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.