“The Spatiogeometrical analysis of first Sikh shrine – Sri Harmandar Sahib, Amritsar, Historicity and hermeneutics” by Rawal Singh Aulakh and Karamjit Singh Chalal

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The first Sikhi book club of 2018 discussed the book “The Spatiogeometrical analysis of first Sikh shrine – Sri Harmandar Sahib, Amritsar Historicity and hermeneutics” by Rawal Singh Aulakh and Karamjit Singh Chalal. The book can be found here.

Summary of points discussed:

  • Analysis of title and author’s background
  • Was Harmandar Sahib the first Sikh shrine?
  • Terminology used within the article and its relevance
  • Planning of the city of Amritsar
  • Link between the compilation of Aad Granth and the significance of Harmandar Sahib
  • Sacred architecture across differing faith traditions
  • The significance of destruction of Harmandar Sahib
  • Conclusions about the article

In Depth Analysis

The discussions kicked off with an analysis of the article’s rather complex title. Many members found the article quite technical overall, starting with the concepts mentioned within the title. From looking up the word ‘hermeneutics’ this previously used to refer to the Christian word for bible and essentially refers to the theory of interpretation. Historicity refers to the historical authenticity and origin of Harimandar Sahib.

The members initially shared general thoughts about the article. This was an academic paper from an academic journal and so was written a high level. It raised some interesting questions about Harmandar Sahib and its history. Despite this, it didn’t flow very well and the conclusion felt rushed. Additionally the authors made mistakes in terminology which didn’t align with Gurmat and some comments were presented at facts but not corroborated by evidence. When references were presented, these provided a useful insight into some of the terminology and concepts within the article. The authors did throw light on the relationship between space, architecture and spirituality.

It was interesting to note the author’s background. These are assistant professors of architecture – not philosophers – but their aim was to try and bridge the gap between the two disciplines. One of the reasons this article was shown was to discuss whether there is there such a thing as Sikh architecture?

The article mentioned that Harmandar Sahib was the first Sikh shrine. Initially Gurdwaras as we know it today were called Dharamsals (as were lots of places of worship from other faiths). The word Gurdwara came later in history. The word Gurughar also isn’t technically accurate – this is where the Guru resided rather than the place where the Sangat worshipped. Shrine is a retrospective term for important buildings (you don’t build something with the intention of it being a shrine as such). It is not a word that is adapted for Sikh terminology. Maybe this highlights the need to keep within one’s own remit when writing about subjects in which one is not an expert (i.e. spiritual terminology). Interestingly, the Aad Granth wasn’t officially installed as the Guru at Harimandar Sahib intially. It could be argued that Gurdwaras technically exist wherever the Gurus physically stepped.

The article discussed a ‘bead and thread approach to the city’. Some members found a problem with this concept as it didn’t align with the geographical reality of Harmandar Sahib. If you draw circles around places in a city, they can all be joined with lines to represent a thread. However it was interesting to see a bird’s eye view of the sites within Amritsar. E.g. the fort, Ramsar sarovar, Akal Takht, Harmandar Sahib and Guru Ki Mehal. There were different functional requirements of each area. This was interesting and perhaps an indication for how an ideal Sikh city should be planned.The members discussed the terminology of Guru Ki Mehal which is the place where the Guru resided, north of Akal Takht Sahib. Nowadays you can’t tell where this is if you visit Amritsar, but the article brought this to light.

The members pondered whether there was there a link between the construction of the city and the compilation of Aad Granth Sahib. The authors hypothesised that the compilation of Aad Granth was timed at the same time as the construction of Harmandar Sahib. Harmandar Sahib was specifically chosen for the installation of Aad Granth Sahib Ji, and is therefore the two are somewhat inseparable. This highlights the significance of the place itself and its symbolism within the Sikh psyche. There is

no doubt that the compilation of Aad Granth and the construction of Harmandar Sahib would have been happening in parallel, but is this simply because the sangat wanted these things completing with urgency and it happened at the same time rather than having some spiritual significance? We don’t know for certain.

We discussed the approach to sacred architecture across different religions. Cathedrals make people feel small and are designed so that God appears big and powerful. Harmandar Sahib is in comparison quite small – so there’s a point to be made about the importance of using spaces for symbology. What is the focus of worship in the church? On one side is the cross and the alter is on a higher level than the floor, on the other side is the congregation. It is hierarchical rather than integrative. The system of having the alter on a higher level was apparently introduced in the 1960s. Have we integrated a Christian approach to our Gurdwaras now? For example, originally the Palki Sahib was for transporting Guru Granth Sahib Ji rather than being used a throne. Nowadays the palki is frequently used in the main divaan halls of Gurdwaras to elevate Guru Granth Sahib Ji. The article made reference to the fact that in Islamic architecture the direction of the building is the most important.

Conversely Hindus have an inward focus in Mandirs. This is more intimate and contains a space in the centre of the Mandir which is essentially a holy space around which there is a small area for worshippers to pay their respects.

The authors presented a theory which highlighted significance of the structure of Harmandar Sahib in terms of the Khands. Not everyone bought into the idea of the khands being integrated into the design of the building, but the authors are simply presenting their hypothesis which may or may not be true. We were not sure if the hypothesis related to any kind of spiritual meaning in terms of practically improving the spirituality of Sikhs. Similarly the authors presented a hypothesis for the significance of 38 archways being present under the causeway of Harmandar Sahib which members found very interesting. The authors felt that this related to the 38 pauris of Japji Sahib which are crucial to the understanding of Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Some members were unsure if this was significant, whilst others felt that the Gurus never did anything by mistake or without thought, so we can assume there was some reason for Harmandar Sahib being designed this way. Certainly the significance of the message of Japji Sahib is well recognised. But people can’t actually see those 38 archways so it could be argued that they are not relevant. One member made the point that numerology is part of history and architecture in Asia across many other cultures. The members wondered where authors got these ideas and what the evidence was to substantiate the claims.

Another member pointed out that there are two Saloks in addition to 38 pauris. The authors mentioned the significance of the Golden Ratio in relation to the aesthetics of architecture. This is a mathematical ratio which makes the aesthetic of a building pleasing. This is based on the Parthenon, was used by Leonardo Da Vinci and appears in nature as well. However this concept was not expanded upon in depth during the article. The authors are architects and could have expanded on this concept and how it relates to Harimandar Sahib.

Following from this, we discussed the significance of the multiple destructions of Harmandar Sahib. The rebuilding can be reflective of resilience and each destruction provided unity as the sangat rebuilt Harmandar Sahib. Some members felt sure that the foundations of Harmandar Sahib remained unchanged through that time. This article didn’t allude to whether this was true. We reflected upon the fact that the the sarovar could have been a defensive feature (like a moat). We know that the Bungas (fortified towers) were used as a defensive mechanism, and that these also served a dual purpose for education of Sikhs (vidhya). However now, there are only two Bungas left which is incredible considering their important role in our history.

The book club members finally discussed whether we as a Panth have lost an aspect of the Guru’s heritage. Maybe we meant well but in ignorance we may have lost something in the process e.g. through building modern Gurdwaras. In one sense we are going backwards in terms of design of Gurdwaras compared to the authentic version. On the other hand are we being practical? When we build Gurdwaras now we don’t have uniform guidelines to conform to in terms of design and how to link this to spirituality. Are we taking principles highlighted in this article into account? Present day structures pf Gurdwaras are based on available facilities and economy rather than on spiritual concepts. However there is no doubt that the way a building is designed has a significant impact on the feelings which are evoked within the sangat.

This was a highly technical article which was, at times, difficult to comprehend on first reading. Some members wondered whether there is a need for translators who can ‘translate’ such articles into plain English for availability to the general public. Others felt that this was an academic paper and so we should try to adapt and learn in order to understand the way the paper is written. The paper was thought-provoking to the members who found it very worth reading and discussing. It highlights the need for tours to be available in Amritsar (as they are at other holy sites) to show the general public the different and interesting aspects of Harimandar Sahib.

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