Amritsar – a place that I had long been hoping to visit. The long awaited trip finally happened this year. It was a short weekend visit within which we managed to cramp some of the predictable highlights of a first visit. Yes, I am sure if I had spent more time or a had planned a longer trip, I would certainly have many more interesting places and things about the place. but then again, the flavour of such a trip is different from that of a short trip when you are trying to squeeze in the ‘highlights’ – so to speak.
Amritsar, derives its name from Amrit Saravan, the sacred pond that surrounds the gold-domed sacred sanctum of the Harmandir Sahib better known as the Golden Temple. And for the same reason, it is described as the Holy city. The highlights for my first visit to Amritsar was – the Golden Temple, Jallianwallah Bagh and Wagah Border. If there is one thing that struck me about this short visit, then it would be the fervour of nationalism at these three tourist attractions. Within the old city of Amritsar, the Golden Temple is the most important religious place for Sikhism. It goes back in time before the city of Amritsar came into being. Amrit Saravan was but a small pond in the forest area. It is believed to have been an area that the Lord Buddha noted as a spiritual place. Amrit Saravan is today surrounded by a different sort of forest now – of traffic hassles, narrow lanes, crowded housings – the markings of an old city.
Like several other religion, the history of Sikhism and of its main temple is not removed from violence. The teachings of the Guru, from what I gather, emphasises humility and practice – an ideal that is embodied in the practice of voluntary services within the Golden Temple called kaar seva. But are the two so completely separate as one would like to imagine? I believe not. The illustration one of its Guru holding out his severed head at one of the fourteen Gurudwaras inside the complex surrounding the sacred pond tells you that the peace and calm of this sacred sanctum is no stranger to violence. The illustration is a precursor to the Central Sikh Museum within the same complex.
The Central Sikh Museum is on one of the corridors of the Temple. It turns off from the main entry by a flight of stairs that lead to the doors of the museum. It is largely a pictorial display with some artefacts. The names of many well-known painters can be seen – including that of Sobha Singh. While I am not too keyed in with the world of paintings, this is one name that I recognised from my short course on Fine Arts. The displays tells the viewer a story. It is a story of Sikhism and tells us of what it stands for or has stood for across time. This story is not about individual personal takes of what the religion is about but is about a community.
I wish I had more time to spend and go through the paintings at a leisurely pace. Many of the styles and caricature of the paintings reminded me of the illustrations of Amar Chitra Katha and some from Tinkle comics. The display starts with some of the leading proponents of Sikhism. Gurus who are remembered for the significant contributions. There are ten Gurus of Sikhism but the displays do not particularly emphasize the ten personalities.
Some were portraits but others tried to capture their works – a Guru sitting under the jujube overlooking the building of the reservoir from the small pond deep in the forest. It is said that this is the same plant that sprawls on one part of the sacred pond – a display to that effect can be seen standing next to the plant. Another painting shows Bebe, the wife of one Guru, feeding people/devotees – an act from which the practice of the communal kitchen of langar is said to originate as part of voluntary services.
Starting with these hallowed images, the visuals move on to intersperse it with images of violence. The persecution of the Sikhs in the hands of the Mughals are poignant: Sikh men hung upside down on trees and skinned alive. Another painting showed Sikh heads at the end of spears of faceless Mughal armies on their way carrying them to Mughal authorities to lay claim for their promised reward for severing Sikh heads. Yet another was an illustration of a Sikh father who refuses to convert to Islam and for which his four year old son is chopped in front of him. The images of these persecutions are sporadically broken by other images such as the valour of the brave Sikh man who risked his life every day to ensure that the light at the sacred takht remained burning even after Mughal occupation of the Harmandir Sahib. Yet another painting showed a Sikh man (perhaps the same) who kept the light lit lying lifeless in the edge of the pond killed by the Mughal armies. Another painting showed the Mughal emperor Akbar bringing in offerings of gold coins to the Guru which was refused by the latter.
The visual narration moves on from the medieval period of Mughal times to modern times. Unfortunately I had to hurry off but there were portraits of a number of men ‘martyrs’ who were killed in a train incident. I had to skip through but the images, even at a cursory glance, told vivid tales of Sikh dedication and ‘martyrdom’ defined across time. Included in the assemblage is the painting of a torn down defaced discoloured Akal Takht – a remnant of the 1983 Operation Blue Star when the temple was turned into a battlefield.
The Akal Takht is the building that houses the Guru Grantha Sahib, the holy scriptures and the object of worship in Sikhism. Where shoes were taken off to enter the compounds, battle tanks had been rolled in as part of the 1983 military operation and several rounds of ammunition fired. The caption to the painting ominously ends with a remark that the act was ‘avenged’. As we wondered about the remark, my brother mentioned a movie called ‘1983’ based on the event and someone mentioned of another painting that had been taken down under orders (apparently from a representative of the state). This painting proclaimed as ‘martyrs’ the men responsible for gunning down Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India under whose command the operation was conducted. The assassination of the PM by her own bodyguard, a Sikh, was not only a shock and condemned but also led to the anti-Sikh riot in the 1980s.
The Indian state called it a battle in the war against terrorism, I am not sure what and how the other side sees it but for many a devout Sikh, it hurt religious sentiments and was seen as an act that amounted to desecration. While the Mughal occupation of the temple had turned its main temple into a dancing stage, the 1983 military operation had turned it into a killing field. The narrative of the visuals left me with a deep impression of religion and Sikh nationalism in dialogue with Sikhism .
NB: The post is based on my impressions from what I saw and heard but as someone who has not really followed the issue closely, there are many details I have missed out. for instance, I am not sure about which Guru did which deed and the full name of Bebe which I cannot recall as I did not really note it down.