Golden Temple & Amritsar | History & Details


Part 1

Foundation and First Building
years 1570-1604

The most renowned Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple, popularly known as the Harimandir Sahib or Darbar Sahib is situated in the centre of Amritsar, one of the most flourishing trading centres of northern India, located 60 km from Lahore (Pakistan) and 85 km from Jalandhar (India) on the Grand Trunk Road.

It is a living monument around which revolve the major currents of the history of the Sikh faith. Its foundation was quite in accordance with the early tradition of founding new places of Sikh pilgrimage by the Sikh Gurus.

The Golden Temple is not merely a pilgrimage centre but a source of continuous spiritual and mystical inspiration for the hundreds of thousands of devotees who draw the very essence of their life from its holy presence.

Paucity of authentic historical evidence has resulted in several myths and legends associated with the past history of the site where the Harimandir stands today.

Some of the chronicles trace its origin to the hoary past when it was a place of considerable religious significance.

According to some sources, the Bhaviṣya Purāṇa mentions one Amar Kuṇḍ (ever-lasting pond) between the Ravi and the Beās rivers, which was the bone of contention between the gods and the demons:

The tank is identified with “Amrit-sāras” or Amritsar, literally, the pool of nectar.

It is also held that the Pāṇḍavas had taken water from that very pool to sprinkle on Bhīmā to bring him back to life.

Lord Rāma is said to have spent a few years of his exile in the forests surrounding the pool.

Tradition has it that even the Buddha was impressed by the natural beauty of the place and recommended it to the Bhikṣus for their hermitage.

Some identify this place with another site associated with the birth-place of the 8th century Buddhist saint, Padmasambhava, the founder of the Lamaism Buddhism in Tibet.

All such legends associated with the hallow of the place where the Harimandir is now situated, are purely mythical in nature, and there is hardly any historical evidence to support them.

The situation does not improve even with regard to the period as late as the 16th century when the place acquired its first association with Sikhism, the religion that the celebrated Harimandir represents.

One can notice even in Sikhism the presence of several mythical legends corroborating the sanctity of the place as late as in the 16th century also, and unfortunate as it is, no contemporary historical evidence can be produced to support any of these legends.

According to one such legend, Guru Nānak, the founder of the Sikh religion, visited this place many times:

Once, while going to Sultan-wind along with Mardana, the Guru passed by this area in A.D. 1502 and predicted that this place would, in times to come, acquire immense importance and sacredness.

Afterwards, Guru, Nānak sanctified the spot many times with his visits in the company of Bhai Lehna who later on succeeded Guru Nānak to the pontifical office and came to be called Guru Angad.

In this connection it will be interesting to note a few of the popular legends that associate the place with some of the early Gurus of Sikhism:

One day Guru Nānak felt thirsty and asked Baba Buddha who was attending to his cattle nearby, to bring some water in a vessel from a pond close by.

Baba Buddha said, “There is a tank but it is dry.

Guru Nānak said, “Go and see, the tank is not dry”.

Baba Buddha obeyed and, to his astonishment, found the tank full of water, though it had been bone-dry in the morning.

He fetched some water for Guru Nānak to drink and became his disciple. At this place Guru Arjan dug a new tank and called it Amritsar or the pool of immortality.

Another legend has it that the 3rd Guru Amar Dās found “Amar Bati” (a shrub) from the banks of this pond for the skin ailment of Guru Angad, the 2nd King.

We find another popular myth about the medicinal properties of the waters of this tank:

Rājñī, the daughter of Rai Duni Chand, a revenue collector at Patti, in the district of Amritsar, brought her leper husband here and he was cured after a dip in the pond.

It is said that Guru Ram Das (Bhai Jetha) who was in a visit to that area heard about the incident and came to confirm its veracity. He was so impressed by the surroundings that he decided to turn it into a pilgrim centre.

Thus, we find that the legends mostly pertain to the mystical-religious aspects of the place and of the pond situated there and in view of this, the place and also the pond acquired sanctity in the popular mind.

As it happens with places which have an aura of divine intimation, this site too was ultimately transformed into a place of pilgrimage.

Perhaps of no less importance is the fact that the place happened to be strategically located on a very important trade route, thronged by thousands of travellers, traders and other itinerants.

The several mystical -religious legends, as mentioned above, about the place as well as about the pond situated there, strengthened with the passage of time.

The idea of establishing a pilgrimage centre here was conceived by Guru Amar Das, the 3rd Guru of the Sikhs. It is also believed that he wanted to continue the tradition of founding new pilgrim centres for his followers.

He probably anticipated tension between his sons, Mohan and Mohri, on the one hand and his son-in-law and disciple Guru Ram Das whom he appointed his successor, on the other.

Accordingly, he instructed the latter to search for some place other than Goindwal for his future residence which obviously had to acquire the status of a centre of pilgrimage in view of the association of the Guru with that place.

Tradition has it that Guru Ram Das settled down at this place which gradually turned into a place of importance in the faith and also a place of pilgrimage for his successors as well as for the followers.

There are various versions regarding the settlement of Guru Ram Das at this place:

According to one version, the land was received as a gift by Guru Amar Das from Emperor Great as a token of thanks-giving for his victory over Chittor Fort in Rajasthan when the latter visited the Guru at Goindwal en route to Lahore.

Bhai Santokh Singh, a renowned Sikh chronicler, writes that the Guru received the Emperor with all the honour due to his position and the Emperor with great pleasure relished the saltless khicrī which the Guru himself used to take.

On his departure, Emperor the Great offered a jagir.

But the Guru thankfully declined the offer saying: “The great God is kind to the Guru. His stores are always full and He does not leave the Guru in want.

But the Emperor urged the acceptance of his offer for the langar (community kitchen) and left the paita (deed) under royal seal as an offering of love.

It was this land which was subsequently used by the 4th Guru for digging the tank of Immortality and founding around it the city

which was earlier known as Chakk Guru Ram Das but later acquired its nomenclature from the name of the tank itself and came to be called Amritsar.

He had instituted a regular mission consisting of 52 men and 22 women preachers who carried the gospel to different parts of India.

The land was presumably handed over to Guru Ram Das when he was to be rehabilitated at a place other than that where the sons of Guru Amar Das had been living.

Another version has it that Guru Ram Das himself purchased the land on payment of Rs. 700 to the Zamindars of village Tung.

The offer of this land by Emperor Great to the Guru has not been established in the absence of a regular authentic deed.

The Amritsar District Gazetteer contains some doubtful entries:

According to some Sikh chronicles the land was granted to Guru Amar Das, but in this Gazetteer the recipient is Guru Ram Das. In the same Gazetteer it is mentioned that

“In 1577 he (Guru Ram Das) obtained a grant of site together with 500 bighās of land from Emperor Great, on payment of Rs. 700 to the Zamindars of village Tung who owned the land.”

But in the revised edition of this Gazetteer, the earlier version has been changed to

“That the site was permanently occupied by the 4th Guru Ram Das, who in 1577 obtained the land in the neighbourhood.”

But in the same revised edition one finds that

“Guru Ram Das, the 4th Guru of the Sikhs, obtained from Emperor Great the grant of a piece of land where now stands the city of Amritsar.”

From the above statements by various historians it is not possible to establish

whether the land was granted by Emperor Great or offered by the villagers of village Tung to the Guru or the Guru purchased this site for a payment of Rs. 700.

A third version, however, claims that the land was presented by the people of Sultanwind to Guru Ram Das out of their reverence.

All these versions are based on oral tradition and not on any authentic contemporary records.

An important point to note here is that in Brown's map, prepared in 1787 A.D., there occur simultaneously the two names Amritsar and Guru ka Chakk for the area of the land concerned:

The latter name presumably is a commemoration of Guru Ram Das who received the land through his wife, Bibi Bhānī, the daughter of Guru Amar Das as part of her dowry.

At the present stage of our knowledge, and since there is no other authentic historical evidence to establish any of the claims or counter-claims of the historians,

it will be quite reasonable, in the light of the citation of Brown’s map mentioned above, to conclude that the present site of the city of Amritsar

was associated with at least either of the two Gurus, Amar Das or Ram Das, historically speaking, and hence there was the currency of the name of Guru ka Chakk for the place concerned.

The name Amritsar might have come at a later stage in view of the growing importance and sanctity of the ‘pond’ located at the place.

The Amritsar District Gazetteer supplies us with the following information and interpretations:

1. The land where the city of Amritsar grew up was granted in A.D. 1517 to the 4th Guru, Ram Das, by the Emperor Great.

2. In view of the above, the place was originally known as Ram Das Puri or Guru ka Chakk, but was subsequently named as Amritsar to lay emphasis on the importance of the pond situated there.

3. The name Amritsar is a perpetuation of the association of the place with Guru Amar Das, since the word Amar meaning immortal, has an echo in the word Amrit also meaning immortal, suffixed to the name Amritsar.

As it appears from various historical writings based presumably on some unspecified evidence, Guru Ram Das erected a small kachchā hut somewhere near the place where the Golden Temple is situated at present.

Subsequently, a pre-existing small tank nearby was enlarged with ceremonial excavations so that the tank, thus excavated, could serve as a sacred tank which was destined to be famous later as the “pool of nectar” (Amritsar) to lend its name to that of the place itself.

Regarding the date on which the tank was excavated, there is difference of opinion among scholars, but it appears that it happened sometime in the latter half of the 16th century.

According to the Darbar Sahib authorities, the foundation of the city was laid on 1570.

It however appears that Guru Ram Das could accomplish the work with an interim break of time when he had to return to Goindwal at the call of Guru Amar Das.

The work was resumed by Guru Ram Das on his return after his ascending to the Guruship in 1577 and was completed the same year.

Dr. J.S. Grewal states in his monograph, The City of the Golden Temple,

“By 1577, the tank was dug to the satisfaction of Guru Ram Das. In his compositions we find him exhorting people to come for darśana as a meritorious act. Like the baoli at Goindwal, the sarovar of Guru Ram Das was meant to be a sacred place from its very inception.

Devotees started coming from far and near. Many devotees decided to settle down permanently in the township that was fast coming up in the vicinity of the sacred sarovar.”

Guru Ram Das encouraged people of all professions to take up residence in the town:

Immigrants from Patti, Kasur and Kalanaur are specifically mentioned in this connection by the early Sikh writers. So are the names of those devotees who assisted the Guru in his task: Bhai Salo, Chandar Bhan, Rup Ram, Guria, Gurdas and Udham.

A market was established at the present site of Guru Bazar for a regular supply of essential commodities and exchange of goods. Sarāfs and banjaras were induced to participate in commerce just as craftsmen were encouraged to manufacture goods.

By the time Guru Ram Das breathed his last in 1581, a township had come into existence, appropriately known as Ramdaspur. It was also known as Chakk Ram Das, or simply Chakk Guru, probably with reference to the Chakk-basta land given by Great.

The work was carried out under the supervision of Baba Buddha.

The next Guru, Guru Arjan Dev, who ascended the Guruship in 1581, enlarged the tank, paved it with masonry and also built the masonry side-walls.

He employed Bhai Behlo, a Sikh from Malwa, who was skilled in making the most durable bricks for the masonry work involved.

The work was completed with the voluntary services from all shades of people and on its completion, Guru Arjan wrote the following words to immortalise his emotions on such a unique occasion:

God Himself hath come to fulfil the task of the saints
Yea, He Himself has come to do the work.
And, now blessed is the earth, the Tank and the nectar with which it is filled.
Perfect is the blessing of God, and all our wishes are fulfilled.
And our victory responds through the Universe, and all our woes are past.
Eternal is our perfect Lord, the Puruṣa, whose praises the Vedas and the Purāṇas sing.
And Nānak contemplates the Lord’s Name,
Thus doth God manifest His Innate Nature.

By bathing in the tank of Ram Das
All the sins that man commits shall go away,
And he shall become pure by his ablutions.
The perfect Guru hath given us this boon.
When we meditate on the Guru’s instructions,
God bestows all comfort and happiness,
And causes the whole cargo to cross over safely.
In the association of the saints uncleanliness departs,
And the Supreme being abides with us.
Nānak by meditating on the Name
Has found God the primal Being.

The next stage in the development of the site is marked by the construction of the great temple there. Guru Arjan Dev conceived the idea of establishing a place of worship in the form of a temple for his followers.

There are some stories regarding the architectural designing of the Golden Temple in Sikh chronicles. It is said that the design of the very first building of Darbar Sahib was prepared by Guru Arjan Dev himself.

The idea of building the shrine in the midst of the ‘Tank of Immortality’ was to combine the spiritual and temporal aspects of thought.

Regarding the laying of the foundation of the temple, there exist 2 traditions:

According to one, the foundation of the Harimandir was laid by Guru Arjan Dev himself on the January, A.D. 1588:

According to the legend, the mason changed the placement of the brick laid by the Guru as foundation stone. On seeing this, the Guru prophesied that the Temple shall be rebuilt.

Giani Gian Singh states that Guru Arjan Dev laid the foundation of Sri Harimandir Sahib on 1588.

M.A. Macauliffe is of the view that the foundation of the Golden Temple was laid by the Guru himself on 1588. Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha also gives the same date and version in his Gursabda Ratnakar, Mahan Kosh, an Encyclopaedia of Sikh literature.

The other and very popular version has it that the great Sufi Saint Hazrat Mian Mir of Lahore, a friend and admirer of Guru Arjan Dev, laid on 28 December 1588 the foundation of this great Temple of Sikhism.

The earliest reference to this fact is recorded in The Punjab Notes and Queries as

“The foundation stone of the Harimandir was laid by Mian Mir, between whom and Guru Ram Das there existed a strong friendship.”

The construction work of the shrine was undertaken with missionary zeal by the followers of the Guru. It went on relentlessly. Devotees in great numbers started coming to the upcoming Temple from far and near.

For the completion of this great project finances were required. The Guru sent his Sikhs in different directions to collect donations for this noble cause.

On the completion of the construction work on the Temple and the Tank of Immortality, the Guru composed the following hymns:

The Creator-Lord Himself, became my support
And so no harm came to me.
The Guru has perfected my Ablutions
And contemplating the Lord, my sins have been washed off.
O Saints, beauteous is the tank of Ram Das;
Yea, Whosoever bathes in it, his whole progeny is blest.
He is acclaimed by the whole world,
And all the desires of his mind are fulfilled.
Bathing, his mind is in peace,
For, he contemplates God, his Lord.
He who bathes in this tank of Saints
Receives the Supreme Bliss.
He dies not, nor cometh, nor goes;
(For) he dwells only upon the Lord’s name.
He alone knoweth this wisdom of the Lord
Whom the Lord blesses with mercy.
Nānak seeks the refuge of God, the Lord,
And all his woes and cares are past”.

Guru Arjan Dev was not only a great builder but also an organiser with extraordinary vision and involvement for the future course of the faith.

He realised the need for the compilation of the hymns of his predecessors, his own compositions and also some writings of a few Hindu and Muslim saints who preached identical thoughts and social values.

Bhai Gurdas, a relation and a disciple of Guru Arjan Dev, acted as an amanuensis with Guru Arjan for the compilation of the Holy Book. It is quite surprising that the compositions of Bhai Gurdas were not considered to be included in this work.

While this work was going on, someone reported to Emperor Great that the Book contains some verses derogatory to Islam.

To satisfy himself, Great visited the Guru and asked him to read out some verses from the Granth being compiled by him. Great himself selected some of these verses.

On hearing these verses he found all praise for the Almighty. He appreciated the work and also remitted the revenue of the farmers of the area on the request of the Guru.

This incident enhanced the popularity of the Guru among the followers and more and more people started coming to the Guru and the Harimandir Sahib.

The preparation of the Holy Book was undertaken by the Guru with the obvious aim of enshrining it in the temple, the foundation of which had already been laid in the year 1588, as discussed above.

The compilation of the Guru’s message and sayings was completed in 1604, and the compiled volume acquired the celebrated name of the Ādi Granth which was destined to be regarded the scripture of the Sikhs.

Since this holy Granth was enshrined in the temple, presumably soon after its compilation, the temple might have been constructed at a date not far removed from 1604.

Thus, one can easily conclude, from what has been discussed above, that the temple was constructed by a date between 1588 A.D. and 1604 A.D. with some marginal difference at the latter.

The above is the first phase of the architectural history of the Golden Temple or Harimandir. Soon after the temple was constructed it attracted the notice of the Mughals who were not favourably inclined towards the Sikhs:

The Mughals, the ruling class, read some motive in the construction of this temple which obviously was drawing large numbers of people together, offering a potential danger to Mughal authority.

They presumably got suspicious and thought it to be a religious pretext of the Sikhs to organise themselves into a military force against the Mughal Government.

Not only the Mughals, even the Muslim rulers of Afghanistan gradually started showing militant postures against the Sikhs quite frequently.

The architectural history of the Golden Temple for about more than a century after its construction was marked by numerous destructive attacks on it by the Muslim invaders and the reconstruction of the temple by the Sikhs on each occasion.

Ahmad Shah Abdali, it is known, demolished the temple as many as seven times, the last being in the year 1764. But even after this the Sikhs did not subside, and rebuilt the temple during 1764-1776.

Since that date the temple was very carefully guarded by the Sikhs and was patronised with the required spiritual devotion.

Later, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839), with his religious zeal and verve, added a brilliant chapter to the architectural history of the Harimandir.

It is known that he patronised the work of rebuilding the temple requiring considerable amount of additions, alterations and ornamentation, starting from the year 1802.

In this activity, the architectural fabric of the Golden Temple presumably got a new orientation in terms of the design and the decor.

Since then no major changes in the architecture of the Golden Temple seem to have been made although routine renovations might have been done from time to time, necessitated by the exigencies of the ravages of time and weather.

The major dates known for the construction and reconstruction of the Golden Temple could, thus, be summarised as follows:

1. The first construction took place sometime between A.D. 1588 and 1604.

2. Subsequent reconstruction took place between A.D. 1764 and 1776.

3. Renovation, and perhaps a major change in the design and fabric by Maharaja Ranjit Singh starting from 1802 and continued through A.D. 1839.

The historical account of the Golden Temple will remain incomplete without the mention of the building of the Akal Takht, in the precincts of the Harimandir, added by Guru Hargobind in 1608.

The entire architectural complex was thus completed, comprising the Golden Temple (Darbar Sahib), the Pool of Nectar (Amritsar) and the Akal Takht (primordial seat of sovereignty).