An outline of Sikh architectureby S.S. BhattiSo little has been written about Sikh architecture that it is difficult for anyone to believe that such a style of architecture exists at all. It is ironic that whereas the Sikhs are known the world over for their characteristic vigor, valor, versatility, above all their distinct physical, moral and spiritual identity, their architecture should have remained so abjectly unidentified.This paper attempts to outline the main elements, principles, and objectives of building design with a view to conjuring up an overall picture of a style of architecture which can be doubtlessly called Sikh Architecture.

This venture will be extended to touch upon another area of architecture which has come to be known as urban design, and whose existence in Sikh architecture can also be substantiated by apt examples.Apart from buildings of religious order, Sikh architecture has secular types of forts, palaces, bungas (residential places), colleges, etc. The religious structure is the gurdwara, a place where the Guru dwells. A gurdwara is not only the all-important building of the Faith, as masjid or mosque of the Islamic faith and mandir or temple of the Hindu religion, but it is also, like its Islamic and Hindu counterparts, the keynote of Sikh architecture.

The word gurdwara is compounded of Guru (Guide or Master) and Dwara (Gateway or Seat) and therefore has an architectural connotation. Sikh temples are by and large commemorative buildings connected with the ten Gurus in some way, or with places and events of historical significance. For example, Gurdwara Dera Sahib (Halting place) in Batala in Gurdaspur district was erected to commemorate the brief stay here of Guru Nanak along with the party on the ocassion of his marriage.Gurdwara Shish Mahal (Hall of Mirrors) in Kiratpur in Ropar district was built where the eighth Guru, Harkishan, was born and so on.

Gurdwara Shahid Ganj (Martyr\’s Memorial) in Muktsar in Faridkot district commemorates the place where the dead bodies of the Sikhs, who were killed in the battle between Guru Gobind Singh and the Mughal forces in 1705, were cremated. Gurdwara Ram Sar (God\’s Pool) in Amritsar stands on a site where the fifth Guru, Arjan Dev, got the Adi Granth compiled by Bhai Gurdas.According to the Sikh faith, while prayers to God can be offered any time and at any place, a gurdwara is built particularly for congregational worship.

Even a very small group of devotees living anywhere in the world would generally require a gurdwara to be built so as to get together for religious or even social purposes.The building could be as simple as a temporary shack, or a small room in a house, depending upon the resources of the local community.But the Sikhs would not stint in this matter, and they have thus built several beautiful and imposing gurdwaras some of which can accommodate hundreds of devotees.

The main requirement of a gurdwara is that of a room in which the Adi Granth, the Holy Book, can be placed and a small sangat or congregation can be seated to listen to the path or readings from the Holy Book and to sing and recite its verses. The buildings of the Sikh shrines cover a wide spectrum of structures varying from the simple and the austere to the richly embellished and respondent.Gurdwaras have entrances on all the sides signifying that they are open to one and all without any distinction whatsoever.This distinguishing feature also symbolizes the essential tenet of the Sikh faith that God is omnipresent.

In some cases, however, space shortage does not permit entry from all the sides, as in Gurdwara Sis Ganj in Delhi.Many Sikh temples have a deorhi, an entrance or gateway, through which one has to pass before reaching the shrine. A deorhi is often an impressive structure with an imposing gateway, and sometimes provides accommodation for office and other use. The visitors get the first glimpse of the sanctum sanctotum from the deorhi.There are over five hundred gurdwaras, big and small, which have an historical past.

They are to be found throughout India, although a majority of them are located in the Punjab and its surrounding provinces. Some important gurdwaras also exist in Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere in the world.The buildings of the Sikh shrines, when classified according to their plan, are of four basic types: the square, the rectangular, the octagonal, and the cruciform. On the basis of the number of storeys, gurdwaras have structures, which may be one, two, three, five or nine storeys high.

One comes across several interesting variations of gurdwara designs worked out on the permutations and combinations of the aforesaid basic plan and elevation types.A few examples are now given to illustrate the above categories. Darbar Sahib at Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district is constructed on a square plan and is a single-storeyed structure. Gurdwara Shahid Ganj at Muktsar in Faridkot district has one storey built on a rectangular plan.Examples of this plan shape are extremely rare. Gurdwara Lohgarh in Anandpur Sahib in Ropar district has an octagonal plan and a single-storied elevation.

Gurdwara Tamboo (tent) Sahib in Muktsar is a double-storied building constructed on a square plan, on a raised basement. Gurdwara Chobara Sahib (room on terrace) at Goindwal in Amritsar district is a three-storeyed structure elevated on a square plan.Gurdwara Tham Sahib (pillar) at Kartarpur in Jullunder district has a square plan and five storeys.Gurdwara Shadian (martyrs\’) in Amritsar is a three-storied octagonal structure.

Gurdwara Baba Atal Sahib (immutable) in Amritsar, basically a smadh (cenotaph) raised in the memory of Baba Atal, the revered son of the sixth Guru, Hargobind, is a nine storeyed building standing on an octagonal plan. It reminds one of Firoae Minar in Gaur. Gurdwara Dera Baba Gurditta at Kartarpur in Ropar district is a square structure placed on a high plinth, which has a ten-sided plan. This polygonal plan shape is quite unusual.Baolis (stepped wells) are also not uncommon in Sikh architecture.

Gurdwara Baoli Sahib at Goindwal in Amritsar district is representative example of such structures, which, for the purpose of this article, belong to the miscellaneous class. Gurdwara Nanak Jhira in Bidar in Karnataka, stands on a cruciform plan.There are five historical shrines which have been given the status of thakats (thrones) where the gurmattas (decisions) of a binding character taken through a consensus of the sangat (congregation) have great importance, affecting as they did the social and political life of the Sikh community.

These are: Akal Takht, Amritsar; Harmandir Sahib, Patna, Bihar; Keshgarh Sahib, Anandpur; Damdama Sahib, Talwandi Sabo; and Hazur Sahib, Nanded, Maharashtra.Of these five takhats, the Akal Takhat (Indestructible Throne) is the most important by virtue of its location in Amritsar, the Vatican for the Sikhs.As a rule, a gumbad (dome) is the crowning feature of a gurdwara. Rarely, a shrine may be flat-roofed, as in the case of Gurdwara Guru-ka-Lahore near Anandpur Sahib in Ropar district.

Sometimes, a small single roomed shrine is topped by a palaki, a palanquin-like roof, derived from Bengal style of architecture, as can be seen in Gurdwara Tahli Sahib, in village Tahala in Bhatinda district. Gurdwara Bahadur Garh in Patiala has a palaki instead of a dome as its crowning feature.More often than not, a dome is fluted or ribbed but a plane dome has also been used in many cases, as in Manji Sahib at Damdama Sahib in Bhatinda district.Several dome shapes are to be found in Sikh shrines — hemispherical, three-quarters of a sphere, etc., although the last mentioned is more frequently used.

The shape of the dome of Gurdwara Patal Puri at Kiratpur in Ropar district has a remarkable likeness to the domes seen in Bijapur provincial style of architecture.The dome is usually white, and sometimes gilded, as in the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Darbar Sahib at Taran Tarn, and Sis Ganj in Delhi. Alternatively, in some cases, domes have been covered with brass, while in others, at least the finial has been given copper-gilt sheathing. Usually domes on Sikh shrines spring from a floral base, and have inverted lotus symbol top from which rises the kalasa, an ornate finial.

Based on Mount Kailasa it shoots up in the form of a cylindrical construction, of ten with some concentric discs, spheroids, culminating in a small canopy with pendants hanging at the outer rim.An interesting point to note is the manner in which the dome is related to the cuboid structure of the shrine. As a rule, the lower part dominates the domical structure and looks somewhat austere in comparison with it. Apart from the larger central dome, there are often four other smaller cupolas, one on each corner of the unusually cuboid structure of the shrine.

The parapet may be embellished with several turrets, or small rudimentary domes, or crenellations, or replicas of arcades with domical toppings, or strings of guldastas (bouquets) or similar other embellishments. Minarets – the symbols of royalty – are rarely seen in a Gurdwara.An exception Katal Garh (Place of Execution) at Chamkaur Sahib in Ropar district has several minarets.A recurrent element of gurdwara design is the preferred usage of two storeys to gain sufficient elevation for the shrine. However restrained the design may be, the elevation is usually treated by dividing the facade in accordance with the structural lines of columns, piers and pilasters, with vertical divisions creating areas of well-molded surfaces.

The most important division is, of course, the entrance which receives more ornate treatment than other areas. The treatment often creates bas-reliefs of geometrical, floral, and other designs. Where magnificence is the aim, repousse work in brass or copper gilt sheathing is often introduced with a note of extravagance.Jaratkari or in-lay work, gach or plaster-of-Paris work, tukri work, fresco painting, pinjra or lattice work are the techniques used for embellishment of exterior surfaces as well as for interior decoration.Jaratkari is both a very extensive and time-consuming technique of studding precious and colored stones into marble slabs.

The slabs often have florid or geometrical borders, which enclose painstakingly, executed in-lay work using floral shapes and patterns. Beautiful designs are made on the walls with gach, which is subsequently gilded. Excellent examples of this work can be seen in the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Sometimes, the gach work is rended highly ornamental by means of colored and mirrored cut glass as well as precious stones. This is called tukri (small piece) work.

Frescoes depicting popular episodes from the lives of the ten Gurus, are to be found in some shrines. Designs employed are based on vine, plant, flower, bird and animal motifs. The largest numbers of such frescoes have been painted on the first floor of Baba Atal at Amritsar. Pinjras or delicate stone grilles are used for screens, enclosures and parapets.Brick, lime mortar as well as lime or gypsum plaster, and lime concrete have been the most favored building materials, although stone, such as red stone and white marble, has also been used in a number of shrines.

The latter found use more as cladding or decorative material than for meeting structural needs for well over two hundred years. Nanak Shahi (from the times of Nanak) brick was most commonly used for its intrinsic advantages.It was a kind of brick tile of moderate dimensions used for reinforcing lime concretes in the structural walls and other components, which were generally very thick.The brick-tile made moldings, cornices, plasters, etc., is easy to work into a variety of shapes. More often than not, the structure was a combination of the two systems, viz, trabeated or post-and-lintal, and acerated or based on arches.

The surfaces were treated with lime or gypsum plaster which was molded into cornices, pilasters, and other structural as well as non-structural embellishments.Sikh architecture represents the last flicker of religious architecture in India. Golden Temple at Amritsar is most celebrated example as this is one monument in which all the characteristics of the style are fully represented.Golden Temple being the sheet anchor of the stylistic index of Sikh architecture, it may well be to give some details of the revered temple.

Almost leviating above and in the middle of an expansive water-body, the \’Pool of Nectar\’, the Darbar (Court) Sahib, or Harmandir Sahib (Lord\’s Temple) as it is called, stirs one deeply with glitters of its golden dome, kiesks, parapets, repousse work, and the enchanting evanescence of it\’s shimmering reflection in the pool. With the temple and tank as the focus, a complex of buildings, most of which repeat in their architectural details the characteristics of the central structure, have come up in the vicinity, in the course of time.

The temple has four entrances and is approached by means of a causeway which connects the entrance gateway, darshani deorhi, with the main shrine. The causeway is a marble paved access bordered by latticed balustrades and lamp-posts with elegant copper gilded lanterns at close intervals, and meets the parkarma or circumambulatory. The outer parkarma or promenade of the Holy Tank had a string of bungas, once rooms or halting places built by villages or misals, the Sikh confederacies, for lodging their people during the visits to the shrine. Some of the bungas have now been demolished to widen the parkarma.

Over the two-storied structure of the shrine rises a low gilt-metal flutted dome.There are kiesks also with fluted-metal cupolas at each corner while several small domes of similar design embellish the parapet. The first floor is designed as a gallery so that the central part of the shrine has unobstructed two-storey height. Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Holy Book, is placed at the ground floor, facing the entrance off the causeway, while a small area around it is cordoned off by a row railing.The whole building of Harmandir Sahib is richly ornamented with floral designs, either painted in tempera or embossed in metal. The skillful handling of brass and copper is one of the crafts in which Sikh artisans excel.

Golden Temple is the soul-stirring expression of intense religious emotion of the Sikh faith materialized in marble, glass, color and metal. In this respect, it has few equals in the world.Although Sikh architecture undoubtedly originated with the idea of devotion, it had to undergo rigors of compulsively transforming itself into buildings meant for defense purposes. It assumed the character of military fortification, which was reflected in a number of buildings throughout Punjab. Gurdwara Baba Gurditta, Kiratpur, is a representative example of this type of Sikh architecture.

With all the paraphernalia of multiple gateways, series of battlemented enclosures, placement of the structure atop a strategic point of a hill, etc., this shrine was virtually transformed into an architectural rendering of a fortification.As conditions became favorable, however, Sikh religion changed its militant posture and assumed the character of an organized institution, with consequent effect on the nature, character and aesthetic of its architecture.As a style, Sikh architecture is essentially eclectic [universal] in nature, which is an appropriate expression of the eclectic content of the Sikh faith itself.

It shares its essence with imported monotheism and its lush exuberance with indigenous polytheism. Not only has Sikh architecture thrived at this but also flourished to the extent of working out its own stylistic idiosyncrasies.Pointed, semicircular, elliptical arches, with or without cusps, as well as ogee arches, are the ubiquitous elements of Sikh architecture.Among its typical features are the multiplicity of chattris, kiesks or pevilions, which embellish the parapets, angles, and every prominence and projection; the invariable use of the fluted or ribbed dome generally covered with brass or copper-gilt; the frequent introduction of oriel or embowed windows with shallow elliptical conics and supported on carved brackets; slanting over-hanging eaves also supported on brackets thrown out as an element emphasizing the string-course to decorate the lower structure and the parapet; elliptical eaves with multi-foil seffits a lavish enrichment of all arches by means of numerous foliations; and other structural ornamentation of a similar order.

Sikh architecture is a lively blend of the Mughal and Rajput styles.Onion-shaped domes, multi-foil arches, paired pilasters, in-lay work, frescoes, etc. are of Mughal extraction, more specially of Shah Jahan\’s period, while oriel windows, bracket supported eaves at the string-course, chattris, richly ornamented friezes, etc., are derived from elements of Rajput architecture such as is seen in Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner and other places in Rajasthan.

Sikh architecture expresses the characteristic resilience of the Sikh spirit and its inviolable freedom to deviate from the artistic exuberance, aesthetic magnificence and creative fullness.The curious mannerist emphasis on creative freedom makes Sikh architecture the Indian Baroque, with its characteristics of sculptured skylines, variegated wall treatments, interesting juxtaposition and or disposition of recesses and projections – at once bold, vigorous, and tastefully sumptuous.Use of water as an element of design has been frequently exploited in Mughal and Hindu architecture, but nowhere in so lively a manner as in Sikh architecture.

Water becomes a sine qua non of Sikh architectural design, as in the Golden Temple at Amritsar or Darbar Sahib at Tarn Taran, and not merely an appendage to the main shrine. The gurdwara is placed lower down than the structures in the vicinity [signifying humility], unlike a masjid (mosque) or a mandir (Hindu temple), which are usually placed on raised platforms.With the main shrine as the focus, Sikh architecture has tended to develop into a complex of several buildings serving different functions including residences, offices, museums, community kitchens, etc.

These characteristics aptly express the three commandments of the Sikh Faith: working, worshipping and sharing.While sticking to the same basic requirements, different Sikh shrines have developed their own characteristic expression. It may be recalled that most of the Gurdwaras are commemorative buildings, and therefore the sites on which they have been built, had the intrinsic challenges and advantages which were more fortuitous than premeditated.. Most situations have been dealt with remarkable imagination and ingenuity.

Eventually, no two shrines look exactly alike although there are exceptions such as Dera Sahib, Lahore, and Panja Sahib, both in Pakistan. Also the low metal-gilt fluted dome of the Golden Temple has been copied in these two shrines as well as in the Darbar Sahib at Tarn Taran. Sometimes, the difference in design is so great that it would be difficult to recognize a Gurdwara if the Sikh standard or Nishan Sahib [Sikh flag] were not there to help in its identification.

Some of the Gurdwaras look more like gateways, as is the case with Fatehgarh Sahib (Town of Victory), Sirhind, or like an educational institution, as in the case with Ber (berry) Sahib, Sultanpur Lodhi, or like a Rajput Palace, as in the case of Gurdwara Bahadur Garh (Fort of the Valient) in Patiala district, when one first encounters its enclosing structures. But all this deviation, if somewhat baffling, does not detract one from the essentials of Sikh architecture. On the contrary, it substantiates the very basis of creative freedom on which it is built.

As exemplified by Gurdwaras, Sikh Architecture is a veritable artistic expression of the evergreen ebullience of the Sikh way of life – its intensity, open-mindedness, and exuberance. It imparts a dimension of palpable immanence to the Transcendent Principle of Truth on which the Sikh faith is founded.The uniqueness of the Sikh religious thought lies in its willing acceptance of the perennial coexistence of paired opposites like good and evil, virtue and vice, health and disease, life and death, riches and poverty, etc.

It is grounded in the domain of the Concrete from where it takes off for an ever-extended adventure into the realm of the Abstract. It encompasses the polychronic, polymorphic and polycreative dimension of the world of relativity and transforms them into the colorless, formless, uncreated self-existence of the ever-abiding Absolute. All this is powerfully expressed in a form of urban design, which is an important dimension of Sikh architecture.

The Golden Temple complex at Amritsar is an apt example of excellence in urban design. It performs a variety of functions such as religious, social, cultural and spiritual. It\’s location is in the heart of the walled city, where it dwells in the midst of the entire civic organism with all its vital organs, veins and arteries. From the narrow lanes, among which are some handshake bazaars, which links it to the various parts of the city, one enters the grand, mystifying openness and splendor of Darbar Sahib complex. The access to the complex (and then to the main shrine) expresses the Sikh faith\’s willing acceptance of this world as it is, and symbolizes the progressive quest of the human spirit towards communion with God.

The whole charm of spiritual experience lies in such exploration and should never be obvious. All such elements of curiosity, surprise, anticipation, encounter, excitement and fulfillment were there in the original city plan.Unfortunately, all these are being systematically destroyed in the name of urban renewal and redevelopment by widening roads and building the so-called modern structures. Once the Golden Temple becomes visible from various sides, as it seems is now intended, it will lose much of its expressive magnificence.

The obvious can never be grand! Must we therefore, not save it from irreparable damage that planning would without doubt cause to it in a big way.There is a variety of scattered evidence that structures other than Gurdwaras still exists, if in a state of utter neglect, here and there, on this side and across the border, which were/are significant contributions of Sikh architecture to the art and science of building. For instance, it has been reliably learnt that Hari Singh Nalwa built a 14-storeyed structure with additional three in the basement (taikhanas) for use during summer.

Only four storeys now survive.It is said that the (taikhanas were cold enough for use of blankets even when there was sweltering heat outside. If it could be established that such a structure did come up in the first quarter of the 19th century, Sikh architecture would have the proud privilege of having put up the first skyscraper of the world.

History has recorded that the age of the skyscraper began when Home Insurance building, a ten storied structure was constructed in Chicago towards the end of the 19th century.It is thus reasonable to surmise that a rich repertoire of buildings, which through their distinctive character belong to Sikh architecture, can be reconstructed through proper search and research in the field, which has hitherto remained neglected for various reasons.

Undoubtedly, there is an urgent need for exhaustive documentation, in-depth study and thorough research in the field of Sikh Architecture (and Art). There is also a need for preserving our tradition, and for extending it through a continued process of modernization. As members of a young and living faith, we owe it to posterity.


1 Arshi, Pardeep Singh, Sikh Architecture in the Punjab, Ph.D Thesis, 1980, Chandigarh.
2 Brown, Percy, Indian Architecture (Islamic Period), Fifth Edition, 1965, Bombay.
3 Brown, Percy, Indian Architecture (Hindu and Buddhist Period), Fifth Edition, 1965, Bombay.
4 Singh, Mehar, Sikh Shrines In India, Publications Division, Government of India, 1974, New Delhi.
5 Marg, Volume XXX, Number 3, June 1977, Bombay.