Sacred City Intersections: Superiority-Inferiority Complexes in Sites of Amritsar, India
— Raminder Kaur
Be it Mecca, the Vatican City, Varanasi, or Amritsar: even while cities acquire the status of sacrality particular to a specific religious group, they continue to harbour pronounced inter- and intra-religious dynamics within and outside their circumscribed boundaries. Such phenomena require a multiscalar and intersectional lens of analysis that goes beyond simply considering the city as the ‘sacred heart’ of this or that religion, but one that is mapped and layered by other circulations – complementary and contestatory, resuscitating and toxic, some of which bolster and others eat away at this heart. This might be considered in terms of what I propose as ‘sacred city intersections’ in an attempt to account for the spatialisation of intersectionality (see Crenshaw 1998, Brah and Phoenix 2004, hooks 2012) – that is, the way in which a holy city is navigated by individuals and communities with cross-cutting, meshed identities based on different religions, genders, castes/classes, ethnicities/races among other features to forge spaces of sanctuary and sacrality in a place that is dominated by one group over another. In addition, these intersections constantly shift according to sliding temporal and spatial scales of analysis whether they be local, regional, national and transnational.
A case in question is the Golden Temple (otherwise known as the Harmandir or Darbar Sahib) that led to the development of the north Indian city of Amritsar during the times of the fourth and fifth Sikh gurus in the late fifteenth century and early sixteenth century (Figure 1); and the Durgiana Mandir built on a similar model to the Golden Temple in a pool of sacred water under the supervision of a high caste Hindu priest (mahant) in the 1920s (Figure 2). From the nineteenth century in particular, syncretic traditions in the city became monolithic due to conditions of coloniality and movements led by male-dominated religious authorities. These include, on the one hand, the Gurdwara Reform Movement (gurdwara referring to Sikh places of worship) now authorised by the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), and, on the other, the Arya Samaj nowadays led by high caste or Brahmanic Hindus – both movements that continue to be supported by like-minded political networks.
The dominant strand that resounds in the city of Amritsar is of Sikhism, a movement that emerged in the fifteenth century with the foresight of Guru Nanak that now harbours several sects (Oberoi 1994). While numerically Sikhs predominate in the city (about 68% in Amritsar District), they remain a minority at the national level (less than 2% according to the 2011 Census). The circumstances lead to a unique ‘superiority-inferiority complex’ for this sacred city that I briefly explore here with regards to constructed religio-ethnic relations that tap into national discourse on religion. In what proceeds, I use the terms, Sikh and Hindu, as short-hands for wider complexes in which a focus on intercutting dimensions of sect, caste and gender are necessarily brief.
If we were to apply a spatialised intersectional lens to Amritsar: a minority Hindu community in the city strives to assert its essentialised identity that is fuelled by wider Brahmanic religion in a national context of majoritarian politics. In the process, those sites associated with popular religions and marginalised Dalit castes are cast into the peripheries. The Valmiki Tirath Sthal, for instance, is one of these that is associated with a Dalit caste group that call themselves Valmikis. Located about twelve kilometres away from the city centre, it also comes with a tank of sacred water although with a temple of a different architectural design to those cited above. The place marks where Valmiki, the writer of the ancient epic, the Ramayana, resided with the deified female protagonist Sita, and her sons, Luv and Kush (see Snehi 2021).
Regarding the Golden Temple and the Durgiana Mandir, there are two critical moments to consider here: one historical from the early twentieth century that points to the emergence of essentialised communal tensions, and the other contemporary that indicates a latter-day (re-)entrenchment. The Golden Temple was built, destroyed, rebuilt and expanded on and around a sacred lake over the last six centuries (Kaur 2013). Its status was accorded primacy during the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1792-1801) and during the British colonial era when the Gurdwara Reform Movement emerged in the 1920s. The latter also came with the ‘Sikhisation’ of sacred spaces under SGPC stewardship and leadership at the Golden Temple complex (Purewal and Kalra 2016: 78). Anything that smacked of idolatry was expunged from the walkway or parikrama precincts of the Golden Temple.
In counterreaction, Guru Harsai Mal Kapoor raised funds to build the Durgiana Mandir that was completed in 1921 about two kilometres away outside of the confines of the old city. The construction of the Durgiana Mandir was led by high caste leaders built on an earlier sacred site and dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Durga. Its development was an attempt to institutionalise and centralise forms of Hindu practice that otherwise were amorphous and fragmented while excluding othered religious narratives and socialities (Purewal and Kalra 2019) associated with marginalised Valmikis and other Dalit communities.
The Golden Temple is both a definitive religious object of Amritsar urbanity and generative of a discursive aesthetic that enwraps the city through multisensory avenues. Despite differential distancing, the Durgiana Mandir followed a similar architectural plan to the Golden Temple with a bridge that leads to a temple in the middle of a pool (Figures 3 and 4). The sanctum sanctorum at the Durgiana Mandir complex was also clad in marble and gild work on the first and top floor. However, it was embellished with Hindu deities and friezes with statues (murti) that were also placed in the water tank (Figure 5). Its interior was decorated with pink and grey marble and saffron orange painted upper walls, saffron being a strong signifier for Hinduism. On the first-floor interior, there is a surrounding balcony topped with a flat roof that hosts a dome petalled roof covered in gold leaf recalling the one at the Golden Temple but placed to the rear of the building and of taller dimensions. Around the water tank, there is an enclosed area for women to bathe as there are at the Golden Temple along with smaller shrines and trees – one tree marked as especially significant for it is where Hanuman, companion to the Hindu demigod Ram, tied his horse to a tree; another tree further away outside of the parikrama where Hanuman himself was tied up captive by Luv and Kush.
As one caretaker explained at the Durgiana Mandir when I met him while conducting fieldwork in March 2022: ‘The devi (goddess) appeared out of the earth. This mandir is made out of that mitti (soil or earth)’. Its construction is placed not just in the legacies of colonial-communal politics but also in the autochthonous streams of mytho-history. This self-emergence or self-presence (swyambhu) was in relation to the goddesses, Kalimata and Shitala, who both have their shrines just outside the Durgiana Mandir.
As an architectural assertion of Hindu identity modelled on the Golden Temple, the Durgiana Mandir does not so much as manifest a ‘third space’ of mimicry (Bhabha 1993) between the coloniser and colonised, but rather an intersectional space of mimicry – that is, it is a multi-perspectival and ambiguous space where the dominant and dominated is not clear, nor is it fixed. Following the precedents of a national-minority yet local-majority Sikh population, the Durgiana Mandir spatialises and asserts high-caste Hinduism in the city entwined with national mainstream discourse. The construction of the Durgiana Mandir appears to be resistive but it is also entrenching the national status quo in a city deemed as the centre of Sikh sacrality. For Sikhs amongst others, the Durgiana Mandir is a marker of inferiority and infiltration, a shadow of the Golden Temple that was key to founding the early settlement and defining its identity. Generalisations about the religion of Sikhism being a child of Hinduism are turned on their head for here it is the Golden Temple that is ‘the original’ and the Durgiana Mandir ‘the copy’ for devotional status and supremacy. And this is also endorsed in pilgrimage practices by individuals, families and tour groups that I came across: even those who identify as Hindus would often visit the Harmandir Sahib first, followed by the Durgiana Mandir among other Hindu sites deemed sacred in the city. Sikhs rarely visit the Durgiana Mandir with some people pointing out that they had never seen them go there for it being considered a dubious ‘duplicate’ where the ‘copy’ is deemed inferior to the ‘original’. Yet this original-copy hierarchy between the Golden and Durgiana Temples is countered when Hindus point to older temples that have been at the location for at least ‘seven hundred years’ in the vicinity with the authoritative stance of autochthony (Figure 6).
The syncretic sources of Sikhism are also used to authorise Hinduism as the original even if the former might reject that position for, on the one hand, fuelling Hindu nationalism, and on the other, where arguments about Hindu autochthony denies alternative autonomy. The limitations of engaging with discourses of autochthony are, first, that they are mythicised and mysticised so as they become oppositional to views couched in more recent historical data and political developments; second, autochthony itself is politicised as the entire nation undergoes the saffron sacralisation of high-caste Hindu nationalism. Minority practices and attributes are either co-opted or suppressed to supersize Hinduism.
Since 2013, a ‘beautification programme’ has led to the acquisition of property in the vicinity by the Durgiana Mandir Committee. This has come with the development of an open-air theatre, a shopping and multi-storied parking complex, alongside other facilities (Figure 7).
A langar (communal kitchen) hall has been built opposite the main temple (Figure 8). It too has been influenced by the Sikh decree of voluntary service, karsewa, in the spirit of egalitarian humility: ‘pehle pangat, phir sangat later’ (‘dine together first irrespective of caste and creed, congregate together later as one’). However, the principle of karsewa is not as entrenched in high caste Hinduism and ideologies about who should prepare food and who dines with who continue to act as barriers to the wider success of such a venture. In comparison to the tens of thousands that daily sit at the Golden Temple langar hall (Figure 9), the number of visitors is threadbare – in their tens and perhaps hundreds on festive occasions. The location of the langar hall at the Durgiana Mandir site on the road and its relative distance from the prime shrine in the complex is a latter-day materialisation of an afterthought. The parikrama around the pool is also not continuous as is the case in the plan of the Golden Temple (Figure 10) for it is broken up by surrounding buildings belonging to the Durgiana Mandir Committee and private householders (Figure 11). Currently, the walkway also appears to be less sanctified – a security guard walked on it with flip-flops, an act that would not be tolerated in the Golden Temple, nor indeed those invested in the supremacy and sacrality of the Durgiana Mandir.
A superiority-inferiority complex along the national-urban sliding scale is manifest among volunteers and workers at the Durgiana Mandir. The man at the ‘shoe house’ to the temple where visitors leave their footwear before entering the sanctum sanctorum was insistent that everyone say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (‘Hail to Ram’) before he would take care of them, acts of assertion that do not beset volunteer-workers at ‘shoe houses’ outside the Golden Temple. The security man at the gateway to the Durgiana Mandir bridge was keen to instruct visitors to come again and to ensure that they also visit the other ‘older’ or ancient (prachin) temples nearby including to the gods, Hanuman and Gopala-Krishna, in another gesture to the authority of autochthony. He also emphasised that ‘here you can feel real peace (shanti)’ in a pragmatic rather than spiritual sense in that there were no ‘crowds’ or ‘lines’ (queues) whereas in the Golden Temple it takes two hours to wait to enter the sanctum sanctorum. ‘Here you can enter without any problem’ he reiterated. But others of a Sikh persuasion contended that the Durgiana Mandir ‘shuts at 6pm and needs security guards’ whereas the Golden Temple ‘is open 24/7 and open to all’. Those on either side of the constructed camp mollified any sectarian accusations by asserting ‘God is One after all’ (‘Bhagwan to ek hi hai’). Following Jacques Rancière on the ‘distribution of the sensible’, this phenomenon might be called ‘the distribution of the sacral’ – that is, the politicisation of religion and the religiosification of politics where, locally and regionally, Sikhified religio-politics predominate in and against a reified regime of Hinduised religio-politics at the national scale. God may certainly be One but this view came with competitive impulses, and a sense of majoritarian ambition and appropriation on one side more than the other.
Still while the strands of Sikhism embody elements of Hinduism as well as Sufism, definitive Sikh ritualistic practice seeps through even at the Durgiana Mandir. Some visitors cover their heads as if they were entering a gurudwara, yet no one minds should there be no head covering. In some of the surrounding buildings to the Durgiana Mandir, devotees sit and read the ancient epic of the Ramayana from beginning to end similar to how a series of Sikh volunteers may read their holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, in two-hour stints. Kirtan or devotional singing to music from the Golden Temple can also be heard through speakers at the Durgiana Mandir at times when there is no arati (Hindu ritual of worship). Occasional references to Hindu deities in the Sikh verses take on more salience in endorsing Hindu provenance. While the sounds of the Harmandir Sahib envelop most places in the city through speakers, radio, television and the internet, their interpretative tenors are multiple and there remain pockets of reluctance to accept its centrality to the city as simply a sign of Sikhism.
The superiority-inferiority complex is most pronounced when considering national efforts to boost the significance of the Durgiana Mandir in Amritsar. This is in a context of at least four main political drives: the first being assertiveness with aspirations to make the Durgiana Mandir as significant as the Golden Temple is to the city as it correlates with the Hindu right-wing. Related to this, the second is more appropriative – deeming that Sikhism and Hinduism are correlate religious cultures in which the Golden Temple can also be seen as ‘essentially Hindu’. The third is more ambivalent while critical of such moves – prioritising Punjabiness through its Sikh people and history correlate with Shiromani Akali Dal politics, a party that had its origins in the Gurudwara Reform Movement during the colonial era. The fourth is more conciliatory in the ‘spirit of secularism’ with venerative visits to both sites on an equal platform, as was demonstrated recently by Aaam Aadmi Party candidates who won the state elections in March 2022 – secularism is to be understood along the lines of religious equality (see Bhargava 2000).
While I have merely touched the tip of the iceberg here, the framework remains: considering the sacred city through an intersectional and multiscalar lens delineates constantly shifting relations between differentiated communities according to scale, position and ambition. This lens is pertinent to Amritsar whose growth and contemporary identity as a city associated with Sikhism authorised by the SGPC is in distinction to a majoritarian national landscape where reified religions are not simply about the salvation of the soul but also about salvaging pride of a political tenor.
Raminder Kaur is Professor of Anthropology and Cultural Studies in the Departments of Anthropology and International Development at the University of Sussex, UK. She was a fellow of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity” in 2021/22, where she researched how particular locations become magnets for mercantile exchange, financial capital as well as determined as religiously specific ‘sacred cities’.
All photographs taken by Raminder Kaur, March 2022.
Brahman –high caste Hindus traditionally referred to as a ‘priestly class’.
Dalit – marginalised castes formerly termed ‘Untouchable’.
Durga – a powerful Hindu goddess associated with both protection and destruction.
Kalimata or Kalima (Mother Kali) – master of death and time.
Gopala-Krishna – ‘Cow protector’ and the infant form of the Hindu god, Krishna.
Guru Nanak – the founder of Sikhism.
Hanuman – Ram’s companion and the Hindu god for wind.
Lakshmi – Hindu goddess of wealth and purity.
Luv and Kush – Ram and Sita’s sons.
Ram – an incarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu.
Shitala – a Hindu goddess believed to remove small pox, chicken pox and other infectious diseases.
Valmiki – (i) poet and author of the ancient epic, Ramayana and (ii) a Dalit caste who claim descent from the author of the Ramayana.
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Thanks to my interlocutors in Amritsar and those who provided comments on a draft of this essay including Susanne Rau, Martin Fuchs, Corrina Riva, Navtej Purewal, Sara Keller and Meera Dass. The usual provisos apply.