Construction Work Unearths Golden Temple’s Forgotten Past

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    Excavation of an empty lot to build a depot to store the footwear of devotees visiting the Harmandir Sahib came to an abrupt halt in Amritsar recently, when shovels and spades unearthed a bit of the 18th century CE. Workers digging to build the foundation of a jora ghar or shoe depot and a two-wheeler parking lot unearthed what looked like a beautifully preserved brick chamber.

    The exciting discovery soon had the city of Amritsar abuzz. Some claimed them to be ‘tunnels’ which were constructed associated with the sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind Sahib before the Battle of Amritsar which happened in 1634. The claimants believe that Sikh Guru might have built these as an escape route for his Sikh troops, who might use them during the conflict with the Mughal forces. Others believed the ‘tunnels’ had been used by either militants or the Indian Army during Operation Bluestar in the 1980s. So what are these structures and how old could they be?

    If we look closely it can be identified that these structures aren’t any sort of tunnels, but are subterranean chambers were almost certainly attached to a ‘bunga’, the successor to the mud houses built around the Harmandir Sahib by the Sikh Gurus, for the residents of a newly built Amritsar city in the 16th century CE. When the Harmandir Sahib, now popularly called the Golden Temple, was demolished by the Afghan army in 1762 CE, these mud houses were razed along with it.

    However, soon after, various Sikh clans called misls routed the Afghans out of Punjab and rebuilt the Harmandir Sahib. Their chiefs also constructed large residences, called bungas encircling the shrine, to ensure its protection from further attacks.

    These bungas were used by the chiefs of the misls when they visited the city and were looked after by a bungai or a caretaker. Some records claim that by the onset of the Sikh Empire in the area in the early 19th century, there were as many as 82 bungas in Amritsar.

    The large bungas, which belonged to the high chiefs, had taikhanas or sardkhana or underground chambers, which offered relief from the hot summers.

    In 1781 CE, the chief of the Sukerchakia Misl, Maha Singh, constructed Bunga Sukerchakia Sardaran Da. One end of this bunga lay behind the present-day site of the Ber Baba Budha Sahib, a sacred tree in the parikrama of the Harmandir Sahib, and its other end covered a much larger area on the other side.

    A ‘Bunga’ For A Maharaja

    After he died in 1792 CE, Maha Singh was succeeded by his 12-year-old son Ranjit Singh, who was destined to become the Maharaja of Punjab. It wasn’t long before a young Ranjit Singh united all the misls and established the Sikh Empire (1799 – 1849) in Punjab.

    Ranjit Singh’s ancestral bunga was enlarged and it became a massive, three-story mansion, arguably the most beautiful among all the bungas. Popularly called ‘Bunga Sarkar,’ it was a fit for a Maharaja! After the fall of the Sikh Empire during the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1849, the British seized power and demolished Bunga Sarkar, the adjacent Bunga Nau Nihal Singh and Bunga Ladowalia, to construct a Gothic clock tower in their place. Years later, in 1945, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), the apex management authority of the shrine, demolished many more bungas to extend the parikrama of the Harmandir Sahib. Some of them survived, like the Ramgarhia Bunga and Bunga Akhara Brahm Buta.

    Although the upper storeys of the bungas had been demolished, their underground chambers remained buried and, in time, various new structures were above them. The structure excavated recently is possibly the remains of one such forgotten underground chamber.

    Could it be a chamber of Bunga Sarkar or one of the other bungas that had stood next to it? That’s hard to confirm although it’s a tempting conclusion. The recently discovered remains are at the western end of the temple complex, not far from where the Bunga Sarkar of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and 27 other bungas were positioned in a row. Moreover, the architecture of the chamber and the use of Nanakshahi bricks resemble the architecture of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time, including that of his palace in Ram Bagh (now Company Bagh Garden) in Amritsar.

    Although we cannot pinpoint the exact area that the Bunga Sarkar covered, when it was demolished by the British, a huge platform was left standing. This platform, as visible in old photographs of the shrine, may not have covered the parikrama but it probably extended way back, particularly till and around the area from where the underground chambers are recently discovered. Thus, it’s possible that the chamber belonged to either Bunga Sarkar or another bunga that had stood next to it.

    Conservation Challenges

    But conservation of the ruins has several hurdles. First, the area falls under the Punjab Urban Planning and Development Authority. They claim that they were the in-charge of the development activities which took over that land, but the Gurdwara authorities haven’t taken their prior permission before carrying on with the construction of the footwear depot.

    Moreover, the excavated chamber is located in an area where development projects have been finalized by the Gurdwara management. For some, this raises the question of whether or not the chambers should be protected at all. Seven to eight years ago, not far from the current excavation site, similar brick rooms and a well were unearthed during the construction of the Golden Temple Plaza, the new main entrance of the Harmandir Sahib Complex. To expedite the project, the contractors hastily poured concrete over the ruins. This time, however, the Gurdwara management has promised to allow an investigation into the excavated ruins before deciding on a course of action. Until then, construction has been halted.

    Cover Image: An old photo of various bungas in parikrama, which are now demolished


    Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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