Juga Singh, the designer of The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past (1808-1959), reflects on the design journey he undertook trying to do justice to the Golden Temple through the language of book design
Within all projects there are constraints and limitations and with all decisions there are pros and cons. In undertaking any design project my aim is to navigate through these hurdles to produce something that is beautiful, accessible, functional and most importantly, true to the brief. Below are the key insights into how I approached the overall design of this book.
More than a Building, More than a Book
The Harimandir Sahib (Golden Temple) is more than just a building, it is a visual representation of core messages, expressed through the architectural language of the time. Similarly, I intended for the book design, wherever possible, to communicate these same messages in the language of today.
The building itself is accessible to all, no matter what race, creed or gender, to people of faith or non-faith. It was important to make the book accessible to a wide variety of readers’ interests, be it early photography, painting, the history of the building, its architecture, or some personal aspect, or indeed to those with no particular interest and even to those who may never have previously owned a book.
Freedom to Roam, Freedom to Browse
Visitors are free to roam and take in different aspects of the temple experience. This freedom to navigate, in which you are assisted rather than directed, is also part of our current internet culture which allows us to hop from one information type to another. The emphasis in designing this book was not to think in a traditional linear fashion, but to create a format that would reflect this culture of flexibility in how the reader accesses the book’s content.
A Universal Message
The pattern on the book cover is derived from the designs to the entrance of the Golden Temple, which combine elements from Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim cultures, pointing to the central message that we are all essentially one.
The book cover is made from cotton, with a pearlescent finish representing the cloth or small shells that the poorest would leave as offerings at the temple. As well as cloth, this effect resembles and reflects the generous use of fine marble that is used liberally around the site.
Gold is also used extensively, representing the later additions and embellishments by the social elite. Gold, mirrors and white marble had practical purpose that they both reflected the lamp light used within and around the complex.
Encased in Meaning
The book encasement has three layers, representing the material form, the beyond-all form, and the personal form. As you approach the closed book, in the centre is a foiled illustration of the Golden Temple compiled from early Indian miniature paintings, representing the material form.
Once you open the book another layer is revealed, illustrated with the core expression that underlies all Sikh thought, ‘Ik Onkar’, the concept of oneness. Written in Gurmukhi script by the last Guru, Gobind Singh, this represents the beyond-all form.
On the final cover you are greeted with a reflective but direct message representing the personal form. Thus the three-part cover symbolises the layers of experience and reality in our own existence.
On the inner cover is a map of the Golden Temple complex, which accompanies the reader throughout their navigation of the book.
The map and associated information allow the reader to more easily adjust their focus from a particular image, caption or eyewitness account, to widening their field of vision to encompass the whole temple complex, experience and history; to see everything not in isolation but in relation to the whole.
For visitors to the temple, their connection is first felt emotionally and only later related and reasoned about. In this same spirit the individual images within the book are to be enjoyed first and understood later.
This was achieved by having the captions separated from the images so they would not compete for attention, encouraging the reader to explore their own insights into the images and later, if necessary, to read the captions.
The majority of images were direct digital reproductions, although some were second to third generation copies, due to the originals being lost, destroyed or logistically inaccessible.
It was a delicate task to ensure the images were reproduced without losing their individual character. Great effort was made to present the range of images faithfully, without creating barriers to engagement.
The background colour to the images was applied to give a natural texture and a feeling of warmth, allowing the eye to relax when looking at the images without the glare of a white border.
This reflects the subdued atmosphere and use of colour and texture in the temple itself (prior to electric lighting being installed), which is similarly conducive to the inner contemplative experience, helping to turn attention inwards to seek clarity and meaning.
Although at first glance many readers may not realise just how much effort has gone into the creation of this book, nor does it matter, the hope is that you enjoy your journey and have the best possible experience.
For a book on such a historic building to succeed with a contemporary take on book design, requires a unique client and a certain level of trust on their part. I have worked on a variety of projects with the authors over the past decade and we have become good friends.
The brief was to produce a personal book for a building that produces a very personal experience–I have done my best, but, as with the building itself, it can only ever be a finger pointing to the moon.
Article inspired by our new book ‘The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past (1808-1959)‘.
About the Author
Juga Singh is the designer of several books on Sikh history and traditions including ‘In The Master’s Presence: The Sikhs of Hazoor Sahib’.
He is currently working on a special edition of ‘Warrior Saints’, due to be published in 2012.
He runs his own design consultancy (jugasingh.com).