DHARAMSALA or dharamsala from Sanskrit dharmasala, lit. court of justice, tribunal, charitable asylum, religious asylum, stands in Punjabi for a place of worship or the village hospice. Dharamsala as a Sikh institution is the precursor of gurdwara (q.v.). According to janam sakhis, accounts of the life of Guru Nanak (1469-1539). the Guru wherever he went, enjoined his followers to build or set apart a place where they should meet regularly to sing praises of the Lord and to discuss matters of common concern. These places came to be called dharamsalas and the congregations assembling therein became sangats. Dharamsalas grew up in far flung places in the wake of Guru Nanak\’s extensive travels.
In the time of the successive Gurus, the main dharamsala was the one which was the seat of the reigning Guru. Guru Arjan, Nanak V, said in one of his hymns preserved in the Guru Granth Sahib, “I have set up a true dharamsal, I seek out the Guru\’s Sikhs and bring them here; I wash their feet, wave the fan over them, and I bow at their feet….” (GG, 73). The washing of feet and waving of fan underline the importance of dharamsala as a place for practising seva (service), a highly prized virtue in Sikhism. Similarly, bowing at the feet of the Sikhs emphasizes the virtue of humility in sangat. In another hymn, this one in honour of Baba Mohan, the elder son of Guru Amar Das, held in high regard for his piety, Guru Arjan extols Baba Mohan\’s house as a dharamsala for the saints who always gather there and sing praises of the Compassionate Lord (GG, 248).
Besides providing opportunities for devotional worship and humble service, dharamsalas functioned as religious asylums providing food and shelter to travellers and the needy. Guru Nanak had called this very earth as dharamsal, the place for practising dharma or religion, which in the Guru\’s vision was not only individual piety but also an active way of life. After the installation of the Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib, in dharamsalas from the seventeenth century onward, they came to be called gurduaras or gurdwaras, portals of the Guru, though the word dharamsala is still current in popular speech.
1. Cole, W. Owen and Piara Singh Sambhi, The Sikhs: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. Delhi, 1978.
2. Harbans Singh, Berkley Lectures on Sikhism. Delhi, 1963
3. Kohli, Surindar Singh, Sikh Ethics. Delhi, 1974