Amritsar is the name of a historical city in the north-western India in a state called Punjab. The city is a home for one of the most important temples (Gurudwaras) for Sikh people. However, the city is not only known for the incredible Golden Temple but also for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 during the British Raj. The tragedy that happened almost 100 years ago is one of the biggest proofs of the cruel and unjustified rule of the British colonizers.
It all started in early 1919 with an infamous Rowlatt Act – The Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act which allowed the rulers to arrest without a warrant or impose indefinite imprisonment without a trial. Many Indian leaders including Mahatma Gandhi strictly opposed this act and hence peaceful protests started to take place in India. However, another protest started in Amritsar as a response to an arrest of two popular leaders – Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlew who according to the government were inciting people. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer had ordered a ban on all the public gatherings and meetings of 4 or more people. However, as he later admitted, the announcement of the new law did not reach many important locations of the city.
On the morning of April 13th, 1919, when Sikh people were celebrating their traditional festival of Baisakhi (Vaisakhi), no one expected that that day would end with an unjustified bloodshed. Many villagers from outside of Amritsar were spending time in the famous gathering place, an open garden called Jallianwala Bagh. Some of them gathered there after the celebrations that took place in the nearby Golden Temple. According to some estimates, around 20,000 to 25,000 people were gathered in the garden with just four exists when Colonel Dyer entered with his troops, blocked all the exits and started to fire at the innocent men, women and children without any warning. After his soldiers fired 1650 rounds in around 10 minutes, he left like nothing really had happened… He had a clear intention to kill as he was telling his troops to aim at the densest parts of the crowd. He even brought special cars with machine guns but the entries turned out to be too narrow. Many people died in the stampedes or simply by jumping to the solitary wells in order to save themselves from the bullets. According to the “official” British data, 379 people died but the ground reality was rather different as other sources estimated more than 1000 deaths. The massacre caused a huge outrage in India even though the British did their best to cover it up.
Even though Dyer was later forced to resign, he was never punished and for many, he became a hero who was called the Savior of the Punjab or the Defender of the Empire…This clearly showed the cruel and insidious attitude that the British Raj had towards Indians. During his questioning, Dyer said:”I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself”. When he was asked about treating the wounded, he unfeelingly answered: “It was not my job. Hospitals were open and they could have gone there. The wounded only had to apply for help.” He also mentioned that his idea “was not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.” Colonel Dyer was known for his other cruelties but still, no one ever had done anything about it.
So, if you visit Amritsar, do not forget the pay respect in the Jallianwala Bagh garden where the bullet holes are still visible. Until today, the British never apologized for their deeds as according to Queen Elizabeth “It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past – Jallianwala Bagh, which I shall visit tomorrow, is a distressing example. But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness.”Also, David Cameron who visited the site in 2013 described the massacre as “a deeply shameful event in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described at that time as monstrous. We must never forget what happened here and we must ensure that the UK stands up for the right of peaceful protests”.
The Golden Temple
On the other hand, the famous Harmandir Sahib is known around the world for its unforgettable atmosphere of spirituality. More than 400 years old complex is open for all the people regardless of their religion, social background or nationality and that is signified by four entrances pointing at four directions. The place where today lies the Amrit Sarovar (the Pool of Nectar) used to be a meditation site for Guru Nanak – the founder of Sikhism. In 1578 the fourth Sikh Guru Ram Das enlarged the tank which became the base for the whole complex and also gave the name to the city – Amritsar. In 1604 the construction of the temple was completed. Even though the complex was attacked throughout the history, it was always reconstructed.
Right in the middle of the Holy Tank, the Hari Mandir astonishes you with the outstanding golden decorations and marble sculptures. Gold was added in the 19th century and till today it continues to be admired by many tourists. However, for most of the visitors, spirituality, worship and meditation are more important than anything else. To reach to the Hari Mandir, the pilgrims take a parikrama (walkway) clockwise around the lake. Even though there are plenty of devotees, there is an incredible order and calmness as people are deeply involved in the praying and contemplation. Inside the temple, one can see the Guru Granth Sahib – the Holy Book of Sikhism. Experience the spiritual atmosphere when these scriptures are chanted every day together with a peaceful sound of music instruments. If you can, be there early in the morning when the whole procession is taking the Book to the temple and then late night when it is taken away to the sanctum for the night. The morning ceremony of Palki Sahib starts very early – around 4.30 am so make sure that you get there on time. The night ceremony takes place around 10 pm. During the ceremony, people standing in a line are passing the heavy palanquin so everyone can be an active participant of the event. And also the view of the temple during the sunset and the sunrise is mesmerizing…
Experience the Guru-ka-Langar – the common kitchen where people can eat for free every day. No one will ask for your creed, your upbringing or financial status. Everyone is free to take some tasty food. According to some data, even up to 300,000 can be fed every day (other data say 35,000 or 75,000). Amazing vegetarian food that it offers is really tasty and very organic and it is served by volunteers. During the meal, everyone sits on the floor which is a common practice in other langars as well. If you have enough time, visit the Central Sikh Museum where you can go deeper into the history of Sikhism and see the most important personalities of Sikhism including for example gurus and warriors. There are also many other places which are worth a visit but it all depends on the time that you have there. And one more thing, being in Amritsar or any other place in Punjab, do not miss the famous old dhabas which are small restaurants with amazing Punjabi style cuisine.
Also don’t forget to check this short documentary film by me that talks about the Sikhs who made a Gurudwara in Britain-