The Golden Temple Part 3: Martyrs and Militarism

The Golden Temple complex is a sprawling space with many buildings besides the temple itself and the soup kitchen we visited in our last blog post. Various surrounding buildings house other religious space, accommodations for visitors, and the Central Sikh Museum.

The Central Sikh Museum

The Central Sikh Museum contains a collection of paintings depicting Sikh religious history, primarily the history of important gurus and saints. One thing I noticed was the tendency of the paintings to depict saints and gurus with glowing heads and demure facial expressions, exactly in the way that saints and other religious figures are depicted in Christian artistic history.

Also like Christianity, the idea of the religious warrior or saint-soldier plays a major role in religious history and modern identity. Because Sikhism began in the northwest region of India, it has been on the forefront of political, military, and cultural invasion from Mughals, a group of Persian Muslim rulers who controlled parts of the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan, and Afghanistan around the 1600s. Sikhs, who were headquartered in the north western Indian state of Punjab, were right on the frontiers of these invasions, and faced significant religious persecution.

This persecution led to the development of a military ethos within Sikhism, culminating in the 1699 development of a formal political/religious/military group of initiated Sikhs called the Khalsa, meaning “Sovereign” or “Pure.” From the time of the Khalsa, all Sikh men are required to change their last name to Singh, meaning “lion”, and to carry outward emblems of religious identification that also have a double military purpose: to never cut one’s hair (defense against sword blows to the head), wear a steal bangle (similar to a traditional Punjab throwing weapon), short loose trousers (easy to fight in) and to carry a curved dagger or sword. By the late 18th century, the Sikhs had a reputation for military prowess. This tradition has carried through to the Sikhs playing a very important role in military units and as body guards throughout Indian history, including cooperation with the British Empire in order to retain some semblance of autonomy and to avoid total disarmament.

A Sikh warrior-saint depicted at a monument in the complex. 

All this is to say that because of this history of militarized religion and contention with the Mughals, perhaps as many as half of the paintings on display commemorating Sikh martyrs (men, of course) being tortured and murder in fairly gruesome ways. Some had their heads on stakes, or their leg flesh being peeled off, or their bodies being turned between spiked wheels. The paintings were extremely off putting, but not just because they depicted gruesome events. The idea of religious militarism is violent and disdainful enough to begin with, and deifying martyrs seems a step even further. Perhaps this is because after working in the Middle East, I’m especially aware of the power that martyr cultures can have to encourage celebration of extremist behavior in the name of religion.

Regardless of whether the tortured gurus depicted ever lifted a sword, the paintings made my stomach churn both because they depicted torturous acts but also because they felt like a perverse celebration of unquestioning dogmatism.  Why couldn’t the museum focus on paintings celebrating Sikh religious charity rather than of the super-super-super-committed Sikhs being boiled alive and having their groins cut off? 

A typical painting that we saw in the museum, courtesy of

Operation Blue Star

The modern history if Sikhism has been strongly shaped by the events of June 3, 1984 known as Operation Blue Star. On this day, Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi launched a military operation on the Golden Temple complex to remove Jarnail Singh Bindranwale, a political revolutionary who called for a return to the “pure” roots of Sikhism, and his armed followers from the building. Bindranwale objected to the portion of India’s constitution that declares Indian religious minorities part of Hinduism, and is known for his support of the Anandpur Resolution, which called for greater local rights and powers for Sikhs but was viewed as a secessionist document by the Indian government. This band of extremists had been holed up with semi-automatic rifles and light machine guns in the Golden Temple since 1980.

The operation was carried out with tanks, artillery, helicopters, armored vehicles, and even chemical weapons. The Indian government claimed that about 500 civilians and over 100 military members were killed, though some estimates were ten times higher. During the assault, the Indian military also seized historical artifacts and manuscripts in the Sikh Reference Library before burning it down. It led to uproar among the Sikh community across India, and Sikhs mutinied in the army and many left positions in the civil services.  

Four months after Operation Blue Star, Indira Ghandi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards in retribution for the attack on the Golden Temple complex. The assassination led to widespread anti-Sikh riots and murders throughout northern India. This important event illustrates not only the militaristic tendencies of Sikhism, but centuries long tensions within India over Hindu nationalism and pressure for religious assimilation. 

A Sikh band plays at the walkway around the tank, making it pleasant for pilgrims and visitors to sit and listen

Though this post shares some less glamorous perspectives on Sikhism, overall I adored our visit to the Golden Temple. The complex architecture was both  visually alluring and unique, the religious pilgrims were friendly and welcoming, we got to observe one of the world's largest free soup kitchens in action, I got to sample sacred pudding, and we learned about the Sikh sacred text's bedtime ritual. Amritsar should be on the top of the list for any future travelers thinking of visiting India!