Early images of the Golden Temple

By Pran Nevile

SRI HARMANDAR SAHIB or the Golden Temple dominates the holy city of Amritsar, which commands the same adoration and reverence of the Sikhs as does Varanasi of the Hindus. Founded by the Gurus, from its inception, Amritsar meaning ‘Fountain of Immortality’, has been a place of pilgrimage for the Sikhs. During the Sikh rule, Amritsar was the spiritual as Lahore was the temporal capital of the Punjab.


Harmandar Sahib symbolises synthesis of the spiritual and the secularThe original structure of the temple dates from 1604 AD when Guru Arjan Dev installed the sacred Adi Granth or Guru Granth Sahib in Harmandar Sahib, and Baba Budha was appointed the first officient. It is said that the Guru had got the foundation of the temple laid by a Muslim saint, Hazrat Mian Mir of Lahore. Later, the turbulent history of Punjab had its impact on Harmandar Sahib as well. It was ransacked and blown up by Ahmad Shah Abdali with gunpowder in 1762. It was reconstructed by the Dal Khalsa during 1764-1776. The present building of the temple dates from the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1801-1839). The architecture of the temple incorporates the forms and features adopted by the builders of other places of worship of different faiths in India. The Lion of Punjab wanted Harmandar Sahib to rival the grandeur and magnificence of the Mughal buildings so as to proclaim to the world, the wealth and power of the Sikhs. He adorned it with gilded domes and minars and embellished it with marble mosaic and blazing murals.

Rising in the centre of the sarovar (tank), this dazzling edifice of Harmandar symbolises the synthesis of the spiritual and the secular aspects of mankind. It is reached by a causeway over 200 ft. long and its glorious reflection in sarovar presents an awe-inspiring view, a marvel of serene beauty. The gilded dome reflecting the rays of the sun offers a striking spectacle comparable to the cosmic halo.

A Sikh priest reading the Granth Sahib by William Simpson, March 1860.The first British dignitary to visit the temple was the Governor-General, Lord Auckland, and his sister Emily Eden, a noted artist and diarist. She was deeply impressed by the serene ambience and the gorgeous structure of the temple, which was fully illuminated for the occasion. She also heard one of the priests addressing the audience. The Governor-General and his party, who were on a state visit to the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1838, were presented with shawls. Lord Dalhousie was later invited to visit the shrine, which he described as beautiful and superb with gorgeous interior embellished with gold and marble. Percy Brown in his scholarly work Indian Architecture admires the Golden Temple as an example of not so much architectural style but of religious emotion expressed in marble, glass, colour and metal.

There is no visual record of the Golden Temple prior to the annexation of Punjab by the British in 1849. While we have had outstanding sculptors and painters through the centuries, there was no tradition of painting the landscapes and buildings. It is only in the late 18th century that British professional artists came to India and produced sketches and drawings of the country’s picturesque landscape, its historic monuments and the people with their old civilisation and culture. William Carpenter was the first British artist to visit Amritsar in 1854 and made watercolour images of devotees in front of the Akal Takht, the Baba Atal tower and the priests reciting Gurbani in Harmandar Sahib. Another British artist, William Simpson, came there in 1860 and drew paintings of the Akal Takht and its surroundings and the Sikh priest reading the Granth.

Akali at the Holy Tank, Amritsar, by William Simpson, March 1860.After the advent of camera, the Golden Temple was the most dominant edifice of the Punjab to be photographed. Towards the end of the 19th century, the temple occupied the pride of place in the illustrations of India in the books and magazines published at home and abroad. Most of these photographs were taken by European commercial photographers in India like Bourne and Shepherd and Johnston and Hoffman.

By the late 19th century, a novel attraction came in the form of a stereograph. It was a double photograph paired in such a manner that when viewed with a stereoscope, it appeared as a three-dimensional solid image. It was a fascinating entertainment before the advent of cinema, and American companies like Underwood and Underwood and Keystone produced series of boxed sets of stereograph cards illustrating landscapes, buildings, people, their customs and manners of different countries of the world. There are many early stereo views of famous Indian historical monuments, including the Golden Temple and also of historical events like the great Durbar of Delhi (1903). Many homes in urban India had a viewing instrument and a small or big assortment of cards until 1920. Thereafter, the cinema displaced this entertainment and the stereographs vanished from the scene. I came across an amazing collection of stereographs relating to India at the Library of Congress in Washington DC where the viewing instrument is also kept for studying these 3D views which are of great historical value.