GURDWĀRĀ, lit. the Gurū's portal or the Gurū's abode, is the name given to a Sikh place of worship. The common translation of the term as temple is not satisfactory for, their faith possessing no sacrificial symbolism, Sikhs have neither idols nor altars in their holy places. They have no sacraments and no priestly order. The essential feature of a gurdwārā is the presiding presence in it of Sikh Scripture, the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Ending the line of personal Gurūs, Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, Nānak X, had installed the sacred volume in 1708 as his eternal successor. The Holy Book has since been the Gurū for the Sikhs and it must reign over all Sikh places of worship where religious ceremony focusses around it. The basic condition for a Sikh place to be so known is the installation in it of the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Every Sikh place by that token is the house of the Gurū. Hence the name Gurdwārā (gur+dwārā= the gurū's door) .
A second characteristic of a gurdwārā is its being a public place open to all devotees to pray individually or to assemble in congregation. Its external distinguishing mark is the Nishān Sāhib or the Sikh flag, saffron or blue in colour, that flies day and night atop the building, or, more often, separately close to it. In early Sikhism, the place used for congregational prayers was called dharamsālā, the abode of dharma, different from the modern usage which generally limits the term to a resting place. According to the Janam Sākhīs, Gurū Nānak wherever he went, called upon his followers to establish dharamsālās and congregate in them to repeat God's Name, and to recite His praise. He himself established one at Kartārpur on the bank of the River Rāvī where he settled down at the end of his extensive preaching tours. "I have set up a dharamsāl of truth, " sang Gurū Arjan (1563-1606) . "I seek the Sikhs of the Gurū (to congregate therein) so that I may serve them and bow at their feet" (GG, 73) . In the time of Gurū Hargobind (1595-1644), dharamsāls began to be called gurdwārās. The change of nomenclature was significant. Gurū Arjan had compiled in 1604 a Book, pothī or granth (later Gurū Granth Sāhib) of holy hymns. Besides his own, he had included in it the compositions of his four spiritual predecessors and of some of the Indian saints and sūfīs. "The pothī is the abode of the Divine, " said he (GG, 1226). This first copy of the Granth he installed in the central Sikh shrine, the Harimandar, at Amritsar. Copies of the Granth began to be piously transcribed. The devotees carried them on their heads for installation in their respective dharamsāls. Reverently, the Book was called the Granth Sāhib and was treated as a sacred embodiment of the Gurūs' revealed utterances. The dharamsāl where Granth Sāhib was kept came to be called gurdwārā. The designation became universal after the gurūship passed to the holy Book, although the central shrine at Amritsar continued to be called Harimandar or Darbār Sāhib.
During the second half of the eighteenth century and after, as the Sikhs acquired territory, gurdwārās sprang up in most of the Sikh habitations and on sites connected with the lives of the Gurūs and with events in Sikh history. Most of the historical gurdwārās were endowed by the ruling chiefs and nobility with liberal grants of land. This well-intentioned philanthropy, however, in many cases led to the rise of hereditary priesthood, which was brought to an end through a sustained agitation culminating in securing from the Punjab Legislative Council legislation called the Sikh Gurdwārās Act, 1925, providing for the management of the major historical Sikh shrines by a body known as the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee elected through adult franchise under government auspices. This kind of democratic control is a unique ecclesiastical feature. Most of the shrines not covered by the Gurdwārās Act are administered by committees chosen by local saṅgats. Men and women of good standing in the Sikh community may be elected to the gurdwārā committee and anyone, male or female, may become president. As Sikhism has no priesthood, the Shiromaṇī Gurdwārā Parbandhak Committee provides guidance to the community in religious matters.
The main function of the gurdwārā is to provide Sikhs with a meeting-place for worship. This mainly consists of listening to the words of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, singing them to musical accompaniment and hearing them expounded in kathā, or lectures and sermons. The gurdwārā also serves as a community centre, a school, a guest house for pilgrims and travellers, occasionally a clinic, and a base for local charitable activities. Apart from morning and evening services, the gurdwārās hold special congregations to mark important anniversaries on the Sikh calendar. They become scenes of much eclat and festivity when celebrations in honour of the birth anniversaries of the Gurūs and of the Khālsā take place. The aspect of Sikhism most closely associated with the gurdwārā, other than worship, is the institution of Gurū kā Laṅgar or free community kitchen which encourages commensality. Sevā or voluntary service in Gurū kā Laṅgar is considered by Sikhs a pious duty.
The gurdwārā and its hospitality are open to non-Sikhs as well as to members of the faith. The Sikh rahit maryādā or code of conduct, however, contains certain rules pertaining to them. For example, no one should enter the gurdwārā premises with one's shoes on or with head uncovered. Other rules in the rahit maryādā concern the conduct of religious service and reverence due to the Gurū Granth Sāhib. Rules also prohibit discrimination in the saṅgat on the basis of religion, caste, sex or social position, and the observation of idolatrous and superstitious practices.
Unlike the places of worship in some other religious systems, gurdwārā buildings do not have to conform to any set architectural design. The only established requirement is the installation of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, under a canopy or in a canopied seat, usually on a platform higher than the floor on which the devotees sit, and a tall Sikh pennant atop the building. Lately, more and more gurdwārās have been having buildings imitating more or less the Harimandar pattern, a mixture of Indo-Persian architecture. Most of them have square halls, stand on a higher plinth, have entrances on all four sides, and have square or octagonal domed sanctums usually in the middle. During recent decades, to meet the requirements of larger gatherings, bigger and better ventilated assembly halls with the sanctum at one end have become accepted style. The location of the sanctum, more often than not, is such as to allow space for circumambulation. Sometimes, to augment the space, verandahs are built to skirt the hall. Popular model for the dome is the ribbed lotus topped by an ornamental pinnacle. Arched copings, kiosks and solid domelets are used for exterior decorations. For functions other than purely religious, a gurdwārā complex must provide, in the same or adjacent compound, for Gurū kā Laṅgar and accommodation for pilgrims.