A Kaleidoscopic View of Amritsar: A Case Study of Valmiki Tirth Mandir
Amritsar literally the ‘pool of nectar’ is the ‘Vatican city of Sikhs‘. The city was established around Golden Temple by the fourth guru; Guru Ramdas jee and hence colloquially is also called Ramdaspur. This city is of supreme importance for Sikhs. When we say Sikhs, we tend to imagine turban-wearing, ardent followers of five Ks (Kesh, Kangha, Kaccha, Karah, Kirpan) and worshippers of the holy book Guru Granth Sahib. However, challenging this dominant understanding there is a broad spectrum of Sanatan Sikh Dharam, who may not follow all these practices yet proudly claim them to be Sikhs. Likewise, there are many who follow all the rituals yet may not ascribe to Sikh identity.
This process of cementing religious codes of conduct began during the socio-religious movement of the 19th and 20th centuries writes Harjot Oberai. The British favored Khalsa Panth with its ‘martial race’ policies for army recruitments, thereby assuring strong control over the region and increased revenue base. Slowly and Gradually Khalsa Panth dominated the definition of ‘Sikhs’ meanwhile side-lining and cleaning the syncretic influences. The followers of the Udasis, Ravisdassi, and Valmiki community are some of those sects. The following writing piece is on the Valmiki community of Amritsar, which has received less academic attention. Opinderjit Kaur writes that Valmikis take their name from their allegiance to their caste guru Valmiki, who has authored Ramayana. Traditionally, Valmikis are also referred to as Mazhabi Sikhs; the majority of them belong to the Chuhra caste. She writes that the narratives of this community highlight their harsh treatment at the hands of higher caste Sikhs thus a major factor in asserting a distinct identity for the dominant Sikh Panth.
The Valmiki chowk located at the periphery of the main city demarcates the Valmiki colony, which takes a straight road to the temple. This temple is a firm step to memorialize and assert the Valmiki identity. This humungous religious building has now become one of the major tourist spots in Amritsar. It is a multi-sect shrine claiming its historicity to the narratives around Mata Sita and her sons Lav and Kusha. This temple structure is endearingly sacred to the Valmiki community. After years of denial and discrimination finally Valmikis have carved out a religious space ensuring their religious rights, commemorating their struggles and sacrifices and restoring dignity.
One keenly observes the temple architecture which does not resemble a typical Hindu temple or Sikh Gurudwara architecture. Yet, many rites and practices are similar to dominant tenants of Sikhs and Hindu rituals. For instance, the central shrine constructed in the middle of sacred tank like Golden Temple and Durgiana Mandir and the practice of Langar. Entering from the north gate, one encounters huge Hanuman statue and steaming fountains in the middle of tank. After entering huge gateways, one is fascinated by gold plated eight feet tall Valmiki statue sitting in the sanctum hall. Interestingly, we see sayings such as “Jo bole so nirbhay…Valmiki Bhagwan ki jai”. This parallel slogan enchanting resembles in Hindus and Sikhs as well. The newlywed brides wish for a baby boy and are given toys displayed in front of the statue. Exiting out of the hall, one is directed to the sacred site where Mata Sita’s son Lav and Kush are known to have been born and brought up. The room adjacent is re-created as the space where holy Hindu epic- Ramayana is said to have been written.
On the same site, we find a Samadhi of Mahant. Moving ahead one notices the dilapidated wall paintings depicting Ravidas jee, Kabir jee, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, Jagjeevan Ram and philosophers who have contributed in the discourse of caste in India. The wall is covered with their sayings. Inside the courtyard we find statues of B.R. Ambedkar and Guru Valmiki teaching archery to Lav and Kusha, a red flag and a bow and arrow emblem. To our sheer delight, we find many Sikhs entering this shrine and seeking blessings from the present Mahant. On one end of the temple, all Hindu gods and goddesses can be seen in a separate shrine.
One of the alluring memory since childhood was visiting a huge dingy crocodile tunnel showcasing murals from various episodes of Ramayana. In between there is a mud bricked hall parted in two rooms as ‘Sita ki Rasoi’. The room is adorned with pictures of Guru Nanak, Shri Chand, Baba Balak Nath, Krishna, Ganesha, Kabir and many deities. Many devotees pen down their wishes and prayers on the wall leading to the rasoi. Eleanor Nesbitt makes a case study of the Valmiki community in Coventry, England. Interestingly, the Valmiki temple abroad focuses more on life of Valmik and his works other than Ramayana like Yoga Vaisishtha. There is no Guru Granth Sahib, and there are no pictures from Sikh history. Nor is the Ramayana installed on Manji (raised platform) as used in Gurudwara for Guru Granth Sahib, except only in Valmiki Mandir at Coventry. Thus, one can infer the functioning of the Valmiki institutions differ in different geographies. It may seem while some would side with Hindu ways of veneration and some may profess Sikh devotional practices. This may be an attempt to uplift their social status on the caste ladder. However, many claim them to be distinct as an alternative to Hindus and Sikhs. The practices professed by this community belong to continuum of Indian Punjabi practice which defies any neat classification into ‘Hindu’ and ‘Sikh’. Eleanor Nesbitt writes with Valmiki families in India are becoming more established in the wealthy, professional echelons of society and their rituals may well become more elaborate and less distinguishable from those of higher castes.
The construction work in the temple premise continues to beautify this sacred space. Meanwhile it tends to push back the historicity of the city to from medieval to ancient equating it with other ancient pilgrimage sites. This becomes a unique case study of commemoration, identity formation, and the parallel process of assimilation between the dominant narrative and the divergent narrative.
Field Visit to the temple on November 10th, 2020.
Sikh Sects by Opinderjit Kaur Takhar Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies (2014) edited by Pashaura Singh, Louis E.Fench.
Religion and Identity: The Valmiki community in Coventry by Eleanor Nesbitt in The Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2010)