Photographing the Golden Temple… India is a wonderful country for photography and offers a seemingly endless stream of photogenic subject matter with its people, its landscapes and its icons!
One of the most incredible icons has to be Amritsar’s Golden Temple in the Punjab. The first time I saw an image of this guilded temple, seemingly floating on its own lake, I was equally stunned and determined to see it for myself! I managed to accomplish that over a weekend during a business trip to India. Which meant leaving Delhi on Friday evening, returning late Sunday afternoon and not a lot of sleep in between. It was a great trip and I got most of the images I wanted. Plus I gained some interesting insight in to Sikhs and their way of life!
Photographing the Golden Temple – What Is It?
The Golden Temple is a gurdwara (door to the guru), where members of the Sikh religion assemble and worship. Sikhism was founded in the Punjab in the 15th century and the Golden Temple is the preeminent spiritual site. Meaning Amritsar is to the Sikh’s what Mecca is to Muslims and Jerusalem is to Christians.
It was initially built in 1577, but has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, principally because of religious persecution. But most recently in the 1980’s and 1990’s after it was attacked by the Indian Army in Operation Blue Star. Ordered by then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 to remove the Sikh militants that had taken up residence. It was a decision that four months later cost her life, when she was assasinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
The temple complex is built around the man-made sarovar fresh-water pool that gives the place much of its character.
Photographing the Golden Temple – Why Is It So Special?
There were several things that really resonated with me about the Golden Temple. First of all there is the visual splendour of it, particularly the actual guilded temple – Sri Harimandir Sahib (abode of God). It’s an impressive and imposing structure that is apparently covered with over 750kg of gold-leaf. Its location on the sarovar pool is simply magnificent!
Probably the next thing would have to be intense difference between the chaotic surroundings of the temple and how it feels on the inside. India generally is a chaotic and messy place… It’s just the way it is and you either love it or hate it – no shades of grey!
Personally I love the whole thing, for a few weeks at least and then it starts to grind you down. The longest I have spent there at one time was five weeks.
And it’s always the same for me – for the first couple of weeks I relish the chaos and disorder. It’s just so different and so… well it’s India! Then it starts to wear you down until a sense of humor failure looms and it’s time to go.
Outside of the Golden Temple Amritsar is messy India… But inside there is a sense of real purpose and that seems to be very much because of the way Sikhism is and how it does its thing.
Feeding Your Guests, by the Thousands…
Sikhs are renowned for their fierce, warrior-like reputation. My limited experience of that side of them tells me it has been earned and you would not want to make an enemy of a Sikh.
But the other side of that is their inclusive and incredibly charitable nature. I did not know much about that until I went to the Golden Temple. Where, every day, volunteers (Sewadars) at the temple’s Guru Ka Langar community kitchen prepare around 100,000 vegetarian meals.
The meals are completely free and provided to anybody who wants one. Regardless of their race, religion or nationality. It’s not fine-dining by any means and you are in and out as quick as possible. But the way it is done by volunteers on an industrial scale is simply incredible.
I have since visited several of the large Sikh temples in both Mumbai and Delhi. And it is similar story of volunteers providing huge quantities of free meals!
Photographing the Golden Temple – The People
Sikhs visiting the Golden Temple are performing yatra. Which is a special religious journey, as opposed to a specific pilgrimage like the Muslim Hajj to Mecca.
There is no designated time to make the yatra and when they get to Amritsar there are no rituals or set prayer times. There are also no priests or religious statues inside the Golden Temple and it is left to the indivual how they worship.
Basically they are there to pay their respect to the ten Gurus of Sikhism and the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book detailing rules morals and ethics required to live a good life. A copy of which is kept in the Sri Harimandir Sahib.
Plus many will bathe in the parts of the sarovar pool as it is believed to have miraculous healing powers.
But the laid-back overall approach was both reassuring and tangible. While the fact that non-believers were made welcome and provided with free food in the most important place in Sikhism left a distinct, positive and lasting impression.
One thing that was very clear though was just how important the Golden Temple is to the Sikhs who visit it.
This was apparent in their faces and demeanour, which was generally both pleasant and welcoming. It is said that 35% of all visitors to the temple are non-Sikh…
How to Photograph the Golden Temple
I have been to the Golden Temple twice now. The first time was the dedicated trip over a weekend as described above. While the second time was a day trip at the start of a motorcycling trip to the Himalayas. In terms of the images obtained I was far more successful on the first trip because the chances of getting anything memorable on a day trip are pretty low.
Logistics in India are always a challenge… And as I was on a tight schedule for the weekend trip I decided to stay as close to the temple as possible, which greatly reduced the choice and quality of available hotels. I picked the one that looked the best and cost the most. But was somewhat crest-fallen when I arrived there late of Friday night. Clearly the person who took the images for the hotels’s website is better at photography than I am!
But it was right across the road and so getting to the temple when the light was best was quite easy. Plus the hotel had a rooftop area overlooking the overall area… Which turned out to be a huge bonus!
Can You Photograph the Golden Temple?
The only issue I had on both my trips was the use of a tripod. Unlike the Taj Mahal for example, where you cannot take a tripod inside, there were no restrictions at the Golden Temple. But… if you tried to use the tripod once inside one of the Sikh guards will appear and make it very clear you were not allowed to do that. I resolved that difficulty by using my camera backpack for a support, which worked OK.
All that said, according to various reports in the Indian media photography is no longer allowed. But, according to the actual website of the Golden Temple it is allowed around the Parikarma – the walkway around the sarovar.
My weekend trip to Amritsar was hard work but really enjoyable. The only way to truly appreciate the Golden Temple is to go there and take in and allow the overall ambience of being welcomed in to the spiritual epicenter of Sikhism sink in!