SIKH ARCHITECTURE, style and design of building conspicuously popular among the Sikhs, is owed primarily to their religious monuments. Their secular edifices such as fortresses, palaces, samādhs (mausoleums built over places of cremation), havelīs (fortified houses), buṅgās (residential-cum-educational houses), educational institutions, etc, are no different from the contemporary style which is generally a mixture of Mughal and Rājpūt architecture, or as Percy Browne, an art historian, has described, a late form of the Mughal style of architecture. Prominent examples of this type are the Samādh of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh in Lahore and the Khālsā College at Amritsar. Whereas massive columns, portals, inner structures, bukhārchās (3 or 4-panelled projecting windows in a row) on pendā or ghaṛvañj (projecting base) in the shape of bisected open lotus, the chhatrīs (kiosks) on the parapet, all trace back their origin to Rājpūt architecture, the dome, arches, minarets and underground cellars bear the stamp of Mughal style.
Religious buildings of the Sikhs, the gurdwārās, also display the essentially eclectic nature of their architectural design, but they at the same time possess some special features, and present an identifiable picture of a style which can doubtlessly be called Sikh Architecture. For example, compared to Hindu temples, they are more spacious (with the addition of adjoining dīvān asthān or assembly halls where necessary) and have, more often than not, entrance from all four sides, and they are not oriented to any set direction as the Muslim mosques are. Gurū kā Laṅgar (common kitchen and dining hall) is a necessary adjunct to a gurdwārā, and most gurdwārās have sarovars (bathing tanks) in close proximity. Every gurdwārā is recognizable from afar by the nishān sāhib, the Sikh penant in yellow or blue flying atop a high flagpost. Gurdwārās, unlike Hindu temples, are devoid of any sculptured images in or around them.
In principle, gurdwārā buildings do not have to conform to any set architectural design. The only established requirement is the installation of the Gurū Granth Sāhib, the Holy Sikh Scripture, in a building under a canopy or in a canopied seat, usually on a platform higher than the floor on which the devotees sit. But in time more and more gurdwārās came to have buildings of a particular design imitating more or less the pattern of the Harimandar, the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs located in the walled city of Amritsar.
When classified according to their plan form, buildings of the Sikh shrines are of four basic forms : the square, the rectangular, the octagonal and the cruciform. The last, however, is rarely used, the one notable example is Gurdwārā Nānak Jhīrā at Bidar in Karnāṭaka. Among the octagonal, the best known is Gurdwārā Bābā Aṭal in Amritsar. Many a gurdwārā has octagonal sanctum sanctorum within its square or rectangular hall. A covered circumambulatory passage usually runs around the sanctum. In elevation, gurdwārās have structures varying from one to nine-storeys high, usually topped by a dome. Several gurdwārās have basements below the ground floor. A recurrent element of gurdwārā design is the preferred use of two-storey height with an all-around gallery at mid-height, leaving the centre of the ground floor covered only by the top roof and/or the dome.
As a rule, a gumbad (dome) is the crowning feature of a gurdwārā. Even flat-roofed, rectangular gurdwārā buildings have often a decorative dome over the spot where Gurū Granth Sāhib is seated. Sometimes, a small single-room shrine is topped by pālakī, a palanquin-like roof, derived from Bengal style of architecture. More often than not, the dome is fluted or ribbed. Several different dome shapes mark our shrines as tarus, hemispherical, oblong, conical or three quarters of a sphere, the last mentioned being the more frequently used. Usually the dome springs from a floral base and has inverted lotus-symbol top from which rises the kalas or ornate finial. The dome is usually painted in white or sometimes in gold. Domes of some important gurdwārās are covered with gold-plated copper sheets. Some domes have been lined with marble slabs or white or coloured porcelain pieces. Apart from the large central dome there are often four other cupolas, one at each corner and several small solid domes embellishing the parapet.
The dome is invariably topped by an ornate finial, the kalas. Based on the Mount Kailāsh, the kalas shoots up in the form of a cylinderical construction, often with some concentric discs, and spheroids culminating in a small canopy with pendants hanging at the outer rim. The kalas is usually made of brass or gilded copper. Recently the use of steel or gilded khaṇḍā (double-edged sword) as pinnacle has come in vogue.
The elevation is usually treated by dividing the facade in accordance with the structural lines of columns, piers and pilasters with vertical divisions creating areas of well-modelled surfaces. The treatment often creates bas-reliefs of geometrical, floral and other designs. Where magnificence is the aim, repousse work in brass or copper gilt sheeting is introduced, often with extravagance.
The interior is beautified by means of gachch or stucco work, tukṛī or fixing of mirror pieces, jaṛatkārī or in-lay work, mohrākashī or filigree, piñjrā or lattice work or stone grills, and fresco painting. These techniques are used to produce beautiful designs and friezes based on vine, plant, flower, bird and animal motifs. These techniques besides being time-consuming and costly need highly skilful artists. They are therefore used in very important shrines. Excellent examples of such work can be seen in the Golden Temple. The largest number of frescoes have been painted on the first floor walls of Bābā Aṭal
A very special aspect of Sikh architecture as far as it is concerned with the raising of gurdwārā buildings is the contribution and participation of the common man. Barring a few shrines which have their own income from endowments made by past rulers, the resources for new constructions or reconstructions are raised by voluntary contributions, and although masons and skilled craftsmen may be paid workers, the unskilled labour and rations for the entire labour force come from the system of kār-sevā, voluntary free service by the devotees.
Major Gurmukh Siṅgh (Retd.)