When is a clock tower not really a clock tower? For the answer to this one, time travel to Amritsar of the mid-19th century, to the end of the Sikh Empire and its annexation by the British. Although the colonial administration built impressive structures and monuments across India as a mark of cultural imperialism, the clock tower in Amritsar served a much more sinister purpose. Or so it was believed.
Now turn the hands of this ghanta ghar back by another century, and that’s where this story really begins. By the second half of the 18th century, the Sikhs had defeated both the Afghans and the Mughals, and the territories they won were divided among the sovereign Sikh principalities or misls. The misls were created to keep the peace and to protect the Harmandir Sahib, their holiest of holy shrines.
The chiefs of these misls as well as other powerful clans constructed large bungas or mansions around the parikrama (circumambulatory path) of the Harmandir Sahib, where their armies were stationed to counter any attack on the temple.
Sikh scholar Giani Kirpal Singh mentions in his book Sri Harmandir Sahib Ji Da Sunehri Itihas that the Sukerchakia Misl under its leader Maha Singh constructed a bunga known as ‘Bunga Sukerchakia Sardaran Da’. Built in 1781 CE, it was located behind the present-day site of the Ber Baba Budha Sahib, a sacred tree in the parikrama of the Harmandir Sahib.
After his death in 1792 CE, Maha Singh was succeeded by his 12-year-old son Ranjit Singh, who was destined to become the ‘Maharaja of Punjab’. It wasn’t very long before a young Ranjit Singh united all the misls and established the Sikh Empire (1799 – 1849) in Punjab.
Ranjit Singh’s ancestral bunga was enlarged and it became a massive, three-storey mansion, arguably the most beautiful among all the bungas. Popularly called ‘Bunga Sarkar,’ it was a definitely palace fit for a Maharaja.
After the fall of the Sikh Empire in the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1849, the British seized power and either demolished or converted the Sikh Empire’s royal structures into colonial buildings to symbolically assert their authority over the people and the region.
In keeping with this strategy, they allotted the Bunga Sarkar to the Christian Missionary’s Mission School of Amritsar, as a temporary measure. Soon after, the first Deputy Commissioner of Amritsar, L Saunders took over the building and converted it into a police station (Chowki Ghanta Ghar). A few prisoner cells and a court were accommodated in the structure till they were transferred to other locations.
The British were not done flexing their muscle in Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs. Almost a decade into their rule, the colonial government demolished Ranjit Singh’s Bunga Sarkar and replaced it with something truly pedestrian – a clock tower.
But this was no ordinary monument; it was a powerful political statement, one that might even be viewed as an act of aggression. Not only had the British demolished Ranjit Singh’s palace, they also razed the adjacent Bunga Nau Nihal Singh and Bunga Ladowalia, to clear a large area around the new clock tower. Local residents suspected that it was to accommodate a church, which would be located right behind the Harmandir Sahib. Thankfully, that did not happen and the area was left as a large, open courtyard.
This was a time when the colonial establishment was building clock towers in cities across India. But, unlike the others, the one in Amritsar wasn’t located at a railway station, at an important crossroads or an important public place. It was built near the parikrama of the Harmandir Sahib, an act that drew loud public protests. In fact, it was so close to the Harmandir Sahib that devotees would enter the shrine complex using the steps of the clock tower’s platform.
Sikh devotees were opposed to a large Gothic-style clock tower in the vicinity of the Harmandir Sahib as they suspected it was a ploy to increase the influence of the British over the shrine and to keep an eye on the Sikhs. But the government built the clock tower there anyway.
Construction started in 1862 and was completed in 1874, at a cost of Rs 50,000. The Clock Tower was designed by John Gordon, Executive Chief Engineer in the Department of Public Works of the Municipal Committee of Amritsar, and the project was executed by a local contractor.
When the clock tower was completed, the intentions of the British were very clear. While the Fifth Sikh Guru, Arjan Dev ji, had built the Harmandir Sahib on the lowest elevation in the city in 1589 as a mark of Sikh humility, the clock tower stood on a platform 10 feet above the ground. Completely incongruous with the rest of the landscape, it soared 145 feet and dominated the Amritsar skyline, just as intended.
Moreover, whereas British buildings across India incorporated elements of traditional Indian architecture, the Amritsar clock tower was designed in purely Gothic style and was made of red bricks, giving it the unimaginative nickname ‘Red Tower’ or Lal Chabutra.
But it was despised more for what it meant than how it looked. The clock tower’s ornamentation, although simple, was elegant and its proportions singularly graceful. Not satisfied with its height as designated by the original plan, the tower was further raised and clocks with illuminated dials were built into large stones on all four sides. The additions and modifications cost the government an extra Rs 23,000, a handsome sum in those days.
Over time, the clock tower chimed its way into the rhythm of daily life, its large and inviting courtyard acting as a magnet for passersby to pause and rest, residents to hang out and exchange daily gossip and news, and for those who simply wanted to feed pigeons. Photographs from earlier times show vendors selling merchandise here, and gymnasts and wrestlers in action, holding crowds in rapt attention.
Near the clock tower were rows of shops where Karah Parshad (semolina halwa) and other sweet meats could be bought as offerings at the gurdwara. There were also many sarais or rest houses for tourists nearby.
During festivals like Diwali and Gurpurab, the clock tower’s platform was decorated with earthen lamps, and displays of fireworks would be mounted for the benefit of British officials and wealthy and influential local chiefs, who would be seated in the courtyard to enjoy the show.
And so the clock tower stood, the march of time writing many a chapter in its own history as well as that of India as a whole. It was now the 1940s. The political tide had turned and Independence was around the corner. So, when the temple authorities wanted to extend the parikrama to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims, the colonial administration had little choice but to agree. As a result, the clock tower and many of the bungas that lay in the path of the parikrama were razed. The red brick clock tower finally came down in the closing months of 1945.
With so much more space to work with, the parikrama of the Harmandir Sahib was redrawn and a new entrance, or a deori or gateway, was built in 1947. This structure is now the main entrance to the Harmandir Sahib and it houses a museum, a clock – yes, a clock – and it continues to be called ‘Ghanta Ghar Deori’.
Seventy-three years after this politically charged symbol of Amritsar’s colonial past was pulled down, the clock tower still lingers in the city’s memory. Apart from the entrance to the Harmandir Sahib, the market which rubbed shoulders with the original clock tower and the road junction nearby still bear its name – Bazar Ghanta Ghar and Chowk Ghanta Ghar. Nevertheless, it was a Sikh victory all right, in a local Anglo-Sikh War that never made it to the history books.
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