every head of the Akal Takht was given this title (a total misnomer) and called Jathedar, irrespective of the fact that he did not head a jatha. to head a jatha, to my mind is the basic pre-requisite to ‘earn’ the title of jathedar.
The installation of a jathedar as the head of the Akal Takht spurred the Sikh community to make similar changes at other Gurdwaras which had become the fiefdom of mahants and other charlatans. After this was accomplished, it was realised that there was now a necessity of bringing the management of the Gurdwaras under a central organization to ensure a unified and standardized code for administrative control and management. This organization was called ‘Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee’ (SGPC), which was established in 1920. This body, did not have any legal status, but exercised a moral authority on the Sikh psyche. The infighting between the mahants and the legitimate acolytes continued in an acrimonious manner. The colonial rulers, for their own petty gains of divide and rule supported the mahants. Ultimately, the British government realized their folly, and decided to acknowledge the SGPC by formulating a legislation that is called ‘Gurdwara Administration Act’. However in the Act, there is no post of Jathedar, only that of a High Priest exists.
This led to a controversy, about the hierarchy of the varied religious posts. Who was the senior ? Was it the head Granthi of Shree Harmandir Sahib ? Or was it the Jathedar of Akal Takht ?
This debate was raised by Giani Kirpal Singh5, who was the head Granthi of Golden Temple in the mid forties. No conclusive decision was reached. The other issue that was heatedly discussed was the designation of the priest of Akal Takht. According to ‘Dastura-a-Amal’ the function of the priest is categorized in the second position. They were called Pujaris because; they were genuflexing before the arms and weaponry of the Gurus and the Sikh warriors, which were being worshipped with the same devotion as the Rajputs did towards their arms and armory.
These weapons used to be displayed every evening to the congregation, with information about their history. Unfortunately due to personalized ambition and self-projection, narrow parochial interests distorted the concept of the Akal Takht.
To clarify its context, in the frame of Sikh history, the Akal Takht was actually, to begin with a physical structure, which was in the shape of a platform or a Thara. From here Guru Hargobind ji, the sixth Guru would listen to the Dhadis and Rubabis, singing the varan, in veer Ras under the beautiful canopy of the sky, amongst the chirping birds and cool evening winds mingling with the sound of the Dadh and Sarangi. Also, the Mal, or the wrestlers would display their expertise and virtuosity for the pleasure of the Guru and His followers. We may or may not be aware, but it would be interesting to note, that Guru Hargobind was a consummate hunter, and enjoyed this sport occasionally. There was also a deeper sub-text to his love for hunting. After the martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev, he recognized the imperatives facing the Sikh religion. He realized that they had the necessity of training in the martial arts so that they besides defending themselves, could preserve, protect their community and beliefs from the potential threats and warning that were rumbling around them. Because of these historical necessities, he started his training at a very young age, learning to wield a sword and ride a horse under Baba Budha, a competent master in the training of warfare. He used to go to the Harmandir Sahib early in the morning to preach the Guru Bani. He separated the activities of the temple from the Akal Takht. There was defined space between the temporal and the spiritual. Politics had no place in religious matters, and these were seen as two distinct and separate activities.
The Akal Takht was also perceived as the seat of justice, sorting out certain aberrations and misdemeanors of people, as well as solving personal and social problems. He never excommunicated any one during his lifetime. This becomes all the more laudable, due to the irrationality exercised by some of today’s Sikh leaders.
On page 544 of the Guru Granth Sahib, the instructions are :
“Whosoever submits to the Lord,
Is embraced in his endless compassion”.6
I have experienced in my travels, how sensitively a religious order handles personal errors of its devotees. In Roman Catholics, the concept of the confession, allows a seeker to repent in a way that is non-humiliating or intrusive. Today the watchdogs of our religion, take pleasure in insulting and mocking those who they perceive as having gone against the Maryada of the tenets of the religion. The example that springs to mind is Mr Surjit Singh Barnala. How he was summoned to the Akal Takht (after he had lost his chief ministership) to answer acts of omission during the time he was chief minister. He was first tied to a tree and then a placard hung around his neck, with his hand tied. He was then declared guilty and punished. What maryada are they talking about ?
This upset me so deeply that I raised my voice against such primitive and unsophisticated means of dealing with problems. This incident, to me reeked of political vendetta, rather than out of any spiritual concern.
The position of ‘Jathedar’ is defined as the Head of the Akal Takht. He is appointed by the SGPC, and he is paid a salary and given various perquisites of office by the SGPC. Unfortunately, to date, the appointing authority (the SGPC) has never defined his responsiblities, scope of work and authority (to reward and punish). This must be redressed ungently, after due deliberation and debate.