ELECTRIFICATION OF THE GOLDEN TEMPLE. 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, need to move with the times was urged by the supporters, pejoratively called bijÍī bhaktas, devotees of electricity.

         The initiative came from the Srī Gurū Siṅgh Sabhā, Amritsar. At its 23rd annual session, on 26 January 1896, it made a formal resolution recommending the installation of electricity in the Golden Temple. Sardār Sundar Siṅgh Majīṭhīā told the audience that Srī Harimandar which was in beauty the very image of baikuṇṭh, 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 Sardār Sundar Siṅgh, enhance the glory of the Golden Temple and prove a boon to the visiting devotees.

         Col Sardār Javālā Siṅgh, the officially appointed manager of the Golden Temple, and Master Naraiṇ Siṅgh of Khālsā High School, Gujrāṅwālā, endorsed Sardār Sundar Siṅgh's proposal. An 11-member committee, with Sardār Bahādur Sardār Arjan Siṅgh as president, was set up to carry through the plan. The committee secured the support of influential men in the Sikh community such as Bābā Sir Khem Siṅgh Bedī, Rāi Bahādur Sardār Sujān Siṅgh of Rāwalpiṇḍī and Sardār Balwant Siṅgh of Aṭṭārī. Subscription lists were opened and fund-raising started in towns and villages.

         The lighting committee sent a deputation to wait on Rājā Bikram Siṅgh of Farīdkoṭ who was the patron of the Khālsā Dīwān of Amritsar and helped religious and public causes with an open hand. Col Javālā Siṅgh and Sardār Sundar Siṅgh Majīṭhīā, who led the group to Farīdkoṭ, returned with an assurance from the Mahārājā for financial support. At a meeting held at Akāl Takht on 25 April 1897, three of the courtiers sent by the Mahārājā of Farīdkoṭ 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 granthīs of Golden Temple served a registered notice on Sardār Sundar Siṅgh Majīṭhīā, secretary of the lighting committee, censuring the scheme.

         On 22 June 1897, the Diamond Jubilee was observed by Sikhs in Amritsar. Kaṅvar Gajendra Siṅgh, son of the Mahārājā of Farīdkoṭ, 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 Rāi Ḍholaṇ Dās.

         The Mahārājā of Farīdkoṭ 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 Gurū kā Laṅgar. 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 Siṅgh Sabhā placed on record its disapproval of the proposal. The three Golden Temple granthīs, Bhāī Harnām Siṅgh, Bhāī Bhagat Siṅgh and Bhāī Partāp Siṅgh, published a letter in the Khālsā Akhbār 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 Bijlī Bidāran ("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 Dhārīvāl and the disorder created at the inaugural ceremonies for the opening of Sirhind canal. The granthīs argued that there was no precedent of electricity having been installed either in Bethlehem or in Kā'abā. 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 granthīs were backed by pujārīs of Takht Srī Abchal Nagar at Nāndeḍ, who rejected all other lighting except that by ghee which alone had the necessary sanctity. Bābū Tejā Siṅgh of Bhasauṛ, a leading figure in the Siṅgh Sabhā renovation, contributed a letter to the Khālsā Akhbār, 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 Khālsā Akhbār, 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 Khālsā Dyāl Siṅgh of Hotī Mardān 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 Khālsā Akhbār 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 Mahārājā of Farīdkoṭ for his munificence in providing funds for electricity, but satirized his friends who had counselled him this kind of extravagance.

         In the Khālsā Akhbār of 6 August 1897, Srī Gurū Siṅgh Sabhā of Jalandhar published a note in support of the granthīs. One of the questions raised was : "What will happen if the engine went out of order?" In its editorial the same day, the Khālsā Akhbār wrote : "What the Sikhs needed was the light of the Gurūs' 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 Khālsā 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 cherāghs, looking like an ill-mannered, obtrusive upstart completely out of its proper element."

         The advocates of bijlī had won. But the controversy left behind a trail of bitterness. Essentially, it was a conflict between the Lahore and Amritsar wings of the Siṅgh Sabhā. 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 Sardār Sundar Siṅgh Majīṭhīā and the support given him by the Mahārājā of Farīdkoṭ will be remembered in history.


  1. Prārthanā Pattar. Amritsar, 1951
  2. Bijlī Bidāran. Amritsar, 1897
  3. The Khālsā Akhbār. Lahore, 1897
  4. Sant Khālsā, Dyāl Siṅgh, Srī Darbār Sāhib Amritsar vich bijlī di roshni nāl beadbī. Amritsar, 1897
  5. Oman, John Campbell, Cults, Customs and Superstitions of India. Delhi, 1972

Sardār Siṅgh Bhāṭīā