Monday, 9 November 2015

Old Pictures: The Golden Temple

The centre of the Sikh holy world, the Golden Temple, may not be riding up on my list of Wonders, but it's been one of the most enjoyable Wonders I've visited. Peaceful, friendly, uplifting and one of these rare places that, even to the likes of me, feel spiritual. Also, it offers unlimited free food. Mecca, St Peter's, Bodh Gaya - your move.

It's been around since the late 16th Century, although the version we recognise today, covered in gold, dates from 1830. Thanks are due in no small way to the great Sikh leader, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who decided to spruce it up in grand shining style. Disappointingly, I can't find anything preceding this version. I was hoping for some pictures of the earlier incarnation, without the gold but in turn allowing some insight into what an Ungolden Temple may have looked like. Something like this.

This is a painting of the construction of the Golden Temple. There's no Amritsar, and not even a sacred pool. But this painting is hardly from the 16th Century. I can't find a date or artist attributed to it, but I think it's modern. Besides, the temple pictured here is golden, which it certainly wasn't back then. (As far as I can tell, the name "The Golden Temple" only came after its gilding. It's a nickname - the real name is Harmandir Sahib, the House of God).

While there doesn't appear to any pre-golden pictures, the good news is there's a wealth of pictures of the Golden Temple that date way back to its 1830s origin. A mixture of plans, paintings, and photos, often by the British who had swanned in and taken over India by that time.

A good place to start is with, the online version of the onsite museum. It has a great collection. Probably the most definitive of all is a painting by an artist from Vienna called August Schoefft, featuring Ranjit Singh in front of the Golden Temple complex. It was done sometime between the 1840s and 1855 and based upon an original 1841 sketch. It's a scene painted from Schoefft's imagination rather than memory - Ranjit Singh died in 1839 - but Schoefft did visit the Golden Temple so there's no reason to believe the background details are anything less than accurate. goes on to the break the painting down into its many components, as you can see above. A couple are of particular interest to us. First is the temple itself, fundamentally as it is today, though the website makes it clear Schoefft has made it narrower than the real thing.

Also of interest is this thing to the left:

This is the palace and it certainly doesn't exist today. Blame the British. Upon ending the Sikh Empire and setting up shop in 1849, they turned it into a police station, court house, and prison. By the 1860s, they had overseen its dismantling altgoether.

Before it disappeared, it featured in many other mid-19th Century pictures, that give an idea of how the complex once looked. Remember, this is the era when the Golden Temple had really become "golden" for the first time in its centuries of history. We see here what could be thought of as the temple's heyday, a brief period from the 1830s to just after the British arrived in 1849. A golden era, if you like. Here are some pictures of that era.

This is an 1854 painting by a painter called William Carpenter, with the palace as the focal point, the administrative Akal Takkht on the left, and the Golden Temple itself just nudging into shot on the right.

This is another one by William Carpenter in 1854, or based on a sketch by him, this time featuring the temple as the centrepiece and the palace in the background. Carpenter travelled for six or seven years around India, painting a few hundred pictures of the new part of the British Empire, provided a useful record of the era.

Here's a really early photo, taken in the late 1850s. It's a bit of switch of perspective from the others, with the palace on the right. Most photos were taken a decade later, by which time the palace had been torn down.

These map-style pictures look superficially similar, though are very different. The first is authentically mid-19th Century. What's different about the second? It still has the palace, but additionally has the paved walkway that lines the perimeter of the temple. This makes the picture anachronistic - the walkway (which still exists now) was only introduced in the late 19th Century, and never existed at the same time as the palace. Probably, the artist was copying an earlier picture and updated it with the walkway, but didn't bother changing any other details.

Now, take a look at this picture, from around 1830.

It's probably not clear, but the palace isn't there. That's because it seems the palace was only built after 1835, during Ranjit Singh's many improvements to the complex. Perhaps that's the reason there doesn't seem to have been an outcry about the British dismantling it. Back then, the palace was a recent, modern creation, that wouldn't have had much time to become important. You can be there would have been pandemonium had the British, or anyone, else, tried to mess with the temple proper.

Here are some more colourful and pretty mid-19th Century pictures.

And here are some old photos, taken around the 1870 mark - but still predating the introduction of the perimeter walkway.

Doesn't look so different from how it is now, does it?

And last of all, let's have a comparison: 19th Century Golden Temple vs modern-day Golden Temple. The temple itself is unchanged, but the immediate surroundings are very different.


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