HT Special | Amritsar’s makeover: Golden grandeur with a heritage tinge
Enter the city of Amritsar and there is a golden gate looming over the skyline shaped like the dome of the Golden Temple (Darbar Sahib), the holiest of the Sikh shrines. As the pilgrimage progresses, there is a gilded leaf patterned Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) track being given a fresh coat of paint. This is not all as more spectacularly awaits visitors to the city this fall, including a changed route to the shrine.
It’s a look of wonder in the eyes of visitors as the beautification project, spearheaded by deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, has taken shape in spite of many doubts and criticism by people of Amritsar. The long stretch from Town Hall to Jallianwala Bagh has nothing of the old familiar bustle. For a moment, one wonders if it is our old “Ambarsar” or a newly renovated heritage palace from the Pink City of Jaipur. Well, the marvel has indeed come up in less than a record one year, thanks to Jaipur architect Anup Bartaria and his firm called Sincere Architects.
The facades of all buildings are blushing pink in Kota stone tiles and trellis screens and this includes the market places and shops selling the city’s famous “pappar-warhian”, Punjabi “juttis”, religious artefacts and much more. It is disbelief for a moment that one is perhaps a trespasser into a cinema studio all painted and unreal waiting for directors to call the shots. Even shopkeepers look like some junior artistes who do not know how to play their part and what lines to say. The grimy Dharam Singh Market on the Golden Temple road has been turned into pretty pink, and right in front is a rectangular block on which life-size bhangra dancers, carved out of black marble, are jeering and striking poses.
Old order changeth
There is no choice but to pinch oneself and say this is no cinema studio, carnival or theatre set, but something for real and then one cries out a la poet Alfred Tennyson: “The old order changeth yielding place to new”. Change is inevitable, but that it can happen so quickly is a bit surprising.
But go to public works department (PWD) engineer Jasbir Singh Sodhi and one knows that it isn’t fairy godmother who has made a golden carriage out of a pumpkin for poor Cinderella. “We have been working hard day and night and the spirit behind the project is the deputy CM without whom it was something impossible to achieve. Around 1.5 lakh devotees visit the Golden Temple on weekdays and the footfall goes up to 2 lakh on Sundays and sangrand (the first day of a month of the Indian solar calendar). So you can imagine how we worked through the nights to complete the project.”
He reveals the first phase of the beautification project had cost Rs 103 crore and the basement centres, which will beam the Golden Temple history electronically, will incur an expenditure of another Rs 52 crore. The second phase of the project, right up to the Hall Gate road, will begin soon after the inauguration. Sukhbir has announced that he would spend Rs 500 to Rs 600 crore for the facelift of the holy city.
When asked what were the satisfying moments in midst of all the hard work, Sodhi says: “It is satisfying to do service in the Guru ki Nagri. This sprit has kept us going.”
Something for everyone
As one moves through this magical makeover lane, there is something for everyone. In a salute to the largest democracy of the world, there is a mini replica of Parliament and a giant-sized statue of architect of the Indian Constitution BR Ambedkar.
The highest pedestal of white marble has intricate carving of elephants and war scenes and small statues of Sikh generals and a huge statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh riding a horse with a sword in hand on the top. This symbolises the great period of the Sikh glory.
Outside the Jallianwala Bagh is yet another flame-shaped marble memorial in to martyrs who lost their lives in the 1919 massacre. And all these sculptures are spread out on a grand plaza paved with Makrana marble in white and ochre designs and a huge central fountain. There is more stone paving the paths; kota tiles here and katni bricks there.
The marble is bound to catch the heat and some green is required, so huge planters with flowering shrubs have been placed along the paths.
Politics or art?
At the Art Heritage Studio, the two Danish brothers are busy taking out prints of Sikh generals’ portraits on canvas. Their legacy is great, for their grandfather Gian Singh (1883-1953) was one of the original engravers whose frescoes once graced Akal Takht, which was pulled down and built again in the days of militancy. Satpal Danish, the younger of the two siblings, says: “Is it a good thing to lose the real heritage and then create artificial heritage walks? I think this whole project is more political than artistic.” The studio has well-preserved documentation of the Golden Temple art lost over time.
Surinder Singh, the older brother, who has visited Vatican City, says: “We should learn about heritage and its conservation from them. How beautifully they have preserved their heritage.”
Art historian Subhash Parihar says: “In Punjab, we have rarely shown sensitivity to aesthetics and all we are capable of is marbling everything or worst still putting ceramic titles. This has been done to many gurdwaras. In fact, the diverse architecture of the Sikh shrines has been preserved better in Pakistan because they have not fallen into this trap.”
City-based photographer Sandeep Singh says: “A visitor can just park his vehicle, take a rickshaw or a two-wheeler, do ‘darshan’ of the Darbar Sahib and go away without getting a feel of this city of ours which has much to offer. I feel we should revive some of the old traditions of the city like the Basant Poetry Festival and Sawan Sangeet Festival.”
Traders hit hard
Shopkeepers in the Golden Temple’s vicinity have been hit hard in the past one year with the construction and facelifts. Many shops have been hidden by the trellis screens. Inder Dev and his son, who sell Punjabi juttis say: “Our space has been decreased because of the new shutters and there are strict instructions that we will not display out wares outside.”
As we walk along, Amar Singh, an elderly man in a blue turban, who earlier sold combs and “karas” on a cart, pulls us out from the plaza to a small “chhabeel” he has set up in a corner of the lane leading to the bus stand. “What use is this stone to the pilgrims? They need cold water and washrooms, which are nowhere to be seen here.” He serves water in steel bowls and we drink our fill. There is a box in which visitors can put a coin or two if they want.
War and partition museums
A large bronze mural remembering the Battle of Saragarhi (1897), in which 21 soldiers of 36th Sikhs died fighting Afghan tribesmen in the North-West Frontier Province, stretches across the front wall of the War Memorial and Museum at Chheharta on the Attari road to the Pakistan border, and is one of the prestigious projects aimed at tourists who frequent the Indo-Pak border. Besides, it has a 45-metre sword jutting into the sky. It covers an area of seven acres and has captured Pakistani Paton and Sherman tanks, which were destroyed by India’s Centurion tank in the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 71. The memorial, which will have pictures of soldiers who laid down their lives, is the patriotic segment of the Amritsar development project. Constructed at a cost of Rs 150 crore by the Union defence ministry, it aims at paying homage to the Punjabis in protecting the nation. It will include a light and sound show.
Inspired by the holocaust and such other museums in the West, the renovated Town Hall near the Golden Temple will house the Partition Museum, which according to its director Kishwar Desai, will recall the losses and sorrows of the great divide, which led to mass killings and displacement. Putting together the painful memories through objects as well as electronically, the museum records the pain of the divide and the sacrifices of people. The aim of such a museum will also be to educate people on the perils of such a tragedy.
Rs 310-cr spent on giving facelift to the 200 m corridor from the historic Town Hall to the Golden Temple. Project to be inaugurated on October 24.
Rs 130-cr war memorial on Amritsar-Attari road opened by CM Badal on Sunday.
Rs 8-cr majestic entry to the holy city will be inaugurated by Sukhbir Badal on October 24. The gate replicates the domes of the Golden Temple.