Tracing the heritage of Holy City

The spiritual charm of Amritsar does not begin and end with the golden grandeur of Harmandar Sahib. It can also be found in the countless alleys of the walled city, where chapters of the city’s glorious cultural legacy await to be unfolded. Right outside the Golden Temple, you have your first brush with Amritsar’s lesser-known heritage ‘ Baba Atal, the magnificent nine-storeyed octagonal building of a gurdwara ‘ that marks the take-off point of the freshly-initiated Amritsar Heritage Walk, which is modelled on the lines of the one introduced in Ahmedabad.

The Golden Temple
Built in the memory of Guru Hargobind’s son Atal Rai, Baba Atal was completed in 113 years. The present structure of the gurdwara, with beautiful frescoes, is a legacy of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who took over Amritsar in the beginning of the 19th century. Unlike many others, this building has survived urban strains and retains some of its original splendour. The 45-metre-high gurdwara also beautifies the dull Galiyara area around the Golden Temple. The Galiyara or the precinct edge was built to absorb the pressure on the sacred confines of the Darbar Sahib.


HERTIAGE WALK MAP The final destination of the Heritage Walk

The walk into the past ‘ the virtual history trail ‘ showcases this once opulent city as a bustling entity. The grandeur of the past stares at you from the old buildings in the walled city. Along the way, you bump into fascinating sites ‘ akharas or religious hostels, community wells that have dried up under urban pressure and alleys that were once home to writers like Saadat Hasan Manto .`85

t of these sites overlook garbage dumps, demolished buildings, defaced walls, wire meshes…. and this is the only remorseful aspect of an otherwise scintillating experience that sets off from Baba Atal. The next halt is at Balanand Akhara.

This akhara has nothing to do with wrestlers. Akharas here are hostels for spiritual students and home to saints, who gather here for discussions. This 250-year-old akhara houses 400-year-old paintings of the Sikh school of art, which drew on those themes of the Bhakti Movement that the Gurus included in the Grant Sahib. There are 12 functional akharas in Amritsar (their number was more earlier), t of them are within the walled city. The Sangalwara Akhara, located opposite Harmandar Sahib, has beautifully carved doors. Its ground level indicates the original level of the Holy City. Chitta Akhara, placed 19th on the Heritage route, has beautiful wall paintings, which are losing their sheen due to the absence of care.

One of the 500 wells that fed the katras in the old city

From the akharas, you reach Jallianwala Bagh, which speaks of the darkest hour in the history of India’s freedom struggle. The entrance to this monument of national significance, however, does not befit its stature, nor are the interiors very well kept. The site is a testimony to General Dyer’s gory act that claimed lives of 2000 Indians who had gathered here for a peaceful assembly. After the Bagh, comes Qila Ahluwalia. In the late 18th century, when Amritsar was still called Ramdaspur (from Guru Ram Das who laid its foundation on June 14, 1577), Sikh chiefs established autonomous administration in katras (walled localities). With one main iron gate (a few katras in Amritsar still have such gates), the katra provided security to its inhabitants.

During the times of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the cavalry used the 250-year-old Qila Ahluwalia. Stables and barracks were a part of this fort. Though beautifully built, the Qila now stands severely defaced, with garbage thrown at its entrance. A common feature found in the majority of public and private buildings in the walled city is a hand in jaap mudra, hanging from corners of each balcony. The hand, now rarely found, also holds a rosary.

The next in line is Gurdwara Saragarhi, dedicated to the brave Sikh soldiers who sacrificed their lives while fighting the Afghans in 1897. While the memorial stands in Amritsar, Saragarhi is located in Pakistan. Further down, the Heritage Walk takes you to Townhall, the building that connects old elements with new. It recreates the British era in Punjab.

Passing by the British architectural finesse, you reach Gurdwara Taahli Sahib (also Gurdwara Santoksar), with the first sarovar which was dug up under the supervision of Guru Ram Das. Progressing further, you reach the spot from where Guru Arjan Dev supervised the construction of Harmandar Sahib. The 400-year-old Gurdwara Darshani Deorhi is located amidst a row of private houses that have caved in due to the pressure of demolitions and encroachments. They had common features like a verandah, staircase, and a balcony. At many places, the heavy concentration of telephone and electricity wires disturbs the visual harmony of these buildings.

The harmony can be retraced in the next site ‘ Guru ke Mahal, which used to be the residence of Guru Arjan Dev. Interestingly, Guru Bazaar, the market that developed between Guru ke Mahal and the Golden Temple is now a famous gold market, adding a sparkle to the Heritage Walk. Among the many gurdwaras along the route that was planned after a six-month survey, Gurdwara Toba Bhai Salo is particularly interesting. It is located on the banks of a pond where Guru Ajran Dev’s servant Bhai Salo used to rest. Gurdwara Lohgarh takes you deeper into history: it marks the site where Guru Hargobind built a fort to protect Amritsar from western invaders. This historic gurdwara has lost its glory, with its facade sporting a distempered look.

Walking across filthy crossings, we reach the bylane that was once home to Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. Beyond this locality lies the magnificent Hindu College, which was built to prepare the Sikhs for changing times.
After walking for over 45 minutes, the first temple on the route surfaces. Temple Radhe Shyam, built 250 years ago by Jamandaar Khushhal Singh, in charge of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s treasury, lies utterly neglected. The story of people’s disinterest and public apathy continues till you reach the Taksal, the place where coins were minted during the rule of Ranjit Singh. Strategically constructed, the Taksal used to have several underground routes that led to the Golden Temple. These routes are now closed.

From Gurdwara Chowrasti Attari, which came up on the crossing of Guru Bazaar, the entire commercial activity can be witnessed. Close to this gurdwara lies the Thakurdwara temple. Famous for its woodwork, this temple is the 17th site on the route.

The historic Baba Boarh temple derives its name from the 500-year-old banyan tree that adorns its compound. Even though the branches of this holy tree have encroached on the residential area, no one interferes with its growth.

From this temple, you reach the various city bazaars. Significantly, Amritsar exports tea to Pakistan and other countries.

It is, however, heritage and not commerce that defines the walled city. With people turning a blind eye to tradition and authorities taking too long to shake off inertia, the character of the old city will take long to be restored. The local chapter of INTACH recently listed 350 buildings with over a century of history, confirming that each of these buildings needed to be preserved with care. In a seminar held before the Heritage Week Celebrations in Amritsar between December 3 and 7, INTACH proposed to the government to raise loans for conservation in the walled city. Sukhdev Singh, coordinator of the Heritage Walk and president, Indian National Trust for Art, Culture and Heritage (INTACH), Punjab Chapter, says: "We have recommended heritage regulations in the Local Bodies Act, besides demanding heritage status for Khalsa College." Conservationist Debashish Nayak makes the final point in favour of old cities: "Old buildings and older areas of the city should be looked upon as assets rather than liabilities because they represent the history of tradition, heritage and culture through architecture and urban form. These areas have been places of life, vitality, wealth, power, enlightenment and culture. They are the real core areas of strong architectural and urban character and we must save them collectively."
Photos by Rajiv Kumar Sharma

 Concerns of the walled city

  • Improper drainage, poor sanitation facilities; garbage dumps common.
  • Residential areas being converted into commercial buildings in the absence of stringent laws.
  • The historic Mochian Bazar has lost its character ever since it was shifted from its original location in the walled city.
  • There is a proposal to acquire the Balanand Akhara also. The MC earlier proposed to demolish the Saragarhi Memorial School and the Sangalwara Akhara for creating parking zones. Punjab INTACH intervened and saved the situation.
  • The demolition of the Haveli Jamadaraan in the walled city is going on.
  • Visual disharmony. Building exteriors cluttered with small, large sign boards.
  • The walled city has lost its character due to decay of heritage sites due to inadequate protection and incentives.

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