Friday, March 16, 2007

The magnificence of Sikh architecture

SO little has been written about Sikh architecture that it is difficult for anyone to believe that such a style of architecture exists at all. It is ironic that whereas the Sikhs are known the world over for their characteristic vigour, valour, versatility — above all, their distinct physical, moral and spiritual identity — their architecture should have remained so abjectly unidentified.
Apart from buildings of a religious order, Sikh architecture has secular building-types such as forts, palaces, bungas (residential places), colleges, etc. The religious structure is the gurdwara, a place where the Guru dwells. A gurdwara is not only the all-important building of the faith, as masjid or mosque of the Islam and mandir or temple of the Hindus, it is also, like its Islamic and Hindu counterparts, the key-note of Sikh architecture.
The word 'gurdwara' is compounded of Guru (spiritual guide or master) and Dwara (gateway or seat) and, therefore, has an architectural connotation. Sikh temples are by and large commemorative buildings connected with the 10 Gurus in some way, or with places and events of historical significance. For example, Gurdwara Dera (halting place) Sahib in Batala in Gurdaspur district was erected to commemorate the brief stay there of Guru Nanak, along with the party, on the occasion of his marriage, Gurdwara Sheesh Mahal (hall of mirrors) in Kiratpur in Ropar district was built where the eighth Guru, Harkishan, was born, and so on. Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj (martyrs' memorial) in Muktsar in Faridkot district commemorates the place where the bodies of the Sikhs, who were killed in the battle fought between Guru Gobind Singh and the Mughal forces in 1705 AD, were cremated, Gurdwara Ram Sar (God's pool) in Amritsar stands on a site where the fifth Guru, Arjan Dev, compiled the Adi Granth, the Sikh Bible, with Bhai Gurdas, his maternal uncle, acting as the amanuensis.
The main requirement of a gurdwara is that of a room in which the Adi Granth, the Holy Book, can be placed and a small sangat (congregation) can be seated to listen to the path or readings from the Holy Book and to sing and recite the sacred verses. Gurdwaras have entrances on all the (four) sides signifying that they are open to one and all without any discrimination whatsoever. This distinguishing feature also symbolises the essential tenet of the faith that God is omnipresent. In some cases, however, space restriction does not permit entry from all the four sides, as in Gurdwara Sis Ganj in Delhi.
Many Sikh temples have a deorhi, an entrance gateway, through which one has to pass before reaching the shrine. A deorhi is often an impressive structure with an imposing gateway, and sometimes provides accommodation for office and other uses. The visitors get the first glimpse of the sanctum sanctorum from the deorhi. There are over 500 gurdwaras, big and small, which have an historical past.
The buildings of Sikh shrines, when classified according to their plan-form, are of four basic types: the square, the rectangular, the octagonal, and the cruciform. On the basis of the number of storeys, gurdwaras have elevations which may be one, two, three, five, or nine-storey high. One comes across several interesting variations of gurdwara-design worked out on the permutations and combinations of the aforesaid basic plan and elevation-types.
The following examples should suffice to illustrate the above categories. Darbar Sahib at Dera Baba Nanak in Gurdaspur district is constructed on a square plan and is a single-storey structure. Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj at Muktsar in Faridkot district has one storey built on a rectangular plan. Examples of this plan-shape are extremely rare. Gurdwara Loh Garh in Anandpur Sahib in Ropar district has an octagonal plan and a single-storey elevation. Gurdwara Tamboo (tent) Sahib in Muktsar is a two-storey building constructed on a square plan, on a raised basement.
Gurdwara Chobara (room-on-terrace) Sahib at Goindwal in Amritsar district is a three-storey structure elevated on a square plan. Gurdwara Tham (pillar) Sahib at Kartarpur in Jalandhar district has square plan and five-storey elevation. Gurdwara Shaheedan (martyrs) in Amritsar was originally built as a three-storey octagonal structure. Gurdwara Baba Atal (immutable) in Amritsar, basically a smadh (cenotaph) purported to have been raised in memory of Baba Atal, the revered son of the sixth Guru, Har Gobind is a nine-storey building standing on an octagonal plan. It reminds one of Firoze Minar in Gaur.
Gurdwara Dera Baba Gurditta at Kiratpur in Ropar district is a square structure placed on a high plinth which has a ten-side plan. This polygonal plan-shape is quite unusual. Baolis (stepped wells) are also not uncommon in Sikh architecture. Gurdwara Baoli Sahib at Goindwal in Amritsar district is a representative example of such structures which belong to the miscellaneous class. Gurdwara Nanak Jheera in Bidar in Karnataka stands on a cruciform plan.
There are five historical shrines which have been given the status of takhts (thrones), where the gurmattas (spiritual-temporal decisions) of a binding character are taken through a consensus of the sangat (congregation). Such consensus edicts had great importance, affecting, as they did, the social and political life of the Sikh community. The five takhts are : Akal Takht, Amritsar; Harmandir Sahib, Patna (Bihar state); Kesgarh Sahib, Anandpur (Ropar district); Damdama Sahib, Talwandi Sabo (Gurdaspur district); and Hazoor Sahib, Nanded (Maharashtra state). Among these five takhts, Akal Takht (the immutable throne) is the most important by virtue of its location in Amritsar, the Vatican City of the Sikhs.
As a rule, a gumbad (dome) is the crowning feature of a gurdwara. Rarely, a shrine may be flat-roofed, as in the case of Gurdwara Guru-ka-Lahore near Anandpur Sahib in Ropar district. Sometimes, a small one-room shrine is topped by a palaki, a palanquin-like roof, derived from Bengal regional style of architecture, as can be seen in Gurdwara Tahli Sahib in village Tahla in Bathinda district. Gurdwara Bahadurgarh in Patiala district has a palaki instead of a dome as its crowning feature.
More often than not, a dome is fluted or ribbed but a plain dome has also been used in some cases, as in Manji Sahib at Damdama Sahib in Bathinda district. Several dome-shapes are to be found in Sikh shrines: torus, hemi-spherical, three-quarters of a sphere, etc. although the last-mentioned is more frequently used. The shape of the dome of Gurdwara Pataal Puri at Kiratpur in Ropar district has a remarkable likeness to the domes to be seen in Bijapur provincial style of architecture.
The dome is usually white, though sometimes gilded, as in the Golden Temple at Amritsar, Darbar Sahib at Tarn Taran, and Sis Ganj in Delhi. Alternatively, in some cases, domes have been covered with brass. Usually, domes on Sikh shrines spring from a floral base, and have inverted lotus-symbol-top from which rises the kalasa. Based on Mount Kailasa, held sacred in Hindu mythology, the kalasa shoots up in the form of a cylinderical construction, often with some concentric discs, spheroids, culminating in a small canopy with pendants dangling at the outer rim.
An interesting point to note is the manner in which the dome is related to the cuboid structure of the shrine. As a rule, the lower part dominates the domical structure, and looks somewhat austere in comparison with it.
Apart from the large central dome, there are often four other smaller cupolas, one on each corner of the usually-cuboid structure of the shrine. The parapet may be embellished with several turrets, or small rudimentary domes, or crenellations, or replicas of arcades with domical toppings, or strings of guldastas (bouquets), or similar other embellishments. Minarets — the ubiquitous symbols of Mughal architecture-- are rarely seen in a gurdwara. An exception is Gurdwara Katalgarh (place of execution) at Chamkaur Sahib in Ropar district which has several minarets.
A recurrent element of gurdwara-design is the preferred use of two storeys to gain sufficient elevation for the shrine. However restrained the design may be, the elevation is usually treated by dividing the facade in accordance with the structural lines of columns, piers, and pilasters, with vertical divisions creating areas of well-modelled surfaces. The most important division is, of course, the entrance which receives more ornate treatment than other areas. The treatment often creates bas-reliefs of geometrical, floral, and other designs. Where magnificence is the aim, repousse-work in brass or copper-gilt sheeting is introduced often with a note of extravagance.
Jaratkari, intricate in-lay work, gach, plaster-of-Paris work, tukri work, fresco-painting, pinjra (lattice work) are the techniques used for the embellishment of exterior surfaces as well as for interior decoration. Jaratkari is both a very expensive and time-consuming technique of studding semi-precious and coloured stones into marbles slabs. The slabs often have florid or geometrical borders which enclose painstakingly executed in-lay work using floral shapes and patterns. Beautiful designs are made on the walls with gach which is subsequently gilded. Excellent examples of this work can be seen in the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Sometimes, the gach-work is rendered highly ornamental by means of coloured and mirrorred cut-glass as well as semi-precious stones. This is called tukri (small piece) work. Frescoes, depicting popular episodes from the lives of the ten Gurus, are to be found in some shrines. Designs employed are based on vine, plant, flower, bird, and animal motifs. The largest number of such frescoes have been painted on the first floor of Baba Atal at Amritsar. Pinjras, delicate stone grills, are used for screens, enclosures, and parapets.
Brick, lime mortar as well as lime or gypsum plaster, and lime concrete have been the most favoured building materials, although stone, such as red sandstone and white marble, has also been used in a number of shrines. The latter found use more as cladding or decorative material than for meeting structural needs for well over two hundred years. Nanak Shahi (of the times of Nanak) brick was most commonly used for its intrinsic advantages. It was a kind of brick-tile of moderate dimensions used for reinforcing lime concrete in the structural walls and other components which were generally very thick. The brick-tile made mouldings, cornices, pilasters, etc. easy to work into a variety of shapes. More often than not, the structure was a combination of the two systems, viz., trabeated, or post-and-lintel, and arcuated, based on vaults and arches. The surfaces were treated with lime or gypsum plaster which was moulded into cornices, pilasters, and other structural features as well as non-structural embellishments.
Sikh architecture represents the last flicker of religious architecture in India. The Golden Temple at Amritsar is its most celebrated example as this is the only monument in which all the characteristics of the style are fully represented. Golden Temple, being the sheet-anchor of the stylistic index of Sikh architecture, may be detailed.
Almost levitating above, and in the middle of, an expansive water-body, the "Pool of Nectar" (Amrit-Sar), the Darbar (court) Sahib, or Harmandar (Lord's Temple), as it is called, stirs one deeply with glitters of its golden dome, kiosks, parapets, and repousse-work, and the enchanting evanescence of its shimmering reflections in the pool. With the temple and tank as the focus, a complex of buildings, most of which repeat in their architectural details and the characteristics of the central structure, have come up in the vicinity of the shrine in the course of time.
Although Sikh architecture undoubtedly originated with the idea of devotion, it had to undergo rigours of compulsively transforming itself into buildings meant for defence purposes. It assumed the character of military fortification which was reflected in a number of buildings throughout Punjab. Gurdwara Baba Gurditta, Kiratpur, is a representative example of this type of Sikh architecture.
As a style of building-design, Sikh architecture might strike the lay onlooker as eclectic : a pot-pourri of the best features picked up from here and there. But it embodies much more than meets the casual eye. It shares its stringent regulation with the awesome austerity of Islam's uncompromising monotheism. And celebrates its lush exuberance with the playful polytheism of Hinduism. Eclecticism might have been its starting-point, but Sikh architecture has flourished to a state of artistic autonomy so as to work out its own stylistic idiosyncrasies. It is now an apt expression of spontaneous outbursts of psycho-spiritual energy that celebrates the immaculate majesty of Being within the churning melange of opposites encountered during workaday existence -- the arena for continual becoming. Inspired by Guru Nanak's creative mysticism, Sikh architecture is a mute harbinger of holistic humanism based on pragmatic spirituality.
Sikh architecture reflects a lively blend of Mughal and Rajput styles. Onion-shaped domes, multi-foil arches, paired pilasters, in-lay work frescoes, etc. are doubtless of Mughal extraction, more specifically of Emperor-Architect Shah Jehan's period, while oriel windows, bracket-supported eaves at the string-course, chhattris, richly-ornamented friezes, etc. are reminiscent of elements of Rajput architecture such as is seen in Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, and other places in Rajasthan.
Use of water as an element of design has been frequently exploited in Mughal and Hindu architecture, but nowhere in so lively a manner as in Sikh architecture. Water becomes a sine qua non of Sikh building-design, as in the Golden Temple at Amritsar, or Darbar Sahib at Tarn Taran, and not merely an appendage to the main shrine. The gurdwara is placed lower down than the structures in the vicinity, unlike a masjid or a mandir which are usually placed on raised platforms.
While sticking to the same basic requirements, different Sikh shrines have developed their own characteristic expressions. It may be recalled that most of the gurdwaras are commemorative buildings, and therefore the sites, on which they have been built, had the intrinsic challenges and advantages which were more fortuitous than premeditated. Most situations have been handled with remarkable imagination and ingenuity. Eventually, no two shrines look exactly alike although there are exceptions such as Dera Sahib in Lahore, and Panja (Palm-impression) Sahib, both in Pakistan. Also, the low metal-gilt fluted dome of the Golden Temple has been copied in these two shrines as well as in the Darbar Sahib at Tarn Taran.
Sometimes, the difference in design is so great that it would be difficult to recognise a gurdwara if the standard Sikh pole-mark or Nishan Sahib were not there to help its identification. Some of the gurdwaras look more like gateways, as is the case with Fatehgarh (town of victory) Sahib, Sirhind, or like an educational institution, as is the case with Ber (berry) Sahib, Sultanpur Lodhi, or like a Rajput palace, as is the case with Gurdwara Bahadurgarh (fort of the valiant) in Patiala district, when one first encounters the shrine's enclosing structures. But all this deviation, if somewhat baffling, does not detract one from the essentials of Sikh architecture. On the contrary it substantiates the very basis of creative freedom on which it is built.
It may be mentioned that two of the historic examples of Sikh architecture were designed by late Sardar Balwant Singh Bhatti (a selfmade man of many parts).They were Panja Sahib (Hasan Abdal) now in Pakistan, and Takht Sri Kesgarh, Anandpur Sahib.
Among the secular buildings of Sikh architecture, Khalsa College at Amritsar is the most outstanding example. Designed by Sardar Bahadur Sardar Ram Singh, a self-taught genius of prodigious dimensions, this institution is unsurpassed for its architectural conception, quiet nobility, and ambient exuberance. Ram Singh was conferred the coveted title of MVO (Member of the Victorian Order). The Queen of England had unqualified admiration for this Sardar's many-splendoured creativity.
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Thursday, March 15, 2007

The legend of Gurudwara Thehri Sahib

Situated on the Malout-Bhatinda road, lies the Gurwara Tehri Sahib, a place blessed by the visit of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh while on his way to Damdama Sahib, after winning the battle of Muktsar.
According to legend, when the Guru, along with his Sikh warriors, made a stopover at the village of Thehri, a yogi named Hukum Nath tried to impress him with his mystical powers, but failed in his attempt for none of his powers worked in the presence of Guru Gobind Singh.
It also believed that in this place, in order to test the Sikhs, the Guru lowered his arrow to salute the grave of the Muslim saint, Qasim Bhatti.  When his followers immediately asked the Guru to pay a fine of twenty-five rupees for this unlawful act, he willingly accepted the punishment.
Bhai Kuldeep Singh, a priest at Gurudwara Thehri Sahib, said: "By this, Guru Gobind Singh wanted to test his Sikh followers, and see whether they were true to their faith. The Guru said, in future the Sikhs would be the protectors of the Sikh faith and 'maryada'. They would prosper and grow from strength to strength following his teachings.
It is also believed that Guru Gobind Singh halted near a group of three trees and rested his arms and belt on them. The trees, which are almost 300 years old, still stand as a testimony to his visit inside the gurudwara complex.
Manjit Singh, a devotee, said: "As this place was visited by the Guru Gobind Singh, people have great faith in it. They come from far-off and near to pay obeisance. The Guru blessed the place by saying that whosoever comes here with devotion will get his wishes fulfilled".
Managed by the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, the old structure of the Gurudwara was transformed into a marbled building in July 2000.
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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Nanak Jhira, Bidar gurudwara, a beacon for devotees

Bidar is emerging as an important spiritual tourism destination. The Nanak Jhira Gurudwara here attracts hundreds of tourists every day. On Tuesday, over 50,000 people from across the country converged on the gurudwara to celebrate the 536th Guru Nanak Jayanti. Devotees believe that the first Sikh Guru visited Bidar on his way to Sri Lanka in March 1512. "Then, Bidar was a dry place with no source of drinking water. People were forced to use brackish water. The Guru moved a stone under his feet and an eternal spring of fresh water gushed out. The spring flows even today. People believe it has magical powers and cures diseases," says Amar Singh Ragi, the gurudwara manager.
Sahib Singh, one of the `Panch Pyares' of Sikhism, was born in Bidar. That is why it attracts devotees from far and wide, he says. The gurudwara trust runs a hospital and a free canteen for tourists.
People begin to arrive in Bidar three days before the Jayanti. Volunteers sweep flours, clean walls, help in the kitchen and even guard the shoes of visitors to the gurudwara, which is decorated with lights, flags and banners for the occasion.
`Nishan Sahib,' the flag of Sikhism, which is treated as a symbol of the gurus, enjoys a special place during the celebrations.
Every year, hundreds of flags are brought from various gurudwaras in the country. Devotees from Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh walk along with the Nishan Sahib and take turns to carry it to Bidar. The faithful start reading sacred texts on the eve of Kartik Purnima. The chanting of songs and couplets goes on till 2.30 a.m., when firecrackers are burst to celebrate the birth of Guru Nanak. People take a dip at Amrit Kund, a small artificial pond in front of the gurudwara. They join in the singing of bhajans. Next day, they take out a procession in town.
This year's procession included children dressed up as Sikh warriors engaged in a mock war. Men did not seem tired even after performing the `Bhangra' for hours. Traffic was diverted from the main road and special arrangements were made for the procession.
"Bidar has come to be known as the Amrtisar of the South and has become a compulsory stopover for Sikh tourists," says Bidar-based businessmen and gurudwara volunteer Manpreet Singh Khanuja. "It draws not only Sikhs living in different parts of the country, but also people of other faiths. The State Government needs to promote Bidar as an important tourist destination and provide more facilities," Mr. Khanuja said.
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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Gurudwara Pathar Sahib, a major tourist attraction in Leh

Built by Buddhist Lamas nearly five centuries ago to commemorate the visit of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, to Ladakh, the Gurudwara Pathar Sahib is visited by Hindu and Sikh devotees, besides tourists. Although the Ladakh's culture and religion is deeply influenced by Buddhism, the existence of Gurudwara 'Pathar Sahib' adds to the region's religious history and identity.

Legend has it that many centuries ago a demon had terrorised the people of Leh. Baba Guru Nanak, who visited the region around 1516 A.D, came to know about the problem and decided to bless them with his sermons. Locals welcomed him with open arms. His growing popularity angered the demon and in a fit of rage, he decided to kill Guru Nanak with sa large boulder. The boulder, however, turned into wax as soon as it touched Guru Nanak.

"Thinking the Sikh Guru must have got killed by the boulder, the demon appeared only to be shocked to find Guru Nanak Dev meditating. He pushed the boulder with his right foot, but as it had already melted into wax, his foot got embedded in it. Realising, Guru's enormous powers, the demon fell at his feet and sought forgiveness," said Rajender Singh, the caretaker of the gurudwara. Since then, resident Lamas revere the boulder and offer prayers to it. In 1948, the Gurudwara Pathar Sahib's maintenance was taken over by the Army.

The region has a sizeable Sikh population and devotees visit the site to have their wishes fulfilled.

"By the grace of God, my wish has been fulfilled. My younger brother, whose wish has also been fulfilled, has helped me take part in the `Akhand Path', a continuous reading of Guru Granth Sahib (the religious textbook of Sikhs). We have a great belief in Gurudwara Pathar Sahib," said Harjinder Singh, a devotee from Punjab.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

New largest UK Sikh temple behind schedule

Building work on what will be one of the largest Sikh temples in the UK is over budget and behind schedule. Work began on the Gravesend site six years ago but it has now been revealed it may take two more years to finish. The cost of the £9m gurdwara has also risen by £2m, which will have to be found by the local community in Kent.

Architect Teja Singh Biring said: "My milestone is 2008, but it most probably will slip to 2009... I think another six months or so won't matter."

Structural work on the temple was completed last summer, but the next stage of covering it with granite and marble has taken longer than expected.

The stonemasons tasked with cladding the building are still only about halfway through, and 10 more specialist workers are due to arrive from India next week to help.

The temple is being funded entirely by the local community and partly built by volunteers.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Rebab of Guru Gobind Singh

If asked what is the greatest Sikh relic in existence today, few people would suggest a musical instrument. Yet, the Rebab of Guru Gobind Singh qualifies strongly for this title. To start, the musical tradition of gurbani (religious writing) ties the instrument directly to the center of the faith -- Sikh prayers are done as vocal music and written in standard musical modes (scales) of North Indian classical music.

Further, this particular item is the only known musical instrument from the time of the Gurus that is still intact. We know that Guru Gobind Singh himself played this rebab, making this a particularly valuable and rare find. The Guru gave the instrument to Maharaja Sidh Sen of Suket Mandi (located in today's Himachal Pradesh) as a gift. The rebab was later donated to the Sikh community and is currently housed at the Sri Guru Gobind Singh Gurdwara of Mandi. Unfortunately, none of this information is available on site and most of the visitors are local residednts. Fortunately, the Gurudwara is only a short walk from the main bus station and easy for outsiders to find.

The instrument connects us with a past that is quickly being forgotten. Less than a hundred years ago the rebab was in common use in Gurdwaras (place of worship). But today, few Sikhs have ever heard kirtan (musical religious recitation) performed on one. Kirtan is now performed on the harmonium, a British instrument. The single-stringed rebab (also known as a rebec or rebek in the West) is referred to in literature of India, Persia and even in Arabic poetry. It is still in use today in derivative forms from the Middle East to South East Asia. It may even be the predecessor of the modern violin.

But even without its legendary past, this rebab is also a priceless piece of Punjabi art given its history and significance to the community of its time. Sikh religious music has inspired its followers for 500 years, featuring the rebab since the beginning. Currently, the few efforts to revive the rebab's legacy have gone slowly because very few musicians still use one.

Today's rebab players search hard for the motivation to pursue their craft. They must dedicate the expense and time needed to master a complex and largely unknown art form. They also face hard competition with India's film industry. The media conglomerates have learned that movies form an effective marketing platform for music products, allowing them to lower the quality while still generating sales. Modern Indian music has become little more than a generically produced pop song dubbed into a popular actor's soliloquy.

Traditional and classical music still exist, but the high cost of training musicians results in a much higher ticket price than the movies and therefore, a much smaller audience. As a result, music students usually abandon their studies before long. The small classes that remain consist mostly of dedicated foreign students who work hard and have won critical praise. Ironically, they are educating Indians about their own musical heritage
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First World Sikh Lobby At United Nations In Switzerland

Sikh Federation (UK) is delighted to announce the first WORLD SIKH LOBBY will be taking place at the United Nations in Switzerland on 25 and 26 March 2007. Around 150 Sikh representatives are expected from over 15 different countries. This event is planned to coincide with the 4th session of the UN Human Rights Council and the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

The World Sikh Lobby will begin:

- On Sunday 25 March with an international Sikh human rights conference at Gurdwara Sahib Switzerland (Langenthal) with non-Sikh speakers and the media.

- On the same evening there will be one of the largest international gatherings of Sikh delegates from across the world to finalise arrangements for the UN Human Rights Council awareness rally on 26 March and to discuss the international political strategy of the Sikh Nation.

- On Monday 26 March there will be a Sikh human rights awareness rally outside the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Several Sikh represenatives are expected to enter the UN to raise Sikh concerns and a Memorandum will be submitted on behalf on the Sikh Nation.

- The Sikh Federation (UK) is also in discussions with the UN for a special Sikh human rights event to take place inside the UN.

Bhai Amrik Singh, the Chair of the Sikh Federation (UK) said:

"The World Sikh Lobby will be an unprecendented event that will see all the leading Panthic organisations throughout the world unite under one banner and set out the Sikh Nations demands from a human rights perspective."

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