By Rishpal Singh Sidhu | OPINION |
The Golden Temple, also known as Harmandir Sahib or Darbar Sahib, is spiritually the most revered, sacred, and significant site in Sikhism. While there is no religious requirement or compulsion for Sikhs to go on a pilgrimage to visit historic Sikh sites, like Mecca is to the Muslims and the Vatican is to the Catholics, the many Sikhs who have visited the Golden Temple have always come away in awe and respect of its deep spiritual significance. Guru Arjan (English translation, as cited in Singh, 1998) said “there is nothing like it in all the three worlds. Harimandar is like the ship – means for the people to cross over the worldly ocean triumphantly. A new joy pervades here every day. A sight of it annuls all sins.” 1 Prof. Inder Jit Singh wrote “it is sanctified by the blood of our martyrs. Sikh history lives and speaks to us through its bricks and mortar, and therein lies its significance to Sikhs and Sikhism throughout the world”.2 He also lamented the use of the moniker “Golden Temple”. The late Prof. W.H. McLeod voiced the same thought to this writer (personal communication, 2000).
This article attempts to etymologically examine the variant names and spellings used to describe the Golden Temple over the years, why it came to be called as such, and asserts the case for reversion to its original name of Harmandar or Darbar Sahib. It also seeks to consider how and why a gurdwara is uniquely different from a temple, and posits the case for a change in thinking. Not half in jest, Prof. Inder Jit Singh observed, “I smile to myself when I hear a Sikh refer to a gurdwara as our “temple” or ”church” in a non-Sikh gathering. He is trying a short-cut to communication but loses precision in the process. A gurdwara is definitely not a church or a temple, just as a synagogue is not one, nor is it a mosque. Now with so many gurdwaras around the world, it is time for the term ‘gurdwara’ to take its rightful place in the lexicon describing places of worship.” 3
There are currently a number of variant terms, phrases, and spellings attributed to addressing the Golden Temple before it came to be called by this name. Har Mandar (Temple of God), Harimandir, and also spelt as Harimandar. The term Harimandir is composed of two words Hari and Mandir (meaning temple or house) which various scholars translate either as a Temple of God, a Temple of Lord Vishnu, and Abode of Lord Vishnu. It has also been called Harmandir Sahib, literally meaning House of God; Sri Harmandir Sahib; Darbar Sahib meaning Abode of God, Exalted Holy Court, Exalted Court; and Sri Darbar Sahib.
Sahib is a term of Arabic and Turkish origins and means owner, holder, or master. Its usage has since passed on to several languages including Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, Gujarati, Pashto, and Marathi, and is akin to the way Mister (derived from the word master) and Mrs (derived from the word mistress) is used in the English language. The term Darbar refers to a court or hall of audience in Urdu from the Persian and is used to refer to a hall in a Sikh temple. Darbar Sahib refers to the main hall within a Sikh gurdwara. It means the Guru’s Court and is also used in reference to the central building at Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar. More importantly, Darbar Sahib is the hall where the Sri Granth Sahib is placed on a takhat or throne in a prominent central position in the hall in any gurdwara.
Harmandir Sahib appears to be the original name of the Golden Temple. According to Singha (2005), there are two other gurdwaras named Harmandir Sahib, namely the one in Kiratpur where Guru Hargobind spent his last few years and also one at Patna which is regarded as one of the five Takhats and is known as Takhat Shri Harimandir Ji Patna Sahib.4 This gurdwara was affected by the earthquake which hit Bihar in 1934. In its place today stands a four-storeys marble building completed in 1960, and one of its rare artefacts includes a copy of the Adi Granth bearing Guru Gobind Singh’s signature.
Likewise, a number of variant but not markedly too dissimilar spellings have been ascribed to the word gurdwara including gurudwara and gurooduaraa, and it can only be used to describe a building which houses the Guru Granth Sahib. Besides the Granth Sahib, the four other defining features of a gurdwara include the presence of the Nishan Sahib, pangat (free community kitchen), sangat (holy congregation) and golak or Guru Ki Golak (Sanskrit golak; Persian gholak) meaning the Guru’s own till or cash box used for receiving and keeping contributions of money for charitable purposes and for administration of the gurdwara. The word gurdwara is a compound word comprising Guru, meaning teacher, spiritual guide, and enlightener. The word Guru is also used to describe a preceptor giving personal religious instruction. The word dwara or duaar means doorway, gateway, portal, or abode. The word dua means blessings or benediction. Gurdwara also means the gateway through which the Guru can be reached.
This writer asserts that the epithet ‘temple’ is incorrectly used in describing the Golden Temple. In etymological terms, the word temple is derived from the Latin templum, used to describe a Roman structure dedicated for religious and spiritual activities including prayer and sacrifice and analogous rites. While there is more than a semantic difference in meaning between rituals and ceremonies, no sacrificial rites or sacraments take place in our gurdwaras. The sukhasan (sukh meaning comfort/pleasure/bliss, and asan meaning position or posture – collectively, it means posture of rest, peace, and tranquility) or ceremonial closing of Guru Ji’s saroop and placing in a special room or place can rightly be described as a rite or ritual, as can the prakaash (meaning light, radiance, awakening, enlightenment) ceremony of bringing Guru Ji’s saroop from the sachkhand (realm of truth) to the darbar hall for the day.
Notwithstanding its association with the religion of ancient Rome, the use of the word temple dates back much earlier to the 6th century BC. It has since acquired common usage in describing any house of worship for a number of religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Masonic, and Zoroastrians. In past times, only the priests were allowed to penetrate these buildings (not unlike the behavior of some of the corrupt masands and pujaris who at some point in its history jealously guarded the entrance to the Harmandar Sahib) which were usually associated with the dwelling places of a particular god or set of gods. In the New Testament the word temple acquires a symbolic meaning as evidenced by Paul’s epistles.
- Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple (I Corinthians III, 16)
- We are the temple of the living God (II Corinthians VI, 16)
- Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians VI, 19)
Gurbani explains that we carry the divine within us and Guru Nanak has taught us that God is everywhere, in each living being.
Sikh writer and publisher of the influential Design journal Patwant Singh (2008) noted that “certain aspects of the siting, scale, design and construction of the Harmandir was strikingly at odds with the trends of those times. While the design and scale of the Renaissance buildings of that period in Europe – and other religious structures like mosques, temples, churches and cathedrals – were meant to reflect the power and wealth of a particular faith, or to glorify the monarchs and merchant princes who helped build them, the Harmandir was markedly different.” 5 More importantly, this single-storied structure “was built even lower than the surrounding land so that the modest size of the building would stress the faith’s enduring ability, strength and confidence, not through extravagant architectural statements or the grandeur of its buildings, but by allowing the appeal of that faith to irresistibly draw people to it as well as the nobility of the idea it enunciated that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God, not because of class or caste or the majesty of the buildings they build in his name, but because it is their God given right to be treated as equals.” 6
Hindu temples are closed on three sides and are usually built and open only towards the east or rising sun which is regarded as auspicious by followers of the Hindu faith. In contrast, the Harmandir Sahib was built to be open on all four sides, signifying that worship was open to all and was not concerned with sun worship. “The Granth Sahib is placed in the middle of the temple so that no man may seat himself in its place.” 7 In common with Hindu temples, the focus in our gurdwaras is also on the location and positioning of the inner sanctum such as to allow space for circumambulation. However, this is where the similarity sharply ends. Incense is not burned before the Granth Sahib in our gurdwaras, nor are cymbals tinkled, and bhajans sung, and nor is there a priestly order.
Following its capture by the Mughals in 1757, the Harmandir Sahib was desecrated and razed to the ground, and it was again attacked and razed to the ground in 1762 by Afghan invader Ahmad Shah Abdali, founder of the Durrani dynasty. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire, took great interest in getting the Harmandir Sahib artistically decorated and he engaged the best artists and craftsmen from Chaniot in Pakistan to adorn the Harmandir Sahib. He is largely credited with rebuilding the Harmandir Sahib in marble and copper in 1809, and overlaying the sanctum with gold foil in 1830. Yar Mohammad Khan Mistri was the technical expert for carrying out this gold plating. 8 The dome and surrounding turrets are covered with gold plated cover copper sheets and this led to it acquiring the epithet ‘golden’ and being described as the Golden Temple by the Europeans.
“Some Sikh chieftains had also engaged skilled marble cutters and masons to shape and lay slabs on the parkarma, the circumambulatory walkway around the pool…After the walls of the Harmandir had been lined with marble panels, they were inlaid with a wide variety of animal and bird life and once in a while a human figure. As more sites of sublime significance were developed around the Harmandir, the complex came to be known as the Darbar Sahib. In time, the Harmandir too was identified as the Darbar Sahib, until the two became indistinguishable from each other, although the magnetic pull that the Harmandir proper exercises on the minds of the devout has not been equalled by any other building in the complex.” 9
Succeeding generations of Sikhs from within India and overseas have since lavished their munificence on enhancing both, the magnificence and adding technological improvements to this much beloved place of worship. There are unverified reports that the temple’s main dome is gilded with 750 kilograms of gold. In 2018, it was announced that the four domes at the entrance to the Harmandir Sahib would be renovated with 160 kilograms of pure 24 carat gold through kar seva (service and worship) and monies raised from voluntary contributions. 10
Regardless of whichever name it is called, the Harmandir Sahib today would be a front-runner to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, neither the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) nor the many Sikh community organizations in India and Sikh diaspora organizations overseas are in favour of the proposal as they fear that designating the Harmandir Sahib as a World Heritage Site would lead to a loss of control at institutional level, and that control would be transferred to the central (union) government of India. This is not necessarily an unfounded belief.
In its early years and up till 1906, the Harmandir Sahib housed murtis (images, statues or idols) of Hindu deities in common with other Hindu temples around the world. In sharp contrast to what takes place in our gurdwaras, the offering of light, flowers, water, fruit, and incense are essential rituals in Hindu temples. To the believers, the divine is visible in Hindu temples in the image of the deities, and the divine sees the worshipper. Hindu worship is primarily an individual rather than a communal activity, and this differs from Sikh belief which embraces both forms of prayer and worship. The foregoing practices are all very compelling reasons for not using the word ‘temple’ to describe our gurdwaras around the world.
The Harmandir Sahib has been in existence for more than 400 years and it is high time to question and abandon the use of both, the moniker ‘temple’ and the name Golden Temple and revert to its unique and original name Harmandir Sahib. The everlasting glitter of gold on its domes is but a defining architectural characteristic. Deeper still is our intrinsic belief and knowledge that the Harmandir Sahib serves as a permanent historical reminder of the deep and abiding faith in our religion.
- Singh, H. Editor-in-Chief. The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism. Vol 4. Punjabi University Patiala, p.242.
- Singh, I.J. In his foreword to the late Retired Justice Dr. Choor Singh Sidhu’s book Sri Harmandir Sahib Amritsar; The Golden Temple of the Sikhs. Herts, United Kingdom, European Institute of Sikh Studies, 1999, p.xvi.
- Singh, I.J. ‘A granthi…priest, rabbi and minister, Nishaan Nagaara, 2003, III, pp. 38-41.
- Singha, H.S. The Encyclopedia of Sikhism. 2d ed. New Delhi, Hemkunt Publishers, 2005, p.97.
- Singh, P. and Rai, J.M. Empire of the Sikhs; The Life and Times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. New Delhi, Picus Books (An imprint of Hay House Publishers (India) Pvt Ltd, 2008, p.43.
- Ibid, p.44.
- Macauliffe, M.A. The Sikh religion; Its Gurus, sacred writings and authors. Amritsar, Satvic Media Pvt Ltd, (1909, reprint January 2009, vol 3, p.9.
- Shankar, V.N. & Bhatnagar, R. The Golden Temple: A gift to humanity. Gurgaon, Haryana, India, Ranvir Bhatnagar Publications, 2004, p.27.
- Singh, P. and Rai, J.M. Empire of the Sikhs; The life and times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. New Delhi, Picus Books (An imprint of Hay House Publishers (India) Pvt Ltd, 2008, p.45.
- Times of India, 17 July 2018.
Rishpal Singh Sidhu is a semi-retired library and information services professional based in Sydney, Australia. He has a passion for research, writing, and teaching. He is the editor of Singapore’s Early Sikh Pioneers: Origins, Settlement, Contributions and Institutions.
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