At the Intersection of Two Empires
Who built the lost palace?
Explore an interesting cast of characters
From its origins in the last years of Maharaja Ranjit Singh rule to the end of the Sikh Empire, the lost palace continued to serve its intended purpose as a palatial residence or bunga on the parkarma of the sacred pool at Amritsar. Its occupants would have had a spectacular view of the Darbar Sahib and the sacred pool of nectar. One of the most famous painting of the lost palace, August Schoeffts epic scene of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at Darbar Sahib was painted during this era.
With the end of the Sikh Empire and its annexation by the British in 1849, European artist and then photographers started appearing in Punjab and visiting Darbar Sahib at Amritsar, an area that only a handful had ever seen before during the time of the Sikh Empire. The 1850’s would see the very first photographs of Darbar Sahib by Felice Beato and the popular paintings of Darbar Sahib by artist William Carpenter. These early images of Darbar Sahib featuring the lost palace help provide a record of the lost palace before it disappeared from the pages of history and memory.
The loss of influence over Amritsar with British rule also ment that Sikhs lost control over the use of the lost palace. , The history of the lost palace would now take a drastic turn with the palace would now be symbolic of a new era of colonial government administration featuring a disregard for the religious and cultural sensitivities of the 'natives'.
The lost palace, located on the ‘pool of nectar’ at Amritsar, an area representing the spiritual heartland of the Sikh religion was now occupied by the Christian missionaries of the Amritsar Mission School . Although Sikhs are well known for their religious tolerance, this invasion of the spiritual sanctity of the Darbar Sahib complex by an organization dedicated to the conversion of Sikhs to Christianity represented a complete lack of religious sensitivity by the British administrators.
In its final years things would take an even more bizarre turn as the lost palace would be used as a police station with a prison and court house.
The Kutwallee - This building, used as a prision and Court House, was built by Mr. Saunders, Collector of Umritser, and is one of the few English buildings in India which do not look out of place among their native neighbours. It is situated on the borders of the Tank, opposite the Holy Temple, and is constantly haunted by beggars; the applications for baksheesh, or bounty, being indeed most inconveniently, and through their importunity annoyingly, multiplied through all the neighbourhood of the Holy Tank. The deformities exhibited also to stimulate charity are very shocking.
Original Sketches in the Punjaub by a Lady
Dickinson Bros. London, ca. 1854
This account by the wife of a British officer stationed at Amritsar accompanies a detailed sketch by her of the lost palace. She erroneously attributes the construction of the lost palace to a British administrator, but we know from August Schoefft’s painting that the lost palace already existed in the time of Maharaja Sher Singh before British rule.
Why the British felt a need to convert a palace on the sacred pool of nectar into a police station is odd and difficult to explain. In the entire city of Amritsar could they not have chosen a more appropriate location rather than at the Sikh spiritual center of Darbar Sahib?
A travel account by William Knight of a visit to Darbar Sahib in October 1860 provides one of the last known references to the lost palace prior to its destruction.
October 22. - Out at four A.M. to explore the great durbar, or head-quarters of the Sikh religion in the Punjab. Entering through a highly decorated archway in the kotwalee, or police-station, we came upon an enormous tank, with steps descending into the water on all sides, and planted around with large and shady tree…After this we repaired to the kotwalee again, and, getting a pair of slippers in exchange for our boots, descended to the durbar and mingled with the crowd.
Diary of a Pedestrian in Cashmere and Thibet
William Henry Knight, London, 1863
Knights provides additional important information indicating that during this time period the palace served as one of the main entrances to the Darbar Sahib complex, complete with a depository for shoes.
Knight also mentions that the palace had a archway leading to the parkarma which was covered with decorative paintings. These paintings would likely have been portraits of the Gurus and scenes from Sikh history. Although now a police station, the paintings and the archway would have harkened back to an earlier time when the structure had served as a palace.