Dwindling Status of Akal Takht: A Premier Sikh Institution
Guru Arjan had anticipated the coming of difficult times in near future. He had started living in a style advocating spiritual life and “Lorldly living as two aspects of a single reality. He erected lofty buildings, wore rich clothes, kept fine horses and maintained retainers in attendance. The Sikhs venerated the Guru to an extent that he was called Sacha Padshah.1 Guru Arjan was summoned to Lahore by Jahangir in April 1606. Shortly before his demise under great physical torture, Guru Arjan sent a message to his Sikhs regarding his son Hargobind, “Let him sit fully armed on his throne and maintain an army to the best of his ability.”2
At the time of the ceremony of succession, Guru Hargobind wore two swords, one on each side, declaring one representing ‘piri’ his spiritual kingdom and the other representing ‘miri’ his temporal kingdom.3 Thus miri and piri as organisational concept came into existence. This institution got further developed under Guru Gobind Singh at the time of his demise when he placed ‘piri’ his spiritual sovereignty in the Granth, hereafter called the Guru Granth Sahib and his ‘miri’, i.e., temporal sovereignty with the Khalsa, hereafter called Khalsa Panth.4 Guru Hargobind inherited 52 bodyguards, 700 horses, 300 horsemen and 60 gunners.5 During 1606, in front of Harimandir Guru Hargobind raised Akal Takht, i.e., God’s throne, a 12 feet high platform, on the lines of Mughal throne.6 It was constructed by Bhai Buddha and Bhai Gurdas with all reverence.7 The sanction of such a throne and maintenance of the army were inherent in the last message of Guru Arjan as stated above. Guru Hargobind also introduced the custom of beating the drum as an attribute to his sovereignty, which practice was prevalent among the Mughals. He treated Hari Mandir as the seat of his spiritual sovereignty and the Akal Takht as a seat of the temporal sovereignty.
Early morning he used to go to the Hari Mandir to hear ‘Jap Ji’ and ‘Asa Di War’ and thereafter preached to his Sikhs. In the afternoon he would go to the Akal Takht, where he administered justice like a King in court, accepted presents, awarded honours and gave punishments. Stories of deathless bravery were narrated and ballads of unrivalled courage were sung and the most famous bard was Abdullah.8 In his first Hukmnama Guru Hargobind called upon his followers to bring offerings of arms and horses. Thus, the Guru created a government of his own like that of Mughals. The Sikhs came to occupy a kind of separate state within the Mughal state, the position of which was securely established by the fiscal policy of Guru Amar Das and Guru Arjan and his own system of regular army.9 Guru Hargobind fought six fairly fierce battles (1633 to 1638) with the Mughal officials. Finding no end thereto in sight and these battles being a great strain on his resources of both men and material, he moved to a place near present Bilaspur, named it Kiratpur and spent rest of his life there till his demise in 1649.10
By the time of Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikh community had been all but transformed from a purely religious group to a highly organised body of men and women within a given area, militant in spirit and oriented towards meeting any challenge to their faith and their society, a challenge that came not only from the Mughals but also from Hindu Rajas, perhaps more from the latter.11 The integration of the temporal and spiritual aspects seem to have been the most significant contribution of Sikh Gurus to the totality of the Sikh way of life.
Akal Takht During 18th Century
From 1644 onwards, Guru Hargobind’s successor Gurus did not stay in Amritsar and spent their time mostly in Shiwalik hills, i.e., from 1644 till 1704, when Guru Gobind Singh had to leave Anandpur Sahib. The Akal Takht, popularly called Akal Bunga remained unused and dormant for almost a century till the Sikhs were able to assert themselves against the might of the Mughals and Afghans. The period from the demise of Guru Gobind Singh till the permanent occupation of Lahore in 1765 is replete with extreme tortures on Sikh men, women and children. All sorts of inhuman and abominable methods were adopted by the Mughal rulers in a persistent manner with the intent to literally annihilate them by either conversion to Islam or by execution. But the spirit breathed in his Sikhs by Guru Gobind Singh gave them exemplary and death defying courage, tempered with compassion for the weak. This period from 1708 to 1765 is the golden period of the struggle and development of Sikh nation under extremely trying circumstances. Certain institution got developed in the midst of persistent enemy attacks. e.g., Sikhs under extreme pressure and persecution by Samad Khan, Zakariya Khan, Muin-ul-Mulk Khan, etc. moved out from their villages and towns and sought refuge in Lukhi jungles and Malwa desert.12 Since their women and children were not spared, they took them to their hideouts and alongwith their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. With passage of time, they were able to hold their own with defence oriented guerrilla tactics and successfully planned intrusions in the Mughal territories. The situation was summed up in a popular saying that the government rules by the day and Khalsa rules by the night.13
The Sikhs were firmly established in their areas after the close of first quarter of 18th century. They were regular visitors to Amritsar during Baisakhi and Diwali. They used to meet each other, discuss their common problems and even mutual animosities, which could be sorted out in a soothing atmosphere or by intervention of other Sardars. They would then assemble at the Akal Takht, where after some religious ceremony they would choose the senior and respected sardar as the leader and pass certain resolutions, which were named as Gurmatas. Their assembly has been variously called as General Assembly, National Council etc, These Gurmatas have invariably been passed unanimously and without any vote of dissension. A few important Gurmatas are as under:-
(a) the Gurmata of 1733 conferring the title of Nawab on Kapur Singh.
(b) in 1745, to recognize 25 organized groups of Sikhs to resist persecution and carrying on raids against Mughal’s strongholds.
(c) in 1747, Gumattas passed to erect the fort Ram Rauni in Amritsar.
(d) in 1748, Gurmatta to establish the Dal Khalsa and choosing of Jassa Singh Ahluwalia as the leader of the Dal.
(e) in 1753, Gurmatta recognition of the system of Rakhi that had been instituted by the Misls etc.14
Striking Sikh Coin
A very important Gurmata was passed in 1765 on Baisakhi. The jubilation over their victory and festivities of Baisakhi went on about a month and thereafter the sardars sat down at Akal Takht to attend to the common problems faced by the community. The Gurmata unanimously passed declared their complete independence and assumption of sovereignty. They resolved to regain their old territories and acquire new ones wherever possible. They also decided to issue a coin in the name of Gurus as a mark of their sovereignty.15 Sikhs- decided to occupy the Capital City of Lahore and the Bhangi chiefs Lehna Singh, Gulab Singh and Sobha Singh marched to Lahore and occupied the same without any serious resistance and parceled the town amongst themselves in May 1765. A very cardinal feature of the assemblies at Akal Takht had been that (i) All those who attended the assembly were equal to each other and had equal right to participate in the deliberations; (ii) All private animosities ceased among those assembled at the Akal Takht and willingly sacrificed their personal feelings at the altar of general good. After the Gurmata was passed, (iii) every one, irrespective of whether he had spoken for or against when it was debated, considered it his religious duty to abide by it. There is not a single case known where this was not done and some Sardars did not participate in the fight against the Mughals or Afghans.16 European travellers John Malcom and George Forster have given detailed account of independence of expression, the passing of the Gurmata, they forget their private feuds and service is rendered with extreme devotion to the common wealth.17
The Sikhs made a seal for the state and also issued coins on the pattern of coin of Banda Singh Bahadur. The legend on the seal of Banda Bahadur was : “Deg Teg Fateh O Nusrat Baidrang, yaft uz Nanak Guru Gobind Singh” meaning that Deg the economic resources, Teg the strength of sword arm with unrestrained help, yaft uz received from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh.21 This seems to be based on the couplet of Guru Gobind Singh’s writings, “Deg Teg Jug Me Dohon Chalen, Rakh Lo Moi Aaap Awar Na Dalen”, meaning that both my free kitchen and my sword should prevail in the world, preserve me my Lord, and let none trample me.22 The coin bore the legend :
Obverse : Sikka Zad Bar Har Do Alam Teg-i-Nanak Wahib ast,
Fateh Gobind Singh Shah-i-Shahan Fazl Sacha Sahib Ast.
Reverse : Zarb Ba Aman-ul-Dahar Masawarat Shahr-i-Zinat,
Al Takht Khalsa Mubarak Bakht.23
Meaning a coin has been struck in both the worlds herein and hereafter under the guarantee of Guru Nanak’s double-edged sword, the victory of Guru Gobind Singh King of Kings has been achieved with the grace of Sacha Sahib. Minted at a place of perfect peace, picture of a beautiful city where the illustrious throne of the Khalsa is to be located.
After occupation of Lahore city, the Sikhs issued a coin dated 1765 A.D. 1822 Sambat. The legend for the obverse was taken from the Khalsa seal made in the time of Banda Bahadur.
Obverse : Deg Teg Fateh O Nusrat Baidrang,
yaft uz Nanak Guru Gobind Singh
Since there was no reverse on the Khalsa seal, they took the existing legend as on the reverse of the Mughal’s coins, i.e. Zarb Dar-ul-Salatnat Lahore Jalus Maiminat Manoos, meaning Capital City of Lahore auspicious and prosperous Reign. After about 10 years Sikhs were able to locate a rupee coin of Banda Bahadur from some where in Amritsar. They brought out a Sikh coin from Amritsar with the
Obverse : Sikka Zad Bar Har Do Alam Shah Nanak Wahib ast,
Fateh Sahi Guru Gobind Singh Shah-i-Shahan Fazl
Sacha Sahib Ast.
Reverse : Zarb Sri Amritsar Jio Takht Akal Bakht Jaloos Maiminat manoos, meaning that coined at Sri Amritsar Jioe, Reign of Illustrious Akal Takht Auspicious and Prosperous. The Sikhs found that the legend on the reverse of the Coins of Banda Bahadur could not be used as such, as they had a proper city from where it was being minted, the city of Amritsar being the most important city for the Sikhs. In place of the Takht Khalsa, they gave the said honour and authority to Akal Takht, which was a revered place next to Hari Mandir Sahib. This legend was kept as such by Ranjit Singh and his successors on the Sikh coins from Amritsar till the annexation of Sikh state in 1849 by the British. (See Plate attached). It is to be noted that Sikhs gave the place for the Khalsa Takht to Akal Takht, a place higher in constitutional hierarchy to the temporal rulers. It was this authority of the Akal Takht, enlisted on the reverse of Sikh coins, under which Maharaja Ranjit Singh was called upon to appear before the Akal Takht over some social misdemeanor and awarded a punishment, which he accepted in complete humility.24
Decline of the Authority of Akal Takht
After the annexation of Punjab the Sikh Gurdwaras and other institutions were placed under the Deputy Commissioners and the role of Akal Takht once again became dormant. It was after the Singh Sabha Movement that the British authorities took away the control of the Gurdwaras from the Mahants and Sarbrahs and gave the same to the Sikhs. SGPC was formed in 1925 and once again the role of .Akal Takht came into existence. “Some leading Sikh leaders well versed with Sikh ethos”, were made the Jathedars of Akal Takht and slowly the stature of Akal Takht started being recognized once again by the Sikh community. For a long time there was no question of any body protesting against the punishment or trying to avoid the same. Ex-communication from the Sikh Panth was a very serious stigma.
After independence in 1947, politicization of Sikh institutions came into existence. But the real politicization commenced with the Akalis coming to power and the SGPC, Akal Takht, other Sikh institutions like Universities became the pawns in the hands of the Akali politicians. The degeneration of the Sikh institutions and crumbling of the status of the Jathedars has become rampant. The Jathedars are being criticized openly, whether justified or not, over their moral and financial conduct as well as the correctness of their decisions.
The question arises as to how this colossal degeneration has come into existence in almost all the institutions and various activities controlled by the Government and Sikh society in general. In brief, the same is due to the degeneration in our character with politicization of the worst magnitude, all round corruption flourishing unrestrained, political offices originally for honor and service having become hereditary and gone in incompetent hands. Hundreds of masands in the form of Babas with deras are flourishing and corrupting the minds of the innocent Sikhs besides rapidly changing modem social order. Yet the hope of redemption of the Sikh society is not lost. A messiah will rise like Guru Gobind Singh to carry out some bleeding of the corrupt Sikh social order like the abolition of masands and creation of the Khalsa, thereby bringing back the life-style of the Sikhs, what was breathed in the then Khalsa. The Sikhs will re-emerge once again and their institution shall flourish.
1. Dabistan-i-Mazhab, Mohsin Fani, David Shea and Anthony Troyar’s translation, Paris 1843, pp. 233, 234
2. Macauliffe Max Arthur, The Sikh Religion, vol. Ill, S. Chand and Co New Delhi. Third Reprint 1985, p. 99
3. Macauliffe, op. cit., Vol. IV, p. 2
4. Banerjee A.C. The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh Religion, Munshi Ram Manohar Lal. New Delhi. 1983. pp. 327-328
5. Dabistan-i-Mazhab, op. cit., pp. 235-236
6. Tarlochan Singh, Guru Tegh Bahadur, Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee Delhi 1965, p. 12 foot note 16
7. Ibid., p. 12
8. Gupta H. R. History of Sikh Gurus, U.C. Kapur & Sons, New Delhi 1973, p. 110
9. Ibid., p. 110
10. Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion, op. cit., p. 214
11. Ray Nihar Ranjan. The Sikh Gurus and Sikh Society. Munshi Ram Manohar Lal New Delhi 1975, p. 25
12. Cunningham. J. B., History of Sikhs. S. Chand & Co. New Delhi 1972, p.80
13. Gupta H.R. op. cit. p. 45
14. K. S. Thapar, Gurmata : Democracy in Practice, The Punjab Past and Present, Punjabi University, Patiala, October 1975, p. 289
15. (i) ibid., p. 289
(ii) Gupta H.R., History of Sikhs, op. cit., p. 227 17. K. S. Thapar, Gurmata, op. cit., p. 287 18. ibid., p. 287
16. K S Thapar, Gurmata, op. cit., p. 287
17. Ibid., p. 287
18. Gupta, H. R., Sikh Gurus, Munshi Ram Manohar Lal, New Delhi, 1994, p.320
19. Ibid., p. 321
20. Gupta H.R. History of Sikhs, Vol. II, or. cit., pp. 12-14
21. Hukmnama dated 12th December 1710 and another addressed to Bhai Dharam Singh Undated reproduced in Hukmnama by Ganda Singh, Punjabi University, Patiala, 1985, pp. 92-95.
22. Dharam Pal, Poetry of Dasam Granth, Ph. D. Thesis, Panjab University, Chandigarh, p. 26.
23. Surinder Singh, Study in Sikh Coinage, Ph. D. Thesis, Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta, p. 106-107
24. Ibid., p. 191 (Gulshan Lal Chopra, K. K. Khullar, C. J. Rodgers, Fauja Singh, Waheed-ud-din have given different accounts.)