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The world class Virasat-e-Khalsa museum: An architectural delight! Oct 2, 2012

Aside from having a good time with my girl friends, some new some old, the focus of my outing to the Doab region of Punjab was the chance to see the Virasat-e-Khalsa museum that opened in Anandpur Sahib only in November last year.

Moshe Safdie, an Israeli architect won the international competition to design the museum, then called the Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex way back in the early 90s. We must have been first or second year students at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) when he came to speak to us about the design, the concepts behind it and his vision for this monument. I remember thinking it was rather outlandish (scroll down this page to see the sketches he must have shown us), but I was impressed by Safdie’s self-assured demeanor and exotic accent!

The museum was our first destination and we went there just as soon as we had dumped our luggage at the Bharatgarh Fort (will blog about that quaint place tomorrow!) and gulped our evening tea! It was a Sunday and the crowds were overwhelming. For a museum in rural Punjab, I was pretty surprised.

Teeming with people…first glimpse

Entrance- At this point, I have no clue what to expect inside!

We were ushered in by a smart police officer of few words who our hosts, the local royal family had requested to assist us. Our cameras and bags were kept in lockers by a smart young man who spoke good English, besides Hindi and Punjabi. In a few moments, we found ourselves in the middle of an audio-visual treat. Orijit Sen and his 13 collaborators have created this 3D panorama of life in the Punjab- a three floor high mural full of color, depicting daily activity, people and cultures, rural-urban transitions, rituals, celebrations, street scenes, architectural sections of traditional typologies like havelis and caravan sarais…..all accompanied to sounds depicting seasons, local music. It’s hard to explain. All I can say is that you start the experience here on a most unusual note; it’s not what you expect from a museum that claims it is about Sikh history and heritage!

The rest of the galleries- and there are 14 open at present out of a planned 28- did depict that history, but it was far from boring. Fabric, texture, other unusual materials, light and an array of crafts have been used to stunning effect to depict the evolution of Sikhism and the life of the main Sikh gurus. At no point does the content get preachy or overtly religious. Audio visual displays puncture the visuals and text to make it easier on the senses. Hordes of villagers from surrounding areas pass through,awestruck and absorbed. This is a world class museum that isn’t just for the elite and the lovers of history and art. It’s for the people who live the heritage it depicts.

It was dark when we stepped outside again and the magic of Moshe Safdie’s architecture hit us like a punch in the stomach. The lighting highlighted the bold form, the water body created an added dimension of playful reflections. Serene and monumental, the walk around the museum transported me into another world. A full moon added the poetic touch. After a long long time, was I affected this way by the sheer power of architectural design. For all those of you who are architects, or think they have it in them to appreciate architecture, the Virasat-e-Khalsa is a must-visit. Bundled with the peacefulness of the Gurudwara next to it, it’s a pilgrimage for the eyes and for the spirit!

To visit the museum, drive to Anandpur Sahib near Ropar. It is about an hour and a half from Chandigarh and the roads are excellent. The museum is closed on Monday and Sundays are usually crowded. The audio guide is available in English, Hindi and Punjabi and is excellent, we were told by our hosts.

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