The lost heritage

Murals depicting events from Sikh history were lost during the reconstruction of Akal Takht,
writes Kanwarjit Singh Kang

A mural showing Guru Hargobind receiving two horses from Bhai Bidhi Chand
A mural showing Guru Hargobind receiving two horses from Bhai Bidhi Chand

Guru Gobind Singh baptising the “Five Beloved Ones’
Guru Gobind Singh baptising the “Five Beloved Ones’.
— Photos by the writer

AKAL Takht, constructed a few paces from Harmandar Sahib at Amritsar, is the highest seat of Sikhs. Guru Hargobind, the sixth Guru, raised it as an open brick platform. Later, a hall was constructed on the site. In the 18th century, Sikhs gave it a better shape and Maharaja Ranjit Singh raised the edifice to its five-storey height. It was embellished with murals about the middle of the 19th century.

By June 1971, only 10 painted panels were surviving on the walls of its second-storey. Some of these had their colours bleached and plaster peeled off at places. After Operation Bluestar in June 1984, it was twice reconstructed pursuing its original architectural model. The murals, however, disappeared, never to be retrieved.

Out of the 10 murals that survived in 1971, three illustrated themes related to Guru Hargobind. The first portrayed Guru Hargobind and Baba Sri Chand, the founder of the Udasi order of sadhus, seated facing each other and in their midst sat the five sons of the Guru: Gurditta, Ani Rai, Suraj Mall, Atal Rai and Teg Bahadur. The second illustrated the Guru listening to the ragis or performers of kirtan.

The third was related to an impressive historical event that illustrated Guru Hargobind in the act of receiving two horses from Bhai Bidhi Chand. The sensitivity of the event rather reminded the viewer the historical context of the time when Guru Hargobind reacted sharply to the execution of his father and his predecessor Guru Arjun Dev, who, in 1606, was put to death through the orders of Jahangir. He constructed Akal Takht and trained himself and his followers in the art of war. He encouraged the Sikhs to send gifts of horses and arms. The purpose was to defend the Sikhs against tyranny and aggression.

Two pedigree horses of excelling beauty, named Gulbagh and Dilbagh, were brought by the Sikh followers of Kabul to be offered to the Guru. On the way, the Governor of Lahore, on seeing these horses, was so much bewitched that he, at once, seized these for the royal stable. On hearing the highhandedness of the Mughal authority, Bhai Bidhi Chand, a follower of the Guru, retrieved the horses by stratagem, disguised as a hay-seller.

The mural illustrated Bidhi Chand bowing with folded hands before the Guru and delivering the horses to their rightful owner, to whose stable they were being brought from Kabul initially. An inscription in the mural in Gurmukhi characters stated: "Horses brought by Bidhi Chand, Your Honour. Hari Singh got painted murals in three recesses in the wall in memory of young Bilasa Singh and elderly lady Piaro. Three saints — Kabir, Sain and Dharuva — were portrayed in fourth, fifth and sixth murals respectively.

The seventh mural illustrated Lord Krishna eating rice offered by unassuming Sudama, his childhood classmate. Lord Rama seated with Sita on a couch, attended upon by Lakshmana and Hanuman, were portrayed in the eighth mural.

A horse and three hounds in advancing pose of a hunting expedition were painted in the ninth mural. The 10th mural illustrated the most significant event in the history of the Sikhs, the first baptising ceremony in which Panj Pyare (the five beloved), name given to the five Sikhs, Bhai Daya Singh, Bhai Dharam Singh, Bhai Himmat Singh, Bhai Muhkam Singh and Bhai Sahib Singh, who were so designated by Guru Gobind at the historic divan at Anandpur Sahib on March 30, 1699 receive at his hands Khande di pahul i.e. rites of the two-edged sword. An inscription in the mural in Gurmukhi characters read: "Panja Singhan nu amrit chhakaya Sahib Dasveen Padshahi Guru Gobind Singh ji ne." The Panj Pyare stood with folded hands before the Guru and Guru’s wife Mata Jitoji brought patashas (sugar crystals), which were put in an iron bowl and stirred with two-edged sword by the Guru to make Amrit, the nectar of immortality.

The composite culture of the 19th century Punjab was obviously manifest in the extinct murals of the Akal Takht. An effort seems to have been made by the painter to paint what was readily intelligible. For, as Ananda Coomaraswamy said, "The plain man has no use for art unless he knows what it is about, or what it is for."