The Beauty of Gurdwaras
By Simran Kaur Takhi @Marquee__Moon
I’m not particularly religious. I describe myself as a Sikh by default – meaning that I grew up amidst Sikh ethos by virtue of my parents being Sikh. To be honest, I wish I had more in-depth knowledge regarding Sikhism in terms of its historical roots and the religious paradigm in which its beliefs are anchored. I think the reason why the architectural design of gurdwaras is something that resonates with me, is due to the fact that the layout of Gurdwaras – The Sikh place of worship, inextricably ties in with Sikh principles and teachings. As someone who wants to learn more about Sikhism but not yet having the time to read up or quiz family members about it, visiting a gurdwara acts as a pretty satisfying and wholesome link to the religion of my ancestors. There is beauty in walking into a gurdwara and being reminded of Sikh principles without having to read a great deal of texts or researching on the internet.
When passing a Gurdwara, the first aspect of the building that will probably catch an eye glimpse is the ornate, gold domed minarets. Minarets are central to Islamic Mughal style architecture so I like to appreciate gurdwaras as a joyous amalgamation of architectural styles. The elaborate, golden dome that sits on top of gurdwaras, is enriched with the symbolism and significance of the lotus flower to spirituality – something that at first glance of the dome, would not strike you as obvious. Lotus flowers have their roots in muddy water. They grow and ‘strive’ to reach the light of the sun in order to bloom into a flower. In this way, the dome of the gurdwara is made to resemble a Lotus flower to illustrate the development and enlightenment of the soul as one passes through life and gains wisdom. I can’t help but cast my mind to Tupac Shakur’s poem - The Rose That Grew from Concrete -a metaphor that I feel is so aligned with the meaning of the lotus as represented by domed temples.
Tupac Shakur’s poem, The Rose That Grew from Concrete, c. 1999
Gurdwaras are designed to permeate within consciousness - the disregard for the concept of hierarchies. One feature which demonstrates this is by temples having four entrances in to relay the message that anyone, regardless of what corner of the world they come from, is welcome into the house of God. The teachings of acceptance and a love for one another which transcends factors such as race, caste, or class, is embedded within Sikh ethos. Whilst of course such teachings tend to be rooted in religion generally, the significance of it in Sikhism, lies in the historical tension between Hindus and Muslims (due to factors such as Islamic imperialistic rule) during the 15th century. It is for this reason that when the founder of Sikhism- Guru Nanak, was once said to have muttered the words ‘Na koi hindu na koi mussalman’, (which translates into ‘there is no Hindu nor Muslim’), it was huge deal. It refers to all humans, whether they be Hindu, Muslim, Jain and ec, are all essential born of the same light therefore places of worship should be designed to reflect this.
One of the most wonderful Sikh concepts (in my opinion), is the fact that its purpose extends beyond a place of worship. I’m not solely talking about community centres and sport clubs – of which are often part of religious institutions, acting as sources of much needed joy within communities. Central to the Gurdwara is the Langar hall, a communal dining area fitted in every gurdwara in which a free simple meal, usual consisting of vegetarian lentils, rice, curried vegetables and chapatis, are served to anyone, regardless, of being a worshiper or not. Gurdwaras are a place where the homeless can seek refuge and receive the manifestation of the Gurus message via langar, despite not being a believer themselves.
The only condition to having the meal is the act of partaking, meaning to sit alongside other visitors who come and pass the langar hall. Langar halls are designed in way which emphasises frugality. They resemble simple canteens. There won’t be seats (except for the disabled and elderly who may require one on request) as the congregation are to sit in rows on carpeted floors. This is to spiritually symbolise Guru Nanak’s message of equality and basking in the company of others - regardless of race. Communal dining being institutionalised within Gurdwaras, is the legacy of Guru Amar Das – a seminal 16th century spiritual teacher who used food as force to obliterate notions of otherness such as the caste system and the hostility that existed between Muslims and Hindus at the time.
The lack of elevated seating is at the heart of the layout of Gurdwaras. The carpeted or blanket strewn floors and absence of chairs, means that qualities such as simplicity, humbleness and acceptance, can radiate within Sikh temple walls. However, this sense of frugality doesn’t tend to extend to aspects of the Diwan Hall – the main prayer room in which a copy the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib is kept. The Guru Granth Sahib acts as a focal point due to being kept under an elaborate golden canopy. The canopy itself is often surrounded by flowers and offerings from worshippers. This regal aesthetic is homage the Guru Granth’s Godly status. Sikhs are not to worship a representation of God via images or statues but rather, to turn their attention and devotion to the Holy Text – hence the stunning displays within Diwan Hall.
Admittedly, I see Gurdwaras as source of conflicting messages. The palace like exterior of the temples and the guaranteed grandeur of the Guru Granth focal point, stand in contrast with the lack of seating and simple canteen in the temple. Each major feature of the Sikh temple is instrumental in that it connects to meaningful messages regarding humanitarianism unconditional love and the significance of holy text as contrary to idolatry.