In felling its iconic trees, gurudwara ‘modernisation’ is also uprooting a part of Sikh heritage
Trees Of Life
- Some 59 gurudwaras are named after 19 species of trees, as listed in D.S. Jaspal’s book
- At Gurudwara Amb Sahib in Mohali, the original mango tree is now a dried-up stump
- For the first time, the kalpavriksha at Attari gurudwara has no leaves.
***“Air is the Guru Water the father and Earth the great mother”
—Guru Granth SahibAnd now marble is king. Sikhism is the world’s youngest religion and perhaps the only one in which trees have contributed to spiritual evolution. More than 50 Sikh shrines across the country, and some in Pakistan, are named after trees. These are trees under which the Sikh gurus sheltered, rested or met their followers during their travels. The followers then commemorated the guru’s visit by building a shrine and naming it after the tree under which he sat. Many of these shrines still exist. Many of the trees, sadly, don’t. They have been strangled to death by the new marble floors and facades of the gurudwaras.
This facet of Sikhism, of gurudwaras being named after trees, like the Amb (mango) Sahib or the Imli (tamarind) Sahib, is so little-known that when a civil servant from Punjab, D.S. Jaspal, documented his religion’s close association with them, even the scholarly from within the community sat up and took notice. “These trees are our living link with the gurus which, either out of ignorance or lack of awareness, have been cut down to make way for expansion of gurudwaras in all their marbled, gilded glory,” says Jaspal.
In 1761, on the eve of a battle with the Mughals, a barefooted Guru Gobind Singh reached the Kiri Afghana village in Ropar district, evading enemy informers. Gurudwara Imli Sahib commemorates his visit to the place, and the tamarind tree where he rested a while lent its name to the shrine. It assumed majestic proportions, and till 2004 dominated the small village in more ways than one. It became, for instance, a custom for newly-married Sikh couples to pay obeisance at the tree; nearly everyone’s wedding album in the village has a picture of them posing before the sacred tree. In 2000, the management invited a well-known ‘kar seva’ baba from Delhi to renovate and beautify the gurudwara—and it was decided to demolish the old structure and replace it with a marble monument. The roots of the ancient imli tree that fell in the gurudwara’s parikrama or circumference area were dug up and chopped off. Concrete was dumped in its foundations and a marbled parikrama soon choked it to death. “We pleaded with the babas not to destroy the tree, but they insisted, saying it had to go as it was falling in the parikrama,” says Joginder Singh, the head granthi at Imli Sahib. The kar seva babas, he says, have destroyed 80 per cent of the Sikh heritage in the name of rebuilding gurudwaras. “But who is to question them?” he asks. Joginder Singh, along with some villagers, has quietly planted a small imli sapling opposite the gurudwara building, but no one comes to get their pictures taken here any more.
It’s a similar story at many of the 58 gurudwaras documented in Jaspal’s book, Tryst with Trees, and the many more he has not talked of. The gurudwaras have drawn their names from some 19 species of trees, from the humble ber to the kalpavriksha. They also shed light on the modest lifestyles of the Sikh gurus, who had a vigorous outdoor life and travelled extensively, often halting under shady groves. They fed their animals the leaves of these trees. “If the community and its leaders do not wake up and create awareness about trees, a time will come when future generations will remember these shrines not by the species of trees but by the variety of marble from Makrana,” laments Jaspal.
At many places, this is already taking place. Like at the Gurudwara Amb Sahib in Mohali near Chandigarh which was established by Guru Har Rai. Legend has it that the shrine was set up after Guru Har Rai was given a gift of mangoes by some devotees from Kabul. The original mango tree planted at the site is today a dried-up stump which stands bare and stark in the marbled parikrama of the gurudwara. Devotees often fold their hands and make offerings before it.
Last Legs The kalpavriksha at the Attari gurudwara supported by brick columns.
At the Gurudwara Rehru Sahib at Rampur near Ludhiana, where Guru Gobind Singh rested while travelling from Machhiwara village in Ludhiana into the interior of Malwa country, the original rehru (Acacia leucophloea) tree is no more. In its place stands a marble platform that commemorates the site of the tree. Though the shrine is named after rehru, no specimen of this tree can be seen for miles around.
Most gurudwaras in Punjab are managed and maintained by the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), dominated by the Akali Dal. The years after Operation Bluestar saw a phase of massive rebuilding, expansion and beautification of gurudwaras undertaken by a breed of Sikhs called the ‘kar seva’ babas with the blessings of the SGPC. Not just the trees but much of the Sikh heritage fell victim to the zeal of what many Sikh scholars call the “bulldozer babas”, in their effort to “make grand” the humble shrines. The five-century-old Bebe Nanki’s (Guru Nanak’s sister) house in Kapurthala was demolished in 2001 to make way for a grand gurudwara. The Thanda Burj or cold house in Fatehgarh Sahib, where Guru Gobind Singh’s mother and his two sons were held captive, or the wall the sons were interred alive, are all gone. Says Gurtej Singh, a Sikh scholar, “When I raised the issue before the then SGPC president Gurcharan Singh Tohra, he retaliated by issuing a statement that when Sikhs in prosperous Punjab towns renovate their homes every few years why should the guru’s house not be beautified! I find it hard to believe that in this day and age people are unaware of the value of preserving our heritage. It is all being done deliberately for commercial motives and the voice of the Sikh intelligentsia on these issues is generally ignored.” The SGPC now says it is trying to preserve these priceless heritage sites. President Avtar Singh Makkar told Outlook: “I cannot comment on what happened before my tenure, but we have now issued instructions to all gurudwaras not to cut any sacred trees within their premises. Wherever the trees are dying, we are providing expertise from the agriculture university and many like the two sacred ber trees in the Golden Temple complex which were dying have been revived.” What is lost, though, has been preserved by some gurudwaras as forlorn souvenirs of their once magnificent trees. At the Phalahi (Acacia modesta) Sahib at Duley near Ludhiana, the remains of the original phalahi tree have been kept in a cage where devotees make offerings. Similarly, at the Gurudwara Tahliana Sahib in Raikot in Ludhiana, in addition to the Guru Granth sahib, a small stump of the tahli (Dalbergia sissoo) or sheesham tree is placed on a platform for devotees. The tree was felled to make place for a grand marble edifice.
What is worrying is even smaller gurudwaras managed by village communities have begun playing catch-up with their more famous cousins, with disastrous consequences. Take the Gurudwara Kalpavriksha Sahib in Attari village. The modest structure is maintained entirely by contributions from the villagers, who a few years ago decided to make a langar hall and a more grand gurudwara near the ancient kalpavriksha (Mitragyna parvifolia) tree which gave the gurudwara its name. When the roots got exposed due to the digging, parts of the tree began dying, and finally fell. The villagers then erected brick supports around it to hold it upright. But the damage to the ancient root system was done and last year was the last time the tree bore leaves. When Outlook visited the gurudwara, sevadaar Ajmer Singh said this is the first spring they have seen the tree completely bereft of leaves. The kalpavrisksha is dead, the brick supports are holding aloft its corpse.