Reflections of the Past
The Golden Temple of Amritsar
by Parmjit Singh
I have seen all places but none can compare to You
So wrote the fifth Sikh Guru, Arjan, upon completion of the Harimandir Sahib (Exalted Temple of Hari), more popularly known in the West as the Golden Temple of Amritsar. The Guru's words are enshrined in the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, and their sentiment has been repeated innumerable times by subsequent generations of pilgrims and travellers alike. Considered to be one of the world's most beautiful buildings, it is also one of the most visited, outstripping even the Taj Mahal. It is allegedly the fourth most visited heritage site in the world, attracting peoples of all faiths and none. It is a rare person who isn't struck by its deeply spiritual essence and serenity. As Mark Tully so eloquently stated, it is a place "where only those entirely devoid of all spirituality could fail to feel something of the presence of God".
The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past is a major new exhibition that highlights just how keenly such reverence has been expressed over the centuries by visitors to Punjab's most famous shrine. Successive generations of travellers from Asia, Australasia, North America, Britain and Continental Europe have left us their impressions of a golden era of a temple that was the beating heart of a city. Spies, memsahibs, artists, missionaries and even Hollywood actors have all been struck by its ethereal, otherworldly nature. Collectively, they have portrayed it as a confluence of timeless spirituality, day-to-day commercial activity and geo-political intrigue.
Perhaps it is no wonder that the temple had such an effect, designed and built as it was under the instructions of the fifth Sikh Guru on a holy site steeped in mystic lore. Myths connect it to the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. It is said that the Buddha meditated by the original spring in a jungle clearing, noting that this spot was spiritually charged to obtain Nirvana - but also that it's time of fame was yet to come. Some two millennia later Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, meditated here. However, it was his third successor, Guru Ram Das, who initiated the digging of the Pool of Immortality (Amrit Sarovar, or Amritsar) in 1577. He encouraged people of all faiths to join him in establishing a new township that had the pool as its beating heart. In 1588, his son and successor, Guru Arjan, began building the temple in the centre of the holy tank in adherence to a design mantra that enshrined Nanak's philosophical message of universality and humility.
Critically, the famous Sufi saint of Lahore, Mian Mir, was invited to lay the foundation stone. The new shrine was deliberately built below ground level, which went against the precedent of the day, and with four doors, one on each side of the structure, to inculcate the spirit of humility and openness to all. The Harimandir Sahib was completed in 1601 during the reign of the Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great. However, its fame reached its zenith when the very first copy of the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth, was installed in the sanctum sanctorum in 1604 (the same year that work began on the King James Version of the Bible). A treasure trove of unifying medieval Indian spirituality, this unique volume brought together five centuries of divinely inspired poetry penned not only by the Sikh Gurus but also by Hindu and Muslim mystics from across India.
During the next two centuries, the Sikhs faced persecution for their beliefs under successive Mughal and Afghan regimes. They were forced to militarise as a community, and came close to extinction on more than one occasion in the eighteenth century. In these turbulent times, the Sikhs always turned to the Harimandir Sahib - which was occupied, desecrated and destroyed twice - as a beacon of hope and resistance. The Sikhs eventually overwhelmed the invaders to gain control of Punjab. It was in the early nineteenth century, under the patronage of the great Sikh king, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, that the Harimandir Sahib was covered with copper-gilt panels, giving rise to its more popular name.
Early eyewitnesses report that the atmosphere within the temple was pluralistic and peaceable. Relays of musicians sang (and continue to do so) from the Sikh scriptures twenty hours out of twenty-four. Visitors were often struck by the sight of the Muslim rababis (players of the rabab, a stringed instrument) singing sacred songs to the assembled pilgrims, but their presence was explained by the fact that Guru Nanak's constant companion on his epic travels was a Muslim musician, Bhai Mardana. Sadly, the rababis were compelled to migrate to Pakistan following Punjab's partition in 1947.
During Ranjit Singh's reign, a culture of learning blossomed in the environs of the temple. Palatial buildings (bungas) belonging to the Sikh nobility and various spiritual orders served as flourishing centres of hospitality and learning, attracting Sikh and non-Sikh scholars, theologians, philosophers, artists, musicians, physicians and calligraphers to study and serve at the sacred site. Regrettably, the vast majority of these structures were pulled down by the Sikh authorities in 1947. The demolition of the buildings followed on from the dismantling of the critical system of patronage that supported their role as centres of learning during the early days of British rule in Punjab a century earlier. The demise of this cultural institution, which once sustained the Sikhs as a nation of warriors and scholars, has inevitably had a major impact on both the architectural fabric of the temple complex and the cultural landscape of the Sikhs. Thankfully, despite such changes, Guru Nanak's universal message still remains strong.
Replete with artefacts, artworks, vintage film footage and a wonderfully reconstructed model of the temple precincts at its zenith, this major new exhibition (and associated talks and publication) pays homage to the time when the Golden Temple, the city of Amritsar and the Sikhs were at the height of their glory.
- The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past
- runs until 25 September 2011 at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1. free Entry.
- Exhibition publication
- (approx. 500 images & extracts from 70 eyewitness accounts).
- To order visit www.gt1588.com
- Sunday Symposium Talks
- for more details & booking information visit www.gt1588.eventbrite.com
- With acknowledgement to the Toor Collection