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History of Harmandir Sahib – The Golden Temple

The Golden Temple (also known as the Harmandir Sahib) is a gurdwara located in the city of Amritsar, Punjab, India, is the superior spiritual site of Sikhism.

The Golden Temple (also known as the Harmandir Sahib, lit. ‘abode of God’ or the Darbār Sahib, ‘exalted court’) is a gurdwara located in the city of AmritsarPunjab, India. It is the superior spiritual site of Sikhism. It is one of the holiest sites in Sikhism, alongside the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib Kartarpur in Kartarpur, and Gurdwara Janam Asthan in Nankana Sahib.

Choice of Land

The Golden Temple

According to the Sikh historical records, the land that became Amritsar and houses the Harimandir Sahib was chosen by Guru Amar Das, the third Guru of the Sikh tradition. It was then called Guru Da Chakk after he had asked his disciple Ram Das to find land to start a new town with a man-made pool as its central point.

After Guru Ram Das succeeded Guru Amar Das in 1574, and in the face of hostile opposition from the sons of Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das founded the town that came to be known as “Ramdaspur”. He began by completing the pool with the help of Baba Buddha (not to be confused with the Buddha of Buddhism). Guru Ram Das constructed his new official center and home next to it. He invited merchants and artisans from other parts of India to settle in the new town with him.

Ramdaspur town expanded during the time of Guru Arjan funded by donations and constructed by voluntary work. The town grew to evolve into the city of Amritsar, and the area grew into a temple complex. The construction activity between 1574 and 1604 is described in Mahima Prakash Vartak, a semi-historical Sikh hagiography text likely composed in 1741, and the earliest known document dealing with the lives of all the ten Gurus.

Guru Arjan installed the scripture of Sikhism inside the new gurdwara in 1604. Continuing the efforts of Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan established Amritsar as a primary Sikh pilgrimage destination. He wrote a voluminous amount of Sikh scripture including the popular Sukhmani Sahib.

Construction

Maharaja Ranjit Singh listening to Guru Granth Sahib being recited near the Akal Takht and Golden Temple, Amritsar, Punjab, India

Guru Ram Das acquired the land for the site. Two versions of stories exist on how he acquired this land. 

In one, based on a Gazetteer record, the land was purchased with Sikh donations of 700 rupees from the people and owners of the village of Tung. In another version, Emperor Akbar is stated to have donated the land to the wife of Guru Ram Das.

In 1581, Guru Arjan commenced the construction of the Gurdwara. During the construction, the pool was kept empty and dry. It took 8 years to complete the first version of the Harmandir Sahib. Guru Arjan planned a gurdwara at a level lower than the city to emphasize humility and the need to efface one’s ego before entering the premises to meet the Guru. He also demanded that the gurdwara compound be open on all sides to emphasize that it was open to all. The sanctum inside the pool where his Guru seat was, had only one bridge to emphasize that the end goal was one, states Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair.

In 1589, the gurdwara made with bricks was completed. Guru Arjan is considered by some later sources to have requested the Sufi saint Mian Mir of Lahore to lay its foundation stone, signaling pluralism and that the Sikh tradition welcomed all. This belief is however unsubstantiated. According to Sikh traditional sources such as Sri Gur Suraj Parkash Granth, it was laid by Guru Arjan himself. After the inauguration, the pool was filled with water. On 16 August 1604, Guru Arjan completed expanding and compiling the first version of the Sikh scripture and placed a copy of the Adi Granth in the gurdwara. He appointed Baba Buddha as the first Granthi.

Ath Sath Tirath, which means “shrine of 68 pilgrimages”, is a raised canopy on the parkarma (circumambulation marble path around the pool). The name, as stated by W. Owen Cole and other scholars, reflects the belief that visiting this temple is equal to 68 Hindu pilgrimage sites in the Indian subcontinent, or that a Tirath to the Golden Temple has the efficacy of all 68 Tiraths combined.

The completion of the first version of the Golden Temple was a major milestone for Sikhism, states Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair, because it delivered a central pilgrimage place and a rallying point for the Sikh community, set within a hub of trade and activity.

Mughal Empire era destruction and rebuilding

The growing influence and success of Guru Arjan drew the attention of the Mughal Empire. Guru Arjan was arrested under the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and asked to convert to Islam. He refused, was tortured, and executed in 1606 CE.

Guru Arjan’s son and successor Guru Hargobind left Amritsar and moved into the Shivalik Hills to avoid persecution and to save the Sikh panth. For about a century after Guru Arjan’s martyrdom, state Louis E. Fenech and W. H. McLeod, the Golden Temple was not occupied by the actual Sikh Gurus and it remained in hostile sectarian hands.

In the 18th century, Guru Gobind Singh and his newly founded Khalsa Sikhs came back and fought to liberate it. The Golden Temple was viewed by the Mughal rulers and Afghan Sultans as the center of the Sikh faith and it remained the main target of persecution.

The Golden Temple was the center of historic events in Sikh history:

  • In 1709, the governor of Lahore sent in his army to suppress and prevent the Sikhs from gathering for their festivals of Vaisakhi and Diwali. But the Sikhs fought by gathering in the Golden Temple. In 1716, Banda Singh and numerous Sikhs were arrested and executed.
  • In 1737, the Mughal governor ordered the capture of the custodian of the Golden Temple named Mani Singh and executed him. He appointed Masse Khan as the police commissioner who then occupied the Temple and converted it into his entertainment center with dancing girls. He contaminated the pool. Sikhs avenged the sacrilege of the Golden Temple by assassinating Masse Khan inside the Temple in August 1740.
  • In 1746, another Lahore official Diwan Lakhpat Rai working for Yahiya Khan, and desiring revenge for the death of his brother, filled the pool with sand. In 1749, Sikhs restored the pool when Muin ul-Mulk relaxed Mughal operations against Sikhs and sought their help during his operations in Multan.
  • In 1757, the Afghan ruler Ahmad Shah Durrani, also known as Ahmad Shah Abdali, attacked Amritsar and desecrated the Golden Temple. He had waste poured into the pool along with entrails of slaughtered cows, before departing for Afghanistan. The Sikhs restored it.
  • In 1762, Ahmad Shah Durrani returned and had the Golden Temple blown up with gunpowder. Sikhs returned and celebrated Diwali on its premises. In 1764, Baba Jassa Singh Ahluwalia collected donations to rebuild the Golden Temple. A new main gateway (Darshan Deorhi), causeway, and sanctum were completed in 1776, while the floor around the pool was completed in 1784. The Sikhs also completed a canal to bring in fresh water from the Ravi River for the pool.

Ranjit Singh era reconstruction

An 1880 photograph of the Golden Temple, sacred pool and the nearby buildings. The walled courtyard and entrances were added later.
An 1880 photograph of the Golden Temple, sacred pool and the nearby buildings. The walled courtyard and entrances were added later.

Ranjit Singh founded the nucleus of the Sikh Empire at the age of 36 with help of the Sukerchakia Misl powers he inherited and those of his mother-in-law Rani Sada Kaur. 

In 1802, at age 22, he took Amritsar from the Bhangi Sikh misl, paid homage at the Golden Temple, and announced that he would renovate and rebuild it with marble and gold. The Temple was renovated in marble and copper in 1809, and in 1830 Ranjit Singh donated gold to overlay the sanctum with gold leaf.

After learning of the Gurdwara through Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad “Mir Osman Ali Khan” started giving yearly grants towards it.

The management and operation of Durbar Sahib – a term that refers to the entire Golden Temple complex of buildings, was taken over by Ranjit Singh. He appointed Sardar Desa Singh Majithia (1768–1832) to manage it and made land grants whose collected revenue was assigned to pay for the Temple’s maintenance and operation. Ranjit Singh also made the position of Temple officials hereditary.

Destruction and reconstruction after Indian Independence

The destruction of the temple occurred during Operation Blue Star. It was the codename of an Indian military action carried out between 1 and 8 June 1984 to remove militant Sikh Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers from the buildings of the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) complex in AmritsarPunjab

The decision to launch the attack rested with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In July 1982, Harchand Singh Longowal, the President of the Sikh political party Akali Dal, had invited Bhindranwale to take up residence in the Golden Temple Complex to avoid arrest. The government claimed Bhindranwale later made the sacred temple complex an armory and headquarters.

On 1 June 1984, after negotiations with the militants failed, Indira Gandhi ordered the army to launch Operation Blue Star, simultaneously attacking scores of Sikh temples across Punjab. A variety of army units and paramilitary forces surrounded the Golden Temple complex on 3 June 1984. The fighting started on 5 June with skirmishes and the battle went on for three days, ending on 8 June. A clean-up operation codenamed Operation Woodrose was also initiated throughout Punjab.

The army had underestimated the firepower possessed by the militants, whose armament included Chinese-made rocket-propelled grenade launchers with armor-piercing capabilities. Tanks and heavy artillery were used to attack the militants, who responded with anti-tank and machine-gun fire from the heavily fortified Akal Takht. 

After a 24-hour firefight, the army gained control of the temple complex. Casualty figures for the army were 83 dead and 249 injured. According to the official estimates, 1,592 militants were arrested and there were 493 combined militant and civilian casualties. According to the government claims, high civilian casualties were attributed to militants using pilgrims trapped inside the temple as human shields.

Brahma Chellaney, the Associated Press‘s South Asia correspondent, was the only foreign reporter who managed to stay on in Amritsar despite the media blackout. His dispatches, filed by telex, provided the first non-governmental news reports on the bloody operation in Amritsar. 

His first dispatch, front-paged by The New York TimesThe Times of London, and The Guardian, reported a death toll about twice what authorities had admitted. According to the dispatch, about 780 militants and civilians and 400 troops had died in fierce gun battles. Chellaney reported that about “eight to ten” men suspected Sikh militants had been shot with their hands tied. 

In that dispatch, Mr. Chellaney interviewed a doctor who said he had been picked up by the army and forced to conduct postmortems despite the fact he had never done any postmortem examination before.

In reaction to the dispatch, the Indian government charged Chellaney with violating Punjab press censorship, two counts of fanning sectarian hatred and trouble, and later with sedition, calling his report baseless and disputing his casualty figures.

The military action in the temple complex was criticized by Sikhs worldwide, who interpreted it as an assault on the Sikh religion. Many Sikh soldiers in the army deserted their units; several Sikhs resigned from civil administrative offices and returned awards received from the Indian government

Five months after the operation, on 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated in an act of revenge by her two Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. Public outcry over Gandhi’s death led to the killings of more than 3,000 Sikhs in Delhi alone, in the ensuing 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

In December 2021, a young man was allegedly beaten to death after disrupting the Rehras Sahib (evening prayer) at the sanctum of the temple. He reportedly jumped over a railing and picked up the sword lying before the temple’s copy of the Guru Granth Sahib, before attempting to touch the Guru Granth Sahib itself. He was subsequently overpowered by the Sangat and received fatal injuries to the head.

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