In Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, there’s an impressive scene where Gandalf rides to Minas Tirith, City of Kings - an incredible monumental structure embedded into the mountains and shrouded with myth and mystery. We question whether such structures exist in real life and whether former civilisations were capable of creating such grandiose buildings - but of course history tells us that they did. We need not even look back to ancient Ayodhya or Lanka to see such examples, but more closely to Lahore, Delhi and of course Amritsar, where The Golden Temple (Hariminder Sahib or Darbar Sahib) still sits majestically amongst its marble surrounds and sacred lake.
On first seeing the Golden Temple, which I did one foggy October dawn – I was taken by its spiritual, serene and sublime influence. It shines like a beacon even on the greyest of days and the chanting from within glides over the water to its surrounds. Of course this experience can only be gained by visiting the temple itself - but a major new exhibition The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past brings some of the temple’s magic, its history and new discoveries to London’s Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Presented by the UK Punjab Heritage Association (UKPHA, who also assisted with the V&A’s Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms exhibition,1999) it’s the first ever major exhibition to focus exclusively on the temple itself. Comprising of two floors, it features a collection of rare and memorable artefacts (including jewels, weaponry, paintings and photographs) that bring new life to the way we look at the temple. Yet what’s most interesting about this exhibition is that it makes the temple the forefront of our focus and not Sikhism. Of course the evolution of Sikhism is naturally entwined with its conception - yet this doesn’t shroud the experience. Instead the artefacts across both floors help inform the temple’s political, social and cultural history (from Guru Nanak’s Fundamental Creed right towards the Fall of the Sikh Empire).
On the lower, larger floor, proving most useful is a comprehensive timeline - marking not only the development of the temple, but also the key cultural and political milestones happening world over. I could make more sense of the political situation in India knowing that certain events in the Mughal/Sikh/Hindu history were running parallel to the Tudor/Stuart or Victorian reign in England, for example.
At one point I was questioned by Sony Asia TV as to what made this a particularly effective exhibition. I answered that for me, it was mainly on the grounds of the testimonies researched and included. I’ve been to the Golden Temple several times before and can of course recall my own sacred experiences, yet what’s fascinating here is the collection of personal testimonies from the journals and records of European and global visitors to the Golden Temple throughout the centuries. These testimonies add strength and meaning to the surrounding artefacts. There’s a thorough collection of photographs for example - which themselves are intriguing to look at - though it’s only when I was told that they’re the earliest shots of the temple, that these photographs took on a more powerful meaning.
Key pieces also include the Sword (Tulwar) of Fateh Singh Ahluwalia (1784-1836) ruler of Kapurthala State and the gouache paintings of Guru Nanak. These mark the transition of Sikhism as a way of life, through to a warrior culture, where outlaws eventually went on to become kings. They also reference the tumultuous relationships the Sikhs had with the Mughals, Afghans and the British. Other pieces, offering a gentle yet insightful glimpse into temple life are Amritsar - The Lake by the Golden Temple, a Painting by Charles William Bartlett, offering a meditative impression of the temple. Also included from the Toor collection is a Visit India poster from the 1930's featuring a brightly coloured Golden Temple, making it feel part of the modern jet-set age – already a genuine global destination.
The success of this exhibition is ultimately not only in its research and level of detail - but also its elegant and aesthetic curation. The Golden Temple represents, for many, a violent and turbulent history. We think of course about recent conflicts and those throughout history (the dumping of carcases and waste into the lake during the Mughal period - or the nearby Jallianwala Bagh massacre in the early twentieth century). Yet these events shouldn’t detract from the building’s original purpose - as a means to harmoniously worship alongside others. I left the exhibition with this particular thought in mind, and recalled the quote by S. A. Poe (Out of a Duffle Bag, 1942):
Any one is welcome to share in their worship, no question mark is asked regarding his beliefs. He may stay as long as he wishes, eat at their table and find a comfortable resting place in the adjoining hostelry.
The exhibition runs until 25th September 2011, including occasional Sunday symposium talks by international speakers.
Click here for information about the exhibition.
Click here to book tickets for the symposium talks.
Click here to buy the book that accompanies the exhibition.
Photo credit: View across the sarovar of the Golden Temple, Darshani Deorhi gateway, Akal Takht and a partially constructed clock tower, c. 1868-70
Albumen print, James Craddock (fl. 1860-189). Toor Collection.