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Amritsar’s Khalsa College: Marching towards modernity, this college inspires to think big

Guiding principle: Marching towards modernity is a tradition at this institution set up in 1892 for uplift of Sikhs through modern education; even today focus is on hands-on, practical knowledge with courses tailored for job market.

punjab Updated: May 21, 2018 09:38 IST
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Hindustan Times, Amritsar
Khalsa College,Region's oldest schools of learning,Amritsar
Students on the Khalsa College campus in Amritsar. (HT File)

The imposing red building with its medley of minarets and palanquins seems straight out of a coffee table book on Indian architecture of yore. Age sits lightly on this magnificent edifice whose foundation was laid on March 5, 1892. Welcome to Khalsa College, Amritsar, one of the most iconic institutions of Punjab, whose architectural splendour has not dimmed with time. Just like the intent with which it was set up.

Rajinder Mohan Singh Chhina, the honorary secretary of the Khalsa College Governing Council since 1996, goes down memory lane to 1883 when almost 40 years after the fall of the Sikh empire, some intellectuals got together to mull ways to preserve the culture of Punjab in the face of British hegemony over art and culture. Seven years later, the Khalsa College Foundation Committee was set up on February 22 to uplift the community through modern education.

Chhina says they have tried to stay true to this guiding principle. It’s the same with the architecture. The college was designed by Bhai Ram Singh, then vice-principal of Mayo School of Arts, Lahore, who had also designed part of the Buckingham Palace in London. For this institution, he married Mughal and Rajputana architectural forms to come up with what experts today call Sikh architecture. The final structure was a cross between a palace, a temple and a fort. Despite the march towards modernity, the management has stayed true to this form.

The first in the region to start an agriculture department in 1931, the college now boasts of an 80-acre farm where students do organic farming.

More beautiful than Paris

The building has been the muse of many a Bollywood film director, including the late Yash Chopra. Among the movies shot here are Rang De Basanti, Veer Zara and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi.

So overwhelmed was Sufi singer Abida Praveen by the beauty of this college that she said, “Main saari duniya ghumi haan kayee vaar, tuhadi bulding dekh ke Paris neeche aa gaya (I’ve seen the world many times over, but your building makes Paris look lacklustre).”

The maharajas of yore were also impressed, for seeing the grand ambition of the college, both the maharaja of Patiala and Faridkot commissioned hostels here. The Nabha state also contributed generously to it.

In pursuit of excellence

Principal Mehal Singh says such was Bhai Ram Singh’s passion for perfection that he set up his own brick-kiln in which he made seven kinds of moulds. “Not a single broken brick has been used. Bhai Ram even made a mould for curved bricks.” That explains why the mammoth building has no rough edges.

Unlike cement we use today, Ram Singh sealed the bricks with an organic mix of surkhi (red powder made of bricks), lime powder, jaggery, lentil powder, and fine hemp. “This is the secret behind the longevity of this building,” says Chhina. A five-member skilled team under Lakhwinder Singh, a mason, whose only job is to take a round of the building 365 days a year and repair minor scratches, stains or dampness. “We use a special mix,” says 52-year-old Singh, who has been working here for 22 years.

Time seems to fly for the inhabitants of this college. Many members of the governing council that is elected every five years have studied here. So have professors such as Amrik Singh, who graduated in 1967. The professor he can’t think of working anywhere else. “I tell my students to pursue excellence. It is always in demand,” he says.

The autonomous college, says Chhina, does not believe in profiteering. “We simply strive to be sustainable.” The college claims to have many firsts to its credit. For one, it has the only private veterinary college of the country. It was also among the first to start dual degrees in alliance with foreign universities. While its structure may be all about heritage, it is hi-tech in its day-to-day working with a biometric attendance system for staff, solar plants and a farm with drip irrigation. Principal Mehal Singh recently introduced a feedback system under which students rate their teachers.

The hall of fame

Take a walk around the college, and you will be bombarded with the names of who’s who of the region. Be it former chief minister Partap Singh Kairon, legendary hockey captain Balbir Singh, cricketer Bishen Singh Bedi, thespian Bhisham Sahni, litterateur Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari, playwright Atamjit Singh, historian Prof Ganda Singh, army doyen Maj Gen Rajinder Singh Sparrow, MVC Bar, or Punjab Agricultural University vice-chancellor BS Dhillon, all of them honed their skills in this college.

Former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru is said to have been so awestruck by the building that he told students, “Khalsa College makes people think big; study here, you won’t be able to think small.”

Kuldeep Singh Sandhu, an engineer based in the US, who was visiting the college in March this year, remembers the impression the college made on him when he joined it at the age of 16. “I was a youngster from a small border village called Gharundi. I was simply overwhelmed by this building. It made me think big. I felt I could do whatever I wanted to.”

In sync with time

The co-educational college is proud of the security it offers its women students. “Of our 7,300 students, 53% are girls,” says the principal. Admission to most courses is through entrance tests.

The first in the region to start an agriculture department in 1931, the college now boasts of an 80-acre farm where students do organic farming.

Dharminder Singh Rataul, the secretary of the society, says the challenge is to tailor courses for the job market. “We focus on hands-on, practical knowledge,” he says. A year and half ago, the college introduced training for IELTS in view of the demand.

Mehal Singh says the aim is to churn out well-rounded individuals. “We give marks for participation in cultural activities and attendance. Social causes are part of the syllabus,” he says.

The college has a robust placement system helmed by HS Randhawa, the head of the computer sciences department. “We try to ensure that top-notch companies visit us,” he says.

Upgrade to university

More than 100 years ago, the college founders had a dream: Of setting up a university. The present governing council is striving to do just that. Affiliation to Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU), they say, is infuriating. “Why should we be affiliated to a university that was raised on 350 acres given by us?” says Chhina. Their mission: A state-of-the-art Khalsa University.

First Published: May 21, 2018 09:25 IST