The Sikhs' holy city of AMRITSAR is the largest city in Punjab: noisy, dirty and hopelessly congested, it's also an important staging-post for the Indo–Pakistani frontier at Wagha, 29km west. Its one saving grace is the fabled GoldenTemple, whose domes soar above the teeming streets of the old town, itself a maze of narrow lanes and bazaars. Eighteen fortified gateways punctuate the aptly named Circular Road. Skirting the edge of the old quarter, the railway line forms a sharp divide between the bazaar and the more spacious British-built side of the city. Further north, long straight tree-lined streets eventually peter out into leafy residential suburbs.
Amritsar was founded in 1577 by Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru, beside a bathing pool famed for its healing powers. The land around the tank was granted in perpetuity by the Mughal Akbar to the Sikhs. When merchants moved in, Amritsar expanded rapidly, gaining a grand new temple under Guru Arjan Dev. Sacked by Afghans in 1761, the shrine was rebuilt by the Sikhs' greatest secular leader, Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
Amritsar's twentieth-century history was blighted by appalling massacres. The first occurred in 1919, when thousands of unarmed civilian demonstrators were gunned down without warning by British troops in Jallianwalla Bagh – an atrocity that inspired Gandhi's Non-Co-operation Movement. Following the collapse of the Raj, Amritsar experienced terrible communal blood-letting. The Golden Temple, however, remained unaffected until the 1980s, when as part of a protracted campaign for a Sikh homeland, armed fundamentalists under the preacher-warrior Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale occupied the Akal Takht in the Golden Temple complex. The siege ended in 1984, when prime minister Indira Gandhi ordered an inept paramilitary attack on the temple, code-named Operation Blue Star. Bhindranwale was killed along with two hundred soldiers and two thousand others, including pilgrims trapped inside.
Widely regarded as an unmitigated disaster, Blue Star led directly to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards just four months later, and provoked the worst riots in the city since Partition.