Chandigarh, October 25: Stunning. Mesmerising. Captivating. This is how the 800 metre stretch from Town Hall in Amritsar ending at the Ganta Gar side of the most sacred Sikh shrine that is the Golden Temple can be described. Deputy Chief Minister and Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh Badal calls it Heritage Street. However, it is in fact the tourism street.
The demolition of the infrastructure around the shrine that was developed by the Fourth Sikh Lord Guru Ram Dass, the founder of this holy city, started when the central government planned the Galiara project under the garb of the beatification scheme in 1988. That covert design of sanitisation has been taken to yet another level. It is now Amritsar rebuilt. It is red stone that has been used to give the area heritage look. The Punjab heritage is otherwise associated with Nanakshahi bricks. The Kar Sewa babas started using marble to kill the gurdwara architecture. The original gurdwara architecture is still preserved-only in Pakistan, the birthplace of this Faith.
This remodelling of the 800-metre stretch is just the template. This model would be replicated in the entire walled city area beginning with the streets around the Golden Temple provided the Akali Dal gets third term to rule Punjab in February 2017 elections. There is a political touch to the architectural marvel.
The stretch from Town Hall to the all-marble plaza in front of the Golden Temple has been given ‘heritage’ look with homogenous facade of all the buildings in the area. The people who spent years in that area just can’t recognise it. Heritage is preservation of the existing, not giving a new look. Remove the heritage tag and then one can compromise with the changes.
The Town Hall, that was about to be demolished to pave way for some other structure, was finally preserved after hue and cry raised by the concerned citizens. The first ever museum on the partition of the country, rather that of Punjab, has been set up here. It is an effort done very well by Chandigarh educated journalist-turned-curator Kishwar Desai. This is her first venture. This museum is to be expanded. Partition of Punjab was the biggest tragedy in which lakhs of people were killed on the “two sides”. It also witnessed the biggest ever transfer of population in the history of the region.
Then there is the Model of Parliament House with statute of Dr B R Ambedkar. It has nothing to do with the Sikh architecture or associated with the Golden Temple heritage. Of course, the placement of the statute of this Dalit icon and father of the Indian constitution can be seen in the context of the electoral matrix of Punjab. The Akali Dal had otherwise been demanding that the constitution should be rewritten to reflect the ambitions and aspirations of the Sikhs as promised by leaders like Mahatama Gandhi and Pt Jawaharlal Nehru before partition of India.
The old statute of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at Malka Chowk has been replaced by a new one having a large marble foundation. This is an ideal site for tourists to click selfies and pictures. Opposite this statute on one side of the Dharam Singh market have been placed statutes of Bhangra dances. Bhangra is only a stage dance. These statutes are out of sync with the sanctity of the road-not street- leading to the Golden Temple. It was a narrow lane years back before first project was launched widen access to the shrine from the Town Hall area. That was in 1969. Even during that first demolition drive, two pillars with small paintings leading to the main entrance were left untouched. These pillars suddenly disappeared after the paintings got damaged in the absence of preservation. That was destruction of the heritage.
The presently drive can be compared with the twin observation towers of Bunga Ramgahria in the Golden Temple complex which were given an un-aesthetic pink stone look to repair the damage to the small brick structure during Operation Bluestar. These towrs had come under tank fire. The same could have been repaired by using bricks of the. These were the watch towers which were given domed look during its repair. This new look has nothing to do with the original structure. The new look road is perhaps on that very pattern.
Then Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee president Gurcharan Singh Tohra had once narrated views of a member of its executive committee on the methods to deal with the increasing rush of devotees. The great idea was to rebuild a bigger Golden Temple. This was not on the record. Although this shrine was completely demolished by Afghan ruler Ahmed Shah Durrani, it was rebuilt by the Sikhs without tinkering with the design. It was Maharaja Ranjit Singh that undertook its gold-plating that otherwise is contrary to the Sikh doctrine of which this shrine is a symbol. Not a brick of this structure can be tinkered with. The Akal Takht was constructed by Guru Hargobind as temporal seat in front of the Golden Temple where he used to hold his Durbar. However, the dome of the Akal Takht is different from that of the Golden Temple based upon the underlying doctrine.
Sukhbir has replicated this dome at the huge gate that has been built on Amritsar-Delhi highway replacing the earlier gate that was aesthetically designed. The new gate is bigger in size with a big dome at the top. One does not know whether this dome is the replica of the dome of the Golden Temple or that of the Akal Takht. One is not sure whether these two domes can be replicated. There can be no other gurdwara based upon the design of the Golden Temple. Strong objection was raised when similarly designed gurdwara was being constructed at Mastuana in Sangrur district.
Here is an interesting part of what can be termed as Amritsar heritage. The main entrance to the Golden Temple is known as the Ghanta Ghar. However, this is no clock tower. The one constructed by the British administration was subsequently demolished. However, the same name continues. The plaza is at that site. There is Phuwara Chowk in this area but there is no fountain. The fountain was demolished for free flow of traffic. Then there is Malka Chowk where statute of Queen Victoria had been installed. It was replaced by that of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The name of the chopwk continues to be Malka chowk. The earlier statute of the Maharaja too has been replaced by his new statute on a big marble platform. That heritage is part of history.
Guru Ramdass invited different sections of people to settle around the shrine. One of these markets adjoining the shrine was known as Guru Bazar. That virtually was the foundation of the city. That was demolished during beautification drive that in effect was part of the design to bulldoze all narrow lanes around the Golden Temple that facilitated escape of many militants during the army attack on the shrine in June, 1984 code named Operation Bluestar. The fencing of the border with Pakistan and ‘beatification’ of the Golden Temple area had been undertaken almost simultaneously.
Nothing wrong with beautification and re-development of infrastructure but the only issue is that of doing it under the name of preservation of heritage. Sukhbir has been around the world and he must have seen as to how old towns have been preserved in the West. Vatican is a classic example. There has been demand for years to have Vatican like status for the area where the Golden Temple is located.
Of course, good effort has been made in the underground halls of the plaza to capture Sikh history through modern technology.
Would this beautification drive get votes for the Akali Dal facing strong anti-incumbency? This is the basic question. The Akali Dal used to get votes from the Sikhs in the name of the Panth but over the years, the Panthic character of this party got eroded. The new look party is now seeking votes on the deconstructed Panthic agenda that is the re-look Amritsar.
It is vehicle free zone where vehicle of the SGPC president can’t enter. But what about fleet of the Akal Takht jathedar parked in front of his office? What about Sukhbir’s own fleet? In case it has to be a vehicle free zone, that has to apply to everybody. That might get more votes.