Disability and the City. Deep Hope and Creativity in a Sacred Site in Amritsar
— Raminder Kaur
Sacred sites have a special propensity to attract not just people of faith but also those with ailments and disabilities seeking a cure and/or better life. They draw those with deep hope, especially when recourse to other avenues of healing come with less conviction or even fail them. The depth of the hope is to do with dreams and desire in the world as we perceive it to be, but also interwoven with faith, appeal and spirituality of another realm and register.
The Golden Temple in the city of Amritsar is no exception (Figure 1). Also known as Darbar or Harmandir Sahib, the site is replete with narratives of cure and care. The place both nurtures and attracts deep hope. In Punjab, it is often described as ‘sukhi di dhuri’, ‘the axel of peace and wellness’. In fact, you could say that the foundational premises of the city were fundamentally ‘disability friendly’ and even curative.
The founding narrative of the sarovar (sacred pond) in which the Golden Temple is built, foregrounds the experiences of a disabled man and his wife during the time of the fourth guru Ramdas in the sixteenth century. A god-fearing woman, Rajani, left her luxurious life to live with her husband, Mohan, who was ostracised as a leper. Her father, a nobleman, tried to punish her with marriage to the man with leprosy for not respecting his role as the patriarchal protector (Kalsi 2009: 58). Rajani took to her married role with humility and devotion, wheeling her husband around on a wooden board as he was not able to walk (Figure 2). When one day she left him by a jujube (berh) tree in the forest, Mohan saw black birds dive into the lake and come out as glimmering white birds. The phenomena recalled a verse of the spiritual luminaries, Kabir, Fakir and Nanak, ’Kago hans kare’ (‘From a crow into a swan’). Mystically mesmerised, Mohan decided to follow the birds into the lake and to everyone’s surprise, came out a cured man.
This berh was another catalyst in the attraction of the site for pilgrims and traders leading to the expansion of the settlement. To this day, it stands on the eastern side of the sarovar around the central sanctum sanctorum as the Dukh Bhanjani Berh (literally, Tree of Healing) (Figure 3). Wrapped around the tree is a building for women to bathe as well as an adjoining shrine in which the holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, is read daily (Figure 4).
Amritsari artist, Mandeep Singh Manu, was inspired and influenced by this story of spirituality in more ways than one (Figure 5). Born with cerebral palsy (C.P), he struggled against the odds, physically, socially and creatively, to become an artist. Although he could not get college admission to study art, he pursued a correspondence course in History from his home. Simultaneously, he designed book covers with digital software. From around 2002, with the support of his brother, Sandeep Singh, a photographer, he decided to specialise in digital art.
Much of Manu’s work is through, and about, meditation, a process of piercing through the limits of the mind, body and the material world to navigate the self, existence and the cosmos. His artwork, Bhavsagar (Devout Sea, 2015), recalls Rajni and Mohan’s experiences of spirituality and the sarovar as it does his own (Figure 6). The artist explained:
Bhavsagar refers to a journey (yatra) on a devout sea to get freedom (mukti) to the next world. I have depicted a meditating man at the edge of the water. The water with all the fish is one world. Through meditation, the man is able to sail on a board on the water to another world.Mandeep Singh Manu
The spirituality of the sarovar, albeit confined to a tank, is comparable to the ocean epitomised in bhavsagar, both of which become water bodies for devotion as well as part of the voyage from the material to the spiritual world. While physically different kinds of water bodies, they flow into each other in terms of what they convey. Indeed, the extensive underground pipes connect the sarovar to the Upper Bari Doab canal of the Ravi river that itself flows into the Arabian Sea through the Indus River in Pakistan.
Manu has taken many ‘holy dips’ (ishnaan) in the sarovar himself with the aid of members of his family. He used to go to the Golden Temple with his grandmother since he was a young boy. He recalled:
She had a lot of faith (shraddha) in the sarovar. Through this, over the years, I became better. We believed in the possibility of cure from illness and pain. I had inside me a fact that this can happen. The other belief was from gurbani [‘speech of wisdom’ in the Guru Granth Sahib] that through ishnaan, the person gets away from the ills of the world, and gets ahead and fulfils their journey in life.Mandeep Singh Manu
Illness is conceived as both a physical ailment and a spiritual encumbrance where the person is weighed down by their karma, the sum of their actions over lifetimes. The sarovar too was a spiritual and physical channel that could enable a release from the realm of pain.
Manu’s C.P. has affected his body and movements. Despite this, he has come to terms with his disabilities, and is grateful that he has lived longer than medical specialists had predicted for him: they had determined that a clot on the brain could come with the seizure of breath, and neurologic depletion could lead to a dizzy spell with the mind and body becoming more impaired along with a shortened lifespan. But Manu feels that he is better than he was before, experiencing regeneration rather than depletion. This he puts down to several factors including his faith, his family and his art: ‘I can see things come to life. I can make my own small worlds. I can live in that world’.
Although largely based on physical points of reference, the spiritual disability discourse is different to the more modernist. The former stresses a universal empathy for all, no matter what their status or physical appearance. The latter stresses difference through categorisation of people with disabilities – this then comes with projects of inclusivity pursued through campaign and legalistic statues to make accessible socio-political arenas as well as the built environment with ramps, lifts and the like for aiding their mobility. But this is largely for those with physical disabilities. The provisions are not able to tend to invisible disabilities in the same way as spiritual disability discourse might. Indeed, the understanding of disability has itself changed throughout the centuries and continues to carry varied resonance – from the more stigmatised to the more socially accepted.
Manu is able to navigate both spiritual and modernist discourses. He has also campaigned for disability rights and changes to the built infrastructure in the city especially with regards to accessibility. Even though he has been protected from the worsts of social discrimination by his family and friends, he recognises that change will be slow as ‘barriers are always there…This system will change gradually with more education and awareness, not quickly’.
Another comparison with spiritual and modernist disability discourse is that while the rationalist might be sceptical of physical cure from immersion in the sarovar, believers are sceptical of physical or socio-political provisions. For instance, while Amritsar authorities install various kinds of lifts, ramps and wheelchair provisions, caretakers at the shrine may not fully tend to what modernist rules dictate. Aids such as stair lifts may be installed in and around the gurudwara (Sikh place of worship) but they may not all be operational (Figure 7). Wheelchairs may be provided enabled by pilgrim donations but there is no one to help you push them. And when it comes to going inside the sanctum sanctorum, the person with disabilities needs to be carried in as the wheels to the contraption would be seen as bringing in dirt from the outside in a similar way to the footwear of ‘able’ visitors. Family members or friends would need to push the wheelchairs as volunteers and caretakers need to focus on other duties (Figure 8); although they may give families a hand to carry people with disabilities into the sanctum sanctorum through a separate passage, thus avoiding the long queues.
Legions of pilgrims come to the shrine with many points of anguish and anxieties, some visible, some not so much. The sacrality of the city carries with it a deep hope for cure and peace of mind, where recourse to other health provisions are on their own deemed inadequate or expensive. There are many people with disabilities as well as ailments coming to the Golden Temple for blessing and cure among the average of 80-100,000 daily visitors.
Some struck by more recent accidents have not had the time to adjust to afflictions as might a person who is born with disabilities. Comparing themselves to former circumstances, these people, or at least their families, are desperate for a return to full ability and wellness. For instance, one 23-year old man had a very bad road accident. He was treated in a private hospital in Chandigarh, the capital of the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, a city planned in the 1950s by the Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier. As soon as the man had come out of coma, he could express his will to visit the Golden Temple. A man of faith and hope, he used to sing gurbani and play the tabla (twin hand drums) in a kirtan (devotional song) committee. His family brought him to the Golden Temple. While he could just about speak, uttering child-like sounds, he could articulate the Sikh phrase, ‘Satnam Waheguru’ (‘Truth is my essence, Great is the Divine’). With daily prayers and ishnaan for him as well as themselves, his relatives came with faith and with the hope that over time, something will happen there to further help him. His brother-in-law explained: ‘Already God had saved him from a coma’. The deep hope was religious for the man in the wheelchair, but for his family it was also social so that he could return to his ‘able’ life again, and no longer need to be nursed like a baby.
Deep hope comes with deep faith, and in Manu’s case, with a profound sense of meditative creativity. His brother would raise Manu onto the back seat of his motorcycle to make regular trips to the Golden Temple. Even if not coming with the intent for ishnaan or to enter the sanctum sanctorum, Manu would sit on the side of the sarovar soaking up the bani (speech or verses) conveyed through the soundwaves of the near ceaseless kirtan emerging from the sanctum sanctorum. Sometimes it is enough just to do this – to sit and meditate around rather than inside the gurdwara, especially if crowds of people are in the way.
It is as if the vibrations of the kirtan sounds are absorbed into the water, so that the bani is enmeshed with the pani (water) to make amrit (immortal nectar). The world of water becomes a wondrous water of words. Manu’s artwork is a reminder that creativity enables the artist to take the waves of water and words to the visual, a world in which one might immerse oneself, regenerate and grow wings to take flight to other realms.
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’.
amrit – immortal nectar
bani – speech or verses
gurbani – speech of wisdom
gurudwara – Sikh place of worship, literally, ‘door to the guru’
ishnaan – holy bathing
karma – the sum of one’s actions over lifetimes
kirtan – devotional song
mukti – liberation
pani – water
sarovar – sacred pond
shraddha – faith
yatra – journey
Kalsi, Sewa Singh. 2009. Sikhism. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers
Many thanks to my interlocutors, Mandeep Singh Manu, Sandeep Singh, and Dipti Kashyap for material that informs this paper; and to the Kolleg-Forschungsgruppe that supported my research on, and in, Amritsar from September 2021 to April 2022, which was funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG) in the framework of the Kolleg-Forschungsgruppe ‘Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations’ (led by Professors Susanne Rau and Jörg Rüpke) at the Max Weber Centre of the University of Erfurt (FOR 2779). For other of Manu’s artworks, see www.gridheritage.com