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.

Living in 402

Tomorrow the day dawns on a new year: 403 ME. The last day of the year, today is an appropriate time to look back and rid yourself of ghosts. If 401 ME was the year we spent in fear, then this past year, 402 ME, was the year that the world burnt. Uncontrolled forest fires blazed through the hills and forests of Uttarakhand, and a wave of the delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 burnt through India. But the year brought its good times too: meetings with family, friends, a slow return to more regular social interactions.

It was the end of an interlude between two waves of the pandemic. We’d spent the early part of the year travelling. I have great memories of two walks during that time. One was the steep trail in Mahabaleshwar which leads from the plateau down to a lovely view of Arthur’s Seat (I don’t know who this Arthur was). The other was the a few kilometers along a historic trade route which once crossed the Himalayas and connected Bengal to Sichuan province in China, through Bhutan and Tibet. The mule you see above is one of the broken line which once facilitated this trickle of trade.

Himalayan Cutia (Cutia nipalensis)

Our long-planned series of trips through the Himalayas, watching birds and following in the footsteps of the 19th century botanists was brought to an abrupt halt. Soon after we were vaccinated, the great wave of delta started. Travel was restricted again, and the trip we had planned to watch the blooming of rhododendrons in Sikkim, and the subsequent push to cross the 5000 meter mark of altitude had to be cancelled.

The end of spring and the following hottest months of year could have been the most depressing months of our lives. The sudden pruning of our circle of friends and acquaintances was drastic. It seemed like a diminished world when we could finally venture out to the Western Ghats in the monsoon. We had missed the flowers of spring in the Himalayas, but we were in time to see the great blooming of the Ghats.

Then, before you could say Sharad Ritu, it seemed that the monsoon was over and the season of migratory birds was on us. Mumbai is at the very edge of a migratory highway, and every season there is great excitement about vagrants having stopped in the city. This year we joined a group of other birders to travel into the center of the passageway, a few hundred kilometers to our northwest, to watch passage migrants crossing India. It was interesting to see exhausted European roller bird (Coracias garrulus) take a halt in their three day long flight from north west Asia to Africa. The chestnut colour on their backs and the blue in front in a complete reversal of the coat of the Indian roller bird (Coracias benghalensis).

The end of the year was a good season for travel. We were fully vaccinated, the pandemic was at a low ebb, and the weather was good. Perfect for a series of visits to nature parks (a special mention of a fantastic sighting of a clan of dholes, Cuon alpinus, the Indian wild dogs) and historic towns we had always wanted to see but never made time for. Now, as the omicron spreads, we are wondering about the best way to ride out the next year.

The Good in 402

The end of the year is a time for reckonings. With just 4 days left before we close the calendar to the very bad year 402 ME, maybe you would not mind reading about some of the good things about this year.

Losing friends is never a good thing to happen to you, but it happened several times in the last two years. If I had to lose friends, it should be like this. All those I talked to just before their deaths were excited by the things they were doing right then, feeling on top of the world. Sudden death is shocking to us, until you realize that if you could choose, this might be how you would want to go. Unsuspecting, in the middle of something engrossing and exciting.

Diwali remains a warm memory of this year. Between the delta and the omicron there was a wonderful meeting with The Clan: a party lasting two days. For many of us cousins, it was a throwback to our childhood. It is such a commonplace joy that although the people keep changing through your lifetime, the pleasure that you get from partying with the family remains the same.

Although it was nice to finally get back to a movie theatre, some of the best films I saw were streamed. There’s such a huge library of movies available now, that it is not hard to find a movie that you always wanted to see. Even so, I think I should make a special mention of the movie Another Round by Thomas Vinterberg. Starting with a daft premise it builds an interesting story, but at the end the clearest memory I have of it is the acting by Mads Mikkelsen. I’m marking it down as something I’ll watch again.

As for my reading, I finally got over the barren patch of year 401, helped by generous doses of crime and P. G. Wodehouse. Your are spoilt for choice now, what with excellent books, wonderful reviews by fellow bloggers and the usual writers, and extensive catalogues on line. The most memorable read of the year? That has to be Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbagh.

But most of all, in spite of everything, we managed to make many trips around the country. Most of these were in places where we would meet few people. As a result, we saw really wonderful things. I got my first photos of a Malkoha. That’s the green-billed Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus tristis) which you see featured. I wonder why it has the sad species name. I certainly was not at all triste when I got the photo.

The Partition Museum

The Partition Museum is part of Amritsar’s old town hall, a British era structure built a little more than half a kilometer away from the Golden Temple. It had been in our bucket list ever since work started about six years ago. In the five years since it opened it has quietly become one of the must-do places in town. The concierge at our hotel chatted with us as we waited to check in. “What do you plan to visit?” he asked. The Family reeled off the three obvious anwers, “The Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh, the Wagah border post.” “Don’t forget the Partition Museum,” the Sikh concierge suggested. Perhaps his family is one of the many in which the grandparents still tell you that Amritsar is one half of the twin cities of Lahore and Amritsar, their axis precisely bisected by Wagah.

We asked Anil to drop us a few hundred meters from the Museum and walked the short distance, past a statue of Ranjit Singh, through the ceremonial archway of the Town Hall, and into the forecourt. No mistakes. Signs told us that we were at the right place. There were no queues at the ticket counter, but there were many people inside. We found that those who choose to come here spend a long time on the exhibits, lingering, reading, listening to audio clips, watching oral history on video. It is put together with great thought and definitely worth a visit if you want to put the Golden Temple, Wagah, Jallianwala Bagh, and the wonderful food of Amritsar in its historical context.

A section of the exhibits deals with the musical tradition of Gurudwaras, and the role that muslim musicians, rubabis, played since the time of Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak’s rubabi. This tradition has withered: atrophied in Pakistan as Sikhs were persecuted by the state, and in India from the migration of musicians to Pakistan. The syncretic nature of early Sikhism meant that there was a whole stream of what we now call Sufi music which became accultured to Sikhism. There were record albums on display, some of the music available on audio. I examined them; perhaps one can find more of the music on YouTube or personal collections.

Pigeons perched on an unnamed warrior’s upheld sword outside the Museum. When the Aga Khan met the Viceroy, Lord Minto, in 1906 and pleaded with him, successfully, for a separate political future for muslims in the country, he released a demon. Netflix has a short documentary on Abdus Salam, the Nobel Prize winning expatriate Pakistani. The persecution of his sect, the Ahmadiyas, deemed heretics in his country, forms a recurrent theme in the documentary. As I watched it I realized again that a country based on religion quickly embraces the most dogmatic forms, purging repeatedly those people who do not conform exactly to the central dogma. Ironically, the Aga Khanis are also persecuted in Pakistan today. I’m more simpatico with the lawyer, Ambdekar, whose statue stands in the circle outside the musuem, because he was one of those who argued for a universal and common electorate in the Constituent Assembly after Independence.

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.

The things of light

Sadly we came across the old Parsi tradition of Shab-e-Yalda too late to mark it with the dinner it deserves. I found out about it yesterday from an article in Teheran Times that someone had forwarded to me. I had to guess from this that the tradition is older than Islam, and made the leap to asking Parsi friends about it. Only a few knew about it; winter is not a big thing in India, and it is natural that the custom atrophied in the millennium and a half that Parsis have been in India. But it is a story straight out of the Gathas, where mid-winter marks the victory of light over darkness. The days get longer after this, as Mehr Yazda (Mithra to ancient Persians, Indians, Romans) asserts his dominance over the forces of dark.

We learnt that the dinner should involve summer fruits: watermelon and pomegranates, perhaps some oranges and persimmons, nuts and raisins. And it should involve the family. I wonder whether the Romans muddled up their Zoroastrianism and Christianity and exported an old Persian tradition across the west in the form of Christmas. Or maybe the muddle was created after Pope Gregory reformed the calendar. Or perhaps the decadent Romans didn’t want to forgo a feast. There has to be a story here, because the celebration of the nativity of the Christ in the oldest Eastern churches, such as those in Kerala, are often quite different. Whatever the history, this Parsi feast of midwinter would be easy to gather in India’s warm climate, and I do not mind adding it to my calendar of dinners.

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