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In the last few years, Sikh heritage sites have been undergoing restoration and renovation. However, there have been shocking instances in the name of modernisation. The Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee has been criticized for entrusting the preservation of Sikh heritage and art to kar sewa volunteer service groups. These groups have turned out to be the expert destroyers of this valuable heritage.

One example of this destruction is the fight to save Guru Ramdas Sarai and the 'bungas' of Darbar Sahib from demolition. This represents the obliteration of Sikh heritage by the Sikhs themselves over the last few decades. It also shows how eager Sikhs are to save what they can, even if it isn't very old or has nothing to do with the Gurus.

The sarai, which is an inn, is 90 years old, and Giani Sant Singh, who was the head granthi of Darbar Sahib during the time of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, lived in the underground bunga. Gianiji oversaw the gold finishing of the sanctum sanctorum, and his family lived in the 'bunga' until it was bought by the plaza project.

The destruction of Sikh historical structures has sparked outrage both offline and online, marking a new trend in this region. While many heritage pillars have been lost to time and nature without much resistance, some noted Sikh intellectuals have spoken out against such actions. However, the razing of historical sites was met with indifference by the masses, and as a result, little distinction remains between historical and other gurdwaras that have been renovated with marble and glazed tiles.

On the other side of the Radcliffe Line, old Sikh shrines in West Punjab have been neglected but have not disappeared completely. In East Punjab, however, many historical sites have been demolished in the name of 'sewa', under the watch of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), since its opponents have been unorganized.

While SGPC president Bibi Jagir Kaur faced criticism for agreeing to demolish Guru Ramdas Sarai, the destruction of heritage had been ongoing long before she took office. "The community has woken up late," explains history professor Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon, formerly of Panjab University. "Already, important structures and signs of our history have been destroyed on the pretext of kar sewa. Only the British, when they annexed Punjab used to erase symbols of the Sikh empire like this," he adds.

According to the professor, the Sikh heritage has been ignored even after Independence. "No other community has treated its heritage like this. Any new construction should be kept off the historical sites." He believes that design, rather than money or ignorance, is behind the demolition of historical structures, otherwise, it would not be possible to ignore public sentiment. As an example, he points out that the bullet marks of Operation Bluestar were erased in just 37 years, but those of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, just a few yards away, remain even after 100 years. 

Distasteful restoration 

Baba Kashmir Singh Bhuriwale's kar sewa group recently found an old jora ghar near the Golden Temple. This has brought back worries about how Sikh history is being mishandled. The Sikh Sadbhavana Dal, led by Baldev Singh Wadala, said that the SGPC and kar sewa group were "erasing the last bits of Sikh heritage" and asked the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to look into it. The ASI agreed that the ruins were from a historic building and suggested that they be kept, but the SGPC was reluctant to do so. Because of this, the Sadbhavana Dal started a drive to put more pressure on the government to protect the forest.

In addition, the Dal also criticized the SGPC's proposal to demolish the oldest existing Sikh sarai, Guru Ram Das Niwas, which was founded in 1931. Balwinder Singh, the former head of Guru Nanak Dev University's Guru Ram Das School of Planning, praised the concept of kar sewa in Sikhism but emphasized the need for conservation specialists to supervise it rather than regular architects.

Concerns about the preservation of Sikh heritage have also been raised in other instances. When Navjot Singh Sidhu was the Punjab minister for records and museums, he was worried about the Kartarpur Corridor plan to build concrete structures at Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur and Naorwal in Pakistan. He even sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggesting that sites associated with Guru Nanak Dev be declared heritage villages and that the antiquity of Dera Baba Nanak and Kartarpur Sahib be preserved.

In the past, the SGPC refused to give the Dera Baba Nanak gurdwara to Kar Sewa Wale Baba, and Sangat Langah Kartarpur fought against tearing down a gurdwara built in 1744. Although the then SGPC chief secretary denied the demolition plans, surveyors had taken photographs of the structure. The local sangat wanted to preserve the building's heritage structure with a mix of modernism.

Similarly, the sangat in Tarn Taran had objected to the partial demolition of the centuries-old Darshani Deodi, and a significant portion of the 200-year-old hand paintings depicting the life history of Guru Nanak Dev had vanished from the 40-meter-high, nine-story, octagonal structure at Gurdwara Atal Rai Sahib due to weathering and neglect. The SGPC had only hired experts to handle the frescoes, tukri, and gatch work after much of the damage had already occurred.

Sikh heritage panel sought

In April 2019, senior advocate H S Phoolka made a request to Giani Harpreet Singh, the acting jathedar of Akal Takht, for the creation of a Sikh heritage commission consisting of experts in the field. The objective of this commission would be to oversee the restoration and repair of historical buildings that hold significance to the Sikh community. In response, the jathedar promised to consult with the SGPC and the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) regarding the matter.

Several other Sikh groups also voiced their concerns about the preservation of the marks of Operation Bluestar and the riots of 1984. These groups recognize the importance of maintaining and preserving the historical significance of these events and believe that a commission of experts would be instrumental in achieving this goal.

Architectural marvel

Located in the city of Kiratpur Sahib, near Anandpur Sahib, stands a unique architectural masterpiece - the Baba Gurdita Ji Da Dehra. This ancient structure was built using Nanakshahi bricks, which were known for their intricate patterns and designs even on the floor. The Dehra features minarets adorned with rare jaali made from these small bricks, showcasing the exceptional craftsmanship of its builders.

However, over the years, the beauty of the brickwork has been obscured by layers of marble and cement, which were added to the structure about two decades ago. Fortunately, the work was halted by Dr Gurbachan Singh Bachan, the then-SGPC secretary, who was alerted to the situation and intervened to stop the damage. Sadly, today, the intricate brickwork is barely visible in the Dehra due to the covering of marble and cement.

Frescoes replaced by bathroom tiles 

In 1992, an act of kar sewa resulted in the replacement of priceless historic frescoes at the Gurdwara Atal Rai Sahib with bathroom tiles. This incident has since been a source of controversy and concern for many in the Sikh community.

Recently, the American Sikh Council (ASC) advised the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to establish its own team of archaeologists to prevent similar mistakes in the future. An ASC spokesperson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to policy matters, expressed the need for a permanent and highly educated professional staff of heritage conservationists who are dedicated to preserving the structures where Sikh blood has been shed.

The spokesperson also criticized the SGPC's lack of competence and suggested that it operates more like a corrupt enterprise. The ASC, which oversees 74 gurdwaras, further stated that even common Sikhs in Punjab have lost their moral compass and the courage to speak out against such actions.

Protests started only in 2018

The Sikhs have long been feeling a sense of resentment towards the loss of their cultural heritage. This feeling became more apparent on September 14, 2018, when they stopped the SGPC and Baba Jagtar Singh Kar Sewa Wale from demolishing the 16th-century Darshani Deodhi at Tarn Taran, a rare example of old engineering, architectural aesthetics, craftsmanship, and frescoes, founded by Guru Arjan Dev and completed during the Sikh empire three centuries later. Ten days later, the DSGMC was also forbidden to demolish Gurdwara Rakabganj with the help of the Bhuriwale kar sewa group, who had been instructed to stay away from Guru Ram Das Sarai in Amritsar. The Sikhs gathered on September 23 and threatened to start a morcha. Social media has played a significant role in building public opinion in these cases.

In the matter of the bungas, Bibi Jagir Kaur,SGPC President has assured that they will remain intact. She has consulted with panthic scholars and historians on the preservation of historical buildings, despite deliberate attempts to discredit their efforts. During kar sewa near the Golden Temple, a building surfaced, which was excavated by their diggers, who have now isolated the site. The bungas have been preserved in the condition in which they were found.

History is getting erased 

Thanda Burj -  In Sirhind, there are two significant historical sites associated with the tragic events of December 1705, which resulted in the martyrdom of the two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh. This is where the Guru's grandsons, along with their grandmother, were detained for several cold and terrifying nights before being bricked alive. 

Chamkaur Di Garhi - It is a haveli where the last Sikh Guru fought a difficult battle against the Mughal army, during which his two elder sons gave up their lives.

Bebe Nanaki’s house - Sultanpur Lodhi, a historic town in India, was once the home of the elder sister of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Guru Nanak himself stayed there for years before embarking on long journeys. Unfortunately, the abode of the elder sister was demolished by Baba Jagtar Singh Kar Sewa Wale, who also razed the Darshani Deodhi at Tarn Taran two decades later.

Anandpur Sahib - In 1999, during the tercentenary of the founding of Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh, the historic town witnessed the demolition of its checkpost forts of Holgarh, Taragarh, Fatehgarh, Anangarh, and Lohgarh. These forts, according to Colonel Ravi Batra's book "Leadership In Its Finest Mould," were evidence of the military genius of Guru Gobind Singh. Unfortunately, the rare frescoes adorning these forts were whitewashed with carelessness. 

The restoration of Sikh heritage sites is a significant undertaking that requires careful attention to detail and a deep understanding of the cultural and historical significance of these sites. While it is essential to restore these sites to their former glory, it is equally important to ensure that the restoration is done artfully and with the utmost care.


*Based on an article by IP Singh & Yudhvir Rana, published in Times of India on 23rd August 2021

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