When it comes to turning points in Indian history, Amritsar has been witness not to just turning points, but rather tectonic shifts. The Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Operation Blue Star, Partition Riots, all milestones in Indian history, which caused seismic shifts. This was the place where a young Bhagat Singh, swore to liberate India from the British rule. This was the city from where an Udham Singh, traveled all the way to London, to avenge the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, ruled his Sikh empire from here. I had the fortune of visiting this place, when I went to visit my sister at Pathankot.
Guru Nanak founded the Sikh religion in 1499 AD, based on the principles of equality of all humans, women’s equality and a universal religion free of biases. His successor Guru Angad Dev, formalized the Gurmukhi script, and the practice of Kar Seva. His wife founded the principle of the community kitchen or the Langar. Guru Amar Das, prohibited Sati, and established the rule that all Gurudwaras may have the langar. He also came up with the Anand Sahib, which is recited by all Sikhs, when they wake up in the morning.
The Golden Temple or the Harmandir Sahib( The House of the God) was designed by Guru Ram Das, and he was also the author of the Laava, the hymns recited in a Sikh wedding. Guru Ram Das laid the foundation for the Golden Temple, by excavating a tank in 1588, which came to be known as Amritsar( The Pool of Nectar).
Guru Arjan Dev, was more than any one else responsible for the Golden Temple coming into being. He started the construction of the temple and built it. Apart from that he had other numerous achievements, the compilation of the Adi Granth, which is the holy book for the Sikhs, like the Geeta is for Hindus, the Koran is for Muslims and the Bible is for Christians. Sadly this great soul was tortured and killed by Emperor Jahangir in 1606, on suspicion of helping the Emperor’s rivals. Guru Arjan Dev’s murder, turned the Sikh society from an essentially peaceful one, into a militant one. It laid the foundation for Muslim-Sikh rivalry, which was ironical, because it was a Muslim sufi saint, Hazrat Mian Mir, who laid the foundation for the temple. The temple itself was completed in 1601.
Guru Hargobind, who followed Guru Arjan Dev, decreed that the Sikhs must learn the art of weaponry and battle, in order to protect themselves. He also built the Akal Takht in 1608 A.D., which is located in the Golden Temple complex, and is the supreme seat of the Sikh Power. It is one of the 5 sacred takhts of the Sikh faith. He also engaged the Mughal rulers in battles, and laid the foundation of the Sikh army. The turning point came when the Guru Teg Bahadur, the 9th Guru, was tortured and killed by Aurangzeb on March 20,1665. Guru Teg Bahadur was a man of peace, and a saintly soul, and his brutal murder, aroused the Sikh fury.
Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Guru, was the one who finally transformed the Sikhs into a militant race, as the only way to protect themselves. Aurangzeb’s short sighted policies, turned the Sikhs into bitter rivals of the Mughals, and this would prove to be one of the causes of the downfall of the Mughal empire in the years to come. Guru Gobind Singh, made the Guru Granth Sahib, the final authority, and the eternal Guru of the Sikhs. He was responsible for the Khalsa, and the 5 K’s which guide the Sikh religion- Kanga(comb), Kesha( unshorn hair), Kaccha( a pair of knee length shorts) , Kada(bracelet) and Kirpan( sword). He also laid down the code of conduct for the entire Sikh society.
The Golden Temple has 4 entrances, and is surrounded by a small lake known as the Sarovar. The 4 entrances were based on Sikhism’s egalitarian principle, that none should be discriminated in front of God on the grounds of caste, religion and gender. All persons visiting the temple, must cover their heads, and wash their feet, and then walk barefoot, to indicate total surrender to God. The recitation of the Gurbani can be heard throughout the day. Most the Gold covering and exquisite marble work, was the handwork of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the greatest of all the Sikh rulers, and one of the greatest emperors of India. Vaisakhi is a major festival here, which coincides with the founding of Sikhism. While it is a holy place for Sikhs, people of other faiths and religions are also allowed here. The architecture, the recitation of the Gurbani, the devout crowd, the concept of oneness, the langar, makes the Golden Temple really worth a visit.
If the Golden Temple, celebrates the growth of a religion and the rise of a society, the Jallianwala Bagh, marks a turning point in the history of India’s freedom struggle. In 1919 was when the British imposed the Rowlatt Act, and two prominent leaders Saifuddin Kitchlew and Dr. Satyapal Dang were arrested. Riots broke out in Punjab and Amritsar was the scene of major clashes between the British and the protestors.
April 13, 1919- A day which will forever go down as a day of infamy. Jallianwala Bagh is a small garden, surrounded on all sides by houses, walls, and it had just one narrow entrance which also served as the exit. On Baisakhi day, Hindus and Sikhs gathered in 1000’s to celebrate it there. It was also used to protest against the arrests. Gen Reginald Dyer, wanting to teach the “brown natives” a lesson, marched in with an army of 100 soldiers, to fire on a defenseless crowd of men, women and children. The only exit was blocked to prevent people from escaping.
No notice was given, and what happened in the next 10 minutes, would cause any decent human being to hang his head in shame. 1600 rounds were fired, on the huge crowd, who were unarmed and defenseless. People ran helter skelter, trying to find safety. To call it a massacre is to be polite. People who were trying to escape by climbing up the walls were shot dead. We could see the bullet marks when we visited there. People jumped into the well, to escape firing, and after the massacre was over, the well was piled with corpses of men, women and children. People could not escape from the park, as the only exit was blocked. A plaque there says that 120 bodies were recovered from the well alone. 1000 people killed, and more than 2000 wounded. And the worst part, Gen Dyer, was praised for protecting British honor. I just wonder what honor is there in massacring innocent people, women and children. Truly when I visited this place, and saw the museum, it really made me cringe at the way the British keep preaching about fair play, honor and justice.
Amritsar is also home to presitgious educational institutions like the Guru Nanak Dev University, the Khalsa College, the DAV College for Women. Most of these institutions have produced excellent sports players, administrators and other noted personalities. The Medical College is one of the oldest in India, and one of the best.
Some of the notable people from this city are actors Rajesh Khanna, Vinod Mehra, Dara Singh singers Mahendra Kapoor, Mohd Rafi, Narendra Chanchal, Ghulam Hassan, Shamshad Begum cricketers Bishen Singh Bedi, Ashok Malhotra, Madan Lal, Navjyot Singh Siddhu, movie makers Deepa Mehta and India’s top lady cop Kiran Bedi to name a few.
A city steeped in history, tradition and culture, it is also setting foot into the modern era, with an international airport connecting London, Dubai, Singapore. And also well connected with all major cities by road, rail and air. In a state where butter chicken is the staple diet, Amritsar is also famous for it’s fish dish, Amritsari Machli and the Dal Amritsari, not to forget the famous Amritsar Kulcha.