A proposal for a sixth Sikh takht at Guru Nanak Dev’s birth place in Nankana Sahib in Pakistan has sparked a debate in the Sikh community, and among historians and scholars. A look at the significance of takhts, and both sides of the debate:
Who made the proposal?
It was mooted by the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) Delhi president and former chief of Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, Paramjit Singh Sarna, at a gathering at Nankana Sahib in Pakistan during the birth anniversary celebration of Guru Nanak Dev.
What are Sikh takhts?
Takht is a Persian word that means imperial throne. At present Sikhs recognise five places as takhts. Three are in Punjab —Akal Takht (Amritsar); Takht Keshgarh Sahib (Anandpur Sahib); Takht Damdama Sahib (Talwandi Sabo) — and the other two are Takht Patna Sahib (Bihar) and Takht Hazur Sahib (Nanded, Maharashtra).
Akal Takht (Throne of the Timeless One) is the oldest of the takhts, and considered supreme among the five. It was set up in 1606 by Guru Hargobind, whose succession as the sixth Guru after the execution of his father, Guru Arjan Dev, is considered a turning point in Sikh history. The Akal Takht, a raised platform that he built in front of the causeway leading to the sanctum sanctorum of the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), symbolised the coming together of the temporal authority and the political sovereignty of the Sikh community (miri) with the spiritual authority (piri). It is seen as the first marker of Sikh nationalism. The Akal Takht is a five-storey building today; the first storey houses the Guru Granth Sahib.
The other four takhts are linked to Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru. It was at Keshgarh Sahib that Guru Gobind Singh raised Khalsa, the initiated Sikh warriors, in 1699. Patna Sahib is his birthplace, and he spent several months in Damdama Sahib and his final days in Hazur Sahib, where he was cremated in 1708.
Damdama Sahib was the last and the most recent one to be recognised as a takht, through a resolution of the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) in November 1966, a couple of months after the Reorginsation of States under which Punjab became a separate state. There is little information on when the other three takhts were set up, and why. “The reference to Sikh takhts is found in 18th-century literature,” said Dr Amarjit Singh, head of the Guru Nanak Studies department at Guru Nanak Dev University.
What is the role of takhts?
Takhts are known to issue hukumnamas from time to time on issues that concern the community. Akal Takht is supreme because it is the oldest and was created by a Sikh guru himself, say Sikh historians and scholars. Any edict or order concerning the entire community is issued only from Akal Takht. Also, it is from Akal Takht that Sikhs found to be violating the Sikh doctrine and code of conduct are awarded religious punishment (declared tankhaiya) and even excommunicated, depending on the degree of violation and failure of adherence to directives of the highest temporal seat of Sikhs.
Scholars say the first hukamnama was issued by Guru Hargobind from Akal Takht. A seal believed to have been used by Guru Gobind Singh for his edicts is preserved at Damdama Sahib. Today, the Akal Takht jathedar issues edicts for the community, usually reading them out from the balcony of the Akal Takht building, after deliberations with the chiefs of the other four takhts.
Who appoints the jathedars of takhts?
The three takhts in Punjab are directly controlled by the SGPC, which appoints the jathedars for these. The SGPC is dominated by SAD. It is widely understood that SAD puts the final seal on the appointment of these three jathedars, who are seen as being at the mercy of the party. The two takhts outside Punjab have their own trusts and boards. There is no fixed tenure.
Have there been earlier controversies about adding another takht?
When Takht Damdama Sahib was recognised as the fifth, Sikh philosopher Kapur Singh questioned the move, arguing that it would open demands for more and more takhts. He is reported to have described as the “height of absurdity” the decision to declare Damdama Sahib as the fifth takht on the basis of a citation that described it as the place where Guru Gobind Singh had stayed.
Now, the location of the proposed new takht in Pakistan has led to questions being raised about its independence, as gurdwaras across the border are not controlled by the community as is the practice in India, but by a department of the government called Evacuee Trust Board.
Who is saying what about the new proposal?
Paramjit Singh Sarna, who mooted the proposal, says he only floated an idea and it was for the Sikh Panth to take the call. “It took some years before Damdama Sahib was declared a takht after the idea was mooted,” said Sarna.
“This issue relates to the entire community. No single person can decide on this. And even if there is a proposal, this has to be deliberated upon by the head priests of the five takhts,” SGPC chief Gobind Singh Longowal said.
SAD leader and present Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee president Manjit Singh G K has said that Sarna was “creating a new controversy to divide the Panth”.
Pakistan Sikh Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee general secretary Gopal Singh Chawla, on the other hand, said the gathering Sarna had addressed welcomed his proposal. He added the proposal was yet to be deliberated upon.
“Any proposal for a sixth takht is wrong, both from a historic perspective and in the light of Sikh Rehat Maryada (Sikh code of conduct and conventions). Even Sarbat Khalsa (congregation of Sikhs) cannot announce any new takht of Sikhs,” says Sikh scholar Dr Sukhdial Singh.
“Even gurdwaras are not independent in Pakistan. How can a takht be independent there?” said scholar Dr Balkar Singh, former head of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Studies department at Punjabi University, Patiala.