Growth and decay are as much a characteristic of cities as of human beings. Only the life-span of cities is much, much longer.
One reads of cities which at one time played a crucial role in history. They come to prominence for reasons which are historical, dynastic, commercial and several other unclassifiable reasons. In terms of our own country one can immediately think of Taxila and Patliputra.
Whenever a city gets associated with a particular religion, it transcends, so to speak, the perils of mortality. In terms of our history Varanasi and Amritsar belong to this category. Thinking of the rest of the world, one thinks of Jerusalem and the Vatican. The explanation is simple. Religions are not exposed to the same hazards as cities are. To be associated with a religion, therefore, is to ensure almost that the city will survive and, indeed, with the passage of time become more and more important.
The city of Amritsar belongs to this category. The recent celebration of the 400th anniversary of its establishment was a most memorable occasion. What this brief volume does is to seek to present the historical profile of this city.
This year we are celebrating with éclat the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Amritsar. We may very well judge the great importance of the occasion from the enthusiastic public response aroused by the event, the magnitude of crowds participating in it and crores of rupees spent or planned to be spent or planned to be spent for the purpose by the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabankhak Committee as well as the state government. No doubt, there are many cities in our country which can justifiably boast of a much longer span of existence. But very few among them can legitimately claim the credit of having risen to the eminence of Amritsar in a similar span of 400 years. Amritsar is now not only the largest city of Punjab in Population but is also a great entrepot of trade and commerce, a magnificent seat of learning and literature, the holiest of the holy Sikh places, the biggest centre of Sikh politics and the strongest defence-post on the country’s north- western frontier. In the evolution of the community it has from the beginning of its existence played a key role, and consequently enshrines numerous hallowed memories for the Sikhs. Latif, the author of History of Punjab perfectly right when he says : “In founding the town of Amritsar at a central spot, the Guru laid the foundation of the future greatness of the Sikhs as a nation, for they were enabled now to rally at a common place of worship, convenienty situated, both as regards distance and fertility of the soil.”
The history of the city of Amritsar has passed through several distinct phases. The foundation and initial growth took place under the third, fourth, fifth and sixth Gurus. The idea came originally from Guru Amar Das. Under his instruction the survey of the spot was conducted by Guru Ram Das (then Bhai Jeth), which subsequently led to its selection for the new Sikh centre. The work on the project was begun by Guru Ram Das and the holy tank (Amrit Sarowar) was completed in his time. His son and immediate successor, Guru Arjan Dev made this tank pacca, constructed the Harimandir in the centre of the tank connecting it with the bank by means of a bridge and having compiled the holy Granth (now regarded as Guru Granth Sahib installed it in the Harimandir with Bhai Budha to act as the Granthi. Guru Arjan Dev also settled in the new basti artisans and craftsmen of diverse callings and inculcated in his followers keen interest in horse trade. Guru Hargobind who succeeded his father Guru Arjan Dev, founded the Akal Takht, exactly facing the Harimandir. This further raised the importance of the place and made it the temporal centre of the place and made it the temporal centre of the Sikhs as well. The addition of the Lohagarh fort and the surrounding city wall gave a further new dimension to the place. The town thus emerging was first called Chak Guru or Chak Guru Ram Das or simply Ramdaspura. Later, it came to be known as Amritsar after the name of the sacred tank of the same name.
In the second phase of its history, the city had to undergo a prolonged ordeal of survival. The ordeal commenced with the outbreak of conflict between Guru Hargobind and the Mughal Government. The Guru decided to leave Amritsar and shifted his headquarters permanently to Kiratpur in 1634. None of his four successors retuned to Amritsar though Guru Har Rai and Guru tegh Bahadur made brief visits to it. After Guru Gobind Singh’s death in 1708, a head on clash started between the Sikhs and the Mughal authorities. It was indeed for the Sikhs a life-and-death struggle in which no effort whatsoever was spared to annihilate and obliterate the Sikh Panth. So the Sikhs had to fight for their very existence, and this terrific state of affairs continued for more than half a century. What was a survival struggle for the Panth was also a survival struggle for the city of Amritsar. This was but natural because the Panth derived its sustenance mainly from Amritsar. The biannual meetings of the Sarbat Khalsa on the occasions of Diwali and Baisakhi festivals were held at Amritsar, where all vital decisions (Gurmatas) were discussed and passed bearing on the problems facing the community. The seats of the Budha dal and Taruna Dal, into which the Sikhs were organized in the time of Nawab Zakria Khan, and the Dal Khalsa, into which they all came to be consolidated in 1748, being located at Amritsar lent to it the appearance of being the emerging capital of the Sikhs. In view of the central role which Amritsar was playing in the Sikh resistance to the Mughals and after them, the Afghans, the enemy attached the maximum importance to the devastation of Amritsar as a precondition of the total destruction of the Panth. The holy tank, Amrit Sarowar, was profaned and filled up with rubbish and the Harimandir standing in its midst was blown off with gunpowder. Likewise, attempts were made to destroy the sanctity of the place by people like Massa Ranghar through undesirable programmes of dancing and singing. Fully cognizant of the gravity of the situation, the Sikhs on their part allowed nothing to come in their way and made every possible sacrifice to safeguard the honour of their holiest of the holy shrines. This whole phase has thus become on the on hand a period of sufferings and hardships and on the other one of valour and heroism.
The third phase of Amrtisar’s history is concerned with the rapid growth and development which the city experienced during the pace Sikh supremacy, 1765-1849. The pace of progess was all round and besides Gurdwaras included in its embrace Katras, Havelis, Bungas, forts and gardens. Details of all these have been given in our Appendix I. So far as the Harimandir is concerned, its present shape and design originated during the period of the Misls whereas its goldenness, from which the name Golden Temple has derived, was almost entirely the contribution of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The degree of attention which the Maharaja and his Sardars bestowed upon Amritsar soon elevated it to the first position among all the cities of the kingdom. Ranjit Singh rendered another meritorious service to the city. He made it the greatest centre of trade and industry in his entire state. No wonder, even Lahore the official capital, was left far behind Amritsar.
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