Millions throng to Amritsar and the ‘Golden Temple’- the holiest shrine of the Sikh community, every year. It is one of the most iconic religious places in India - but few who gaze at its grandeur realize that the Golden Temple also marks a historic turning point for the Sikh faith and the region. The site that was designated as the center of the Sikh order originally, was further afield in Goindval on the banks of the River Beas. It was almost 50 years after Guru Nanak’s death that the Fourth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Ram Das decided to move base to what is now Amritsar.
The move marked a new chapter in the faith and its formalization.
Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak at the end of the 15th century CE. Scholars draw close connections between the early teachings of Guru Nanak and the ‘nirguni’ (formless God) tradition of the Bhakti movement. In fact, Guru Nanak (1469-1539) is considered a Bhakti saint who emerged as a religious and social reformer at a time when a new wave of spiritual rejuvenation was spreading across India. A contemporary of the poet and mystic Sant Kabir, Nanak’s earthy philosophy was embraced quickly across the Punjab. Simple to understand, Nanak’s teachings were initially propagated in the form of hymns and these were later compiled into the sacred text the ‘Guru Granth Sahib’.
It was only in the middle of the 16th century CE that Sikhism was given a formal structure and the two people responsible for this were the third and fourth of the ten Sikh Gurus. Both Guru Amar Das and Guru Ram Das, lesser known as compared to Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh - the last Guru, played a pivotal role in establishing Sikhism and with it, the modern day city of Amritsar.
– Sikhism was given a formal structure in the middle of the 16th century CE
Guru Amar Das was appointed the third Sikh Guru at the ripe old age of 73, on 26th March 1552 CE. Born a Hindu, Guru Amar Das had been a follower of Vaishnavism for most of his life. It was only through his nephew’s wife, daughter of the second Guru, Guru Angad, that he was first introduced to Sikhism. According to Sikh texts , in 1539 CE Amar Das, who was 60 by then, met Guru Angad and decided to devote himself to his service and the Sikh faith. So great a follower was he, that he became Guru Angad’s successor.
Guru Amar Das passed away in 1574 CE leaving incomplete the great task of formalizing the faith that he had started. Under Amar Das Sikhism became far more structured. A religious organisation with trained clergy, the ‘Manji’ was introduced and a set of rituals and ceremonies, unique to the community, were put in place.
When it came to choosing a successor, to follow and fulfill his vision, Guru Amar Das, decided to follow his predecessor and choose his best disciple, his son-in-law Guru Ram Das. Born in Lahore, Bhai Jetha (later Guru Ram Das) was an orphan who moved to Goindval when he was 12. He grew up under the influence of Guru Amar Das and later married his daughter.
But Guru Ram Das’s appointment as the Fourth Guru in 1574 CE didn't go down well with Guru Amar Das’s own sons. Under constant attack from them, it was Guru Ram Das who first moved base to present day Amritsar. According to varied sources, Guru Ram Das had already identified the place for a new base for the Sikh community and named it ‘Guru-ka-chak’. He moved here and founded a settlement, which he renamed Ramdaspur.
There are two versions of how Guru Ramdas got the land for Amritsar. The one based on the Gazetteer record of Amritsar district of 1892-93 states that Guru Ramdas obtained the land as a grant from Emperor Akbar. Though the Gazetteer does not mention any year for the same, various Sikh writers and historians point to the fact that Akbar may have visited Guru Amar Das in Goindval in 1567 CE and being impressed by his work, granted the piece of land to him and his disciples. According to another version, which lacks historical data, the land was purchased through donations made by the followers of the faith for Rs 700, from the owners of the village of Tung.
– Amritsar was initially the name given to the lake and thereafter a tank ‘Amritsarovar’
Interestingly, Amritsar was initially the name given to the lake and thereafter a tank ‘Amritsarovar’ which was excavated by Guru Ram Das in the new settlement in 1577 CE. Sikh chronicles record that caste-groups of 52 different trades and craftsmen from surrounding villages, especially Patti, Kasur and Kalanaur, were called in to take up residence in Amritsar. Guru Ram Das’ abode, later known as Guru ke Mahal was probably the first settlement at the site. It has the distinction of serving as home for the fourth (Ram Das), fifth (Arjan Dev) and the sixth (Hargobind) Gurus besides being the birthplace of the ninth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur.
During the period of the fifth Guru Arjan Dev, the tank Amritsarovar was enlarged to build a temple in the center. The construction of the temple known as Sri Harmandir Sahib or Sri Darbar Sahib, started in 1585 CE. It was envisaged as a place of worship for men and women from all walks of life, open to followers from all religions . The foundation stone of the temple was laid by the Muslim sufi saint, Hazrat Mian Mir. After the completion of the construction of the temple, the Adi Granth was installed here in 1604 CE with due ceremony, thus making it the most important temple of Sikhs. The temple then also became home to the Akal Takht (the throne of the timeless one) and this was installed by the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind.
The trinity of tank, temple and text thus raised the status of Amritsar to the holiest town of the Sikhs. The present day Gurudwara was renovated in 1764 CE by Jassa Singh Ahluwalia a Sikh leader. In the early 19th century CE, Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab secured the region from outside attacks and covered the upper floors of the Gurudwara with 750 kgs of gold thus giving the temple the popular name, ‘Golden Temple’. Ranjit Singh also set up an armoury and military headquarters at the Gobindgarh Fort close by, to protect the holiest shrine of the Sikhs.
The gradual shift of name from Ramdaspur to Amritsar could possibly be accorded to the growing fame of the sacred tank.
The history of Sikhs is intertwined with the the evolution and development of Amritsar as a city. As the faith grew - so did its most important city Amritsar and its holiest shrine The Golden Temple.