Schoefft at Darbar Sahib

An eyewitness account of August Schoefft's visit to Darbar Sahib and the circumstances surrounding the painting comes from the memoirs of Dr. Martin Honigberger. Honingberger was one of the longest serving European in the Sikh Empire having served as Maharaja Ranjit Singhs personal physician and later serving his successors in that capacity until the very end of the Empire itself.

Being a fellow German speaker, Honingberger acted as Schoefft's host during his stay in the Sikh Empire and accompanied him on his visit to Amritsar along with Maharaja Sher Singh. Honingberger provides us with a detailed eyewitness account of events surrounding the visit to Darbar Sahib and the interactions between Maharaja Sher Singh and Schoefft which led to the idea for the painting in the first place.

In his memoirs Dr. Honigberger tells us of a misunderstanding that led to a major incident at Darbar Sahib in which Schoefft was nearly killed by a Nihang led mob while working on his painting. Given the circumstances of the events that transpired it is truly a miracle that Schoefft survived at all and that the invaluable sketchs that he had prepared for his famous painting were not lost.

Unlike today, a visit to Darbar Sahib in the early to mid-19th century was not without danger for Europeans. The Nihang sect with its headquarters at the Akal Bunga (Akal Takht) had always been openly hostile towards Europeans and considered a visit to Darbar Sahib by Europeans as an insult to the Sikh faith, even if ordered or approved by the Maharaja himself whose authority they only marginally accepted.

'Akalees or Immortals, Sikh religious devotees,
being very wild in appearance and turbulent characters.'
- Eden
Artist: Emily Eden, ca. 1844, 'Portraits of the Princes and People of India',
plate 5, colored lithograph, private collection

Between the Beas and the Sutledge, at Captain Wade's Camp
October 19th. 1832
On the eve of the festival, the king [Maharaja Ranjit Singh] had the kindness to have me shown the famous tank of Umbritsir, in the centre of which is the golden temple, in which they preserve the Grant, or sacred book of the Seikhs. The fanaticism and madness of the Akhalis or religious warriors, who always crowd into this sacred place, would threaten any European visitant with almost certain danger, if he had not a strong guard. It was not wanting on this occasion. I went to the temple on an elephant, with a strong escort of Seikh cavalry, the animal on which I was mounted, pushing the formidable Akhalis to the right and left, without hurting any of them; and the temple was occupied by a regiment of Seikh infantry. In its precinct I paid a visit to an old man, celebrated for his sanctity; he was waiting for me, as was likewise the governor of the town, an equally respectable old man, who was there by the king's order, to conduct me through the temple. He took me by the hand, and led me all over it. If he had let me go, the Akhalis would no doubt have done me some ill turn; but I was sacred while under the arms of the old Dessa Sing.

Letters from India
Victor Jacquemont London, 1834

They [Nihangs] were an unmitigated nuisance and danger during the Maharaja's reign, and more than once they attempted his life. Their insolent swagger and hatred of Europeans made them so obnoxious during the  early years of the British occupation and annexation, that visits to the Temple of the Darbar Sahib at Amritsar, where the Akal Bungah formed their head-quarters were always attended with some risk.
Ranjit Singh
Sir Lepel Griffin, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1892

Schoefft's Visit

Thirty-five Years in the East
L.M. Honigberger, London, 1852

As an instance of the fanaticism of the Nahungs ( the robber-pack I have before mentioned ), I may relate an occurrence which took place at Umritsir, in which a German friend of mine, Herr August Schofft, was near losing his life by their fury. This gentleman is an artist of some celebrity ( at this time in St. Petersburg ), and he, accompanied by his lady, visited the East Indian Presidencies shortly before my severe illness ; and having met with great success in consequence of his skill in oil painting, he came to visit me at Lahore, At this time the court happened to be at Umritsir, and I received an order from Sheer Sing to present myself at that place with my guest. On our arrival, it happened that one of the principal Sikh priests, named Baii Goormuck Sing, was present, and the maharajah desired Herr Schofft to furnish him with a specimen of his abilities, by sketching a portrait of the Baii ; which he accordingly did, in pencil, and the likeness was a striking one. The result was, that the maharajah and several of the principal persons of the court sat to him for their portraits, and Herr Schofft accordingly met with great respect and consideration.

I may mention here, that Herr Schofft had kept copies of these portraits, and that on his return to Europe he painted, from these and other sketches which he had taken, a large picture of the Durbar of Lahore, which is considered to be his masterpiece, and which was purchased from him by Louis Phillipe, and is still, I believe, at Paris

In the centre of the city of Umritsir is a gigantic reservoir of water, from the midst of which rises a magnificent temple, where the Grunth ( the holy book of the Sikhs ) is read day and night. Around this sheet of water are the houses of the maharajah, the ministers, sirdars, and other wealthy inhabitants. The square itself is called Durbar Saheb. At the time of Runjeet Sing and Sheer Sing, the scene which presented itself at this temple, when the court was at Umritsir, was of the most brilliant description, and at certain periods all the notabilities of the Punjab were to be seen collected together in all the splendour of oriental pageantry. During our stay at Umritsir it happened that the inhabitants gave an invitation to the court to visit the sacred temple at night time, when it was gorgeously illuminated ; and Sheer Sing honoured me with his commands that we should accompany him, sending us a richly caparisoned elephant for our accommodation, Sheer Sing inquired of my friend, Herr Schofft, if he could take for him a drawing of that brilliant scene. He answered in the affirmative, but proposed to the maharajah that it would be better if the scene was sketched under the effect of daylight instead of the imperfect one of the illumination, He was accordingly ordered to adopt that suggestion. On the following morning, we went to the house of the Baii Goormuck Sing, who had promised, on the previous evening, to send a servant to point out to us the most elevated terrace in the square ( which was in the mansion of Runjeet Sing ), from which Herr Schofft could get a view of the temple and the surrounding buildings ; on this place he prepared his atelier. He occupied the whole of the day in sketching the scene, and on the following day he also went there, but alone, to continue his work. About noon, having that morning received some newspapers from my native place, Kronstadt, I went to him, and he desired me to read to him the news whilst he was painting. About an hour before sunset, his work was nearly finished, and as the court had already departed for Lahore, whither we wished also to proceed immediately, he requested me to go to our quarters and to procure some boxes in which he could enclose his paintings. Our quarters were outside the city, in a garden formerly belonging to the prince No-Nehal Sing. When I reached home I immediately forwarded to him a horse and servants, as he had told me he should finish his painting within an hour after I had left him,

Herr Schofft was a great smoker, and attracted attention in Umritsir from his scarcely ever being seen abroad without having a cigar in his mouth. Now smoking is considered by the Nahungs and the Sikhs as sinful, or rather criminal ; more especially in or near such a holy place as their chief sanctuary ; Herr Schofft was aware of this, and therefore studiously avoided smoking whilst engaged in taking this sketch, It happened however, that, as is customary with painters, He now and then in the course of the work placed one of his pencils in his mouth, in order to keep it separate from those in the left hand, whilst using another with the right. This was observed by those who stood watching his operations from beneath the terrace, and they imagined, in consequence, that he was smoking. The rumour first spread about in whispers one to another, and as the impression became confirmed, a general indignation manifested itself ; and loud exclamations were soon heard, that the feringhee ( frank ) was committing sacrilege by smoking in their sacred place. The people speedily increased in numbers, and a clamorous mob soon surrounded the palace. The artist was at first unconscious of the cause of the gathering-, but he soon became aware by their shouts and threats, that he was in some way the object of their fury, and that he was consequently in a dangerous position. He had no sooner, however, made up his mind that his best policy would be to effect his escape, if possible, unperceived ; when some of the ringleaders of the mob, who had made their way through the palace, rushed upon the terrace, and attempted to seize him. Being a strong and vigorous man, he succeeded in wrenching himself from their grasp, and made his way to the staircase, which to his dismay he found crowded by the mob, who were making their way up. Knowing that his only chance lay in breaking through them as quickly as possible, he struck out right and left, and having the advantage of being always uppermost of those who attempted to stay his progress, he succeeded in reaching the bottom with some few bruises, Here, however, the affair presented a still more formidable aspect ; for no sooner had he reached the foot of the staircase, then he was seized by the collar and other parts of his coat by half-a-dozen of the mob, and saw at a little distance the glittering of several of their weapons. He gave himself up for lost, and in the energy of despair threw open his coat, and taking advantage of a slight confusion at the moment ( caused by a struggle to get possession of the gold watch which he had held in his hand and had at the same instant relinquished to them ), he slipped from the coat, which was held on all sides, and pushing away those in front of him, he succeeded in reaching the street ; here his nether garments fell, in some unaccountable manner, about his feet, and he stumbled and fell into a miry puddle which was immediately before him : he instantly sprang to his feet, and rustled to the entrance of a dark stable close adjacent. The mob concluded they had now secured their prey, but they were mistaken; for Schofft had, fortunately, whilst passing this stable on a previous occasion in my company, entered it, and noticed its back entrance, which led into the bazaar ; through this back door he then gained the bazaar, and from thence ( the mob all the way at his heels ), reached the house of his protector, Baii Goormukh Sing'. The door was immediately shut, and Schofft was saved.

He there met with a kind reception, and on cleansing himself from the mire and blood with which he was covered, it was found that He had not only received several contusions on the head from the iron knobs on the shields of the Nahungs, with which they had struck at him ; but also a sword wound on the back, by which his braces had been cut through, which at once explained to him the cause of his fall into the mire at so critical a moment. The mob not evincing any inclination to disperse, the police interfered, and compelled them to retire.

During all this time I was at home, expecting his arrival every moment; and at length, when it was quite dark, some of the persons whom I had sent with the horse, came back to me with the news of the riot, and informed me that he was in the hands of the mob. This filled me with consternation, and I immediately sent to the commander of the fortress ( a friend of mine ), soliciting him to assist and endeavour to save the unfortunate painter. With great promptitude, he despatched a whole company of regular troops to the city, and on their way they met Schofft on his road home ; he having been disguised in an oriental costume, and sent on, horseback accompanied by an escort of police. My first care was to dress his wounds; and  to early on the following morning we left Umritsir for Lahore. I may add that the watch, and the plate, &c., which I had sent with his luncheon, were of course lost ; but the painting was subsequently recovered.