In Pursuit of Knowledge

by GT1588. Average Reading Time: about 2 minutes.

The original Akal Takht began life as a simple platform, erected under the orders of Guru Hargobind (1590–1644). When the Guru erected a single-storey structure over the throne, the Akal Takht also became known as the Akal Bunga, or the “Immortal Abode”.

By the end of the 19th century the Akal Bunga was one of an estimated eighty bungas that surrounded the Harimandir Sahib.

“Bunga” is a Persian term meaning an abode, a rest house, or a place of dwelling. Broadly speaking there were four different types of bunga: those belonging to the various misls or militaristic confederacies; those built by chiefs and nobles to accommodate themselves and their families when visiting Amritsar; those belonging to rich and influential communities of towns and cities that were constructed to facilitate the stay of pilgrims; and the ecclesiastical bungas that functioned as centres of learning and spiritual and secular instruction.

The latter were managed by leaders of the traditional Sikh schools, i.e. the ascetic missionary Udasis, the scholarly Nirmalas, the selfless Sewa Panthis, and the warrior Akali-Nihangs. Free lodging was provided; students learned interpretations and commentaries of the Sikh scriptures, rag vidiya (classical vocal and instrumental music), Gurmukhi, Sanskrit, Vedant, grammar, prosody, rhetorics, ayurved (science of medicine) and calligraphy. By dispensing free education through these establishments the Sikhs were sustained as a “race of warriors and students.” [1]

The vast majority of the bungas were constructed between 1765 and 1833; the oldest and most important was the Akal Bunga. The original 17th-century structure was demolished by the Afghan invader, Ahmed Shah Abdali, in 1762 and rebuilt by the Akali-Nihangs in the years that followed. Further storeys were built from donations made by various Sikh rulers and nobles in the more settled days of Sikh rule in the early part of the 19th century.

The Akal Takht was badly damaged in the Indian Army’s action against Sikh separatists in 1984. The structure was repaired and restored amid great controversy by the Akali-Nihangs but was razed to the ground (with the exception of part of the 18th-century platform) two years later by another Sikh faction. The latter had it rebuilt but significantly modified the design. This image shows the structure as it was a century before it was rebuilt.

These flourishing centres of hospitality, learning and culture, which once encircled the Golden Temple, would attract scholars, theologians, philosophers, artists, musicians, physicians and calligraphers to study and serve at the sacred site.

Regrettably, the vast majority of these structures were pulled down by the Sikh authorities in 1947. The demolition of the buildings followed on from the dismantling of the critical system of patronage that supported their role as centres of learning. The significance of the original bunga system of learning is now little understood but the demise of this cultural institution, which once sustained a nation of warriors, scholars and pilgrims, has had a major impact on both the architectural fabric of the temple complex and the cultural landscape of the Sikhs.

  1. Madanjit Kaur, The Golden Temple Past & Present. Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev University Press (1983), 180; Dr G. W. Leitner, History of Indigenous Education in the Punjab, 28.