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Religion Library: Sikhism

Sacred Space

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The most important of the historical Gurdwaras is the Darbar Sahib ("The Revered Court") in Amritsar, the center of the global Sikh community since the late 1500s. Although the final Guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), was never able to visit this place during his lifetime, he underscored its importance for the Sikh past and future by sending his representative, Bhai Mani Singh, to oversee the complex after the passing of the sectarian rival who had claimed it. Sikhs fought several battles in its vicinity as they carved out their homeland from the Mughals and Afghans in the 1700s. Within its perimeter sits the temporal throne of the Sikh community—the Akal Takht. The Darbar Sahib sits in the middle of a pool of water, in which pilgrims bathe as an important sacred practice.

As the site of the unfolding of the bulk of Sikh history, the Punjab is considered the Sikh homeland. Five historical Gurdwaras, known as Takhts ("thrones") dot the Indian map. Each of these places has deep historical significance for Sikhs. The first and most important of these, located in the precincts of the Darbar Sahib itself, is linked with Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru (1595-1644). The life of his grandson, the tenth and final Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, provides the sacred story for the other four Takhts (two in Punjab, and two outside). Takht Kesgarh Sahib commemorates Guru Gobind Singh's elevation of the community to the Khalsa, and Takht Hazur Sahib in the Indian Deccan signifies the place where the Guru breathed his last and officially passed the office of the Guru on to the scripture and community (referred to as the Granth and Panth).

For Sikhs, the historical sites associated with the Gurus' lives in South Asia carry special sacred significance. Most of these sites are located in the Indian Punjab. Other sites, like the place of Guru Gobind Singh's birth (Patna) and death (Nander) are located to the east and south of Punjab. Still others, like the site of Guru Nanak's birth, are located in contemporary Pakistan. In their daily prayer, or ardas, Sikhs pray to Kartar for the continued ability to worship in these places and remember their history through travel there.

Although Sikh yearning for homeland is linked to Punjab, Sikh history also took place outside of that region and Sikhs continue to travel and spread beyond their historical homeland. The lack of a sovereign Sikh nation-state is a problem for some Sikhs, and was certainly felt most acutely in the half century after South Asia's 1947 partition. The future of the world, however, appears to be a transnational and global one. Sikh ideas of sovereignty will have to be balanced between the transnational reality of the community and the locus of Sikh sacred memory in and around Punjab.

Study Questions:
1.     What is a "Gurdwara"?
2.     What are the two types of Gurdwaras?
3.     How is Kartar related to the world?