DHARAMSĀLĀ or dharamsāl from Sanskrit dharmaśālā, lit. court of justice, tribunal, charitable asylum, religious asylum, stands in Punjabi for a place of worship or the village hospice. Dharamsālā as a Sikh institution is the precursor of gurdwārā (q. v.). According to janam sākhīs, accounts of the life of Gurū Nānak (1469-1539), the Gurū, 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 dharamsālās and the congregations assembling therein became saṅgats. Dharamsālās grew up in farflung places in the wake of Gurū Nānak's extensive travels. In the time of the successive Gurūs, the main dharamsālā was the one which was the seat of the reigning Gurū. Gurū Arjan, Nānak V, said in one of his hymns preserved in the Gurū Granth Sāhib, "I have set up a true dharamsāl, I seek out the Gurū'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 dharamsālā as a place for practising sevā (service), a highly prized virtue in Sikhism. Similarly, bowing at the feet of the Sikhs emphasizes the virtue of humility in saṅgat. In another hymn, this one in honour of Bābā Mohan, the elder son of Gurū Amar Dās, held in high regard for his piety, Gurū Arjan extols Bābā Mohan's house as a dharamsālā 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, dharamsālās functioned as religious asylums providing food and shelter to travellers and the needy. Gurū Nānak had called this very earth as dharamsāl, the place for practising dharma or religion, which in the Gurū's vision was not only individual piety but also an active way of life.
After the installation of the Holy Book, Gurū Granth Sāhib, in dharamsālās from the seventeenth century onward, they came to be called gurduārās or gurdwārās, portals of the Gurū, though the word dharamsālā is still current in popular speech.
Major Gurmukh Siṅgh (Retd.)