Bulldozing History

His dilemma may be ironic in the tercentenary year of the Khalsa, but as the Punjab Government prepares to celebrate the event with concrete monstrosities and Bollywood-style hoopla, even the town where Guru Gobind Singh gave Sikhism its current form on Baisakhi Day in 1699, is fast losing is architectural heritage.

Already, the original home of Guru Tegh Bahadur, Sikhism’s ninth guru and father of Guru Gobind Singh, who founded the settlement of Chak Nanki (that eventually acquired the name of Anandpur Sahib) in 1665, has made way for gurudwaras stacked with marble and gold. "The town still has people who’ve seen the haveli, where the Bhora Sahib Gurudwara now stands.

But there’s no sign of the old structure now," says Gurmeet Sangha Rai of the New Delhi-based NGO, Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI), which has petitioned the Punjab and Haryana High Court to get the state government to conserve 48 historic sites at Anandpur Sahib in desperate need of repair.

For Rai, this isn’t some nostalgia trip, but the loss of a significant artifact of Sikh history. For, the original haveli, built with the thin, hand-backed nanakshahi bricks, testified to not only the architectural style in vogue at that time, but also the spartan lifestyle of the founders of the faith. Even the unostentatious underground mediation chamber of the guru has been overlaid with fine embellishments that don’t in any way reflect the spirit of the structure.

Not any different is the fate of the Anandgarh fort, one of five built by Guru Gobind Singh after he fought his first battle at Bhangani when he was 22. Anandgarh’s significance lies in it being the place where the tenth guru lived along with his army, but today, not much is left of the past, barring a flight of steps going up to the banks of the Sutlej river that once flowed at the foot of the hill where the fort stood.

Another structure dating back to the guru is an ornate baoli (stepped well) inside the fort. It had been dug up by the guru’s army in the course of a siege laid by the Mughals, and later decorated with elaborate brick arches and pavilions by the mid-18th century Sikh chieftain, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia. Today, its marble fa‡ade, dating back to the 1930s, only underlines what Patwant Singh calls a profusion of ‘ghastly new structures with no sense of history."

Maybe this had to happen, for as Raj points out, just three historic sites comprising 25-odd buildings linked with Sikh history.

Quila Mubarak at Patiala, Kapurthala’s Moorish que and Rambagh Garden Amritsar-are being protected by the state’s department of archaeology. The Archaeological Survey of India’s involvement with sikh heritage ends with the upkeep of the gate leading up to the Rambagh Garden, which, again, isn’t suprising, giving that the national custodian of our heritage has added just 250 monuments to its list of protected structures in the four decades since the passage of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. The remaining 3.000-odd centrally protected structures, ironically, are a legacy of Lord Curzon, having been listed under the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, 1904

Patwant Singh, however, says it’s still not too late for an institution on the lines of Britain’s National Trust to be set up by the Punjab Government for the upkeep of orphaned historic structures. "If the Akali government can find time from infighting, it can set up a Punjab Heritage Trust with seed money from the Rs. 100 crore Central grant," avers Singh, pointing out that what’s happening in Anandpur Sahib is "symbolic" of a national trend.

"We spend money on all sorts of things, but not on making a permanent contribution to our heritage. Tradition, after all, plays a very important role in buildings a nation’s self-esteem, which is sustained by staying in touch with the past."

Sharing Singh’s sentiments, Nalini Thakur, noted conservationist, and Head, Department of Architectural Conservation at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, says: " We must understand the sensibilities of those who established the religion and feel responsible towards the products of their faith." Anandpur Sahib is a classic case of an absence of both, what Singh calls "the betrayal of a sacred charge".

Singh cites the example of the Anandpur Sahib Urban Development Authorities proposal to widen, from 10 feet to 80 feet, the road between two historic gurudwaras-Keshgarh Sahib, where Guru Gobind Singh administered amrit to his first five disciples and established the Khalsa, and Sis Ganj, where the head of Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was executed in Chandni Chowk, Delhi, on Aurangzeb’s orders on November 11,1675, was cremated five days later by his nine-year-old son and successor. The proposed road only illustrates what Thakur calls the "non-integration of town planning and cultural resource management."

As Singh points out, Anandpur Sahib is primarily a pilgrimage centre and the act of pilgrimage denotes walking. He had even suggested to the Punjab Government to build a parikrama (walkway) lined with gardens and shrubbery linking the town’s historic gurudwaras. Predictably, his proposal was ignored, and the road, unless the High court intervenes, will only expose the historic structures to vibrations and fuel fumes- a deadly double as-sault on remnants of a rich history struggling for survival. "By destroying of topography of a place of religious significance, you deprive it of its serenity and sanctity, taking away half the pleasure and experience of going to religious place," says Singh.

 

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