Last week, during a decluttering frenzy, I gave away most of my books and CDs and kept a handful of things neatly filed on my hard-drive. Why, in this digital age, do we still hold onto so much when it’s possible, I thought, to just live with a few items of necessity? Of course I kept a few treasures, but established solid criteria for what these needed to be: things of beauty and wonder.
One such item I’ve recently acquired is the The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past (1808-1959) book. A large, hard backed first edition, this book is the accompanying catalogue to the exhibition I covered last year. The exhibition’s scope was so vast, that it’s no wonder this book was a while in the making. It comes on to the scene now, reminding us that reflections of the past are continually emerging. It chronicles both a testimonial and visual history of the temple from 1808 to 1959, pulling together specially sourced imagery and introductions. Most impressive, however, is its exquisite execution: a gold edged volume, with elegantly reproduced graphic elements, iconography, mapping, legends and indices. The palette is specifically designed to best offset images of the temple throughout the decades.
Alongside the book and the exhibition is the site, www.gt1588.com - where in his blog post, designer Juga Singh, comments that his aim was to ‘produce something that is beautiful, accessible, functional and most importantly, true to the brief’. In this, he succeeds. However, the book goes beyond being a coffee table adventure. Indeed, for most Sikhs, it is a commentary on our cultural evolution - as it reflects on the geographical epicentre of our faith. We learn the Amritsar was more than just a sacred vestige of faith, but a thriving cosmopolitan hub of learning, mingling, trade and exchange.
When I spoke to Harbaksh Singh, a prominent member of the project, we discussed both the book and the site and how they sit together. He explained that through the eyes of others - we’ve seen the temple move through the control of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, The British Raj and finally the SPGC. Though a broad overview of the temple’s history, within these transitions - the temple experienced major aesthetic and social changes. When asked why the coverage of the temple’s history doesn’t stretch to the modern day, the response has been about keeping the focus on the temple’s ‘golden age’. A fitting description for a time when visitors from across the globe experienced the temple with awe and delight. As such, the book begins with the earliest view of the temple through the eyes of a foreign spy, explored further in The Maharaja, the spy & the Temple of Gold. Then, by the end, we’ve moved onto views of the temple through the glossy images in a French travel magazine.
Within this history, we also learn of the dramatic changes brought on through British control and eventually the SGPC. The architecture as well as the environment became more sanctimonious, utilitarian and militaristic. More than the temple, this was perhaps a reflection on the Sikh state of mind, which, for a new religion - is still evolving. However, at its detriment, it saw a certain aspect of Amritsar’s thriving splendour disappear. Fortunately, this book captures some of this, so we re-imagine the secret life of a Gurudwara as more than just a temple of worship. There are, for example, instances of people openly bathing, worshippers with uncovered heads and Amritsar as a commercial centre. The images capture a raw, colourful energy which now in Amritsar feels slightly muted and white-washed. The temple itself is perhaps the only surviving beacon of that former golden age.
For me, some of the enjoyable images in the book are those of temple appearing in unlikely places; the back-drop to regal paintings, on postcards, menus and tickets. Its image was at one time a commercial stamp - representing a glorious emblem of the orient. I fear that today - the very same use of that image may be considered blasphemous, which perhaps says more about us, than the temple. H
arbaksh alerted to me to an incident on Jay Leno, where the temple was featured as part of the satirical joke about the homes of Republican candidates. The SGPC’s backlash against this demonstrated that we’ve perhaps become a prudish, volatile and reactionary culture. Maybe this is an aspect of our militaristic history - or just an inability to accept something in context. Regardless - it’s proved a great opportunity for the temple’s true history to surface. In this book, we have evidence of just how varied and fruitful this history has been, as such, it’s a reflection of a people that have moved along with great change and upheaval.
For me, this book will remain a constant in my collection. Perhaps a lot to consume in one sitting, it offers the reader an opportunity of life-time re-visits, dipping in and out of its pages and thus exploring a new chapter of the temple’s past every time.
The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past (1808-1959) is available to purchase through Kashi House HERE.