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Above: Gurdwara Rori Sahib, Eminabad, Pakistan. Image below of Gurdwara Kottha Sahib: courtesy: Akram Warraich,

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JOGISHWAR SINGH

 

 

 

I recently had the occasion to be present at three events held inside three very old churches in Switzerland.

The first was the installation of my elder son’s father-in-law as the Parish Pastor in the Abbey at Payerne, between Bern and Lausanne.

The second event was listening as a spectator to my wife in a choir, singing the Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi in the majestic Cathedral in Lausanne.

The third was a recital of an Oratorio composed by Emmanuel Bach (son of Johann Sebastian Bach) in the old Roman style church at Saint Sulpice near Lausanne.

As the only turban wearing Sikh at these three events, I was not only quite visible but also remarked upon because several people not known to me walked up to me to begin general conversations, asking me questions about my faith.

I was slightly late in getting to the recital in Saint Sulpice, having driven all the way down from Langenthal where I had gone to participate in the sangat of the only gurdwara in Switzerland, on the occasion of Guru Nanak’s Gurpurab.

It was an exalting day for me. I participated in the singing of shabads at the gurdwara and then listened to a text of exquisite spiritual composition by Emmanuel Bach in Saint Sulpice!

As I walked in late into a packed church, there was no seat available so I had to stand by the side of the entrance door. My wife told me later that one of her fellow singers told her that almost all the singers had seen me as I entered. They imagined me as one of the Three Wise Men who had come from the Orient to pay homage to baby Jesus after his birth!

The three churches, the one in Payerne, the one in Saint Sulpice as well as the one in Lausanne, are several centuries old. All have a purity of construction which manifests itself in dignified simplicity in their interiors. It was an intensely spiritual experience listening to Verdi’s Requiem in the interior of a classically designed gothic cathedral in Lausanne.

While enjoying my experiences in the three places, my mind turned to something which I think about more and more: why do westerners try and preserve the architectural heritage of their religious (and other) places while we Sikhs keep pulling down our old buildings and replacing them with marble laced mausoleum-like antiseptic structures?

I again asked myself this question after reading in a local newspaper that the provincial government of the province where I reside (Canton de Vaud) had granted over a million Swiss Francs for the preservation of the Abbey in Payerne which has suffered damage with the passage of time. The Lausanne Cathedral has also undergone a substantial cleaning and renovation.

This got contrasted with what a senior journalist of a major Indian newspaper, himself a Sikh, told me in Geneva a few days ago. He said that he had tried to raise awareness against a decision to destroy the ancient structure of Bebey Nanaki’s house, only to replace it by a modern structure. He had failed in his efforts.

This correspondent also told me about the damage being inflicted by several kaar-seva babas who keep destroying old structures and replacing these with ‘modern’, marble-clad bigger structures. Having personally observed the consequences of the work done by some of these babas, I could not but agree with the journalist.

On my last visit to the Darbar Sahib complex in Amritsar, I observed that several paintings on the walls of Gurdwara Baba Atal had been crudely covered with white paint, that is, simply whitewashed. I have also seen several structures dating from Guru Gobind Singh’s time, falling apart in Anandpur Sahib with their bricks being carried away by people.

The government of Punjab has certainly funded, wholly or partially, the construction of a Sikh Heritage museum in Anandpur Sahib (which I have not yet visited) but it is also indifferent to the destruction of existing structures from old times.

During my first visit to Pakistan in 2007 I had the occasion to pay obeisance at Gurdwara Rori Sahib near Emnabad before visiting Bhai Lalo’s house and Gurdwara Chakki Sahib. The Rori Sahib shrine is still in small red brick, not having been torn down to be replaced with a massive marble structure which it surely would have been had it been on the Indian side of Punjab.

This obsession of plastering marble all over the place in our gurdwaras has started affecting shrines in Pakistan as well. I was told about plans to replace the outside flooring of Gurdwara Dehra Sahib (the site of the martyrdom of Guru Arjan) in Lahore with marble. I saw bricks being torn out, piled up next door, outside the Samadhi of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Lahore, and being replaced with marble slabs.

Gurdwara Janamasthan Guru Ram Das in Choona Mandi, also in Lahore, was being repaired. I have since not been there to pay my obeisance there but fear that this might have gone the “marble” way as well.

Nobody seems to be asking whether these kaar-seva babas take proper architectural advice from specialists while destroying old heritage structures, only to replace them with massive new marble, tomb-like structures.

What I felt in the three old structures in Payerne, Lausanne and Saint Sulpice was much deeper than what I feel in some of the newer marble edifices created by the kaar-seva babas. Why are they allowed to tear down our common heritage without any historical or architectural input? Why are they not obliged by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) to consult architects and historians before being allowed to decide whether an existing Sikh heritage structure should be restored or torn down to be replaced?

We are all concerned about the younger generations of Sikhs supposedly drifting away from the Sikh visual identity or even from the fundamentals of the Sikh faith (just witness the plethora of paintings of Sikh Gurus now being worshipped in Sikh homes and even in some gurdwaras). If we do not even preserve our architectural heritage to bind them to our traditions, are we really rendering any service to Sikhi?

Why are more of us not raising our voices to stop the damage being done by the babas to our architectural heritage, however well intentioned they might be? The majesty of our Gurus’ teachings does not depend on constructing massive marble structures. Guru Nanak preferred Bhai Lalo’s humble offering, instead of Malik Bhago’s lavish gifts. Humility is praised everywhere in the Guru Granth Sahib as a cardinal virtue. So why this fascination with massive marble structures? Who are we trying to fool?

Our actions go more and more against the values taught by our Gurus but we try to project these by constructing marble structures.

We have to professionalise the upkeep, construction and designing of gurdwaras. No such construction should be allowed without consulting a panel composed of religious scholars, architects and historians. I have no doubt that Sikh architects, historians and scholars would be more than willing to serve on such panels on a voluntary basis. Or at least I hope they would do so!

Each heritage structure should be maintained and restored instead of being torn down to be replaced by marble plastered structures. Since nothing seems to move in India without the government being a principal, awareness about the importance of Sikh architectural and historical heritage has to be inculcated in bureaucrats entering government service.

There are so many affluent Sikhs residing within and outside India. Why do none of them show more involvement about saving Sikh heritage structures from ongoing destruction by a plethora of babas by endowing charitable trusts and foundations which would use the services of these very well-meaning sevadaars but for restoring / maintaining existing heritage structures rather than their destruction? It would be a much greater seva to the community to do something like this than giving large amounts of money to gurdwaras in order to have their names emblazoned on marble tiles on the walls and floors of newly built marble “mausoleums”.

If architects need to be compensated for their assistance in such work, this could also be ensured by such trusts or foundations.

It is obvious that Sikhi is a much younger religion than Christianity or Islam or Judaism. This is all the more reason why we should strive to preserve and maintain our architectural and historical heritage rather than leave only a heritage of similar looking, giant marble structures to our coming generations which might be left wondering whether this is all we had. Do we want to bequeath only copy cat marble structures, built without any regard for the surrounding environment, filled with pictures of Sikh Gurus based purely on artists’ imaginations in complete contradiction to the Gurus’ message, as Sikh architectural heritage to our coming generations of youngsters, especially outside India?

Sikh children born and raised outside India should show more interest in stopping, or at least slowing down, this ongoing destruction of Sikh historical and architectural heritage in India, especially in Panjab. They should link their financial help to Sikh organisations in Punjab to the preservation / maintenance of our heritage.

Before contributing funds to the kaar-seva babas, we should all take the trouble of finding out whether any professional architects / historians / religious scholars have been associated with the planning and execution of their construction projects.

Professionals can bring a new dimension to our religious shrines. A beautiful example is a stained glass mural in the new Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Southall near London. I have not seen the newly built gurdwara in Dubai but have heard that its architecture is quite remarkable. I hope to see it soon.

On a lighter note, I suggest affluent Sikhs should pay for making the kaar-seva babas to travel to Europe and see the superb restoration work done on gothic cathedrals in Chartres, Lausanne, Amiens and other places to pass on architectural / historical patrimony to coming generations. This might make them realise that preservation and maintenance of heritage structures is actually a better service to the community than destruction of such heritage and its replacement by lifeless marble structures.

I am reminded of a quote by Aldous Huxley at the end of his essay about the Taj Mahal, which I read in school in one of our text books.

It said: “The Taj is made of marble and marble hides a lot of sins”.


November 25, 2013
 

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder (Punjab), November 25, 2013, 10:12 AM.

All religions are a healthy mix of modernity and heritage. Time is, however, a constant changer. We need to take ownership of that change.

2: Ravinder Singh Khalsa (Los Angeles, California, USA), November 25, 2013, 12:22 PM.

Great article. I agree with it wholeheartedly ...

3: Aryeh Leib (Israel), November 26, 2013, 2:13 AM.

Jogishwar ji brings up a number of salient points. But a structure that will stand the test of time and changing conditions can only be erected on a strong and firm foundation. I suggest that the sangat-at-large would be better served if those affluent Sikhs would direct their Guru-given largesse into EDUCATION, without which these physical structures - old and new - will be just so many castles in the air with no inhabitants. The wealthy members of the US Jewish community were similarly afflicted with this "Edifice Complex" back in the 1950's, and were saved only by a grassroots movement that put people first. In my opinion, Sikhi needs to turn that corner in order to jump-start its own revival.

4: Dr. Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 26, 2013, 1:15 PM.

History will repeat itself if you forget it - it is imperative that we maintain and sustain our architectural and religious heritage in it's original glory which conveys the original intended message, and not succumb to unsubstantiated and/or misleading distractions or explanations proffered by other religions (and I say this with utmost respect for all other religions). Architecture, old or new, in itself is a living, breathing monument that conveys depths of meaning and touches the soul in an indescribable manner, thus etching an indelible and everlasting impression. Let us all do our best to preserve our heritage and assist others in their similar efforts.

5: Jasbeer Singh (India), November 27, 2013, 1:53 AM.

Can you please translate this in Gurmukhi (Punjabi) and send it to the SGPC, DSGMC and to all the other decision-makers involved in gurdwara renovations and construction? But before that, we need to educate ourselves, as people sitting in our institutions are not willing to see the other side of the coin. We need a coalition - made of various existing Sikh groups all over the world with like-minded people - before history starts its repetition. However, we have lots of money to waste instead of putting it to right and needed cause(s). [EDITOR: Why don't you take on the task of having the article translated into Punjabi and distributed, as needed? As long as you credit the author, the translation is accurate and well-done, and the distribution is done with finesse ...]

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