ONE hundred and seventy-two years after Maharaja Ranjit Singh first covered it in gold, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the most revered Sikh gurdwara, is acquiring a new, 24-carat coat. One which should last half a millennium. Only, this time it is no Maharaja's benevolence, but the single-minded mission of Sikh migrants from Kenya to England. Their aim: to cover the Harmandir Sahib with 600 kgs of gold.
Over a hundred craftsmen have been lab-ouring for two years now—work began on February 3, 1995—to give the Golden Temple a new sheen. Under the aegis of the Birmingham-based Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, which is financing the project, hundreds of plates of exquisitely-worked gold-plated copper and panels of flawless white marble have been crafted to embellish the most sacred of the five Sikh takhts. It is expected to be completed well before the deadline: Baisakhi of April 1999 that celebrates the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Khalsa.
By the time the workmen—from as far afield as Agra, Moradabad, Delhi, Hoshi-arpur, Makrana and Varanasi—finish, six quintals of gold and 10 tonnes of copper would have been used inside and outside the Harmandir Sahib, the Darshani Dwara (entrance) and the causeway.
The central dome, the gumbad of the Harmandir Sahib was damaged when the Akal Takht was stormed during Operation Bluestar. According to Baba Mohinder Singh, who heads the Jatha (which was founded in Kenya by Baba Puran Singhji Kerichowale in the 1930s) and is directing the operations from his headquarters in Birmingham: "Some of the sheets were repaired and hurriedly put back again. And the gold was cleaned with weak acid which has damaged it. The Jatha has been assigned the task of refurbishing exteriors and interiors of the Harmandir Sahib, the Darshani Dwara and the causeway. "We are using local technology everywhere but with inputs also of the latest technology." The golden kar seva has come to mean a structural rebuilding beneath the superficial layering. "Old timber supports within the central dome were rotting and near collapse," says Baba Mohinder Singh, "there were all sorts of reptiles, insects and infestations that were eating into the structure from within." Also, over the years, the gold plating on the temple, which gave it its name, has worn away, leaving large patches of the black and green copper showing through.
Interestingly, the Jatha is not recycling the old patras (gold-plated copper plates). Instead, they will be handed over to the gurdwara management committee and most likely be kept in a museum.
Inside the fluted golden dome of the Harmandir Sahib (currently closed to the faithful) artisans are at work in the sonay di kar seva, renovating the ceiling, recreating the original floral patterns in gold, red and blue on a plaster base interspersed with concave mirrors in varying sizes. The inner walls of the small, square pavilion which supports the dome will be similarly decorated. The outer walls have already been covered in white Makrana marble. Later, wooden doors with matching inlay will be installed.
WORK on the inner walls of the first floor or sheesh mahal (hall of mirrors) and the ground floor which houses the Guru Granth Sahib is yet to begin. Like the main dome, the outer face looking towards the Darshani Dwara has been all but completed. Two other faces should be completed by September this year. The smaller golden domes which line the base of the pavilion, the rounded pinnacles surmounting the walls and the four chhatris at the corners—there are 39 subsidiary domes in varying sizes—will take longer since they are being replaced, rather than re-gilded. The cost of re-doing the four mehtabis (kiosk) and the main dome is estimated at Rs 52 lakh.
A management team headed by Bhai Mainga Singh from Birmingham is overseeing the operations, and most members are working voluntarily. Says Baba Mohin-der Singh: "The support has been overwhelming." Followers of the Jatha and other devotees have poured in millions of pounds the seva needs and more. The work has turned out to be rather more expensive and extensive than the Jatha anticipated. "Four-fifths of our expenditure is on gold, but we have had to undertake structural repairs as well, so the costs have gone up," explains Mainga Singh. The daily expenditure is estimated at Rs 3 lakh.
The technology employed by the craftsmen dates back several centuries—the very same techniques that Ranjit Singh's artisans used. Modern techniques would not have served half as well. Sanjay Kumar, a craftsman from Varanasi, explains: "Electroplating is not guaranteed to last more than a few years. The work has to be done by hand. We are confident it will last for 500 years."
THE master craftsmen from Varanasi first copy the pattern on the old patra on a sheet of paper. The drawing is to scale. The pattern is then etched with a small, needle-like chisel on plates of copper. A thicker chisel is used to emboss the pattern on the copper. The embossed plate is then put on a slab of lac, so that the finer points of the drawing can be executed on copper. Nearly a thousand copper patras have been completed.
Once the copper plate is ready, it is covered in gold, which must be absolutely pure. The jewellery donated for the project is usually in 22 carats and must be purified to remove traces of copper and silver. The pure gold is then melted and shaped into a bar. The malleable metal is pressed into flat ribbons of a precise thickness. A seven-foot strip must weigh exactly 17.5 grams.
Each strip of ribbon is cut into 192 half-inch pieces. These are placed in small goat skin sacs and beaten into ultra-thin gold foil, which is stored in layers of newspaper. Each is worth Rs 47.
The finished copper patra is cleaned with sand, tamarind and a mixture of acid and mercury. It turns bright silver. Twenty successive layers of gold foil are then applied on the copper, which remains silver-coloured.
Only when it is heated to remove the mercury and four more layers of foil are added does it turn bright yellow. Further heating and polishing brings out a brilliant golden hue. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had used just seven to nine layers of gold in plating the Harmandir Sahib; the Jatha is using 24.The bulk of the copper that has been used, almost 30 tonnes, is imported, duty-free, from Sweden and Germany. The concave mirrors used to embellish the main dome and the sheesh mahal have also been imported, from UK.
Craftsmen from Moradabad are fashioning the domes, kiosks and massive lamps in copper to replace the old ones. Says chief artisan Nazakat Hussaini: "It's the first time that I have done work on such a massive scale. But there is something about this place which makes even difficult tasks seem easy." The project is an exercise in secularism; the workers are Sikh, Hindu and Muslim and must work together in perfect harmony to produce results. "Most of the workers are below 20, some as young as 12. They work with great enthusiasm," says Singh. The only problem, he says, is the phenomenal number of holidays. At any point, some member of the group is on leave and that delays work.
The workers are housed in rooms, originally constructed for pilgrims on the temple premises. A common kitchen or langar has been set up for them. "The facilities are excellent. So are the materials used. Money seems to be no object," says Hussaini. Some of the skilled artisans earn as much as Rs 1,000 a day.
But the Birmingham Jatha's politics-free approach itself had been in danger of becoming a political issue. The Jatha had to negotiate a run of strong objections before the Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee allowed the kar seva. Other orthodox objections continue to smoulder: that this kar seva was awarded to a Jatha that bows before its leader as to a guru, and that non-Sikhs have been drawn into the kar seva. Counters Baba Mohinder Singh: "The Harmandir Sahib is a place of prayer and worship...it is not just for Sikhs, it is for everyone. The opportunity for this seva is a historic privilege.
The seva is built on love and compassion and hatred has no place here. If you cannot be compassionate, you can forget about being religious." A notice outside his Birmingham office reads: "Please do not bow before me." Few of the Sikhs who queue for his darshan take notice. "I am no guru. The 10th guru had made it clear that only the Guru Granth Sahib will be the guru for all Sikhs. But it is an old tradition to bow and touch the feet of saintly people. We have put up notices to discourage this, but what do you do?" As word spreads of the kar seva, donations in the form of gold, foreign and Indian currency are pouring in at its office on the outer perimeter of the parikrama (quadrangle) in Amritsar. But 95 per cent of the total cost is being met by the Jatha.
The Jatha's contract runs till 1999 but Bhai Mainga Singh is certain he will complete the massive project in three-and-a-half years. Maharaja Ranjit Singh took 27 years for the same task, he points out and ascribes the quick progress to the hard work: "We are not here to stay. We will do our kar seva and go back".
For Sanjay Kumar, who has worked on the Sisganj and Banglasaheb gurdwaras in Delhi, this is his most satisfying project ever: "I feel part of something historical. Our descendants will marvel at the work we have done here today".