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Above: Detail from "A Native Lady of Umritsar", Courtesy - The Victoria & Albert Museum. Below, first photo from bottom: part of the Tour group (Photo by Jag Singh). Thumbnail: Dr. Susan Stronge of V & A.

Harbinder Singh


The Golden Throne


Daily Fix

A Lady of Umritsar:
A PilgrimThrough Sikh-British Heritage
Part III






The following is republished from our archives:  




It's a pet theory of mine.

I think the claim that it always rains in London and England is nothing but a brilliant marketing strategy. I believe it is designed to achieve two goals:

First, to keep a lid on the number of tourists pouring into the land from every corner of the globe, and thus prevent the city from bursting at its seams.

And second: to lower expectations, so that one is simply thrilled and grateful when it doesn't pour. The resulting euphoria adds to the experience!

For example, the weather forecast for the duration of our stay has been Rain, Showers, Cold Rain, Showers ...

It's been a lovely day today. The sun's been out. By late morning, it's around 20 degrees Celsius.

I sit out in the lawn enclosure of the Beit Quadrangle residential complex of Imperial College in the equally imperial neighbourhood of Kensington, basking in the sun, replenishing my bronze tan, sipping my coffee and savouring a traditional English breakfast.

Dozens of others, it appears, have also braved through the dire weather forecast and begun arriving from distant lands.

I can identify a bevy of Sikh-American families ... young and old ... standing in line at the desk to register, a hundred yards away.

You can, says traditional wisdom, spot Americans a mile away. And if they are Sikh and American, it's all the more easy: the swagger and the self-confidence comes in double doses!

They've arrived from New Orleans and Maryland and Los Angeles.

There's a young man from Fiji.

There are brave souls who have ventured all the way from Punjab and New Delhi.

There are Sikh-Canadians, of course, apologetic and polite as always, desperately seeking warmer climes.

And there are Sikh-Britons from different parts of the kingdom to play host to the pilgrims, armed with their usual warmth and generosity.

At mid-day, we gather at the foot of the grand marble staircase inside the Victoria & Albert Museum - a mere ten minute walk from Beit Hall - to officially begin our tour.

The V & A, as it is popularly known, is the brilliant showcase of arts of every ilk, right in the heart of London. The idea behind this originated with Prince Albert, Victoria's much adored consort, who wanted to encapsule and perpetuate the tone set by the Great Exhibition of 1851.

However, it wasn't until the end of the 19th century that a long-bereaved Empress of India was able to lay the foundation of the edifice built in Albert's memory.

And this is where the popular Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms exhibition began its journey more than a decade ago, which also took it to San Francisco and Toronto.

Its learned curator - and the editor of the lovely coffee-table book published to commemorate the event - Susan Stronge, has joined us, as we stand at the foot of the marble columns and Harbinder Singh of the Anglo-Sikh Heritage Trail welcomes us, Mark Anthony-like, from above.

He enunciates the vision behind this new venture, reminding us that we are standing in the halls of an institution, and within a city and land, which holds in trust a significant portion of our historical treasures. He hopes, he says, to inspire the Sikhs of the diaspora, and all others, to come here to take advantage of the phenomenal work done in such institutions to preserve and conserve our relics and artifacts.

In the South-Asian section of the Museum, we find ourselves in a wing which houses the greatest of the treasures we've come to see: the legendary Golden Throne of Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

It is impossible to stand there and not feel the waves of emotion that overwhelm you: a deep sense of pride, and of loss. Of the feeling of a connection with history that has come alive ... you want to reach over and touch it, this manifestation of our collective heritage.

And the deep sense of relief that it is here, and not somewhere in India or Pakistan, where it would be mauled, like many of our treasures have already been, in the very land of our ancestors.

Susan Stronge graciously agrees to introduce us to the selection of paintings, weapons, shawls, costumes and other artifacts, the sight of which grips us and commands our attention.

She follows the trail of a painting which was not only personally commissioned by Ranjit Singh, but personally handed over by him as a gift  -  "From his own hands ... !"  -  and how it has ended up here in these hallowed halls.

Standing beside the throne, she describes its history, as well as an overview of the items displayed around us: among them, the blue peaked Akali turban, a Kataar, a shawl depicting in intricate detail the map of Lahore, and ah yes, The Native Lady of Umritsar.

A life-size oil painting of this personage, painted around 1880, looks down on us, the scene of hungry Sikhs from around the world, searching for cultural delicacies from their rich past, her silent stare questioning, as if, the commotion around her.

There's so much to see here at the V & A and to savour each item that we promise ourselves to come back in our free time to explore further.

The day is wrapped up with a visit to the lavish Mayfair district to see an exhibtion of paintings and screenprints by Manmeet Kaur.

A recent graduate in Fine Art and Multimedia from the Sir Cass Department of Art at the London Met, Manmeet uses her faith and life experiences as the foundation of her artwork.

In the collection titled "Sri Mukhvaak Paatshaahi 10", she explores, on canvas and paper ... in oil, acrylic, as well as ink ... some of the writings of the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh, in a rich combination consisting of text, graphics, found objects, original sketches and other images.

"The relationship between my art and my faith has begun to work strongly alongside one another and have become a source of support and stimulation for each other", she says.

Shortly thereafter, we readily call it a day, retreating to the Imperial College residences to nurse our respective jetlags.

To Be Continued ...


First published on July 13, 2008; republished on October 13, 2014


Conversation about this article

1: Noor (Zionsville), July 23, 2008, 8:34 PM.

As a recent participant of the tour, I had a wonderful time and experience on this ground-breaking tour. I wish to thank the organizers and all who made it possible for allowing myself and the group as a whole this unique look at the history of the Sikhs in the U.K.

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A PilgrimThrough Sikh-British Heritage
Part III"

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