A Day at Darbar Sahib
by Patwant Singh
For thousands of
Amritsar's inhabitants, the day begins early. It begins, in fact, the
night before at three o'clock or so in the morning, as householders
in the city stir with the activity of people preparing for a predawn
visit to Darbar Sahib - a routine that hasn't changed for four centuries.
The devout of Amritsar
eagerly await this hour each morning with the keen sense of anticipation
that comes from knowing they will soon visit the Harimandir.
As they walk through
the familiar streets of the old city, their pace quickens in expectation
of soon seeing the beloved shrine. Some of them have made this walk
at this hour each morning for as long as they can remember.
Outside the main
entrance, they take their shoes off, checks them with an attendant and
proceed, ... to the complex. At a trough of swiftly running water, they
dip their feet to cleanse them. As they pass the flowers stall, some
stop to buy garlands of yellow, gold or russet marigolds to carry inside
marble stairs to the parkarma, they behold in the center of the sarowar,
the serene and immortal Harimandir Sahib. They gaze at it with awe and
with reverence and love the very emotions others before them have experienced
for as long as the Harimandir has existed.
They are transfixed
by this first sight of it by its golden facades and domes. The waters
around it are still and glassy in the peaceful early morning silence,
and capture an almost perfect reflection.
Bowing low to make
their foreheads touch the cool marble of the parkarma, worshippers pay
homage and express thanks for the divine grace that has made their visit
possible. Then, as is customary, they turn left to go around the entire
parkarma, and to stop at shrines on the way, before finally reaching
The first shrine
along the marble walkway is Dukh Bhanjani Ber. Built around a dujube
tree, it marks the spot there, it is said, a dip in the sacred pool
miraculously cured a crippled youth. Since many consider their visit
to the temple incomplete without bathing at this spot here and enter
the water, hoping to shed their afflictions and troubles.
Past Dukh Bhanjani
Ber is a raised marble platform which is the Ath Sath Tirath, the Shrine
of the Sixty eight Holy Places. If they bathe near it, some believe,
their dreams of visiting the 68 holy places of India will be fulfilled.
Further along the
parkarma, around the next corner is the shrine of Baba Deep Singh, the
legendary old warrior who died at this spot. Ever since pilgrims have
paused here to pray to sprinkle rose petals or to lay fresh garlands
in his honor.
Such cameos of
valor enliven the rich mosaic of a military tradition that continues
to this day. Even now, the names of Sikh martyrs and soldiers who die
in battle are inscribed on marble plaques embedded in the floor of the
parkarma or on the pillars of the adjoining verandahs. Many Indian Army
regiments still maintain the tradition of installing commemorative plaques
here to honor their war heroes.
As the devout turn
the next corner of the parkarma, leading to Akal Takht and Darshani
Deorhi, their excitement builds, for soon they will witness, and possibly
join in the ceremonies that only those who visit Darbar Sahib at this
hour can. These are the rituals that attend the traditional bearing
of Guru Granth Sahib from Katha Sahib at Akal Takht where it is kept
each night, to Harimandir Sahib, to which it is always returned before
five o'clock in the morning.
About half and
hour before Granth Sahib is brought down from Akal Takth, the palki,
a gold and silver palanquin, is prepared for it. Attendants replace
the cushions and pillows on which Granth Sahib will rest. They lay down
fresh sets of silk and brocade coverings and, when everything is ready,
they sprinkle delicately scented rose water over all.
As the head priest
of the Harimandir appears with Granth Sahib on a cushion on his head,
a series of deep, resonant drum beats of the nagara heralds its arrival
to the assembled worshippers who, even at this hour, fill the large
plaza to capacity. Showering fragrant red, pink and white rose petals,
and reciting hymns from the holy scriptures, they make way for the palki's
journey to the Harimandir. This passage, through short, sometimes takes
up to half an hour while as many worshippers as possible share the honor
of carrying it.
solemnly moves across the plaza through Darshani Deorhi, and along the
causeway, stopping as it reaches the main door of the Harimandir. The
head priest reverently lifts Granth Sahib out of the palke, places it
on a silk cushion on his head and enters the holy shrine.
He carries it to
its customary place of honor beneath a velvet canopy richly brocaded
with silver and gold, and carefully sets it on velvet cushions and silks
placed on Manji Sahib.
As the congregation
stands in hushed silence, the head priest seats himself in front of
Guru Granth Sahib, ceremoniously opens it, and reads aloud the 'Vaq',
or the Lord's message, for the day.
of 'Asa di War', which had been in progress here since a little after
3 a.m., had stopped as Granth Sahib was carried in, sung always at this
pre-dawn hour, Asa di War also, like all other compositions recited
here, is taken from Granth Sahib.
After the 'Vaq'
is read, the singing of 'Asa di War' continues. As it ends, the entire
congregation and the servitors of the temple stand up for the Ardas,
a prayer that is recited at the conclusion of each service. After the
Ardas, the Shabad Kirtan, the vocal and musical rendition of sacred
verses, is resumed. Shabads will be sung throughout the day and late
into the evening by a succession of ragis.
The early morning
worshippers now step out of the Harmandir, walk on the inner parkarma
that encircles it, and stop on its southern side at the Har ki Pauri.
Here, marble steps descend into the sarowar so that visitors may cup
the water of the sacred pool in their hands and sprinkle it on their
heads. Some take a small sip of it as well. Tradition has it that Guru
Arjan himself gave this place its name.
the Harmandir, on the inner parkarma, the devotees once more bow in
the direction of Granth Sahib, then make their way back over the causeway,
through Darshani Deorhi and on to the main parkarma.
As they proceed
along the parkarma, towards the stairs by which they had entered, some
pause by Ber Baba Buddha, popularly represented, from those who have
already made the better part of their journey through life, to the newlyweds
who have come to seek blessings for the life that lies ahead - brides
in scarlet and gold wedding finery, grooms in crisply tied pink or red
People are spread
out everywhere. Some are in the Harmandir listening to the Shabad kirtan
on the ground floor, others are absorbed in the words of the akhand
path in the quiet of its upper floors. Some visit Akal Takht where the
swords and personal weapons of Guru Gobind Singh are enshrined.
Many join the line
in front of the special kitchen where Karah parshad is prepared. They
make a donation of money for this sacramental food and carry it into
the Harimandir. They give it to the attendants stationed at the door
specially to receive it. The attendants, in turn pass it on with Got's
blessing to those leaving the sanctum.
Some devotees sit
in quiet contemplation in the Shrine of Baba Atal, built to honor Guru
Hargobind's remarkably gifted son who died young or in the shrine built
in Guru Tegh Bahadur's memory. Since voluntary service is the very essence
of Sikhism, a continuous stream of visitors makes its way to the Guru
Ram Dass langar, to help prepare the food that will be served to the
thousands who eat there daily.
go on brief forays into the winding bazaars around Darbar Sahib, drawn
to them by the endless variety of goods on display, the prospect of
good-natured bargaining, the banter between the customers and the shopkeepers,
and the stimulation of the many colors, textures and sounds that only
a traditional Indian bazaar offers.
As the sun sets
and the time for evening prayers nears, there is a perceptible change
in the nature of the people who now enter the Harimandir. These devotees
come to sit and listen in rapt attention to the evening recitations,
and to enjoy the beauty of the verses and the rags in which these prayers
are rendered. Just as in the morning prayers began with 'Asa di War',
in the evening prayers end with the Rahras, the arti, and the shabad
kirtan, concluding with Ardas at 9:45 pm.
When the prayers
end, Guru Granth Sahib reverently closed, wrapped in fresh layers of
rich silk and muslin, and ceremonially carried to the palki waiting
outside. As in the morning, so also now, the palki is shouldered by
devout Sikhs and taken to Kotha Sahib where Granth Sahib will rest for
The massive silver
and rosewood doors of Darshani Deorhi are shut and a group of volunteers
inside the Harimandir start the ritual cleansing of the shrine with
milk and water in preparation for the next day. In the few hours the
doors of Darshani Deorhi will once again be opened to worshippers, and
the Harmindir will be ready to receive them so that they can welcome
the arrival of Guru Granth Sahib and seek spiritual guidance for another
Seeing the glow
of the lamps and their myriad reflections in the pool, bearing the melodic
chanting of hymns, tossing handfuls of rose petals before the procession
of Granth Sahib, and feeling the intensity of the love and reverence
that attend each ritual are experiences that will always be remembered.
Day after day,
the Harimandir, the abiding symbol of the Sikh faith, continues to inspire
and uplift those thousands who come to it. It is, in a sense, the heart
of the Sikh, for wherever beats a Sikh heart, there throbs the sentiment
of undying devotion for this holiest of all Sikh shrines.