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Perspectives: Gurdwara Modernisation Uprooting Trees

A recent article by Tribhuvan Tiwari in Outlook India describes how ”in felling its iconic trees, gurudwara ‘modernisation’ is also uprooting a part of Sikh heritage”. The writer describes how nearly 60 Sikh shrines across the country, and some in Pakistan, are named after trees.
“These are trees under which the Sikh gurus sheltered, rested or met their followers during their travels. The followers then commemorated the guru’s visit by building a shrine and naming it after the tree under which he sat. Many of these shrines still exist. Many of the trees, sadly, don’t. They have been strangled to death by the new marble floors and facades of the gurudwaras.
This facet of gurudwaras being named after trees, like the Amb (mango) Sahib or the Imli (tamarind) Sahib, is so little-known that when a civil servant from Punjab, D.S. Jaspal, documented his religion’s close association with them, even the scholarly from within the community sat up and took notice.
“These trees are our living link with the gurus which, either out of ignorance or lack of awareness, have been cut down to make way for expansion of gurudwaras in all their marbled, gilded glory,” says Jaspal who documented 58 gurudwaras documented in his book, Tryst with Trees.
“The gurudwaras have drawn their names from some 19 species of trees, from the humble ber to the kalpavriksha. They also shed light on the modest lifestyles of the Sikh gurus, who had a vigorous outdoor life and travelled extensively, often halting under shady groves. They fed their animals the leaves of these trees.
“If the community and its leaders do not wake up and create awareness about trees, a time will come when future generations will remember these shrines not by the species of trees but by the variety of marble from Makrana,” laments Jaspal.
SGPC president Avtar Singh Makkar told Outlook: “I cannot comment on what happened before my tenure, but we have now issued instructions to all gurudwaras not to cut any sacred trees within their premises. Wherever the trees are dying, we are providing expertise from the agriculture university and many like the two sacred ber trees in the Golden Temple complex which were dying have been revived.”
View the full article here
Key points

  • At Gurudwara Amb Sahib in Mohali, the original mango tree is now a dried-up stump
  • For the first time, the kalpavriksha at Attari gurudwara has no leaves
  • The years after Operation Bluestar saw a phase of massive rebuilding, expansion and beautification of gurudwaras. Not just the trees but much of the Sikh heritage fell victim to the zeal of what many Sikh scholars call the “bulldozer babas”, in their effort to “make grand” the humble shrines.
  • At the Phalahi (Acacia modesta) Sahib at Duley near Ludhiana, the remains of the original phalahi tree have been kept in a cage where devotees make offerings.
  • Similarly, at the Gurudwara Tahliana Sahib in Raikot in Ludhiana, in addition to the Guru Granth sahib, a small stump of the tahli (Dalbergia sissoo) or sheesham tree is placed on a platform for devotees. The tree was felled to make place for a grand marble edifice.

CAPTION: Top picture. The mango tree stump, engraved into marble, at the Amb Sahib in Mohali (photo: Tribhuvan Tiwari)