Amritsar’s Golden Temple is the holiest shrine of the Sikhs and is visited by millions of pilgrims and tourists every year. Yet most visitors miss a piece of Sikh history that is hidden in plain sight.
Look closely at the Sri Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple and you will notice two minarets rising behind the central dome of the temple, north of the holy tank in which the shrine stands. They represent a forgotten but vital chapter in Sikh history.
The two identical minarets, each one 156 feet tall, are a part of the Ramgarhia Bunga, one of many bungas that once served as the headquarters of various Sikh chieftains and as military posts that protected the Golden Temple and the city.
The bungas were built in the middle to the late 18th century, during the Misl period in Punjab’s history, when the region was ruled by a confederation of misls or clans, each led by a chieftain. In a bid to offer organized resistance to Mughal oppression and protect the Sri Harmandir Sahib temple from attack, 65 bands of fighters were grouped into 11 misls or divisions, corresponding to the clans in the region. Each misl was led by a sardar or chief that had a separate name and banner. The misls survived actively for 50 years, till the rise of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who united the misl confederacy and carved out an empire with Punjab at its heart.
‘Bunga’ or ‘Bungha’ is Arabic for a ‘place where people of different religions live together’. In Persian, it simply means ‘residence’, as these structures also served as a ‘residence’ or resting place for pilgrims. According to Ghiyas-al-Lughat, written by noted 19th-century historian Muhammad Ghiyas al-Din, the bungas were built over the huts and mud houses constructed by the Sikh gurus, Guru Ramdas ji and Guru Arjan Dev ji, for the inhabitants of the then newly built Amritsar city, when its foundation was laid in 1577. By the end of the 18th century, most of the huts were converted to larger residences or bungas.
Another 19th-century author, Ahmed Shah, who was a courtier at Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s court in Lahore, mentions in his book the Tarikh-e-Punjab, that the chiefs of different misls used to stay in their respective bungas when they visited the city. He states that each bunga had a caretaker or ‘bungai’, who looked after the premises as well as the visitors and pilgrims who thronged there. Some records claim that there were as many as 82 bungas in Amritsar.
The Ramgarhia Bunga is Amritsar’s most famous bunga and is one of only a handful that exists today. More importantly, it was one of only three bungas that were exclusively meant to protect the Golden Temple.
A marvel of Misl architecture, it was built by Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia (1723-1803), a prominent figure of the Misl period, noted mainly for his successful siege of Delhi and capture of the Red Fort, the Mughal headquarters, in 1783.
Built in 1755, the Ramgarhia Bunga’s minarets served as watchtowers, from which the approaching enemy could be spotted from miles away. During the Misl period, the saffron-coloured Nishan Sahib (holy flag) of the Sikhs would have flown there.
The Ramgarhia Bunga has two floors above ground and three storeys underground. It also has a baradari-like pavilion on the top floor, facing the Sri Harmandir Sahib. This bunga, apart from being the residence of Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, was also his military headquarters.
In the Tawarikh Darbar Sahib by Udham Singh, there is a reference to Maharaja Jassa Singh of Ramgarhia and his son Sardar Jodh Singh, who together contributed Rs 5 lakh for the construction of this bunga.
Enter the bunga and you will see a well in the centre of the courtyard. Although dry during many months of the year, the well fills up with rain water during the monsoon. The underground floors of the bunga seem to have been constructed around this well. The lower floors are approached through 14 steps that are accessed through a small door at ground level. They end in a hall.
All the floors are constructed with triple arches on the window frames and have decorative columns. The Ramgarhia chiefs constructed roofs geometrically designed in a circle as this would prevent the roof from collapsing even if some of the bricks were removed.
To the left of the chamber through which you enter, is the Council Hall used by Jassa Singh Ramgarhia. The centrepiece of this hall is the throne of Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, which is still intact. Close your eyes and imagine how the warrior Misl chief must have held court in the shadow of the Golden Temple!
Behind the throne is a kal kothri, a cell for solitary confinement, in which the arrested were housed while Jassa Singh Ramgarhia announced their punishment. There is a similar cell on the opposite side.
The top of the wall of this underground bunga, which faces the Dukh Bhanjhani Beri of parikarma, is adorned by beautiful small windows with lattice work. They have perfect arches to maintain proper cross-ventilation.
Go to the opposite side of this chamber and look out for another set of stairs which takes you to the further lower floor. This second lower floor contains a 10 feet long and 8 feet wide room. Despite the absence of any cooling arrangement, the temperature here is perceptibly lower than that outside, and it doesn’t rise much even in the summer months. These chambers offered relief to the Sikh soldiers who stayed in the bunga in summer.
These stairs then take you to a further lower floor where there appears to be a dry well, with steps leading to it. The point at which the steps end reflects the level at which the water might have been available in the well back then.
Many more rooms are gradually being discovered by excavations at the complex, thus opening many unknown chapters in Sikh history. There are also claims that different bungas were connected by underground tunnels, which have been lost with the passage of time.
As you descend, the temperature falls and air pressure decreases. Since the bunga was the headquarters of the Ramgarhias, it had three entrances through which 500-700 Ramgarhia warriors could enter and exit. Now, only one entrance is operational.
Emerge from the underground chamber and opposite the courtyard on the first floor is a pavilion supported by 44 pillars along with a colourful stone slab. It is believed that these pillars and the slab were brought by Jassa Singh Ramgarhia as the spoils of war from the Red Fort in Delhi in 1783.
Almost all Sikh scholars make a note of this. Prithipal Singh Kapur, former Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Amritsar’s Guru Nanak Dev University and Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Sikhism at Punjabi University, Patiala, in his book Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, mentions that Aurangzeb, while seated on this throne, had announced the execution of Guru Teg Bahadur ji.
He further explains that on 11 March, 1783, when the united forces of Sardar Baghel Singh, Jassa Singh Ahluwalia, Jassa Singh Ramgarhia, Gurdit Singh and Bagh Singh won Delhi and captured the Red Fort, Jassa Singh Ramgarhia brought back 44 stone pillars and this stone throne. The book mentions that these pillars and the throne are kept in the bunga as symbols of valour.
When Maharaja Ranjit Singh built a great Sikh Empire in the 18th-19th centuries, he didn’t confiscate the bungas from the misls. Instead, while unifying them, he granted them autonomy and did not change their caretakers. It is said that it was only during colonial rule that the royal standard of the bungas began to diminish due to lack of maintenance.
In his Sri Harmandir Sahib Ji da Sunehri Ithaas, 20th century writer Giani Kirpal Singh, who was also appointed head Granthi (scripture reader) of the Sri Harmandir Sahib, noted that due to the demand from the community that the parikarma of the shrine be extended, many of the bungas except the Ramgarhia Bunga, that lay in the path of the parikrama (circumambulation of the shrine), began to be demolished from 29 October 1943, and the process continued ever after Independence.
During Operation Blue Star in 1984, the bunga was badly damaged and the entrance of many large rooms on the lower floor and other places were blocked with debris. The Ramgarhia community later repaired the minarets and requested the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) to repair the bunga. As a result, repairs and renovation started under the supervision of the state Department of Archaeology in 2008 but were stopped within a few years, leaving the project incomplete.
The Ramgarhia Bunga can be visited by people of all faiths but, despite its proximity to the Golden Temple, it does not get many visitors. Yet there is much to be experienced here. Stand in the compound for a while and you can almost hear the hoofs of horses marching in and out of the compound. Gaze up at the pavilion on the first storey and you can almost see a triumphant Sardar Jassa Singh Ramgarhia galloping in with his army, after his famous victory in Delhi.
But it is not too late. The bunga is of immense historical significance, and preserving it would restore much of its lost glory while making visible a vital piece of the region’s history.
Cover Image: Wikimedia Commons
Aashish Kochhar is a mass communication student from Amritsar and an enthusiast of the unknown history.
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