It only makes sense that the city is so full of vigor, for as much as Amritsar is a city of the divine, it is a city of life. The local, street side cuisine, with its kulchas (flatbreads) and chole (chickpea stew), phirni (rice pudding) in traditional clay pots and hearty glasses of buttermilk, is the stuff of envy across India. The stunning although neglected old town, a maze of narrow streets, junctions and small squares, is full of lively and bustling bazaars and seems to be lost in time.
However, at the heart of Amritsar’s magnanimous and open character is a dark contemporary history that has played a crucial part in shaping the city’s – as well as Sikhism’s – self-conception and dynamics.
As the second-biggest city in Punjab, Amritsar was often a hotspot for gatherings and protests during British colonial rule. One such event took a brutal turn in 1919, when a British general gave orders to fire upon a peaceful meeting of people, which came to be known as the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, where up to 1,500 people died.
Additionally, when the British hastily left India in 1947, the violence that engulfed the Indian Partition heavily affected Amritsar due to the city’s location next to the newly drawn border. (Due to this history, India’s first and only Partition Museum opened in Amritsar in 2017.)
In 1984, Amritsar once again became the site of tragic events. A momentous military operation ordered by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi involved the storming of the Golden Temple by military forces to weed out secessionists, the jitters of which are felt even today. It led to the assassination of Gandhi by his two Sikh bodyguards a few months later, and a massacre of thousands of innocent Sikhs across India in the following days.