The Sikhs’ holy city of AMRITSAR is the largest city in Punjab: noisy and congested, but its old city in particular is as lively as any in India, and contains the fabled Golden Temple, whose domes soar above the teeming streets. Amritsar is also an important staging-post for those crossing the Indo–Pakistan frontier at Wagha, 29km west.
Amritsar was founded in 1577 by Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru, beside a bathing pool famed for its healing powers. The land around the tank was granted in perpetuity by the Mughal emperor Akbar to the Sikhs. When merchants moved in to take advantage of the strategic location on the Silk Route, Amritsar expanded rapidly, gaining a grand new temple under Ram Das’s son and heir, Guru Arjan Dev. Sacked by Afghans in 1761, the shrine was rebuilt by the Sikhs’ greatest secular leader, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who also donated the gold used in its construction.
Amritsar’s twentieth-century history has been blighted by a series of appalling massacres. The first occurred in 1919, when thousands of unarmed civilian demonstrators were gunned down without warning by British troops in Jallianwalla Bagh – an atrocity that inspired Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. Following the collapse of the Raj, Amritsar experienced some of the worst communal blood-letting ever seen on the Subcontinent. The Golden Temple, however, remained unaffected by the volatile politics of post-Independence Punjab until the 1980s, when as part of a protracted and bloody campaign for the setting up of a Sikh homeland, heavily armed fundamentalists under the preacher-warrior Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale occupied the Akal Takht, a building in the Golden Temple complex that has traditionally been the seat of Sikh religious authority. The siege was brought to an end in early June 1984, when prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered an inept paramilitary attack on the temple, code-named Operation Blue Star. Bhindranwale was killed along with two hundred soldiers and two thousand others, including pilgrims trapped inside.
Widely regarded as an unmitigated disaster, Blue Star led directly to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards just four months later, and provoked the worst riots in the city since Partition. Nevertheless, the Congress government seemed to learn little from its mistakes. In 1987, Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv Gandhi, reneged on an important accord with the Sikhs’ main religious party, the Akali Dal, thereby strengthening the hand of the separatists, who retaliated by occupying the temple for a second time. This time, the army responded with greater restraint, leaving Operation Black Thunder to the Punjab police. Neither as well provisioned nor as well motivated as Bhindranwale’s martyrs, the fundamentalists eventually surrendered.
The Golden Temple stands in the heart of the old town, itself a maze of narrow lanes and bazaars. Eighteen fortified gateways punctuate the aptly named Circular Road, of which only Lohgarh Gate (to the north) is original. Skirting the edge of the old quarter, the railway line forms a sharp divide between the bazaar and the more spacious British-built side of the city. Further north, long straight tree lined streets eventually peter out into leafy residential suburbs. The neat military barracks of the cantonment form the northwestern limits of the city.Read More
The Golden Temple
The Golden TempleEven visitors without a religious bone in their bodies cannot fail to be moved by Amritsar’s resplendent Golden Temple, spiritual centre of the Sikh faith and open to all. Built by Guru Arjan Dev in the late sixteenth century, the richly gilded Harmandir rises from the middle of an artificial rectangular lake, connected to the surrounding white-marble complex by a narrow causeway. Every Sikh tries to make at least one pilgrimage here during their lifetime to listen to the sublime music (shabad kirtan), readings from the Adi Granth and also to bathe in the purifying waters of the temple tank – the Amrit Sarovar or “Pool of Immortality-Giving Nectar”.
The best time to visit is early morning, to catch the first rays of sunlight gleaming on the bulbous golden domes and reflecting in the waters of the Amrit Sarovar. Sunset and evenings are an excellent time to tune in to the beautiful music performed in the Harmandir. The helpful information office at the main entrance organizes guided tours, provides details on temple accommodation and has books and leaflets about the temple and Sikh faith.
Bedlam at the border
Bedlam at the border
Every evening as sunset approaches, the India-Pakistan border closes for the night with a spectacular and somewhat Monty Pythonesque show. It takes place at a remote little place 27km west of Amritsar called Wagha (the nearest town, 2km away, is Attari), connected by frequent minibuses to Amritsar. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Indians make their way westwards to Wagha (and Pakistanis eastwards) to watch the popular tourist attraction from specially erected stands.
Indian guards sporting outrageous moustaches and outlandish hats perform synchronized speed marching along a 100m walkway to the border gate where they turn and stomp back. Raucous cheering, clapping and much blowing of horns accompanies the spectacle. Guards on the Pakistan side then emulate their neighbours’ efforts to much the same sort of cacophony on the other side of the gate. The guards strut their military catwalk several times and then vanish into the guardhouse. Flags are simultaneously lowered, the gates slammed shut and the crowds on either side rush forward for a massive and congenial photo session. On both sides, more empathy than ever occurs on a cricket pitch permeates the air; photos are taken with the stone-faced guards and then everyone heads home – back to business as usual.
The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre
The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre
Just 100m northeast of the Golden Temple, a narrow lane leads between two tall buildings to Jallianwalla Bagh memorial park, site of one of the bloodiest atrocities committed by the British Raj.
In 1919, a series of one-day strikes, or hartals, was staged in Amritsar in protest against the recent Rowlatt Act, which enabled the British to imprison without trial any Indian suspected of sedition. When the peaceful demonstrations escalated into sporadic looting, the lieutenant governor of Punjab declared martial law and called for reinforcements from Jalandhar. A platoon of infantry arrived soon after, led by General R.E.H. Dyer.
Despite a ban on public meetings, a mass demonstration was called by Mahatma Gandhi for April 13, the Sikh holiday of Baisakhi. The venue was a stretch of waste ground in the heart of the city, hemmed in by high brick walls and with only a couple of alleys for access. An estimated twenty thousand people gathered in Jallianwalla Bagh for the meeting. However, before any speakers could address the crowd, Dyer and his 150 troops, stationed on a patch of high ground in front of the main exit, opened fire without warning. By the time they had finished firing, ten to fifteen minutes later, hundreds of unarmed demonstrators lay dead and dying, many of them shot in the back while clambering over the walls. Others perished after diving for cover into the well that still stands in the middle of the bagh.
No one knows exactly how many people were killed. Official estimates put the death toll at 379, with 1200 injured, although the final figure may well have been several times higher; Indian sources quote a figure of two thousand dead. Hushed up for more than six months in Britain, the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre caused an international outcry when the story finally broke. It also proved seminal in the Independence struggle, prompting Gandhi to initiate the widespread civil disobedience campaign that played such a significant part in ridding India of its colonial overlords.
Moving first-hand accounts of the horrific events of April 13, 1919, and contemporary pictures and newspaper reports, are displayed in Jallianwalla Bagh’s small martyrs gallery. The well, complete with chilling bullet holes, has been turned into a memorial to the victims.
There’s a multilingual sound-and-light show every evening, but it isn’t really worth staying for.