Electrification Of The Golden Temple – 1897
Whether or not electricity be inducted into the Golden Temple premises was a raging polemic in the closing years of the nineteenth century. There were views pro and con, and the debate was joined by both sides vehemently-and unyieldingly. As was then the style of making controversies, religious and social, no holds were barred and no acrimonious word spared to settle the argument. If tradition and usage were drawn upon by opponents, heed to move with the times was urged by the supporters, pejoratively called bijli Maktas, devotees of electricity.
The initiative came from the Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Amritsar. At its 23rd annual session, on 26 January 1896, it made a formal resolution recommending the installation of electricity in the Golden Temple. Sardar Sundar Singh Majithia told the audience that Sri Harimandar which was in beauty the very image of baikunth, i.e. paradise, by day was
shrouded in darkness by night. Many holy and old people who came to do homage late in the evening or in the small hours of the morning suffered injury owing to.lack of lighting. Electric light would, pleaded Sardar Sundar Singh, enhance the glory of the Golden Temple and prove a boon to the visiting devotees.
Col Sardar Javala Singh, the officially appointed manager of the Golden Temple, and Master Narain Singh of Khalsa High School, Gujranwala, endorsed Sardar Sundar Singh’s proposal. An 11-member committee, with Sardar Bahadur Sardar Arjan Singh as president, was set up to carry through the plan. The committee secured the support of influential men in the Sikh community such as Baba Sir Khem Singh Bedi, Rai Bahadur Sardar Sujan Singh of Rawalpindi and Sardar Balwant Singh of Attari. Subscription lists were opened and fund-raising started in towns and villages.
The lighting committee sent a deputation to wait on Raja Bikram Singh of Faridkot who was the patron of the Khalsa Diwan of Amritsar and helped religious and public causes with an open hand. Col Javala Singh and Sardar Sundar Singh Majithia, who led the group to Faridkot, returned with an assurance from the Maharaja for financial support. At a meeting held at Akal Takht on 25 April 1897, three of the courtiers sent by the Maharaja of Faridkot announced on his behalf that, in commemoration of the uninterrupted 60-year rule of Queen Victoria, he would have electricity installed in the Golden Temple premises at a cost of Rs 20 thousand. Then opposition raised its head. In May 1897, three granthis of Golden Temple served a registered notice on Sardar Sundar Singh Majithia, secretary of the lighting committee, censuring the scheme.
On 22 June 1897, the Diamond Jubilee was observed by Sikhs in Amritsar. Kanvar Gajendra Singh, son of the Maharaja of Faridkot, participated in the celebrations. On this occasion, electricity was displayed in the Golden Temple by importing temporarily into the precincts the private generator belonging to Rai Dholan Das.
The Maharaja of Faridkot visited Amritsar on 14 August 1897, and, at a public meeting of the Sikhs, announced a donation of Rs 1 lac for electricity as well as for a new building for Guru ka langar. Part of the money was invested in a generating set and accessories.
The opponents had not been idle. On 29 July 1897, the executive committee of the Lahore Singh Sabha placed on record its disapproval of the proposal. The three Golden Temple granthis, Bhai Harnam Singh, Bhai Bhagat Singh and Bhai Partap Singh, published a letter in the Khalsa Akhbar of Lahore, 27 August 1897, openly attacking the proposal. Argument upon argument was marshalled to show the utter inappropriateness of inducting electricity into the sacred premises. The article was repeated in a tract entitled Bijli Bidaran (Demolition of Electricity).
Electricity was dangerous. To substantiate the point, allusion was made to the title of Government enactment of 1887 which ran as follows: An act to provide for the protection of person and property from the risks incident to the supply and use of electricity for lighting and other purposes. Another extract quoted was from the Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore, 27 October 1897: Several persons in America have lost their lives in various cities through coming in contact with electric light and power wires. Instances were mentioned of the damage caused by electricity to a factory in Dharival and the disorder created at the inaugural ceremonies for the opening of Sirhind canal. The granthis argued that there was no precedent of electricity having been installed either in Bethlehem or in Kaaba. Of more than 1500 churches in London, not one had been electrified – not even Westminster Abbey. Thirdly, it was urged, custom and tradition sanctioned only illumination by ghee. Electricity was sheer extravagance. Its dazzle would hinder concentration and meditation. As a coup de grace, the point was pressed that electric light was western and the building of Harimandar eastern. The two were contradictory.
The granthis were backed by pujaris of Takht Sri Abchal Nagar at Nanded, who rejected all other lighting except that by ghee which alone had the necessary sanctity. Babu Teja Singh of Bhasaur, a leading figure in the Singh Sabha renovation, contributed a letter to the Khalsa Akhbar, 3 September 1897, to make the point that the real light the Sikhs needed was for the elimination of distinctions of caste in the community. For Harimandar, lighting by ghee, permitted by their eastern custom, was the most. appropriate. Another correspondent in a letter in the Khalsa Akhbar, 27 August 1897, had stated that he had enquired from the Archbishop of the Punjab and learnt that there was no electric, light in St. Peter’s or in St. Paul’s. He also recalled the criticism made by Englishmen themselves who termed the Gothic-style clock-tower beside the Golden Temple a monstrosity. Western light inside the Temple would be similarly offensive, he concluded. Sant Khalsa Dyal Singh of Hoti Mardan joined the fray with an angrily written pamphlet. He said that splitting the roof or walls of the temple to fix electric wiring would be a sacrilege.
In its editorial on 6 August 1897, the Khalsa Akhbar commented that the Golden Temple was not a museum to which people had to be allured by such meretricious display. On 20 August 1897, it praised the Maharaja of Faridkot for his munificence in providing funds for electricity, but satirized his friends who had counselled him this kind of extravagance.
In the Khalsa Akhbar of 6 August 1897, Sri Guru Singh Sabha of Jalandhar published a note in support of the granthis. One of the questions raised was: What will happen if the engine went out of order? In its editorial the same day, the Khalsa Akhbar wrote: What the Sikhs needed was the light of the Gurus’ Word rather than that of electricity.
Electricity, when it came, did appear a novelty. Visiting the Golden Temple after an interval of 16 years, Dr John Campbell Oman, who had been a Professor at Government College at Lahore (1877-97) and Principal of the Khalsa College at Amritsar (1898-99), referred to it in these terms:
. the garish electric light, installed on the temple itself amidst the modest old-world cheraghs, looking like an ill-mannered, obtrusive upstart completely out of its proper element.
The advocates of bijli had won. But the controversy left behind a trail of bitterness. Essentially, it was a conflict between the Lahore and Amritsar wings of the Singh Sabha. Both were mutually hostile and had persistently wrangled over all sorts of issues, major and minor. But, surprisingly, the Lahore group, which styled itself more progressive and derided the Amritsar group for its conservatism, was foremost in opposing electricity. Yet it was not able to obstruct the march of events. Electricity would have, in any case, come. But the initiative taken by Sardar Sundar Singh Majithia and the support given him by the Maharaja of Faridkot will be remembered in history.