For Sikhs around the world, Darbar Sahib, the center of the Sikh faith in Amritsar, India, is held in sacred esteem. Also known as Harmandir Sahib or as the Golden Temple, Sikhs around the world endeavor to visit this place constructed in the early 17th century by Guru Arjan. Such is the devotion of Sikhs to this place that in the 19th century, the Sikh king, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, gilded the upper walls of the structure in gold. After its construction, Darbar Sahib was home to the first compilation of the Sikh scripture, the Adi Granth, which became the recognized Guru of the Sikhs after the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708.
Open to all regardless of faith, background or social status, it is not just the Sikhs who visit Darbar Sahib. Among the hundreds of thousands of daily visitors are those from abroad who include this place on their itinerary. Recently, on the Huffington Post, Adam Pervez shared his experience visiting Darbar Sahib (it is also commonly known as the Golden Temple) — the center of the Sikh faith in Amritsar, India — as a tourist:
Visiting a faith’s most important site, being housed and fed by volunteering adherents, and meeting tons of nice people along the way, it’s hard to think of a more grounding experience than that.
Last year, another visitor to Darbar Sahib, Carolyn O’Donnell, also chronicled her experience on the Huffington Post, describing in some detail her coming to terms with the practice of not allowing shoes within the precincts of the sacred site. She might have done well to have read a guide written last year by Angela Dollar on the women-oriented travel website Wanderlust and Lipstick entitled “Visiting a Sikh Temple: How to Step Inside Respectfully“, in which she shares her learnings about Sikh practices after visiting a Gurdwara during her travels to India. Another traveler writing for Yahoo, Kristy Robinson, described how her cynicism turned to inspiration on visiting Darbar Sahib in 2011.
Of course, to the disappointment of the Sikh American community, we cannot forget President Obama’s non-visit to Darbar Sahib when he was in in India in 2010.
While non-Sikhs from America are increasingly becoming aware and visiting the heart of the Sikh faith, this is not a new phenomenon. The website GT1588 — primarily concerned with the heritage of Darbar Sahib and the Sikh faith — chronicles the intriguing earliest accounts of American interactions with Sikhs, which goes as far back as the late eighteenth century with Captain Stephen Phillips, a merchant trader from Massachusetts. According to his memoir, he brought back a Sikh man from India to the United States in the late eighteenth century, who could be the earliest Sikh in the United States on record.
According to GT1588, the earliest American account of a visit to Darbar Sahib is of John Busteed Ireland, a New York lawyer, in the mid-nineteenth century:
‘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.’
He also noted the requirement to remove his shoes. Ireland would later write 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.’
It is interesting that Ireland describes this center of the Sikh faith using analogies based on the Muslim faith, describing it as the “Mecca of the Sikhs”, and making reference to the Guru Granth Sahib as the Sikh “Koran”. This history as documented on GT1588 is an great read for those interested in early accounts of Sikhs.
What Ireland described as the surrounding “oriental accessories” might be similar to what is depicted in this early short film of Darbar Sahib, recorded around 1930:
It is interesting to contrast that film with a more current video that was produced by the Discovery Channel in India called Revealed: The Golden Temple:
The videos, much like the early and contemporary accounts of visits to Darbar Sahib, are an interesting walk with American eyes through what has changed, and not changed, in this sacred space’s over 400 years of history.