Open doors

The architecture of the Golden Temple is an embodiment of the core beliefs of Sikhism. Guru Nanak (1469 CE — 1539 CE) preached an open religion with the revolutionary doctrine of the absolute equality of all people, and engaged with the common themes within the two religions he knew, namely Hinduism and Islam. The architectural realization of these teachings in Gurudwaras is three fold. First, there are gates from all the principal directions leading in to the temple, signifying that there are many roads to this belief. Second, since these paths are always open, there are elaborate gateways but no doors (see the three images in the slideshow). And finally, the equality of all people is given concrete shape in the langar, a common space that absolutely anyone can come to for food at any time of the day, with everyone sitting together.

These teachings eventually brought about conflict with the emperor in Delhi, Jahangir. The fifth of the ten gurus was executed by the order of the emperor. The sixth guru’s first act was to embrace militarism through a notion which he called Miri-Piri, a combination of spiritualism and temporal authority. The physical embodiment of this philosophy resulted in the building of the Akal Takht, the seat of Sikh religious authority, facing the Golden Temple (shown in the featured photo). The next five Gurus spent their lives fighting the Mughal empire, and turning the Sikhs into a military force. As the Mughal power waned, this force was ready to carve out its own empire, as it did with Ranjit Singh (1780 CE — 1839 CE). Imperial power is on show in the marble and gold of the Golden Temple, and in the elaborate structures of the gateways.

Two views of the Golden Temple

Marble inlay work in Harmandir Sahib

The founding of Amritsar is counted from 1577 CE, the date of the digging of the lake, Amrit Sarovar, at the behest of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru. A few years later Harmandir Sahib was first constructed in the lake, connected by a single causeway. His successor, Guru Arjun, placed a copy of the Adi Granth in it in the year 1604 CE. During the years when the Sikhs were in conflict with the Mughals the temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current structure comes from 1830 CE, when the Khalsa emperor, Ranjit Singh, had the marble and gilded copper temple built.

I’d expected to spend a long time in the area, trying to figure out the best light and angles. But I was lucky with the light. Sunset, and perhaps sunrise, are the best light for photography, and my first visit happened to be at this hour. I missed one thing, the daily journey of the Granth Sahib from the Akal Takht to the Harmandir Sahib and back. So there is a reason for me to go back.

Hathi Gate

The Mughal Empire decayed after the death of Aurangzeb and several strong regional powers found space to expand. One of them was the remnant of the Khalsa organized by Guru Govind Singh, the last human Sikh guru. Several commanders arose in the 18th century CE, but after 1799 Ranjit Singh became emperor of the Sikhs when he captured Lahore from the Afghan king Zaman Shah Durrani. Soon after, Ranjit Singh ordered that Amritsar, the religious twin next to his capital city of Lahore, be fortified. The eight kilometers long wall had twelve gates (a thirteenth, Hall Gate, was added by the British after the fall of Ranjit Singh’s empire). They are being renovated by the Central Public Works Department in consultation with the conservation architect Gurmeet Sangha Rai. The featured photo shows the newly renovated Hathi Gate, originally called the Shazada Darwaza.

The area around it was chaotic and full of slow traffic. On the outer side of the gate, away from the Golden Temple, we saw a little flower market, exactly where we were told we would find it. Our most memorable trips have been those where we spent more time in a place than is recommended. We use the extra time not to “do” the city, but to wander around aimlessly looking at markets, chatting with people, and sampling the local food. Visiting markets is one of these pleasures. You come across unexpected things, like a rather young Akshay Khanna look alike.

Sometimes The Family cannot let go of a shop-op. We paused by a cart piled high with peas. The seller gave us a few to taste. Sweet and fresh! The Family immediately got a couple of kilos. “We’ll take it back with us” she said. Weight restrictions? “In my hand baggage.” I asked the vendor where the peas came from. Nashik, he told us. So we were basically going to take the fresh peas back to almost where they came from. I resolved to snack on peas for the next couple of days. When in Amritsar, eat like the Amritsaris.

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