Last year on December 30th, I got a chance to visit Virasat–E–Khalsa, Shri Anandpur Sahib as a part of my college tour. The mesmerizing architect and the glory of Virasat–E–Khalsa prompted me to write this article. So here are some of the insights into this glorious monument.
Designed by Moshe Safdie, the internationally acclaimed Boston-based Israeli architect, the design has two main complexes, which are joined with a connecting ceremonial bridge. The canopy on this bridge is an architectural experiment and is situated in the opposite direction of the sun and does not provide any shade. The western complex houses an auditorium. The eastern complex has a north wing also known as the Flower Building. The roof of the Flower Building is shaped in the form of five petals – representing five virtues – central tenet of the sikh faith. The other wing is called the Boat Building or the Heritage Section.
The museum exhibits Guru Granth Sahib in the first phase and the history of Baba Banda Singh Bahadur to partition in the second phase. The sandstone building stands tall amidst Seven acres of water around. The building will be extended furthermore and more exhibits will be installed from time to time. This monument is only the first phase of the whole Khalsa Heritage Complex.
The moment we reached at Virasat-E-Khalsa around 3:30pm, there was a great rush at the pass counter. Although there is no entry fee (yet), one has to avail passes to enter in the building. Thanks for being on a college tour, we got the passes a little quickly but the names on the passes were not of our college students and the timing for the groups’ entry was 3:00 pm. We were asked to simply take the passes and I stood there wondering what the use of these passes is then? Anyway, as soon as we started marching towards the building, the long queue of the visitors standing on the bridge was visible to us. A lift took us to the bridge where a single queue awaited us. Because of its recent inauguration, there was a huge rush. We were told that everyday around 10000-25000 visitors come to visit Virasat-E-Khalsa. The timings of the visit have been lengthened recently as the visitors complained that they had to go back without visiting the place even after waiting for long hours in the queue. There is a provision of benches for the elderly who cannot afford to stand for such long hours waiting for their turn. After standing in the queue for almost 45 minutes, we finally entered the building and were welcomed by the persons on duty. Gursikh boys and girls are specially assigned for the job of assistance to the visitors. Well mannered boys and girls clad in blue sherwani, white pajami, saffron turbans and in saffron duppata, kameez, blue salwars and pullovers, respectively, were polite and humble all the time. Before the entry into the first level i.e. the museum, the visitors are introduced with the building and given information about what they are about to see on a LCD.
The depiction of the setting of the sun and the corresponding scenic view of houses in the museum depicting Punjab of earlier times.
The depiction of earlier Golden Temple and surrounding Amritsar in the museum depicting Punjab of earlier times.
Then starts the mesmerizing journey of the museum. The moment you enter the first phase, there is darkness in the room and then suddenly echoes the voices of chirping birds and a blue tint of light becomes visible. The feeling and the scenic view is hard to put in words and is to be experienced only. Moreover explaining everything won’t do justice to this marvel. To be precise, this museum displays permanent exhibits depicting Punjab before the birth of Guru Nanak. This shows the culture, climate, seasons, and festivals of the pre-Nanak times. The visual effects are magnificent. Jasbir Jassi has lend his melodious voice for a medley of Punjabi folksongs. Beginning with the dawn of the day, taking you through numerous love stories, Punjabi festivals, rituals, occupational works, Golden temple of historic times, and ending with the setting of the sun, this part of the museum leaves you yearning for more. The excellent depiction of Diwali celebrations in Punjab and the exhibit of sawan season leaves the visitors awestruck. All the while, the crowd was clapping, screaming, whistling and dancing to the beats of Jassi ‘s couplets at the shift of every audio-visual effect and the accompanying shift in the song. The ceiling of this heritage building is made of glass and its floor is covered with water. Wherever there are boundaries, they are covered with Phulkari and Bagh fixed in the floor and the walls.
Shri Guru Amardas ji ‘s gallery in the Flower Building.
Up next, the visitors are provided with headphones and audiometers. There are sensors in every phase / gallery / level which while we enter that level activate automatically and the audio messages are audible describing the exhibits on display. In the first gallery, the visitors are greeted by the holy message of “Ek Onkar”. Hanging from the ceiling in a chandelier shape are saffron crystal chains forming the shape of Ek onkar, amidst the starlit sky. The mool mantar echoes all around while an audio message highlights the core principles of Sikhism. The gallery is again dimly lit so as to take you to an altogether different experience.
The lives of five gurus are next in the series. In the flower building, five petals tell tales from Guru Nanak Dev ji to Guru Arjun Dev ji. Fifteen galleries in all provide an insight into the sikh religion and innumerable sacrifices. The lives of Gurus, right from 15th century to the early years of Guru Nanak Dev, Guru Angad Dev, Guru Amardas, Guru Ramdas, Guru Arjun Dev, martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur, setting up of Harminder Sahib and more are depicted through paintings and videos. Most of the paintings and exhibits are symbolic in nature and are drenched with contemporary art, which many of the village folk might miss to interpret. However, there are audio and visual descriptions given before the onset of every exhibit. At display here is a unique tree symbolizing the growing branches of Sikhism, the setting up of the Golden Temple Sarovar, Adi Granth Sahib ( again in a symbolic form with a marble structure shaped in the form of Guru Granth Sahib with a Chandoa on the rooftop ), Akal Takht Sahib, the developmental phase of Gurmukhi Lippi, to name a few. The exit from these first five galleries takes you to the roof of the flower building, where a structure symbolizing Shri Guru Arjun Dev Ji ‘s martyrdom has been placed. It’s a Tatti Tavi on display. The structure is placed in the open on purpose, just to give an idea how much pain, heat and Tapash was endured by the Guru while sacrificing his life.
Entering again in the Flower building, Chamkaur Di Garhi built with Nanakshahi bricks welcomes the visitors. There is huge wooden door resembling the old quila darwaajas, depicting the historical Chamkaur Di Garhi. After waiting for the turn, the vistors enter into this phase. This is actually a small auditorium, where the visitors are shown a short documentary on the martyrdom of Shri Guru Tegh Bahadur ji and the creation of Khalsa Panth. The enchanting part here are the three moving screens which move back and forth to form a single screen and the Nagadaa in the centre, which when the documentary begins seems to be the one hit by the Dankaas, a visual again hard to put in words.
The exit from the auditorium brings the visitors to the last phase, depicting the martyrdom of the Sahebjaadaz, and the flying doves symbolizing the message of peace given by Sikhism. After returning the audiometers, the visitors exit from the flower building to the rooftop from where entire Anandpur Sahib is visible. The visitors unwillingly have to depart from here.
A visit to Virasat- E – Khalsa was a memorable experience. The place is well maintained, with modern and spec lavatories, cleanliness of the galleries and other proper facilities. The assistants at your disposal are equally pleasing and helpful.
The monument looks spectacular at night.
However, there are certain shortcomings too. Unfortunately and sadly, there is no information available about who the architect of this monument is. Neither the visitors are informed about who has created such marvelous pieces of paintings, sculptures and other exhibits. The assistants on duty also knew nothing. The inbuilt marble etched with the name of Sardar Prakash Singh Badal who inaugurated this monument is pretty much there on the very entrance but ironically, no place for the names of those who created this architectural wonder. For the ones, who don’t know, the place is Designed by Moshe Safdie, the internationally acclaimed Boston-based Israeli architect. Unfortunately I don’t know the name of the artist whose works are on display, but from what I came across through a documentary on some TV channel, he is from Jaipur and a non-sikh. He spent first 2-3 years learning about sikh religion and Punjab to give life to his works. Apart from this major limitation, I am afraid that the seven acres of water surrounding the building are soon to be perished too. The monument was inaugurated on November 25, i.e hardly a month and a half ago, yet there are certain patches in the water blocks where the plants are breeding and no one is bothering to uproot them.
Another thing which I would like to point out here is the length of our superstitious nature. No disrespect, but the pools of water are filled with coins. As I mentioned earlier, in totality there are 7 acres of water and trust me when I say that you will see coins all around, even in the far fetched remote water pools. Leave aside that, the very first gallery depicting Punjab of earlier times has its water filled floor with piles of coins. Interestingly, a group of boys standing next to us in the queue, held the coins in their palms with closed eyes, pretended to utter something in their mouths and threw the coins in the water and laughed thereafter. You can pretty well imagine what would have happened after that. It will certainly become a wish well one day !!! Also, One of the six LCDs in the monument already has a faulty screen.
The third and the fatal glitch is with the audiometers, which don’t seem to be technically that sound. They fail to operate at the levels. When you ask the assistants why they are not operating, you are asked to walk in again and place it before the sensor so that it might pick it up. Hmm…. One more thing, the audiometers are available in Punjabi, Hindi and English. But the visitors are neither informed about this nor are asked to chose a language. Its not even written anywhere on the counter. Kabir Bedi, Divya Dutta & Surjit Patar have lend their voices for English and Punjabi versions respectively. The security system also seems to fail. Nowhere, our belongings were checked. Although the visitors have to submit their belongings in the Gathri Ghar, there is only one metal detector. The visitors are asked not to carry any mobile phones or cameras inside. Although we dint use them, we had them with us all the time and no one stopped us, or checked our pockets. Security needs to be tightened up for sure.
Another thing, which saddened me are our nation’s age old mannerisms and restlessness. While standing in the queue people don’t stop pushing you, and don’t take the pain of walking into the auditorium because as the gates open, you literally fly right away into the auditorium. The most irritating part was seeing the literate, well clad gentleman and the ladies touching all the exhibits again and again, and rubbing their shoulders while passing along despite of the numerous requests from the assistants. At certain places, there is glass in front of the exhibits but not everywhere. Undoubtedly, they need to place them everywhere, as we, the Punjabis, don’t value the things being created for us and consider it our birth right to spoil such places.
Long queue waits ahead. Also, notice the canopy constructed in the opposite direction of the sun.
Lastly, one suggestion for the ones who haven’t visited the monument yet. The best time to visit Virasat-E-khalsa is in the winter season. Standing in the long queues in summers is a cumbersome job. Given that the place is thronged by the visitors in huge numbers at the moment because of its recent inauguration, there might not be such huge rush in the coming months, But as mentioned earlier, The canopy on this bridge is an architectural experiment and is situated in the opposite direction of the sun and does not provide any shade. So visiting the place in scorching summers could be troublesome.
Although, it seems that there could be much more in the monument as the space isn’t fully utilized, and it has its own shortcomings, yet the place is a must to visit, a departure from the present times into the historical Punjab, from where you come out drenched in a feeling of pride.