Two views of the Golden Temple

Marble inlay work in Harmandir Sahib

The founding of Amritsar is counted from 1577 CE, the date of the digging of the lake, Amrit Sarovar, at the behest of Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh Guru. A few years later Harmandir Sahib was first constructed in the lake, connected by a single causeway. His successor, Guru Arjun, placed a copy of the Adi Granth in it in the year 1604 CE. During the years when the Sikhs were in conflict with the Mughals the temple was destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current structure comes from 1830 CE, when the Khalsa emperor, Ranjit Singh, had the marble and gilded copper temple built.

I’d expected to spend a long time in the area, trying to figure out the best light and angles. But I was lucky with the light. Sunset, and perhaps sunrise, are the best light for photography, and my first visit happened to be at this hour. I missed one thing, the daily journey of the Granth Sahib from the Akal Takht to the Harmandir Sahib and back. So there is a reason for me to go back.

Narrow lanes, wide doors

We lost ourselves in the narrow lanes that lead northwest from the Golden Temple. It is said that Guru Arjun Singh’s favourite spot to view the temple from was a place called Darshani Deori. What he saw in the late 16th century CE would have been very different. It would be another two hundred and fifty years before the present marble and gold building of the Harmandir Sahib would come to be. Nor was Amritsar then a walled city, with houses built up cheek by jowl, and the sky over Darshani Deori reduced to slivers visible over narrow lanes. He would perhaps have looked over open slopes to a small temple in the middle of a lake built by his predecessor, Guru Ramdas.

We’d been looking for the Gurudwara Guru ka Mahal. It marks a spot full of Sikh history. Guru Ramdas, the fourth of the Gurus, stayed in this place while the lake of Amrit Sarovar was dug, so laying the foundation of Amritsar. Guru Arjun, his successor, was married at this place, as was Guru Hargobind, the sixth of the line. Two of Guru Hargobind’s sons, Baba Atal Rai and Guru Teg Bahadur, who became the ninth of the Gurus, were born here. The storied Gurudwara was a little hard to find, until we spotted a sign pointing to a narrow alley which was an approach road.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, in the time of Ranjit Singh’s empire and the later British takeover, when Amritsar became a walled city, this neighbourhood must have been desirable.The building at the head of the lane was festooned with electrical wires slung every which way, but had an impressive arched doorway, with an immense ceremonial door which had a minor door for everyday use set into it. Above this entranceway was a grand, but decaying, edifice of intricately carved wood. In the post-Mughal, pre-British times, this was a style which seems to have been adopted widely in western India. If I was an art historian, I would have been able to notice the difference between the woodwork of the Khalsa Raj and the Marathas. Sadly, I don’t have those skills.

As I walked down the lane to the Gurudwara, I stopped at every door, taking photos. Right outside the Gurudwara was a later building (you see a part of it in the featured image, and more of it in the gallery above). This had more of a British influence in its construction, but still retained an elaborate wooden balcony. I wished I had more time to spend in this neighbourhood. Maybe another year.

A notable Gurudwara

South of the Golden temple, a couple of hundred meters away, is a lovely Gurudwara that is often missed. Although the nine storey high octagonal tower of the Gurudwara Baba Atal Rai Ji is the tallest structure in the old city, it is not easily visible from the narrow streets around the Golden Temple. We made our way there one night. It is hard to get a good view of the tower from the ground because of all the structures which hem in your viewpoint, and all the photos that I have seen have the foreshortening that you find in mine.

In the early 17th century this was a cenotaph for, Baba Atal Rai, a son of the sixth Guru Hargobind. About two hundred years later, during the time of Ranjit Singh, it was coverted to a Gurudwara, when the tower and lake were constructed. It is a place worth visiting because of the many late 19th and early 20th century murals that are painted into the walls of the tower. The murals depict the life of Guru Nanak, as told in the Janamsakhi. Some of the murals are badly damaged, and the work of restoration is on. I wish we had taken the time to see this during the day.

Hathi Gate

The Mughal Empire decayed after the death of Aurangzeb and several strong regional powers found space to expand. One of them was the remnant of the Khalsa organized by Guru Govind Singh, the last human Sikh guru. Several commanders arose in the 18th century CE, but after 1799 Ranjit Singh became emperor of the Sikhs when he captured Lahore from the Afghan king Zaman Shah Durrani. Soon after, Ranjit Singh ordered that Amritsar, the religious twin next to his capital city of Lahore, be fortified. The eight kilometers long wall had twelve gates (a thirteenth, Hall Gate, was added by the British after the fall of Ranjit Singh’s empire). They are being renovated by the Central Public Works Department in consultation with the conservation architect Gurmeet Sangha Rai. The featured photo shows the newly renovated Hathi Gate, originally called the Shazada Darwaza.

The area around it was chaotic and full of slow traffic. On the outer side of the gate, away from the Golden Temple, we saw a little flower market, exactly where we were told we would find it. Our most memorable trips have been those where we spent more time in a place than is recommended. We use the extra time not to “do” the city, but to wander around aimlessly looking at markets, chatting with people, and sampling the local food. Visiting markets is one of these pleasures. You come across unexpected things, like a rather young Akshay Khanna look alike.

Sometimes The Family cannot let go of a shop-op. We paused by a cart piled high with peas. The seller gave us a few to taste. Sweet and fresh! The Family immediately got a couple of kilos. “We’ll take it back with us” she said. Weight restrictions? “In my hand baggage.” I asked the vendor where the peas came from. Nashik, he told us. So we were basically going to take the fresh peas back to almost where they came from. I resolved to snack on peas for the next couple of days. When in Amritsar, eat like the Amritsaris.

The shape of Amritsar

We spent a lot of time walking around the old walled town of Amritsar. That brought us again and again to a part of the city called Hall Bazaar. This has a strangely uniform architectural style, which does not harmonize with the rest of the old town. Eventually it struck me that this look was the result of an act of the British Parliament passed in 1909 called the Indian Councils Act (aka the Minto-Morley Act). This was a response to the resolution of the Indian National Congress in 1906 calling for Swaraj, an India governed by Indians.

In retrospect the Act is exactly the kind of facade that dictatorial governments across the world now use as a democratic window dressing. The Act created seven regional governments (the Legislative Councils of Bengal, Madras, Bombay, the United Provinces, Punjab, Burma, and Assam) and a Central Legislative Council. Two thirds of the membership were either ex-officio (read British) or nominated by the Viceroy’s government. The rest were elected by a complex and indirect process designed to prevent coalitions of different interest groups.

Separate electorates were set up for different communities: muslims, trading communities, landlords, Chambers of Commerce, and universities. Each electorate voted indirectly for seats allocated to it. Each body elected an electoral college which would then elect members to the council. Even so the council’s decisions could be over-ruled by the Viceroy and his government. The separation of electorates remained through all the successive “reforms” made by the British Parliament. In fact the reform of 1919 carried the process of division further by creating a separate Sikh electorate.

This complete division of politics on communal lines strengthened political parties divided along communal lines, and prevented the normal political manoeuvres which eventually produce compromise. Four decades on this led to the partition of India. The subsequent riots led, among many other things, to the complete destruction of Hall Bazaar, and its wholesale reconstruction after the Independence. The constitution of free India created an unified electorate in which every adult over the age of 18 is allowed to vote. Just as the uniformity of the appearance of Hall Bazaar is a response to a fractured past, the universal suffrage guaranteed by the constitution is a response to the fracture abetted by a colonial empire.

The Golden Temple

We stood in a queue to visit the Harmandir Sahib. In spite of the cramped space inside with most pilgrims filing past rapidly, the singing of the rehras, evening hymns, from the Adi Granth imparted a serenity to the atmosphere. We stood for a short while in a corner, and then yielded space to newcomers. Afterwards I found a spot near the lake from which I could take a panoramic shot of all the major buildings in the complex.

In the featured photo the most recent avatar of the Akal Takht is barely visible at the extreme left. In front of it is the ber tree known as the Dukhbhanjini tree, the remover of sadness. Next, you come to the dome of the 19th century Ghanta Ghar, the clock tower. Then is the Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple itself. To the right of it are the 18th century watch towers called the Ramgarhia Bunga. To their right you can see the arches which lead to the langar, kitchen and dining hall. Far on the right you see the dome atop the Sikh Library.

This complex is now the center of the Sikh religion. In the 15th century, the first of the gurus, Guru Nanak, preached the end of caste and ritual, pacifism and an end to distinctions between religions. The reformist ideals continued into the 16th century, when the fourth guru, Guru Ramdas, built the lake and founded the temple. The foundation stone was laid by the Sufi Mian Mir. The militarization of the followers began after the execution of the fifth guru, Guru Arjun, in the early years of the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Jahangir. The sixth guru, Guru Har Gobind, founded an army, began carrying two swords to symbolize military power, and founded the Akal Takht, a seat of temporal power. Since then Sikhism has not recognized boundaries between religion, culture, and politics, a philosophy which Guru Har Gobind called Miri-Piri.

We’d circumambulated the lake and visited the main shrine in the time between late afternoon and dusk. Now, as the lights came on in the buildings, more and more people began to arrive. We later learnt that the Sikh farmers had begun to return from their long sit-in on the outskirts of Delhi and the next few days would be crowded and heated. We walked on to the langar. The tradition that everyone who wants to can eat a free meal in a Gurudwara comes down from Guru Nanak, and is an embodiment of the central pacifist and egalitarian teachings of the guru.

Odds and ends

Paging through photos I came across some odd shots which suddenly reminded me of the circumstances in which I’d taken them. The featured photo was taken in south Sikkim on a very overcast day. We’d thought of taking a walk in a rhododendron forest, but the cold drizzle put us off. Instead we walked through a small village looking for a place to have a chai. This blazing wall gave me the first photo of the day. It was a typical frame house. Mats are tacked to the frame and covered with mud. A hole cut in the mud holds a window. But the colours!

From the wonderful aesthetics of the mountains to its utter absen e in Delhi. Walking through the university, I this unlikely juxtaposition of a toilet door covering an open manhole, a bicycle on the ground chained to a post, and an office chair. The exuberant gracelessness of such sights is as much Delhi as the beautiful imperial monuments built across half a millennium.

“Out at work” is a line that popped into my head when I saw the closed doors of a trekking guide’s office. We were in Yuksom, west Sikkim. This is the start of a big array of walking trails of all levels of difficulty, and guides are in heavy demand. Clearly.

The extremely decorative facade of CST, the century and half old railway terminus in the heart of Mumbai, is reflected in the window of a taxi waiting at a red light. I was in another just behind it, when I realized that this just might be the oddest shot that I’ll ever get of that ornate building.

December 24, 2011

Why did we decide to go birding in the Himalayas in winter? When I think back, I believe the answer must have been that in the heat of May we could not think of the Himalayas as anything but pleasant. So we moved up for our vacation at a time when each and every bird seemed to have migrated in the opposite direction. As a birding trip it was a disaster. But there was compensation. I’ve never had a view of Kanchenjuga as good as that. The featured photo is the view we had from our cabin window on a freezing dawn.

We walked the same trails in and around Lava and Neora valley that we did again early in spring this year. In spring the birds begin to return and you see a lot of activity. In winter that year there was not a single bird to be seen. The ferns were just opening up though, and I had wonderful shots of the fronds unfolding.

It was hardly a good time for moths and butterflies either. We saw the hardy Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), a perennial sight at these middle heights. I spotted a single specimen of a fabulously patterned moth sitting one morning. I’ve never seen it again, and I can’t identify it. An expert lepidopterist refused to answer my question about it, so I assume she was also not sure of an ID.

We spent the day wandering around paths through the valley. Elsewhere I’ve written about the beautiful houses in this area. The traditional houses are either made of wood, or have a timber frame, filled in with woven mats and then plastered over. I love the beautiful contrasting colours that they paint the doors and windows in. Outside each house is either a small garden, or a row of flowers in planters. These hamlets are small and poor, but look beautiful. Although we saw no birds, it was a wonderful day.

Mystery tour magic

Where am I? Not a question I normally get to ask, but the featured photo raised exactly that question. Germany? Switzerland? Austria? Bratwurst and umbrellas, could be Bavaria. This day’s photos were sandwiched between some from Regensburg and others from Paris. Bavaria, most certainly. But I had lost all memories of that day. I was definitely going from Regensburg to Paris, and I had stopped for a day somewhere. Other clues?

These two photos did not jog my memory. Nice early 20th century figures, and the windows behind them also look like they are from that time. Most of the large cities in this area were heavily bombed in the world war. These were lucky survivors. The writing on the medallion below one of the figures was a clue. I could search for Schaeffler Eck, but that would definitely give too many hits.

This clinched it. I was in Munich. These lions stand outside the Residenz Museum. At the bottom of the photo you can see a hand reaching up to touch the bottom of the shield. That is a local legend about how touching the lions brings you luck. That little segment at the bottom of the shield is brighter than the rest of the metal because it has been polished by the hands of many Muernchners and tourists. The lion, or at least its photo, turned out to be lucky for me.

Then this door had to belong to the Frauenkirche, now used as the cathedral of Munich. The church was first built in the 12th century CE just outside the city walls. This unusually plain late-Gothic brick building dates from a 16th century rebuilding. It was one of the buildings heavily damaged in the wartime bombings, and its reconstruction was completed only in 1994. Now my memory was back. I’d taken this photo, walked around to the new town hall to see the famous clock strike the hour, walked around the center, and then walked back near the church to find a pleasant place for some beer and a bratwuerst, before going on to catch the evening train to Paris.

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