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America's Love Affair With Amritsar


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
America's Love Affair with Amritsar

by Parmjit Singh


I always knew politics was a funny old game but I wasn’t laughing when media reports confirmed that President Barack Obama had pulled out of visiting the Golden Temple during his state visit to India in 2010.

While the exact reasons for his snub remain hazy, I believe he missed a golden opportunity to experience first-hand a spiritual tradition that has an awful lot to offer America and the world at large. Take for example my top three Sikh ideals (think life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness):

An incredible tradition of chivalry and valour to tap into when things get a little hot (think unstoppable courage in the face of impossible odds). An unwavering sense of service and duty that seeks to generate benefits for all (regardless of creed, race, gender, age or any other differential you can think of).

To my mind, the biggest loser in this sorry saga was President Obama. He missed an opportunity to witness a core Sikh institution that has the potential to completely transform every neighbourhood in the world, especially America.

I’m talking about the Golden Temple’s free kitchen, which produces millions of nourishing meals every year to anyone in need of food—and being funded by donations, it’s completely free at the point of access and costs the state nothing. Now that’s a great expression of American philanthropy if ever there was one.

Whatever the reasons for the presidential cold-shoulder, they should not overshadow the experiences of other American citizens who have left us their impressions of the Golden Temple. In fact, if only all the president’s men knew what the team behind ‘The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past (1808-1959)‘ knew, things may have turned out differently.

Punjab’s Yankee Travellers

While there’s no dearth of early European accounts of Amritsar (beginning with the first in 1808 by a one-legged English spy) or of the Sikhs in general, the cousins from across the pond are less well represented.

America’s earliest interactions with the Sikhs are thought to have originated in the late eighteenth century with the development of the country’s trade in Indian cotton. An intriguingly early reference to the relationship is found in the memoirs of Captain Stephen Phillips (1749-1812), a leading Massachusetts maritime trader.

After his retirement in the late 1700s, he apparently brought back to his home town of Salem a tall, intrepid Sikh who ‘stalked around town in the turban and white woolen coat and red sash of his sect.’ Within a generation, equally picturesque Americans were cropping up thousands of miles away in the bazaars and darbars of the Sikh heartlands in Punjab.

One of the pioneers was another Massachusetts’ man, Sir David Ochterlony (1758-1825). His father hailed from a famous Scottish family and chose to settle in the New World. Ochterlony was born and educated in Boston, but was later forced to flee to England, having chosen the wrong side to support in America’s War of Independence.

He joined the East India Company in 1777 as a cadet and rose through the ranks to become resident at the Mughal’s imperial capital of Delhi in 1803. Within a few years, he was marching an armed force to the banks of the Satluj River in Punjab to curtail the territorial ambitions of the ambitious one-eyed Sikh ruler of Lahore.

In the Service of the One Eyed King

A military genius and expert swordsman who had lost the use of his left eye after contracting small-pox as a child, Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) rose from obscurity to carve out a kingdom covering much of modern-day Pakistan and northern India. His territories served as a vitally important buffer between the fractious Afghan tribes in the north-west and the expansionist British to the south.

Napoleon’s victories in Europe gave rise to fears of a French invasion of India through Afghanistan, persuading the British to push for a more substantial alliance with the Sikh king.

In 1809, Ranjit Singh’s threats towards neighbouring Sikh chiefs led them to seek shelter from the British. Ochterlony’s military intervention was instrumental in bringing about the Treaty of Amritsar, which sealed Ranjit Singh’s southern border. While the Bostonian soldier-administrator went on to become agent to the governor-general at the Ludhiana Political Agency, the Sikh king pursued his conquests to the north-west unhampered.

Like Alexander the Great before him, Ranjit Singh’s insatiable appetite for conquest gave rise to a prolonged campaign against the Afghans.

He embarked on a programme to modernise his army and offered civil and military posts to talented American adventurers like Josiah Harlan (1799-1871), an ambitious Quaker from Pennsylvania who was granted several governorships in the Sikh Empire in the 1830s.

Larger than life, Harlan’s later kingly exploits in neighbouring Afghanistan are thought to have inspired Kipling’s short story ‘The Man Who Would Be King’.

Another Yankee on the Sikh payroll was Alexander Haughton Gardner (died 1877). Following Ranjit Singh’s death in 1839, this American of Irish descent was an active participant in the events that led to the downfall of the Sikh Empire and the onset of a brutal civil war.

Gardner’s published memoirs record in graphic detail the instability and political intrigue that led to two wars between the Sikhs and the British for control of Punjab. Two narrow victories fell to the British, giving them the mandate to annex Punjab to their Indian territories in 1849.

Gardner took no part in the fighting, preferring instead to serve as a spy for the British. Afterwards, he found gainful employment in Kashmir, recently sold by the British to a scheming courtier at the court of Lahore. Gardner was famously photographed in the 1860s wearing a native cut tartan uniform complete with turban à la Sikh crowned with plumes to match his fine array of whiskers.

If any of these remarkable Americans ever visited the Golden Temple, it’s a shame that they never wrote about it. The honour of being the first American to document his experience goes to a lawyer and wealthy real estate owner from New York who visited Amritsar just a few years after the Union Jack was unfurled over the fort of Lahore.

‘Mecca of the Sikhs’

John Busteed Ireland (1823-1913) spent two years in India during a six-year tour of the world, covering Europe, Africa and Asia, that began in 1851.

Like other travellers of his day, Ireland made hasty notes and sketches on the spot in a continuous journal of his wanderings. These were used to write letters ‘in the palanquin, on my lap, bed, or floor, and often oppressed by heat, cold, or travel’ to his mother back home.

After a stopover in London to see the opening of the Great Exhibition (at which was displayed the famed, though considerably reduced, Koh-i-noor diamond, taken as booty from the defeated Sikhs), he eventually arrived in India in early 1853.

Ireland spent the next ten months soaking up sights at Bombay, Seringapatamand Calcutta, so he held high expectations of the Sikhs’ spiritual capital when he reached there in the winter of 1853.

His initial impressions of the walled city of Amritsar were favourable. ‘The streets’, he jotted, ‘are mostly paved with brick, and some are quite wide. The fronts of the houses display considerable taste.’

Having made a circuit of the principal bazaars and the famed shawl manufacturers, he soon reached the entrance ‘to the great tank, the Mecca of the Sikhs’.

To Be Continued…

Learn More
Article inspired by our new book ‘The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past (1808-1959)‘.
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1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
America’s Love Affair with Amritsar (Part 2)

Written by Parmjit Singh


In this second article highlighting the earliest Americans to visit the Golden Temple, Parmjit Singh uses images and extracts from his latest book to recount the intrepid 19th-century New Yorker who was mesmerised by the shrine’s beauty

Go East, Young Man

One of the most amazing accounts documented in our latest book, ‘The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past (1808-1959)‘, is that of the first ever American to document his visit to the Golden Temple. That honour belongs to a lawyer and wealthy real estate owner from New York. John Busteed Ireland (1823-1913) spent two years in India as part of a six-year tour of the world beginning in 1851. His visit to Amritsar, the spiritual capital of the Sikhs, took place during one of the many tumultuous periods in its history.

Defanging the Snake

Just a few years earlier, the East India Company’s triumphant army had narrowly defeated the Sikh forces in the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49). To mark the beginning of the British Raj in Punjab, the Union Jack was unfurled over the fort of Lahore. The task of dominating the conquered Sikhs, however, was not an easy one for the new administration.

Regarded as a rallying point for rebel Sikh soldiers, Amritsar immediately felt the impact of the new regime. Its imposing perimeter wall, built in the 1820s by Ranjit Singh with the aid of his French military officers, was reduced to rubble, as were most of its twelve elephantine gates.

Rebel fighters across the land were forced into submission by a sizeable military presence that was maintained in Punjab in the aftermath of the war. To extinguish the remaining cinders of a once-blazing resistance, measures were also taken to disarm the entire populace.

To encourage loyalty to Queen Victoria’s empire, the ranks of the army were thrown open to all classes of the Punjabi populace. In addition, collaborators continued to be nurtured at all levels of society, from village peasantry to landed gentry.

All symbols of Sikh supremacy in Punjab were eradicated. The boy-king Duleep Singh (1838-1893) was separated from his mother, exiled and converted to Christianity, even though he played no active role in the recent wars.

Likewise, political opponents were at risk of an early form of extraordinary rendition – their abduction and illegal transfer out of Punjab. The silver currency or Nanakshahi rupees of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839) and his successors, were called in, melted down and re-coined as the Company’s rupee.

State property, including fabulously expensive jewels, weapons and textiles, was auctioned off by the British to contribute towards the expenses of the recent war. Amongst the Sikhs’ treasures was the fabled Koh-i-Nur diamond, which was swiftly whisked across the seas to be gifted to Queen Victoria as a token of Sikh submission.

Thus, by the time Ireland reached the city of Amritsar in 1853, the subjugation of Punjab was deemed complete.

To the Pool of Immortality

After a stopover in London to see the opening of the Great Exhibition (at which was displayed the considerably reduced Koh-i-Nur diamond), the intrepid New Yorker finally arrived in India in early 1853.

His itinerary first took him to southern and central India, where he spent ten months soaking up the sights offered up by serene temples, boisterous bazaars and gushing sacred rivers. But it was to the holy city of Amritsar in the north that his spirit of discovery led him in the winter of 1853.

His initial impressions were favourable. ‘The streets’, he jotted in a letter to his mother, ‘are mostly paved with brick, and some are quite wide. The fronts of the houses display considerable taste.’

He soon reached the entrance ‘to the great tank, the Mecca of the Sikhs’, which lent its name to the city. At the threshold of the holy complex, at which stood the city’s police headquarters, Ireland was required to remove his shoes before being allowed to proceed.

Aware of the reluctance of foreign visitors to India to walk barefoot anywhere other than the well-swept floors of their colonial bungalows, the temple authorities thoughtfully provided thick woollen socks for their comfort. Suitably attired, Ireland advanced in eager anticipation.

As he emerged from the shadows he was confronted by a scene of considerable grandeur:

‘I entered the great quadrangle or court, of about four hundred feet square, with a terrace or walk of forty feet in width of tessellated marbles, surrounding the tank. The rear of fine and picturesque native houses, encloses and forms the exterior wall to the place; these, with overhanging verandahs, sculptured windows, and peculiar oriental look, and in some parts temple domes and spires, all lend an additional charm to this fairy scene.’

Agate, Cornelian and Jasper

Ireland found himself drawn towards the object of his curiosity: the celebrated Sikh shrine, seemingly afloat in the centre of the sacred tank.

Having traversed the bridge that connected the shrine to the perimeter, the curious New Yorker paused for a moment to examine the exterior décor.

He was particularly struck by the brilliant contrast between the ‘exquisite gilding’ of the upper storey and the ‘purest white marble’ of the lower.

Doubly-impressive was the beautiful marble-work ‘inlaid after the Florentine style of mosaic, with designs of vines and flowers in agate, cornelian, jasper, and other similar and beautiful stones.’

Stepping into the dimly lit sanctum sanctorum, Ireland came face to face with the Sikhs’ object of devotion, their sacred scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib.

‘The high-priest,’ he observed, ‘was performing some kind of service or devotion, with the Grunth (their Koran) before him on the cushion. At his side, and around the temple on a lower step or terrace, were worshippers sipping water and meditating.’

The Guru Granth Sahib was completed in 1604, the same year that work began on the King James’ Version of the Bible. A treasure trove of unifying spiritual thought, this unique volume brought together five centuries of divinely inspired poetry penned not only by the Sikh Gurus but also by Hindu and Muslim mystics that traversed medieval India—both in terms of geography and social status.

It was installed in the Golden Temple (then referred to as the Harimandir Sahib or ‘Exalted Temple of Hari’) where it ‘held court’ for the countless devotees from all walks of life who presented themselves as seekers of spiritual guidance, seeking to find meaning in their otherwise mundane and difficult lives.

Relays of specially-trained devotional singers and musicians (including Muslim rababis) set its poetic verses to sacred song. For twenty hours each and every day, their melodious music reached into the farthest corners of the entire complex, aided by the four open doorways and enhanced by the resonating qualities of the vast pool of ambrosial water.

Ireland soaked up this blissful atmosphere and came away overwhelmed, singing his own songs of praise for the Golden Temple in a letter to his mother:

‘Altogether this is the most exquisitely beautiful thing I have seen thus far in India. I have made a sketch, which, I am sorry to say, can give you but a very meagre idea of its beauties; nor can anything but the sight of the original itself, surrounded by all its oriental accessories.’

From Wall Street to Cashmere

Even though Ireland’s world tour ended in 1857, his personal journal of letters and accompanying sketches were to live on in printed form. On the outbreak of the Sepoy Mutiny (or the First War of Indian Independence, depending on your politics) of 1857-58, a huge appetite was generated in the West for the very latest insights into British-Indian affairs.

Around the world in 2,000 Days: New Yorker, J. B. Ireland, in 1890.
It was in this climate of media frenzy that Ireland was ‘induced to yield to the repeated solicitations of friends, to give to the public my mite of experience and knowledge of the country, its people, customs, government, army, etc.’

In 1859, his observations, penned in his letters home to his mother and captured in his quaint sketches, were published under the title ‘Wall Street to Cashmere’. From that moment onwards, a steady flow of Americans, eager to immerse themselves in the exotic East for themselves, followed in Ireland’s footsteps.
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