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Religious development

Amritsar has occupied a unique place in the historical annals of India since its conception and establishment in 1577. It emerged as a religious centre for Sikhs when Guru Ramdas chose the location for the development of a body of holy water (Amrit Sarovar) and the temple Hari Mandir, now called Harmandir Sahib. The city around it was known as Ramdaspur. Built over 30 years and completed in 1601, the temple itself is designed as four open doorways to symbolise the inclusion of all castes. The temple is a modest three-floor building in marble with its upper floors clad in gold sheets. The architectural style of the temple complex is a blend of Mughal and Hindu architecture. The beauty of the complex stems from its simplicity and immaculate upkeep. With over 150,000 pilgrims and tourists every day, reaching 600,000 during special festivals, the Golden Temple is one of the emblems of religious tourism in India today.

Continuous skirmishes with the Mughal rulers laid the foundation of a militant strain within Sikhism. It was aided by the inclusion of Jats (a warrior class within Hinduism) in the Sikh community. These Khalsa Sikhs grouped into political units called misls that were like separate confederacies uniting when faced with a common danger. Each misl established their territory in Ramdaspur that were called katras, physically and spatially organised around the Hari Mandir. While these katras were not interconnected, they reinforced the temple as the nucleus of what would later become the walled city of Amritsar.


The partition of Punjab relegated Amritsar into becoming a border town and had a disastrous effect


Traders organised themselves on particular streets according to their caste and trade. Most katras had specific wholesale markets located inside as well as residential quarters, for example Katra Mit Singh with its grain market (Kanak Mandi). The walled city, at the height of its glory, was 3.4 square kilometres, of which two-thirds were densely populated katras, the rest were dhabs (ponds) and baghs (gardens). Gardens closest to the temple were part of private estates called Bungas, which belonged to chieftains visiting from Lahore. Bunga Jallianwalan and its garden belonged to General Himmat Singh Jallianwalan. Although some were attached to religious institutions, some belonged to rich merchants and several to the landed gentry. Parts of a garden could be portioned off from the larger gardens for personal use if one could obtain such an endowment.


Top: Amritsar 1849: Katras, Dhabs and Baghs
Middle:  Grand Trunk Road, Lahore-Amritsar
Bottom: Grand Trunk Road,  Amritsar- Walled city


Economic development

Consolidation of Sikh power in the 18th century saw Amritsar emerge as a flourishing trade centre besides a religious centre even though Lahore remained the political and cultural capital. It became a prominent trade centre as it lay on Asia’s oldest trade routes: the Grand Trunk Road connecting Kabul to Delhi and onwards to Kolkata. Besides Europe, Central Asia was an important region for the export and import of goods. By the time the British annexed Punjab in 1849, Amritsar was already a thriving, religiously diverse, large but fine-grained city in Punjab. One of the most important items of trade since its establishment was related to textiles. Amritsar rose to the challenges with the development of machine-made textiles and flooded the market with cheaper spun cloth. Aided by incentives under the British rule, Amritsar industrialists diversified from luxury goods such as high-end shawls to utility goods such as tanning, ivory and furniture carving, soaps and chemicals. The merchants were the new nobles gaining favour under the British to be rewarded with estates belonging to earlier Sikh nobility. The city walls had been torn down, dhabs (ponds) filled and agricultural land developed as more land was needed to expand the city. By the end of the 1930s, the city had grown to 13 square kilometres.


The killings at Jallianwalan Bagh sealed the notion of British brutality, igniting a national consciousness


Political development

During the British Raj, while Amritsar remained a thriving cultural and commercial centre, it was also the centre of unrest against the British repression and religious reform spurred by the four-fold increase in Christian conversions. For a while Sikhs were favoured by the British for their support against the Indian Rebellion of 1857. However, during World War I, ‘the best martial race of India’ was disproportionately and forcefully recruited to fight for Britain. Against this restless backdrop, the Rowlatt Act 1919, which severely curbed freedoms in order to maintain imperial control, was introduced and resulted in Mahatma Gandhi launching his first Satyagraha Movement. While protests and meetings were being held all over India, Amritsar was particularly volatile due to the arrest of the local leaders of the civil disobedience movement.

On 13 April 1919, the cold-blooded ambush of an unarmed crowd comprising of women and children at the open ground near the Golden Temple called Jallianwala Bagh, stunned the nation. Condoning the mass killing as an ‘error in judgment’ forever sealed, in the minds of Indians, the brutality of the British regime. Together with disillusionment of Indians due to the oppressive Rowlatt Act, the killings at Jallianwala Bagh are credited for igniting a new national consciousness. This tragic brutality catapulted an enclosed, nondescript, uneven piece of open ground into national prominence.


Top: Approach to the Golden Temple and facade makeover for Dharam Singh Market
Bottom Left:  Entrance to the Golden Temple
Bottom Right: Narrow lanes of Amritsar


Decline: The Partition

The British viewed Punjab as the real India. It was a meeting point of three major religions and three distinct linguistic identities without a single dominant social structure. This celebrated fine grain of the city that created the complex and its rich cultural composition also proved to be its downfall. The forced migration caused entire families to be uprooted and over 12 million people crossed borders over a period of six months. Fierce contestation for physical spaces caused enormous damage to the cities on either side of the border and claimed millions of lives. The cities of Lahore and Amritsar were particularly affected as political, religious and social chasms opened up between its citizens. Before the Partition, Amritsar’s composition was 49% Muslim, 34% Hindu and 15% Sikh. Partition changed the composition of the population completely as most of the Sikhs were now concentrated on the Indian side of Punjab and the city saw its Muslim population dwindle to single digits in percentage.

The partition of Punjab had a disastrous effect on the city of Amritsar. From its inception, Amritsar had enjoyed a central location in Punjab Province, at the right distance from the political capital of Lahore and at the inflexion point of the Grand Trunk Road for trading purposes. The Radcliffe Line (boundary demarcation line between India and Pakistan) relegated the city of Amritsar first to a transit centre for refugees and then as the border town instead of the centre, as it had previously been. It could not serve as a capital for Punjab due to its proximity to the border. Nor was it centrally located within the newly partitioned Punjab (India). Furthermore, its dense city centre did not allow space for newly needed institutions.

The loss of Lahore to the west and Delhi to the east was also a blow to the economy of Punjab. Amritsar was now at the terminus of the railway and road, requiring tax clearances and trade agreements. Raw materials that would previously flow to the town through the much closer Karachi now had to be re-routed through Mumbai. Mass migration also caused the labour pool to be transformed. Amritsar’s urban Muslim population comprising artisans, craftsmen, blacksmiths etc. had migrated and in their place were Hindus who belonged to the trading classes. This change in labour structure had huge economic implications for Amritsar’s textile industry. It could no longer employ the skilled and unskilled labour it needed for small-scale handloom industries. The tension between India and Pakistan deterred private and public investment in industries, which slowly moved out to interior cities like Ludhiana.


Partition of Punjab


Top: Jallianwalan Bagh: Rest Area.Memorial, South side
Bottom: Jallianwalan Bagh Firing Line. Memorial, North side


Urban development today

As if pre-Independence upheaval was not enough, Punjab experienced further partition in 1966 to create new states on linguistic grounds. Punjab was further divided into Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. It got a newly developed city, Chandigarh, as its capital, but has to share it with its newly formed neighbour Haryana. During the 1950s and 1960s the state went through intense mechanisation of agriculture and a ‘Green Revolution’ ensued with the introduction of the HYV wheat and rice varieties. Unfortunately, this time it created divisions between large tract holders and small farms creating a vast number of landless farmers. It was increasingly felt that the wealth generated through agriculture, was subsidising development in other states and Punjab was not receiving any incentives for industrial development. In 1984, Amritsar was again at the centre of conflict with demands for a separate Sikh state.

Today, in spite of economic decline due to loss of its manufacturing base, Amritsar is trying to reinvent itself to a place from where it started: as the holiest centre for Sikhs. For generations, faith has propelled Indians regardless of age, religion, caste, gender and economics to undertake pilgrimages. Increasing mobility and accessibility has added the dimension of sightseeing and leisure among domestic travelers. The committee managing the Harmandir Sahib has been ahead of the religious tourism curve, building rest inns and public utilities around the temple since 1931. The biggest and the oldest inn, Guru Ramdas Niwas, not only provides hundreds of rooms and bedding free of cost but also transforms its courtyard at night into an open-air dormitory. Dharam Singh Market along the main approach road to the Golden Temple is going through a widening, pedestrianisation and a façade makeover.


Jallianwalan Bagh looks like a quintessential neighbourhood park rather than a national monument that marks one of the key moments in our country’s struggle for freedom


Whether beautification will remain skin deep like a studio set or, worse, turn the street into a Disney ‘Main Street’ remains an open question. The presence of McDonalds and Pizza Hut near the Jallianwalan Bagh entrance, are particularly jarring. However, by pedestrianising the street, the project has addressed a real need to ease movement of pilgrims and tourists towards the temple. Additionally, a multi-level plaza is being built on recently acquired land in front of the temple complex to accommodate the increasing number of tourists. Hopefully, the improvements will ease the handling of tourists and give residents an incentive to renovate the crumbling interiors of the centuries-old katras. While growing religious tourism is good for Amritsar’s economy, the temple’s proximity to the Jallianwalan Bagh is diluting the identity of this national memorial. In modern times, this six-acre park within Amritsar’s walled city looks like a quintessential neighbourhood park rather than a national monument that marks one of the key moments in our country’s struggle for freedom.


Amritsar has had a very rich socio-political history that has tremendously affected its physical spaces and the city form. The city core requires a multi-layered open space strategy to accommodate the growing number of religious tourists and residents while preserving the gravitas needed to showcase its history. It has moved in the right direction by upgrading its main street that is the principal access to the Golden Temple, but it has allowed Jalianwalan Bagh, a key piece of our national heritage to be diminished by letting it be used relentlessly as a rest garden. If Amritsar wants to arrest its declining role in the region, it needs to address and reconsider how to capitalise on its historical significance in a changing world. Amritsar needs to have several identities besides a singular religious one if it wants to retain its value in the long run for the entire nation.


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