Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Harmandar Sahib: When development needs direction


Harmandar Sahib is not separate from the fabric of the city. The defining edge of the shrine is fluid — formed by the waters of the sarovar. The heart exists and hence the body exists. 
Gurmeet S Rai

THE urban morphology of Amritsar has remained similar in texture and pattern over the centuries. In the heart of the walled city is located Sri Harmandar Sahib within the pool of nectar. Several decades, or not so long ago, the Amrit Sarovar sat seamlessly — just as the heart sits seamlessly in a body. The shrine was not separate from the fabric of the city. The defining edge of the shrine was fluid — formed by the waters of the sarovar. The heart exists and hence the body exists. The rhythm of the heart as the Guru envisioned was the community, and the community guarded the site with its entire existence. History has several instances where the community rallied around the site to protect its sanctity and symbols of value as defined by the founding fathers of the faith.

The distinctive character of Harmandar Sahib comes from elements of spatial planning, its architecture, visual character, recitation of Gurbani — the sound scape, life and activities within the precinct — with the Guru at the centre in the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine. The distinctive character of Harmandar Sahib comes from elements of spatial planning, its architecture, visual character, recitation of Gurbani — the sound scape, life and activities within the precinct — with the Guru at the centre in the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine.

Do plans for interventions in sites of immense cultural significance such as the Golden Temple take into consideration the physical attributes that contribute to understanding the values of the site? Do the urban infrastructure and design guidelines recognise the distinctive relationship between the city and the sacred precinct? I am afraid not.

In the absence of proper articulation of these principles or of any guidelines for planning, the planners and architects are oblivious to these. Who is to be blamed here — the planners or the site managers or the political system that does not provide a platform for dialogue and undermines the academicians and specialists alike.

Evolution of the city

Harmandar Sahib has evolved through three distinctive periods. Guru Ramdas envisioned the sarovar — the waters. Guru Arjan Dev added the floor of the parikarma and the steps of the sarovar were built of Nanakshahi bricks. The material palette was modest, in the spirit of the faith. End of the 18th century saw the introduction of materials for embellishments. It was under the patronage of Maharaja Ranjit Singh that decorative features were introduced by way of cut stone floors, pietra durra on the walls of the shrine with embossed gold sheets above. Frescoes and other plaster-based rendering using coloured glass, mirrors and gold leaf were introduced into the interiors of the Prakashsthan (the self-illuminated space which houses Sri Guru Granth Sahib). The work of the karkhanas or the workshops in Harmandar Sahib was run with the resources contributed by the community — both poor and the rich.

The decorative floors in the 19th century were confined to the chhoti parikarma, and the plaza in front of Sri Akal Takht Sahib and the farther portion of the outer parikarma. The outer edge of the complex in the 18th and the 19th century came to be defined by the mansions of the misls, the bungas. The spaces between the bungas were the streets of the city.

Distinct physical character

The distinctive physical character of Harmandar Sahib comes from elements of spatial planning, its architecture, visual character, recitation of Gurbani — the sound scape, life and activities within the precinct — with the Guru at the centre in the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine. The precinct is located in the lowest part of the city. This un-gated sacred precinct gives refuge to all in all times. The sound scape of the bani is a constant reminder of ‘oneness in diversity’. The buildings that form the edge with the stepped profile of verandas and terraces were introduced in the middle of the 20th century after the creation of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee in 1925, which enabled the Sikh community to once again look after its sacred sites (that had come under the management of the District Administration, under the British after Punjab was annexed in 1849).

The uniformity in design — the typology with rooms with verandas in front, are put to use for the activities related to the shrine and were created as a defining edge — a ‘buffer’ between the city and the sacred precinct. While the complex evolved the defining principles for the transformation were consistent through the ages and were not compromised.

The dense urban morphology with its narrow maze of streets and architecture in brick and lime converge at Harmandar Sahib and is in sharp contrast to the character-defining elements of the sacred precinct.

Incongruent change

The city grew over time. Amritsar came to be recognised as a city of spirituality and productivity. The contribution of people of Amritsar through the ages as an empowered community has left an indelible mark on the conscience of the nation.

It is extremely evident that the character has changed in Amritsar in the recent times, in tangible as well as intangible ways.

The city is choked with traffic. The walled city has an immensely degraded environmental quality with polluted air and water. There is immense noise, fumes and visual clutter in what remains of the historic city in the immediate vicinity of Harmandar Sahib. In the absence of an effective storm-water drainage, the monsoons of 2014 saw the parikarma getting waterlogged! Waste water flows in open surface drains.

Not only are the 19th and the early 20th century buildings of heritage value in the walled city of Amritsar being demolished to make way for new buildings, these new buildings with dominant hoardings are being built with a material vocabulary of steel and glass and gaudy colours that are completely in contrast to the essential character of a historic city.

Amritsar was rich in its craftsman in brick buildings and produced pioneers such as Bhai Ram Singh — the architect builder of the Khalsa College and several character-defining brick buildings of Lahore. But not only are the brick buildings of the walled city being demolished now, those built by Bhai Ram Singh are also under a threat. These include the old office of the Deputy Commissioner, the ITI building adjacent to the Hall Gate and the Saragarhi Gurdwara. Are these inadequacies impossible to address given that Amritsar attracts the attention of governments and political bodies in power who endow the city with resources for development?

Off-track planning

The current planning and development paradigm undermines the voice of the collective. The need of the community is understood only at the level of the gross — as only confined to the need of the body. Over the past two decades Amritsar has seen the launch of several programmes for development and upgradation of infrastructure. While the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission brought in the elevated road into the city leading into the walled city and a multi-storeyed car park, a recently introduced large white-marbled forecourt to Harmandar Sahib with a basement visually competes with the pristine visual character of the sacred precinct.

The water fountain in the forecourt as a visual element of design too will compete with the water as an element of the sacred precinct. Water in the walled city was only in the sarovars and has always had a special meaning. The fountain in itself is associated with entertainment which doesn’t fit in with the sacred ambience of the shrine. Is this the most appropriate design intervention in the forecourt of Harmandar Sahib? On the other hand pedestrian and vehicular circulation in the areas outside the shrine for the anticipated increased footfall continues to be choked.

Are the needs of the walled city with Harmandar Sahib understood properly by the planners? The approach to demolish the existing fabric and replacing it with wider roads and more car parks will certainly not address the ever-growing demand for space. It is evident today that the current approach of providing augmented infrastructure without regulatory policies will not address the needs of the city.

Long-term threats

The increased capacities of buildings with increased users only induce more demand on the infrastructure. Constructing larger and taller buildings like the recently built SGPC building adjacent to the Saragarhi Gurdwara to house more pilgrims in extreme proximity to the Golden Temple may provide more accommodation to the pilgrims. But this is certainly not based on an understanding of sustainable development principles, especially around sacred sites worldwide. It is easy to recognise that what may appear informed by noble intentions, the very increase of ‘infrastructure’ and augmented facilities for the visitors and pilgrims will pose a threat in the long term.

Time to wake up

The modern concepts of development in India today are far removed from the notion of the collective. Compromising the defining principles of sites of significance and their setting leads to irreversible loss of heritage, both tangible and intangible to the community. Can political and administrative decision makers allow for a dialogue between the academicians, community and planners to inform the planning and conservation processes? Can an agreed vision inform development in heritage cities, more specifically Amritsar?

Amritsar is important. The year 2017 will see the people of Amritsar celebrate 440th year of the founding of the city. Can the community — local, regional and global — play a role in the future development of this city. With the newer schemes for development in the pipeline (Amritsar as a SMART city) and projects and programmes for the conservation or heritage of Amritsar for an integrated development of the city as a cultural tourism destination under the aegis of the Government of Punjab with the support of Asian Development Bank (IDIPT 2014-2020), there is a window of opportunity once again, and let’s not miss it! Amritsar deserves integrated thinking by an empowered community once again.

Much-hyped projects

Over the past two decades, Amritsar has seen the launch of several programmes for development and upgradation of infrastructure, especially aound Harmandar Sahib. Some of these are:

* Elevated Road project leading to the walled city was undertaken under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission .

* Multi-storeyed car park to decongest areas in the vicinity of the Golden Temple

* Marble forecourt at Harmandar Sahib with a basement

* Water fountain in the forecourt

— The writer is Director and Principal Conservation  Architect, Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (India) Pvt Ltd

Published in the Tribune: Tuesday, October 21, 2014, Chandigarh, India 

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