Golden Temple | From Sikh State to Our Days


Part 3

Golden Temple - From Sikh State to Modern Times
years 1764-1980

After the final departure of the Durrani King in Afghanistan, in 1764 Sikhs became the masters of their land. The Misls (confederacies) were founded.

The primary object before the Khalsa was to restore the glory of the sacred shrine and the Tank of Immortality.

As more and more territory fell under their sway they were able to spend large sums on the additions to and maintenance of the Temple. The services were reorganised.

The Harimandir became the rallying centre for the Sikh religion and politics. All the leaders or Sardars visited the shrine frequently and held meetings there.

It was the duty of every Sardar to ensure the proper management of the shrine. They were to guide and instruct the persons working there.

Many of the Sardars constructed their residential dwellings known as bungas in the periphery of the Tank. These bungas served as educational institutions also. All these were named after their respective confederacies and Sardar.

These places were used as rest houses for accommodating pilgrims during festive occasions by various Misls.

These facilities began to draw very large numbers of devotees who along with their Sardars contributed liberally to the temple treasury for running the langar and undertaking the construction work of the temple.

According to Giani Gian Singh, the construction work of Harimandir, the Tank, the causeway and the Darshani Deorhi (archway) was completed in 1776.

In the ensuing years the Sardars of each Misl tried their might to expand their respective territories by subduing the local chiefs and petty lords.

Ranjit Singh proved his supremacy over others and established his kingdom in 1799 with his capital at Lahore.

Thus Amritsar lost its political importance as the headquarters of the Sikhs shifted to Lahore. The administration of the Darbar Sahib went under the control of the state.

The Maharaja took keen interest in the development of the shrine and the city. He had been visiting the Temple earlier, and even after the occupation of Amritsar in 1805.

He continued to visit the sacred shrine to pay his obeisance and made cash offerings there and at the Akal Takht.

He did not control the administration of the Temple himself but appointed a committee of respectable citizens of the city of Amritsar. He was the elected head.

He gifted the income from the entrance fee of the city to the Darbar Sahib and also granted other jagirs. The construction of various bungas and other dwellings was completed around the Temple during this period.

Sardar Lehna Singh Majithia was appointed in-charge of the shrine and Sardar Surat Singh Giani of Chiniot (District Jhang, now in Pakistan) was made the manager of the Temple.

It is said that his son Giani Sant Singh also continued to hold this position and was the in-charge of gold work done in the shrine.

It is also said that the present structure of the Harimandir was redesigned and rebuilt during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh with royal patronage.

Bhai Sant Singh Giani was asked to supervise the management of the shrine on behalf of the Maharaja. He was succeeded by his son Bhai Gurmukh Singh in 1831 and continued in this position till 1841.

During the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh some prominent Europeans also happened to visit the Harimandir:

Among them the names of Burns, Jacquemont, Lord Auckland and his sister Emily Eden and the Commander-in-chief of European armies, Sir Henry Fane, are worth mentioning.

Though the Akalis were not in favour of these Europeans paying visit to the temple, the Maharaja made elaborate arrangements for their safe conduct to the Temple. He issued very strict orders in this regard.

Special arrangements were made to celebrate these occasions and the necessary instructions were issued to the priests and custodians of the shrine for illumination and fireworks there.

It was not the intention of the Maharaja to display his personal glory but to expose the beauty and grandeur of the Harimandir and the surrounding apartments.

Many foreign artists visited the court of the Maharaj a and some of them prepared sketches and paintings of this shrine par excellence. Some of these are preserved in the British Museums in London.

Though every Sikh chief contributed for the development and beautification of the Harimandir, no one could surpass Maharaja Ranjit Singh:

The work of construction, beautification and embellishment went on uninterrupted:

The upper part of the outer walls, the kiosks and the central main dome were gold-plated, thus giving the name of ‘Swarn Mandir' (swarn=golden; Mandir=temple).

After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, his successors Maharaja Kharak Singh and Kanwar Nau Nihal Singh did pay attention to the already started work of building the temple complex and to the decorative schemes. The encasing of the Temple portion and covering of certain parts with gold leaf was carried forward.

Maharaja Sher Singh was very keen on the completion of the remaining work. He granted large sums and jagirs to the Golden Temple. However, his tenure was very short as he died in 1841.

During this period Bhai Gurmukh Singh, son of Giani Surat Singh, passed away and Bhai Parduman Singh succeeded him. He was well-versed in Gurbāṇī and kathā recitation. He managed the temple affairs very efficiently.

With the death of Maharaja Sher Singh a period of anarchy commenced: Virtually there ensued a civil war among various factions of Sikhs and the courtiers.

The royal patronage to the Golden Temple came to an end. Punjab was annexed in 1849 by the British and the glorious epoch of the Golden Temple was brought to an end.

The greedy and selfish class of priests, engaged in the service of the Temple, took advantage of the disturbed situation. They became corrupt and embezzled the Temple funds and offerings.

British administration had nothing to do with the affairs of the shrine. But soon the British realised that the Golden Temple was much more to the Sikhs than a mere place of worship.

Sikhs and Sikhism had their roots in the immortal waters of this sacred tank of Guru Ram Das that have never allowed the tree of this martial faith to wither.

To have sway over the Sikhs, it was imperative to acquire some sort of control over the Temple. To begin with, they did not disturb the existing arrangements:

Sardar Lehna Singh was permitted to continue as Manager of the Golden Temple. But overall supervision of the Temple was in the hands of the Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar.

In 1862 the British authorities started the construction of a Clock Tower in Gothic architectural style in the north-eastern wing of the outer parikarmā by demolishing some buṅgās (dwellings):

This included the Buṅgā of Kanwar Nau Nihal Singh and the Aṭṭārī of Rani Sada Kaur. These buildings were very dear to the Sikhs. Their sentiments were hurt but they were helpless before the authorities.

The building of the clock tower was completed. Later, this structure was pulled down by the Sikhs when they resumed control of the Temple complex.

To look after the Temple affairs, the Deputy Commissioner appointed a committee of ten prominent Sikhs.

This Committee could not function for a long period due to certain reasons. The authorities did not take any interest in filling up the vacancies resulting from the death or departure of certain members.

Another committee consisting of 9 Sikhs was constituted by the Deputy Commissioner and a ‘Sarbrāh' was appointed to assist the committee. But this committee too met with the same fate.

The Sarbrāh took full control of the Golden Temple:

Being a Government nominee, he hardly cared for the sentiments of the Sikhs. He was answerable only to the Deputy Commissioner from whom he used to receive instructions.

The priestly class asserted their proprietary right over the income of the Temple. All sorts of mismanagement, embezzlement and irregularities were committed by them. So the Sikhs approached the Deputy Commissioner who called a meeting of some prominent Sikhs.

After long discussions a code of control, i.e., rules and regulations for the administration of the Golden Temple affairs, was framed.

But with the passing of some time the Sarbrah started ignoring these rules. The management of the Golden Temple became far from satisfactory:

Even the established Sikh religious rituals were ignored. The surrounding building in the parikarmā had been occupied by the public and some undesirable elements.

Some of them had even set up their commercial establishments in the precincts and some Hindu priests had started idol worship alongside.

The prevailing situation gave a rude shock to the Sikhs and they were compelled to think and consider some ways to improve the management of the Temple:

A meeting of prominent Sikhs was convened and the matter was discussed:

The Khalsa Diwan Lahore proposed in a meeting, held in 1907, that the Sarbrah should be removed and a committee consisting of Sikh Chiefs be appointed in his place.

On 12 October 1920, another incident took place and marked a milestone in the history of the shrine:

The priests fixed the time for entry to the Golden Temple from 9 a.m. for Sikhs belonging to the Backward and Scheduled Castes.

One day karah parshad brought by some Scheduled Caste persons was not accepted. It was against the basic tenets and teachings of the Sikh Gurus who preached equality.

The action of the priests was protested against. The followers of the faith assembled in a congregation and pressed upon the priests for the acceptance of karah parshad.

After some altercations the priests gave in and accepted the karah parshad offered to the Almighty in the Golden Temple.

From here the congregation went to Sri Akal Takht to discuss the other matters relating to the Sikh Panth and the central shrine, but to their surprise they found that the priests had already deserted the Takht.

The Sangat appointed a committee of Sikh representatives for its management.

The Deputy Commissioner, Amritsar, appointed his own committee the next day with the manager (Sarbrāh) as its president.

With this incident a struggle between the Government and the Sikhs began for the control of the Sikh shrines:

The Sikhs started a non-violent movement for reform in Sikh shrines. They wanted to get the Sikh Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) liberated from the clutches of the corrupt Mahants (abbots).

The Sikhs wanted to retrieve the control of the Golden Temple from the British authorities so that the Temple complex could be cleared of all kinds of undesirable elements.

To achieve this goal a meeting of prominent Sikhs was convened by the Jathedar of Sri Akal Takht on 15 November 1920. It was resolved that a committee representing members from all walks of life be appointed to manage the Temple.

On the other hand, the Lt. Governor of Punjab set up a local committee consisting of 36 members two days before the Sikh Conference.

To avoid a confrontation between the Government and the Sikhs, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala mediated and it was resolved that the committee of 175 members be formed and it would also include all the 36 members (Sikhs) appointed by the Government.

This committee was known as Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). Sardar Sunder Singh Ramgarhia was appointed its President until proper elections were held.

The first meeting of the SGPC was held on 12 December 1920 and Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia was elected its President. He later resigned to join the Punjab Government and Baba Kharak Singh replaced him on 14 August 1921.

The SGPC took over the management of the Golden Temple.

It further nominated another sub-committee of 9 members with Sardar Sunder Singh Ramgarhia as its President to look after the Sikh shrines including the Golden Temple. This committee framed some rules for the management of the Temple affairs.

Under the guidance of the committee, the idols and relics which were against the basic Sikh tenets were cleared from the surroundings of the Golden Temple in spite of resistance from some Hindus.

All the offerings and other income were to be deposited with the SGPC.

This committee worked hard for about 1.5 year to regulate services at the Golden Temple and brought tremendous improvement in its management.

Control of the Gurdwaras began to pass one by one from the Mahants to the SGPC, but there was strong resistance and opposition where the priests and Mahants were strongly entrenched or enjoyed the patronage and backing of the Government.

There were many obstacles in the working of the SGPC.

The priests were not ready to part with the property and offerings of the shrines, having come to consider these as their personal possessions.

The Deputy Commissioner, Amritsar, refused to acknowledge this committee on legal and technical grounds.

On November 21, 1921, the District Magistrate of Amritsar raided the house of Sardar Sunder Singh Ramgarhia, the President of the Golden Temple, and forcibly took away the keys of the Temple treasury.

An agitation for the return of these keys ensued. Many prominent Sikhs, including some members of the SGPC, were arrested and put in jail.

The agitation spread like wildfire under the growing pressure of the movement and, frightened at the surcharged atmosphere in the country, the authorities had to come to a settlement with the Sikhs:

The keys were returned to Baba Kharak Singh, the President of SGPC, on 19 January 1922.

This was the first victory of the Sikhs and was also termed as the first victory in the battle for Independence of the country by national leaders including Mahātma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who were fighting for the freedom of the country.

After this the Sikhs stepped up the struggle for reforms in the Gurdwaras. This movement is known as Gurdwara Reform Movement in Sikh history.

In the year 1923, on June 27, the Sikhs undertook the kār seva (service through voluntary labour) at the Golden Temple.

Maharaja Sher Singh had earlier started such kār seva but could get hardly one corner of the tank desilted, before he breathed his last.

In the kār seva of 1923 persons from all walks of life irrespective of their caste and creed participated. Some Hindus and Muslims also took part in it.

Maharaja Bhupindar Singh of Patiala, who commanded great respect among the Sikhs, also participated in the service which continued for 22 days! The whole “Tank of Immortality” was desilted and refilled with water.

The movement against the Mahants and the pujārīs continued for years together with vigour and enthusiasm against the Mahants and the pujārīs.

Jathās (bands) of devoted Sikhs started moving towards the Guru kā Bāgh, Jaitu, and Nankana Sahib (now in Pakistan) to liberate their shrines there from the greedy and corrupt priests. They had to make numerous sacrifices in these morchās (agitations).

The SGPC was declared an illegal body by the Government on 13 October 1923. Hundreds of Sikhs were arrested, many were killed and a number of them paid lakhs of rupees as fine.

But the indomitable Sikh spirit did not relent. The movement became very powerful and the authorities came to an agreement. Thus the movement ended in success.

The British had to legislate the Gurdwara Act which was duly signed by the Governor General on 28 July 1925.

Under the Act the management of the Golden Temple was handed over to the SGPC permanently replacing from the clutches of the hereditary pujārīs, Mahants and Sarbrāh.

Later on some other historical Gurdwaras also came under this body.

Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee was formed with duly elected members and proved a boon for the rapid development of the Golden Temple.

This local committee worked in a planned manner.
Everything had to be executed according to stipulated rules and regulations.

A proper office of this committee was established and some appointments were made on a regular basis, according to the nature of work. The accounts were kept and audited properly. The salaries of the staff were fixed, their duties and cadre determined.

With this a tremendous improvement in the management of the Darbār Sāhib was brought about. The devotees visiting the Temple increased manifold. New programmes and schemes were planned for further development of the Temple complex.

A scheme for widening of the outer parikarmā (circumambulatory path) was drawn and a sum of Rs. 20,000 was provided in the SGPC budget of 1928-29 for this purpose.

In the northern and southern corners of the eastern side of the Tank two structures were raised which are called poṇās (bathing compartments for the ladies).

Drinking water facilities (chhabīls) were provided for in all the four corners of the outer parikarmā. A group of devoted Sikhs was appointed to look after the welfare of the pilgrims in the outer parikarmā.

To provide more facilities to the pilgrims, a new rest-house was planned; the foundation of Guru Ram Das Sarai was laid by Sant Sadhu Singh of Patiala on 17 January 1931:

In this building there are 132 rooms and 8 halls spread across two storeys. On the ground floor is housed a library called Guru Ram Das Library, for the benefit of devotees and scholars.

The buildings of Akal Rest House, Nānak Niwas, Teja Singh Samundari Hall, Manji Sahib, and Diwan Hall were added later on.

Under the parikarmā scheme, the work of dismantling of the various buṅgās of different Sardars was commenced on 29 October 1943. And the Gharyalia Buṅgā was the first one to be removed.

With the amendment of the Gurdwara Act in 1945 the SGPC assumed more powers and more Gurdwaras were brought under its control. It became an elected body constitutionally.

The pace of construction work accelerated.

The work on the new parikarmā with three entrances was commenced.

In the first floor of the southern entrance of the Temple is located the Sikh Reference Library and to preserve the history and culture of the Sikhs the first floor of the northern entrance was converted into the Central Sikh Museum.

The second kār seva (service through voluntary labour) took place in 1973:

The tank was desilted after 50 years. The foundations of the main shrine, the causeway were reinforced with cement and concrete.

All this work was done under the supervision of Baba Jiwan Singh.