Conservation of wall paintings at the Golden Temple(Sri Harmandar Saheb Ji), Amritsar, India

Namita Jaspal
Heritage Preservation Atelier, Chandigarh, India,
Keywords – Sikh art, Mural paintings, Conservation, Religion

This case study regarding the conservation of wall paintings at The Golden Temple (Sri Harmandar Saheb Ji) Amritsar, India, intends to highlight some specific conservation issues related to the active religious sites that are historically very important and have huge role in linking present and future religious beliefs to their origin and past/history. The site has various kinds of art work, including marble inlay and stucco etc., but, this paper is mainly focusing on the wall paintings.

1. Introduction

When we are trusted upon the responsibility of doing art conservation services for an active religious site, we tend to get a mixed feeling of gratitude and anxiousness. Gratitude is generally because of the ingrained faith we might have for the sacred site and anxiousness because of the huge level of responsibility that is shouldered upon, considering the emotional attachment of masses towards the site. Emotions generally cannot think smooth and we have to deal with numerous emotional concerns throughout the project. Apart from these, there is always a religious organization involved.
Though the intentions of both the religious body and conservation professionals working for and with them lead to the same goal, but still, there are some little conflicts initially in understanding each other’s approach to the same goal.

2. Historical background of the site

Shri Harmindar Sahib Ji (The Golden Temple) reflects the timeline of history of Punjab and the Sikh community (Figure 1). It is a living history of the Sikhs spread all over the globe and the region of Punjab. Sikhism is a comparatively modern religion with a global vision. It rejects polytheism, superstition, priesthood and cast based social hierarchy and gender discrimination.
The religious history of this sacred place has been traced back to historic times by an ancient Hindu legend found in one of the Puranas (a class of Sanskrit sacred writings on Hindu mythology and folklore of varying date and origin). The site was rediscovered by the Sikh Gurus. The Sikh tradition associates the place with the itineraries of Guru Nanak Dev Ji. According to Giani Gian Singh, the date of Guru Nanak’s visit to the site was in AD 1502. The idea of establishing a place of pilgrimage was conceived by Guru Amar Das Ji (third Guru of Sikhs).

Figure 1 Sri Harmandar Saheb Ji (The Golden temple)

3. Art work at Harmandar Saheb ji

Aura of Sri Harmandar Sahib Ji is beautiful not only with various artistic embellishments and paintings but also because of melodious devotional (hymn) songs being recited continuously. Golden temple is the acme of the Sikh architecture. All of its walls and ceilings contain fine art work (Figure 2, 3).

Figure 2 Wall paintings at the Golden temple after conservation
Figure 3 Another view of wall paintings at the Golden temple

Paintings of Sri Harmandir Sahib Ji were originally executed with the technique called Mohra Kashi (fresco painting).
The walls on which these frescoes were executed were of bricks baked to a fresh looking red and were laid in sand-lime mortar. Lime was the basic material in the preparation of the surface. It was applied on the wet walls, Plaster made of slaked lime and sand was driven well into the joints and then beaten all over with a long strip of wood (called garmala) edgeways until it became plain and slightly dry and thus ready to receive the coat of intonaco, the finely grained plaster layer covering the rougher arricio. After the plaster became a little dry and sticky, it was polished with an agate polishing stone until on the surface the drawing was cast.
But, the paintings that we see now on the walls are not the original frescoes but overpainted on the original frescoes (Figure 4).

Figure 4 Original frescoes visible when the wooden moldings were removed

The style and pattern of the wall paintings is unique and elegant. It is called sikh school of art. The most prominent of the variety of pattern categories is ‘Dehin’, a medium of expression of the imaginative study of the idealized forms. It has been borrowed extensively from Hindu and Muslim traditions but depicted them in their own way and in a totally new setting (Dr. Madanjit Kaur).

4. History of restoration attempts

The wall paintings at Sri Harmandar Saheb Ji have been re-painted or restored many times in past and need to be comprehensively analyzed before going for further restoration/conservation.
In our very first visit to assess the paintings, previous retouching was quite obvious in initial observations (Figure 5). The backgrounds were repainted to cover its dirty white look. Even the flowers, birds and other motifs had been over painted at the points where they might be flaking off (Figure 6).

Figure 5 Previous restoration attempt
Figure 6 Previous restoration attempt in the background and other figures in borders

Most of the retouching of the walls of the parikrama area were in water based colours, but the repainting of the background colours of the ceilings and arches was with a thick coat of some synthetic medium.
An important point to note here is that up until 2013 the concept of treating old deteriorating paintings was not known at Sri Harmandar Saheb Ji. They were repainted or overpainted most of the time. This was done with all good faith and intentions. Since last few decades the beautiful wall paintings of Sri Darbar Saheb Ji, last over-painted by artist, Bhai Atma Singh, have been retouched by various people to cover up the flaking off paints.
The earlier frescoes by artist, Bhai Gyan Singh, were very meticulously created in true fresco technique. When they would have started getting deteriorated, artists were commissioned to correct or repair or redo the art work. So, artists with caliber and dexterity like Bhai Atma Singh worked and overpainted all the walls.

5. Management and rituals of the religious sites and their good and bad effects on the preserved condition of the art work

The organization taking care of the temple is “Sromani Gurudwara Prabandhan Committee” (SGPC). It is very important to understand how it functions, in order to execute the conservation work at the temple.
Most of the on-site SGPC staff is to manage and discipline the pilgrims. They make sure that people wash their feet in the clean water provided at all the entrances of the temple. They also make sure that every person’s head is covered when they are inside the temple. They make sure of a lot many disciplinary rules of temple. They also help old, and specially abled people in reaching the sanctorum and safely taking them out to their vehicle.
All this was not only nice to observe but helped us in many ways as the sevadaar’s (helping staff of SGPC) helped us in doing our work without much of distractions (which were enormous in the beginning of the work)
The big challenge was to make the authorities understand the difference between renovation, restoration and conservation. Even harder was to convince the importance of initial analysis (like Digital Holographic Speckle Pattern Interferometry, Infrared Thermography, FTIR, XRF analysis etc.) before starting the actual work.
It was another big challenge to make the general public and the organizations involved to distinguish between conservation and regular cleaning and repairs performed as housekeeping jobs.

5.1 Cleaning rituals

Most of the daily cleaning rituals at Sri Harmandar Sahib Ji are good housekeeping regimes and help in ever clean and shiny look of the temple. People from all walks of life come day and night to help keep the environs and structure of the temple clean and sparkling. They do this seva (service) out of devotion and faith. As professional conservators, we find that in over enthusiasm of serving, some devotees forget that they need to know if they are cleaning or damaging some beautiful work of art. For example, we have seen many devotees cleaning wall paintings with wet cloth/towels. This can be very damaging!

5.2 Celebrations and festivals

Celebrations and festivities are a regular and very frequent feature of Sri Harmandar Saheb Ji. On every festival, mainly Guruparvs (one of the Guru’s birthday or some important milestone), there are floral decorations on the walls and ceilings. Devotees engaged in such decorations use various means to hold the floral chains and bouquets on to the walls. These are mostly not good for the paintings.
The bouquets and garlands are generally wet and touch the walls that have intricate paintings on them. Apart from the decorations, the huge rush during celebrations is another concern.

5.3 Management of the inflow of pilgrims

‘Sevadaars’ are standing on duty at short intervals from the point you enter the temple to the main Darbar Saheb Ji (sanctum sanctorum) where Sri Gurugranth Saheb Ji (the holy book of Sikhs) is seated. They make sure that you dip your feet in the clean water flowing at the entrance and that you cover your head and are comfortable. One thing that they cannot interfere in is the number of people visiting. Many a times during festivals and holy dates, the rush is too difficult to handle, even though there are a great number of sevadar’s try to manage the crowd.
This is of concern and it was suggested that a study should be conducted to find out that how much weight the vertical and horizontal elements of the structure can bear. This is more important because this structure (even the ground floor) stands on verical columns and not on complete ground.

5.4 Telecast and electronic device management

‘Sevadaars’ are standing on duty at short intervals from the point you enter the temple to the main Darbar Saheb Ji (sanctum sanctorum) where Sri Gurugranth Saheb Ji (the holy book of Sikhs) is seated. They make sure that you dip your feet in the clean water flowing at the entrance and that you cover your head and are comfortable. One thing that they cannot interfere in is the number of people visiting. Many a times during festivals and holy dates, the rush is too difficult to handle, even though there are a great number of sevadar’s try to manage the crowd.
This is of concern and it was suggested that a study should be conducted to find out that how much weight the vertical and horizontal elements of the structure can bear. This is more important because this structure (even the ground floor) stands on verical columns and not on complete ground.

6. Diagnosis and description of condition of wall paintings

6.1 Visual diagnosis

Three broad categories of damaged wall paintings, according to the ‘surface condition’, are:

Category 1: Paintings that are not varnished but covered with glass
Category 2: Paintings that are varnished and not covered by glass. (Varnish is aged and hence yellowed)
Category 3: Paintings that are hidden under stubborn layers of dark grime. Neither varnish, nor glass was used for protection

Figure 7 Categories according to the surface condition

These three categories are not uniform as far as extent of damage is concerned.
Category 1: Paintings that were covered with glass and not varnished.
Most of the paintings on the wall panels were covered with glass. These paintings Though cleaner, were flacking at many places and also had fine craquelure, mainly due to trapped moisture. Many of these were unprofessionally retouched where paint had flaked off.
Category 2: Paintings that are varnished. (Varnish is aged and hence yellowed)
Arches of the window niches were all covered with varnish. This varnish had aged and hence was not only yellowed, but also very brittle causing cracks and flaking. Removing the hard and dark varnish was a challenge as we had to do the job without letting the hard cracks/flakes to break and/or fall off.
Category 3: Paintings that are hidden under stubborn layers of dark grime.
The paintings that were hidden behind thick layers of grime were the ones that were open to all the vagaries of weather as well as human touch/vandalism. Even before cleaning we could make out that these were heavily retouched, rather most of them completely overpainted with paints of various different media and solubility. There was no way we could remove these upper new layers without damaging the little whatsoever original paint layer left. In any case, there was hardly any original paint layer left in these areas. These are mainly the painted areas in the arches. These were the most damaged areas because they were neither protected by the varnish layer and nor by the glass. What all we could do to save the art was to trace the patterns, follow the left out particles of original pigments and redo the art work.

6.2 Microscopic analysis

Microscopic analysis helped in observing and confirming the previous retouching. It also helped in looking at the surface deformities more closely.

Figure 8 Magnified view showing previous retouching

6.3 Chemical analysis

Various chemical tests were performed to confirm the composition of the pigments. List of the pigments identified is as follows:

  1. Raw umber
  2. Burnt umber
  3. Raw sienna
  4. Burnt sienna
  5. Red ochre
  6. Ultramarine blue
  7. Yellow ochre
  8. Green Earth
  9. Carbon black
  10. Calcium carbonate

Literary records – A very few literary records could be found. We find a lot being published about the faith of Sikh religion and history of the Golden temple, but almost nothing in published or unpublished form regarding the art work.

7, Treatment performed

7.1 Pre-consolidation

There were many places where paintings were flaking off and needed immediate attention. These flaking paint surfaces were secured either by putting a facing with Japanese tissue paper or with the help of spray of cyclododecane.

Figure 10 Providing facing o a highly flaking wall painting panel

7.2 Cleaning

Since the paintings were in mixed media rather than just water based, same cleansing agent was not effective at all places. Ethanol and water mixture – At many places cleaning with ethanol water mixture was enough to remove grime. But at most of the panels this was not enough because the grime was too stubborn.
Triethanolamine –

Most of the cleaning of these wall paintings was accomplished with triethanol amine (TEA). The strength that we used for cleaning varied from panel to panel. Most of the wall panels could be cleaned effectively with 2% solution. In case of ceilings, somewhat stronger solution of TEA was required.

Figure 11 Cleaning with triethanolamine
Figure 12 Results while cleaning with triethanolamine

Acetone – Acetone was tried to remove the yellowed varnish from the outer window arches. But this was not only a very slow/time consuming process, but also not that effective as volatile acetone was not staying enough on the surface to act effectively on the old and stubborn varnish. So, we tried to make a gel that was based on acetone and a few other cleansing agents.
Gel – An acetone-based gel was created specifically for the varnished window arches. The stubborn and brittle varnish needed more time span to be in contact with the cleansing agent to soften and hence get removed. This was the basic reason why we had to try gel-based cleansing formulae.
Ion exchange resin – At some places where thick inorganic depositions were present, ion-exchange resin, IONEX OH worked well.

7.3 Fixing the flakes

  1. Paraloid B-72 – Solution of Paraloid B72 was used to fix layer of flaking paint. It was quite effective at many places. It was applied with the help of syringe or with brush.
  2. Calcium hydroxide nanoparticles were also tried at places. They worked well at some places, but not everywhere.

7.4 Consolidation and filling

Special conservation grade lime mortar was used for most of the fillings and consolidation. Injection grouting and even filling of the gaps was done with this special lime mortar. The results have been quite satisfactory as it has no efflorescing salts, no corrosive agent for colours and has ease of cleaning and removal in case of leakage.

Figure 14 Filling gaps with lime mortar

7.5 In-painting

As per the ethics of conservation we followed the concept of ‘minimum intervention’. On most of the wall painting panels, only in-painting was done in the lost areas. There was no retouching done over the original paint layer. But, in the areas of window arches, pillars and staircases, where damage was excessive, it was decided after the discussions with officials that background should be retouched to avoid the patchy look that was affecting the ambience of the sacred monument.

7.6 Preventive measures

In most of the panels the glass covering was put back with new wooden moulding and a better glass. Since this was taken out of the scope of our work, we could not do much about the kind of glass that was put and certain other factors like making it air tight or not and how to control the trapped moisture, if any.
The curved areas which were varnished earlier had to be given some kind of protective coating. Another area that needed protective coating was in the staircases. We tried two options, Paraloid B72 and Fluoline HY. We finalized on Paraloid B72 for all the window arches and Fluoline HY for staircases. Fluoline HY was preferred over Paraloid in the staircases because it has an advantage of being graffiti proof and water and oil resistant. Since the staircases are narrow and the rush at such a sacred site is too much most of the time, it is not possible to avoid people avoiding touching the walls. This is why being scratch and water and oil resistant helps

8. Conclution

Religious sites have a huge part of history living and breathing in their rituals and structures as well. By preserving the art and structural elements, we link the past of the culture with its future. This requires a great deal of involvement of various sections of our society; the devotees, the religious body, the business associations, conservation professionals and more. This study is an attempt to share the challenges faced by a conservator in such an endeavour. This work experience has educated us that while working on a site of great importance, we need to study beyond the current theoretical aspects of conservation to save our rich past for the future.

9. Acknowledgements

The author is grateful to each team member of all the teams that worked with her for nearly three years at the temple, the staff of SGPC and Ms. Harsimrat Kaur (Minister of state) for initiating and providing constant moral support to this prestigious conservation project

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