January 13, 2012

Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, New Delhi

Located on the renowned Chandni Chowk street under the shadow of the ethereally majestic Red Fort, Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, one of the most revered Sikh shrines in the city, was built in remembrance of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth of the ten Sikh Gurus (spiritual masters). Its copper-plated, golden gleaming onion domes and towering Nishan Sahib were what attracted my friend Nikhil and me to visit this historical Sikh pilgrimage while on our way to the expansive Red Fort complex – and surprisingly, we experienced tranquility and spiritual calmness to such a degree in here that we preferred being here over being at the magnificent fortress, which we visited later. The Gurudwara, much like the rest of Chandni Chowk, remains crowded at all times of the day – but the people here are more ordered, intent on their own being instead of disturbing or judging others and seeking spiritual and mental peace without any shoving, pushing or rushing through – in fact, as long as we weren’t disturbing anyone, nobody seemed to mind in the slightest our going around and photographing the proceedings without bothering to pray ourselves or even sit in the carpeted shrine a little while.

Shining like a beacon - Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib

To begin with, here's the history of the place – Guru Tegh Bahadur ("Mighty of the Sword") was born Tyag Mal in the holy city of Amritsar in the year 1621. After he showed unmatched valor against the mighty imperial armies of the Mughal Dynasty (ruled AD 1526-1857), his father Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh Guru, bestowed him with the title “Tegh Bahadur”. Following his father’s demise and his own ascension to the ultimate seat of Sikh religio-spiritual and political power, he continued with the unrelenting rebellion against the terrible atrocities committed towards non-Muslims by Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir (ruled AD 1658-1707) who fervently wished to convert India to an Islamic state. He was on a missionary tour in Bengal and Assam when he heard that the Emperor, continuing with his intensive efforts to compel Hindus to convert to Islam, had turned his attention towards Brahmins, the custodians of Hindu faith, and begun persecuting and torturing them under the assumption that if they embraced Islam, the rest of the Hindus, under sustained pressure from the state, would soon follow suit. Iftekhar Khan, the Governor of Kashmir, began vigorously executing this horrific policy since Kashmiri Brahmins are considered amongst the most learned and spiritually inclined. Prominent Hindu warlords like the Maratha leader Shivaji and Rajput vassals of Aurangzeb expressed their helplessness in the matter, and legend goes that the terrified Brahmins convened at the renowned Amarnath shrine to pray and discuss about this calamity that had befallen their faith when Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of death and destruction and the presiding deity of Amarnath, appeared to them in their dreams and ordered them to seek Guru Tegh Bahadur. 500 Brahmins, under the leadership of Pandit Kripa Ram of Kashmir, met the Guru at Anandpur (Punjab). Moved by their woe, the Guru had a challenge proclaimed that if the Emperor could succeed in converting him to Islam, all Hindu Brahmins and their followers would accept his dictates too, but if he failed to do so he must stop this appalling persecution and torture. The Guru then proceeded towards Delhi but was arrested enroute and brought to the royal court as a prisoner. The year was 1675 and the official (misguided) explanation for the arrest was that his armed accomplices had wreaked havoc in the province of Punjab through acts of dacoity and pillage and he was also nefariously involved in converting Muslims to Sikhism. Despite incessant torture and humiliation administered, the Emperor, who perceived the Guru’s growing popularity a threat to his own sovereign standing, failed to convince him to convert to Islam and, as a last resort at persuasion, had his foremost disciples (who were bluntly outspoken in public condemnation of the former’s and his Governors’ misdeeds) arrested and imprisoned at the jail ("Kotwali") that existed at the spot where the Gurudwara exists today. The disciples too were tortured in front of the Guru’s eyes – Bhai Dayala was tied and thrown into a large cauldron of fiercely boiling oil and burned till his mortal remains were reduced to a block of cinder, Bhai Mati Das was slowly sawn alive in two and Bhai Sati Das was hacked to pieces – each of them expressed the last wish of being allowed to face their adored Guru while they were being tortured and died courageously with Sikh hymns on their lips.

A closer view

The sight of the heroic martyrdom of his disciples did not disturb the Guru's mind in the least and he continued to refuse to convert in the face of death. Frustrated in his heinous efforts, the Emperor eventually had him beheaded on November 11th, 1675, in the presence of a large crowd under a Banyan tree adjacent the kotwali. Immediately upon the Guru’s execution, the city was shrouded in a fierce dust storm and everyone, including the Emperor and his administrators, had to return indoors. Before the body could be quartered and exposed for public view, Lakhi Shah Vanjara, one of the Guru’s disciples, stole it under the cover of darkness and took it to his home which he set alight to cremate the body – a small shrine was built at the spot to commemorate the event. Another follower Bhai Jaita (later Jeevan Singh) took the severed head (“Sis” in Hindi/Punjabi) to the Guru’s family at Anandpur where it was cremated by Gobind Rai, the Guru's anguished young son and successor. Guru Gobind Singh became the tenth and last Sikh Guru and commissioned another Gurudwara, also christened Guudwara Sis Ganj Sahib, at Anandpur where he cremated his father's head. Obliged by the Guru’s sacrifices, Hindu Brahmins posthumously entitled him “Hind di Chaddar” (“The Shield of India”).

When the Sikh military leader Baghel Singh defeated Mughal forces and overran Delhi in AD 1783, he ordered construction of several Gurudwaras including Sis Ganj Sahib in Chandni Chowk at the venerated spot where the tree under which the revered Guru was beheaded grew and Rakab Ganj Sahib where Lakhi Shah’s house once existed and the Guru’s body was cremated. It is interesting to note that Baba Baghel Singh was such a formidable adversary that he performed the ultimate act of political defiance by building Gurudwara Sis Ganj in the immediate vicinity of Red Fort, the seat of Mughal sovereignty and military authority from where the tyrant Emperor Aurangzeb had ordered the arrest and torture of Guru Tegh Bahadur (refer Pixelated Memories - Red Fort). The present structure of the Gurudwara was added in 1930 and its majestic gold domes were added in later years. The trunk of the Banyan tree is still preserved in the shrine of the Gurudwara (more on that later).

Before entering the premises, one is required to remove footwear, wash their feet and also cover their head with a scarf as a mark of respect for the martyred Guru. An open chamber on the ground level is where benches are provided for people to sit and remove their shoes which can then be deposited at one of the numerous counters manned voluntarily by faithful devotees who consider it their duty and part of pilgrimage to take care of visitors and their comforts. A small shrine is provided adjacent to this chamber where exists a tableau of the original well where the Guru used to bath during his period of imprisonment; water in the taps used for ritualistic washing comes from the same source that supplies the well its water and is therefore considered hallowed and drunk by many of the pious visitors. Small, brilliantly colorful scarves are also provided prior to entering the prayer chamber to visitors who aren’t carrying handkerchiefs/scarves/stoles of their own to cover their heads (the same are to be returned at the time of exiting the premises).

A replica of the well that existed at the site when Guru Tegh Bahadur was imprisoned here

One has to climb a staircase, the base of which is continuously wetted by clear water to clean polluting dirt off one’s feet, along the side of this ground floor chamber to reach the prayer chamber as well as the associated buildings including the massive community kitchen, Gurudwara administration offices and donation counters located on the expansive first floor. The prayer chamber is a beautiful, vast rectangular hall housing along one of its shorter sides a gold pavilion under which has been reverentially placed a copy of Guru Granth Sahib, the venerated holy book of Sikhs. Surrounded by flower vases and shadowed by a large cloth canopy hung from the roof, the shrine is a picture of vibrant magnificence and serenity. A priest continuously waves a white fan over the book while a group of old singers seated along one side near the base of the pedestal sings “Gurbani” (“Guru’s sermons” – mesmerizing religious hymns), throughout the day. The entire proceedings are recorded and live telecast throughout the country on dedicated channels and internet feeds. The expensive gold pavilion is located on the immediate location where the Guru was beheaded (referred to as “Shahidi Sthan” (“Site of Martyrdom”)) and staircases behind it lead to a slightly lower level shrine, also entirely composed of gold but separated from the queues of devotees prostrating before it by a glass wall, where the said remains of the Banyan tree, photos of the Guru and several daily-use accessories which he is said to have used in his lifetime have been placed.

The shrine. Notice the golden glow emanating from the glass window (framed in the marble platform) of the shrine underneath. 

Near the exit staircase, a plate full of "Karah Prasad" – steaming, sumptuous halwa (sticky, sweet confectionery made from wheat flour, sugar and condensed butter) – is distributed to every visitor free of cost. In my humble opinion, the halwa served here is possibly the most delicious in the entire city! Instead of exiting from this side to the street level, one can retrace one’s steps to the large community kitchen building also located adjacent to the Gurudwara on the first floor where food ("Langar") is served to all who wish to partake of it. Visitors in the kitchen sit together on the ground irrespective of any distinctions of faith, socio-economic status, gender or beliefs – this is a very important tenet in the functioning of Gurudwaras and the way of life of devout Sikhs since the religion categorically opposes any and every form of discrimination and exclusion and firmly stresses upon the unambiguous equality of all human beings. Philanthropic men and women donate in cash and kind for the running of these kitchens while others voluntarily perform community service by helping the Gurudwara perform the more mundane tasks (considered to be spiritually more rewarding) like peeling vegetables, cooking and serving the food and clearing and cleaning of utensils. One doesn’t need prior permission to undertake such activities and can show up at the kitchen at any time of the day and offer services to the people already working there. Charitable monetary contributions for running the kitchen can also be deposited at a counter nearby.

A fountain, painted brilliant blue but not functional at present, was unveiled as a traffic square immediately opposite the Gurudwara – christened Bhai Mati Das Chowk ("square"), it commemorates the sacrifices of the brothers Mati Das and Sati Das. The unending surge of traffic and humanity makes photographing the square nearly impossible at almost all times of the day except perhaps early morning. Nearby also stands a large museum dedicated to the Guru and his followers and depicting scenes from their lives and Sikh history. The Gurudwara and the museum open-heartedly welcome visitors from all walks of life and from all religious sects on all days.

Bhai Mati Das Chowk opposite the Gurudwara. On the right is the Sikh Museum Building (Photo Courtesy - Flickriver.com/KhalsaSoulja)

Location: Chandni Chowk, near Red Fort
Nearest Metro Station: Chandni Chowk
How to reach: Walk from the metro station. Alternately, buses and autos can be availed from different parts of the city for Chandni Chowk/Red Fort.
Open: Everyday, early morning to late night
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video Charges: Nil
Suggestions: The Gurudwara being a site of worship, it is advisable to be dressed modestly. All visitors are required to remove their footwear and cover their heads with handkerchief/shawl/scarf before entering the sanctum.
Other monuments/landmarks in the neighborhood - 
Suggested reading - Wikipedia.org - Guru Tegh Bahadur

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