Amritsar’s Monstrous Clock Tower

In 1862, the British began the construction of a 145 feet gothic style clock tower envisaged to dominate over Darbar Sahib and Amritsar skyline. It was just outside what is popularly known as the Golden Temple.

Darbar Sahib, Amritsar, with Clock Tower under construction around 1860’s – Photo: SSB Collection

When Guru Arjan was constructing the Darbar Sahib in Amrisar, the fifth Sikh Guru did not pick the highest point in town. Instead, he turned towards a lower elevation in the city as a mark of Sikh humility. So, when you next enter Darbar Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple, make it a point to note the humility at work.

Then came the British and their cultural imperialism. They demolished some key existing buildings. In 1862, the British began the construction of a 145 feet gothic style clock tower that was sure to dominate over Darbar Sahib and the Amritsar skyline.

“The Clock Tower at Amritsar now in course of erection, at an estimated cost of 23,000 rupees ; the style adopted in this building is the decorated Gothic. The ornamentation, though simple, is very effective, and the proportions are singularly graceful. It is proposed to place in it a clock with illuminated dials, and as it is situated on the highest ground in Amritsar, and is itself 145 feet in height, it will be a very prominent object in the city,” according to an entry captured in the Hand-book of the Manufactures & Arts of the Punjab (Volume II, B.H. Baden Powell, Lahore, 1872).

What a stark contrast in worldview!

The clock tower was designed by John Gordon, the Municipal Chief Engineer of Amritsar (The Golden Temple Past and Present, Madanjit Kaur Guru Nanak Dev University Press, Amritsar, 1983, pg. 64).

Unlike some other British buildings in their Indian empire where elements of eastern architecture were sometimes incorporated, the new clock tower was designed entirely in the traditional European gothic style with red bricks. (The Heritage of Amritsar Surinder Singh Johar, New Delhi, 1978, pg. 98). It was completed in 1874.

For a more in-depth discussion, here are two short passages from The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies (Ed: Pashaura Singh and Louis E. Fenech):

In 1849 the British annexed the Punjab. From the beginning, the British were ambivalent about the Darbar Sahib as a religious site, and there were arguments among colonial authorities about whether they should be administering such sites (Grewal 2009: 231–2). By most accounts, the colonial authorities were aware of its central importance for Sikhs, and saw control of it as a key factor in maintaining power over them (Kerr 1999: 88–90). The Darbar Sahib thus became the only religious institution in India that was directly controlled by the British (Grewal 2009: 239).

Upon taking control of the site, the British allowed the existing management to continue, but soon began directly appointing sarbrahs (managers). According to the Punjab Administration Report of 1848–50, the bungas around the Harimandir were Sikh institutions within which the study of both Gurmukhi and the Guru Granth Sahib were conducted gratis. Students also lived free of charge within them thanks to donations from Sikhs (Kirpal Singh 1999: 48). In 1862 the British demolished some bungas, despite Sikh protest, to construct a Gothic clock tower, which was completed in 1874 (Grewal 2009: 240). Many Sikhs viewed this structure as a symbol of colonial power, with its architectural style out of place and its height apparently meant to overshadow the Harimandir. Subsequently this clock tower was pulled down shortly after Indian Independence in 1947 (Singh 1988: 134). Despite the offence caused by the clock tower, the British are credited with installing electricity within the Darbar Sahib in 1898 and extending the canal supplying water to the sarovar (Arshi 1989: 50).

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