Of white paint and harmoniums

Around the Harimandir Sahib there were these wonderful institutions called Bungaas. Apart from being the residences of some Sikh leaders, they were also centres of learning belonging to the puratan sampradaayas of Sikhism like the Nirmalaas, the Udaasis, the Sevapanthees and others.

Amritsar in those days was a centre of culture. Raagis were trained there in the pure, classical style for keertan in the raags indicated in our Sri Guru Granth Sahib Maharaj Ji. Calligraphers produced beautiful birs of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Maharaj Ji and painters were trained in decorating the houses of the Guru with beautiful wall paintings. Aarti with lights, incense, flowers, conches and the sound of the Ranjit Nagar, added even more beauty to this atphere. Contrary to what is generally believed, the aarti is not a Hindu ritual. It is a pan-Indian act of honouring someone worthy of honour and respect. This of course applies totally to our Guru.

In those times, eminent scholars had a total mastery over Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu, Braj and the languages of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Maharaj Ji. They belonged to the traditional sampradaayas such as the Giani, the Udaasi, the Nirmalaa and the Sevapanthi sampradaaya.

Scholars, in those times, were treasures of knowledge and Sikhism produced many of them: Giani Gian Singh, Pandit Tara Singh (Narotam), Pandit Gulab Singh, Sant Rain, Anandghan, Bhai Santokh Singh, Bhai Addan Shah, Pandit Nihal Singh Thoha Khalsa. This was the 19th century. A time where it was actually difficult to call Sikhs unsophisticated. In those times no one dared to be proud of a stupid saying, "In Punjab there is no culture, there is agriculture."

Then a new movement came, motivated by noble ideals such as the removal of the ills of female infanticide, Brahmanisation of Sikhism, alcoholism and corrupt Mahants. Everyone participated. The Nirmalaas were amongst the leading figures of the Singh Sabha movement with Mahant Mul Singh and Sant Attar Singh (Mastuanawale). Bhai Vir Singh and Bhai Kahn Singh (Nabha) introduced new ways of formulating Sikhism. Their scholarship was truly a happy marriage of both Indian and Western education.

And then came the beginning of the end: the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC). Inspired by British Protestantism and willing to ape the West in some kind of frenetic fury, it looted Sikhism from inside. The plurality of interpretations of our scriptures was marginalized in favour of a more ‘rational’, ‘scientific’, yes western way of seeing things.

Using the excuse of widening the parikrama of the Harimandir Sahib, the bungas – these centres of learning – were destroyed and no alternative was found to replace them. Instead, western inspired institutions replaced them with their hordes of uneducated ‘gianis’, raagis and granthis. No Sanskrit, no Persian, and no Braj: just easy, superficial knowledge.

The harmonium was introduced in the Gurudwaras, destroying the Guru’s kirtan. The wall paintings of several gurudwaras were covered with white paint. The deraas and adheres of the Udaasi and Niramalaas were taken through violent and illegal ways. Yes, it is true that some Udaasis were corrupt. Does it, therefore, mean that we had to cut with the sampradayas that were founded by our Gurus’ The introduction of printed Birs of Sri Guru Granth Sahib was certainly an advantage for Sikh homes, but what about the calligraphers who lost their jobs’

Yes, what about the jobs?

Because of the SGPC’s hatred for art, culture and Guru Nanak’s notion of vismaad, many people lost their jobs. What about music teachers who taught dilruba, sitar, rabab…’ There was no need of them because the easy and horrible harmonium had replaced them. What about those who made these instruments’ Where is the need for painters and stone carvers when now you just need white paint’

The SGPC’s destruction of Sikh cultural heritage is not a mere accident; it is part of its policy. Sikhism has been through a cultural revolution just like China and Russia. In its attempt to ape the West, to make Sikhism look acceptable to the West, it has tried to destroy the treasures of knowledge such as the incomparable Sikh Vedantic School of which Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a good example.

During my research, I came across an Udaasi dera near Sangrur, the dera of Baba Sahib Das. I entered the dera. In the middle were placed statues of Baba Sahib Das, Baba Sri Chand and Guru Nanak Dev Ji. It smelled of incense and rose water. On the side were two Guru Granth Sahibs attended by two granthis. This was actually the real centre of the Dera. The granthis were singing the paath in the style of antiphony very similar to the Greek Orthodox chanting of hymns.

After matha tekna I sat down, transported somewhere else. I felt the presence of the Guru in that atphere of tenderness and beauty. The melodious chanting of these two granthis had nothing to do with the usual Singh Sabha type of chanting. I met the Mahant of the dera and asked him why our Guru Granth Sahib was not placed in the centre of the building.

"Son," he said, "this way we can transport the Guru Granth Sahib safely out of here in case the SGPC comes. If they see us doing path of Guru Granth Sahib they will seize our dera by force. That’s why we keep statues so that these people believe that this is not a gurudwara. We don’t believe in idol worship and false rituals: the statues are just symbolical.

Tears came again to my heart in Haridwar at the central akhara of the Nirmalaas when they were performing aarti in front of our Guru Granth Sahib after Rahiraas. I felt Bir Ras in me. I really felt that I was in presence of our Guru and not just in front of a ‘Holy Book’.

I live in the hope that one day the notion of vismaad, the respect for culture and art, will come back. Until then we will see other Gurudwaras being razed to the ground.

Leave a Reply