Saving Punjab

A Sikh architect is helping to preserve cultural sites in the north Indian state still haunted by 1947’s heart-wrenching Partition

India's Golden Temple at Amritsar—destroyed and rebuilt over centuries of strife—is to Sikhs what Mecca is to Muslims. (Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos)
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The pilgrims around us fell silent. Some shut their eyes and folded their hands. Others fell to their knees and touched their foreheads to the ground. The complex is built at a level lower than the surrounding streets so that poor and high-born worshipers alike are forced to humble themselves by climbing down into it. Gateways on all four sides are meant to welcome people of all castes and creeds. Volunteers cook and serve thousands of free meals for pilgrims each day and insist that those who eat them do so side by side. "There are no foes nor strangers," says Sikh scripture, "for we are all fellow beings."

No one gawks here. No one demands money. Everyone seems content simply to be present in this holiest of places. The pilgrims make their slow, reverent clockwise way around the marble platform that edges the pool, past an old man with a white beard reaching nearly to his waist who gently lifts his infant grandson in and out of the sacred waters; a young mother on her knees patiently teaching her little girl the proper way to prostrate herself; a cleanshaven American Sikh, his head covered with a stars-and-stripes handkerchief, praying alongside his brand-new bride, her wrists hidden by bright red bridal bangles.

The goal of every visitor is to follow the causeway that leads out to the gilded sanctum sanctorum and pay respects to the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred book that is the sole object of Sikh veneration and was first installed there in 1604. Nanak, the first of the Sikh gurus (or "great teachers") whose thoughts are contained within its pages, was a 15th-century mystic with a simple message: "There is but One God. He is all that is." In the search for salvation, the only thing that matters is meditation on his name. "There is no Hindu," he said, "there is no Mussulman."

Whether or not Nanak ever meant to found a religion, Sikhs believe he did. And this place, where his teachings and those of four of his nine successors were brought together by the fifth guru, has special meaning for them. "It is, quite simply, the core of their...being," the Sikh historian Patwant Singh has written. "It represents so many things they are immensely proud of: the vision of their gurus who gave it form and wrote the scriptures on the banks of the sacred waters; the courage of their forebears who died defending it; and the devotion with which others laid their abundant wealth before it in gratitude for the inspiration it has provided...over the centuries."

That inspiration has been sorely needed. Always outnumbered, even in their Punjabi stronghold, the Sikhs have frequently found themselves under attack. They've never failed to fight back, against the Moguls who tried to exterminate them in the 17th century, the Afghans who razed the Golden Temple three times between 1748 and 1768 and the British who by 1849 had destroyed the sprawling 19th-century empire carved out by their ablest chieftain, Ranjit Singh. Later, Sikhs served out of all proportion to their numbers in the armed forces of independent India.

But the issue of Sikh autonomy has never fully been resolved. During the 1980s, bitter, sometimes bloody quarrels between the Indian government and elements of the Sikh community led to something like a civil war. In June of 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a military assault against armed militants holed up within the Golden Temple complex. It killed several hundred Sikhs, many of them innocent pilgrims, and left the sacred structure badly damaged. Just five months later, two of Mrs. Gandhi's own Sikh bodyguards avenged that assault by assassinating her as she walked through her garden in New Delhi. Hindu mobs, egged on by politicians belonging to the late prime minister's Congress Party, then avenged that killing by butchering some 3,000 Sikhs in the streets of Delhi. More than a decade of sporadic violence followed before relative peace returned to the Punjabi countryside. But resentments remain: calendars featuring romanticized depictions of Sikhs killed during the conflict are for sale in every bazaar, and as we drove away from the temple, a cycle rickshaw crossed in front of us with flattering portraits of Mrs. Gandhi's assassins stenciled on its back.

As we negotiated Amritsar traffic, Gurmeet's iPhone rarely stopped ringing. She now heads the Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI), a multidisciplinary conservation consultancy with projects all over the country, but it is preserving the relics of Sikh history that means the most to her. We rounded a traffic circle marked by a battered Patton tank captured from Pakistan by a Sikh regiment and pulled up at a little guard post. Two watchmen peered curiously into the car window, recognized Gurmeet and waved us through. We were about to enter Gobindgarh, a 43-acre, 18th-century Sikh fortress with four mountainous bastions and a broad moat choked with trees. Ranjit Singh stored some of his vast treasure within its walls. The British Army occupied it. So did the army of free India, which in 2006 turned it over to the state of Punjab. It is not yet open to the general public, but in the middle of the old parade ground craftsmen are mixing traditional lime mortar in a circular pit. Under the CRCI's direction they are shoring up the mammoth brick tower in which Ranjit Singh lived when visiting the holy city. Gurmeet has stopped by to make sure the color of the lime is right. But she has bigger plans, as well. There are rumors that an American-based hotelier plans to turn the fort into a luxury hotel for overseas Punjabis interested in revisiting the shrines of their faith without more than minimal contact with the real India. If he succeeds, she fears ordinary citizens will be kept out of this precious relic of their history.

'"Freezing buildings in time may not work here the way it does in the West," Gurmeet says. "There are too many pressures for change. But turning everything into tourist hotels won't work either. Our historic buildings need to mean something to the people who live around them. We need to involve them in our work, to make them understand its importance." To achieve those ends she hopes to undertake an overall management plan that would both provide for world-class preservation and supply visitors with the interpretive materials they need to understand monuments like this. (Since our visit, Gurmeet has been given the go-ahead by the Punjab government.)

That understanding has largely been missing in Punjab. In recent years, for example, Sikh congregations have been "improving" historic structures by bulldozing them and then constructing ever-more-lavish substitutes on the sites. "Somewhere along the line the original, unpretentious Sikh architecture has begun to be perceived as something to be ashamed of," Gurmeet says. "Our gurus were simple, down-to-earth men of the soil, and their buildings reflect the simplicity and harmony Sikhism is all about."

Wagah marks the western end of the Indian portion of the Grand Trunk Road. It is the sole crossing point between the two Punjabs; Lahore, the capital of Ranjit Singh's Sikh kingdom and of pre-Partition united Punjab, is just 18 miles up the road. The formal flag-lowering ceremony that takes place at Wagah at dusk every evening of the year must be one of the oddest regularly scheduled events on earth. On the evening we visited, hundreds of eager onlookers streamed into specially built grandstands in the coppery light. On the Indian side, a big amiable crowd jostled one another for the best seats, men, women and children sitting together. In the roadbed, several busloads of teenage girls in brightly colored salwar kameez danced to recorded bhangra music. On the Pakistani side, a giant portrait of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father whom Pakistanis call their Quaid-i-Azam, or "Great Leader," looked down upon stadium seats in which men and women sat carefully segregated: men and boys on the left side of the road; girls and women (a handful in full-length burqas) on the right. Instead of dancing schoolgirls, three gray-bearded mullahs in green and white raced back and forth, waving huge Pakistani flags to whip up enthusiasm.


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