The great visionary Sri Guru Ram Das ji developed Amritsar as a spiritual cum commercial center more than 425 years ago for not only his followers in faith but for the men and women from all faiths and ethnicities living in India of those days. He had the divine knowledge that earning one’s own livelihood is essential for survival with dignity. So he invited professional traders from different parts of India to settle in the neighbourhoods around the holy shrine “Sri Darbar Sahib. His successor, Sri Guru Arjan Dev ji, got the Holy Guru Granth Sahib compiled and installed in the sanctum sanctorum of the great spiritual fountainhead Sri Darbar Sahib located in the middle of the pool of nectar. This helped in further reinforcement of this great city’s status as the spiritual fountainhead for the evolving Sikh faith. Side by side, the commercial importance of this city kept increasing by leaps and bounds. The sixth Guru Hargobind Sahib established the Akal Takhat Sahib as the inspirational centre for the spiritual and temporal power for the transforming Sikh faith which emerged as a community of saint soldiers.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s desire was to develop this holy city, located next doors to his Capital City of Lahore, not only as the Vatican for the Sikh faith, but also to develop it into the biggest commercial hub of his empire. He took pains to bring India’s most astute business community, the Marwaris of Rajasthan to be the torchbearers of the trading activities of this city. When in 1849, after their victory in the final Anglo-Sikh War, the British annexed Punjab and other territories of the Ranjit Empire, they found this city to be an ideal place for the development of trade, industry and commercial activities. Being the successors of the erstwhile East India Company, the British had a clear idea of the business potential of this city and they tried to create congenial conditions for Amritsar to develop as a commercial and manufacturing city. While deciding the final alignment of present day Grand Trunk Road, the British in order to bring Amritsar on the Calcutta-Peshawar Highway, did not follow the alignment of the old road built by Emperor Sher Shah Suri, but instead they metalled the alignment of the thorofare used by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the caravans of Sikh Misls between Lahore and Amritsar. From Amritsar it was extended to Jalandhar instead of Nurmahal via Sultanpur Lodhi or Nakodar. This highway was developed into an important transportation artery. During the period of the British Rule, Amritsar not only became a big manufacturing center of cotton and woolen textiles, but also became Northern India’s leading wholesale market for cloth and dry fruits. Other industries like those for steel products, religious articles, fans etc also flourished in this city. After the capital city of Lahore, Amritsar became the second biggest center of higher learning in Punjab. It had a fine galaxy of schools and collages.
Prior to India’s independence in 1947, Amritsar was the leading most business center and the second most populous city of Punjab. This city retained its preeminent status even after the 1947 division of Punjab between India and Pakistan. But after the November 1, 1966 trifurcation of East Punjab into Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, the leadership of truncated Punjab slipped into more populous and geographically larger Malwa Region of the state. Since no major federal industrial project or development scheme was allocated to Amritsar after 1966 as an economic booster doze, this city’s downhill journey started. The three Indo-Pak Wars, did not affect Lahore adversely, because the entire weight of Pakistan’s federal and provincial administration was behind that city. Amritsar on the contrary did not enjoy such state or federal patronage, that is why it has been losing out to more centrally located Ludhiana, the capital city of Chandigarh and now to the new emerging industrial cum information technology hub of Mohali. The traffic and business from J&K also bye-passes Amritsar.
Amritsar has lost most of its industry to other cities located within Punjab and in the neighbouring states like Himachal Pradesh. Tourism is one industry, which is thriving in the World and lately it is flourishing in India too. Tourist industry, which is unique to this city, can not be taken away from Amritsar to any other city.
Only one great spiritual shrine, Sri Darbar Sahib (now popularly known as the Golden Temple), has so far prevented the complete financial ruin of Amritsar. It is the Golden Temple, this city’s primary tourist attraction, which has so far been saving this city from a complete financial meltdown. Otherwise this once popular industrial cum business city would also have gone the Ferozepore way. As the World is shrinking due to rapid pace of globalization, the business of tourism is expanding rapidly. Tourism is making a quantum jump in India also. Thanks to the existence of the Golden Temple, this city is also getting its share of the national as well as international tourist traffic. The phenomenal success of Amritsar International Airport is giving a big booster shot to tourism in this city.
Amritsar’s Central Railway Station is one of the busiest railway terminuses in the country. It brings 58 long distance trains every day to this border city. Along with the thousands of disembarking passengers, a large percentage consists of the pilgrims to the Golden Temple. This consistent year round stream of tourists constitutes the lifeline of this city. Amritsar’s international tourism season starts in November and ends in March. This city’s World famous Diwali and the birth anniversaries of Sri Guru Nanak Dev ji and Guru Gobind Singh ji fall during this very period. Devotees from all over the World during this season converge here.
Amritsar’s new interstate bus terminal commissioned in 2005, handles more than a hundred thousand passengers every day. It is located very close to the Golden Temple. Thousands among the bus riders are the visitors to the Golden Temple. In addition several thousand more pilgrims arrive into the city by private vehicles, tourist buses and other means. All these visitors bring some business to the city.
One of the reasons for the runaway success of Amritsar’s recently up-graded International Airport is the eager desire of every Sikh living almost anywhere in the World to pray at the Golden Temple, on his/her arrival in India. The same is true for the return journey too. In 2008 about 100 regular international flights per week will be landing at this airport, bringing in at least 6 Lakh passengers into this city. Chartered flights and the additional rush season flights are in addition to these numbers. Next year the number of international and domestic flights per week will exceed 160 and the number of passengers will comfortably surpass the seven hundred thousand mark. At present most of the aircraft using this airport are mid-sized, carrying between 200 and 250 passengers. As the traffic picks up the size of the aircrafts landing at the Amritsar airport will become much larger. The runway has also been lengthened to accommodate the largest passenger aircraft. Right now the Boeing Jumbo 777s are using this airport and soon Jumbo 747-400s and Jumbo 787 dream-liner aircrafts will be able to use this airport.
The area within a 100 mile radius of Bermingham in England is the home of approximately half a million Punjabis. Most of them had immigrated to England as factory workers during the nineteen fifties and sixties. A large percentage of these ex-factory workers is practically illiterate. Many of them are in their sixties, seventies and eighties. At that age, they are scared of flying, especially to those places, where the airport staff does not understand their mother tongue. With the commencement of virtually daily Amritsar-Bermingham-Toronto flights, these U.K. based senior citizens are not only traveling to India, but also to Toronto in Canada. Most of the airport staff handling their flights at both Amritsar and Bermingham speaks Punjabi. By doing so a big market of potential passengers to India has been opened up. Those Punjabis, who land at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, have to travel for six to eight hours to reach their destinations in Punjab through Haryana, where the police harasses them the most. Such troublesome misbehaviours leave a bad taste in the mouth of the passengers. After landing in Amritsar, the Punjabi passengers, even belonging to far away districts take a maximum of three to four hours to reach their homes and the behavior of the Punjab Police is also not unhelpful. The Delhi Airport is badly congested and the drive to the airport through Delhi takes at least ninety minutes
In spite of increased tourist traffic to Amritsar by rail or road, the businesses in the city did not gain much. The reason used to be the short span of stay in the city. Those, who come by train have the option of several other trains to travel out of the city. In America, the experience of experts in tourism indicates that the day time tourists contribute far less to the economy of the tourist destinations than those who stay overnight. Those who stay in hotels also do at least some shopping in bazaars and the local shopping districts, cafes and restaurants also do additional business. Ever since the popularization of the pre-dusk beating the retreat ceremony at the Wagha Border and the opening of Maharaja Ranjit Singh Panorama and other side-kicks, the tourists are staying longer in the city.
The unique system of scores “Serais” for pilgrims in Amritsar is of course very good for the low budget domestic pilgrims but it indirectly does hurt this city’s emerging hospitality and hotel industry quite badly. In the SGPC run serais the pilgrims stay virtually free of cost, so why should they pay top rupees for staying in the hotels. The cost conscious tourists simply do not mind the inferior standard of cleanliness and hygiene in the serais. All said and done the savings are all that matters to the low budget tourist. Overall from the point of view of pilgrimage of the have-nots, in a poor country like India, the serais are extremely helpful. The daily board and lodging needs of the long haul air crews do necessitate opening of high-end hotels. As a result three five star hotels, the largest number of such hotels in Punjab, are already under construction in the city and two more big name hotels are planned to be built soon.
To most of the foreign tourists, what matters is not the money saved or spent but the quality of service received during the length of their stay. Though Amritsar has a number of fairly decent two star and three star hotels, it lacked the four star and the high end five star hotels. Compared to Amritsar, Chandigarh already has two five star hotels and both Jalandhar and Ludhiana have one five star hotel each. All these hotels, in other major cities of Punjab, are doing fairly decent business. The rapidly increasing number of international flights from Amritsar International Airport has compelled the local businessmen and the authorities of the city to construct five star hotels too. The big name hotels will help in bringing some high end tourists and reputed airlines to the city. The Golden Temple will always be the primary tourist attraction of Amritsar, but for making overnight stay in hotels attractive, this city seriously needs the creation of a number of secondary tourist attractions. A zoo, an aquarium and a botanical garden can be some of those side-kicks. A manmade lake at River Beas can be of help too.
The daily flag lowering ceremony at the International Border Check Post at Wagha land border, eighteen miles away from Amritsar’s downtown area, has become internationally popular secondary tourist attraction for this city. Every day thousands of domestic and foreign tourists throng to this check post to see the border guards from India and Pakistan performing the beating the retreat ceremony at sunset. Such visitors end up spending the night in the city and they do some shopping in the ancient and modern bazaars of this city.
From the point of view of the Indian tourists, the Jallianwala Bagh, a memorial garden dedicated to the memories of hundreds of martyred freedom-fighters, is a very good tourist attraction, but its size is so small that the entire historic complex can be seen within fifteen minutes. The Government of India is now in the process of building a museum of the freedom struggle and an interpretive center at the Jallianwala Bagh. Once opened this facility will increase the duration of stay in the garden to approximately two hours.
The Durgiana Mandir appears to be just a replica of the Golden Temple, thus it fails to attract the foreign, originality conscious, tourists. With the addition of Maharaja Ranjit Singh Panorama inside the historic Ram Bagh, popularly known as the Company Garden, this garden has also become a tourist attraction.
The Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh on December 20, 2006 did not hand over the control of the historic Fort Gobindgarh, located in the heart of old Amritsar to the Punjab Government. He feared that the Punjab Government will not be able to maintain it satisfactorily. I think, judging from the past record of the Punjab Government, he was right. Since past 157 years it has been in the control of the British Colonial Army and the post independence Indian Army. This fort dates back to the days of the Sikh Misls, when it was originally constructed by the Sardars of Bhangi Misl. After conquering it Maharaja Ranjit Singh modified it. The British after the annexation of Punjab also made some modifications. One of the British Garrisons was always stationed here. The British also used this fort to hang the freedom fighters. As such this fort stands as a memorial to the struggle for India’s independence. If preserved maintained and presented properly, this fort can become one of Amritsar’s best tourist attractions.
India’s film industry’s most famous male playback singer Late Mohammad Rafi was born in a village Kotla Sultan Singh in Amritsar district. The city should build a befitting memorial in honour of Mohammad Rafi. For the Indian music loving tourists Mohammad Rafi Memorial will be a big attraction. Its visibility will be more conspicuous, if it is built somewhere along the Grand Trunk Road.
During the initial stages of 1965 War with Pakistan, verbal orders to abandon Amritsar District were received from the Army Headquarters in New Delhi. But the then General Officer Commanding in Chief of the Western Army Command Lieutenant General Harbakhsh Singh, in an epic act of disobedience of the orders, kept defending Amritsar with all his skill, might and courage. Instead of surrendering this great territory to the enemy. This general’s brave soldiers occupied approximately 200 square miles in Pakistan’s Lahore District and 250 square miles in Pakistan’s Sialkot District. It is now Amritsar’s moral obligation towards the courage and fortitude of this brave general, to construct a befitting memorial for the saviour of Amritsar Late General Harbakhsh Singh. Such a memorial will be an excellent tourist attraction for all the patriotic Indians.
All great tourist cities have at least one zoo and one lake in its close proximity. Two years ago on a day long trip to Amritsar, the Union Minister of Tourism Ms Ambika Soni announced the creation of a zoological safari somewhere near the Wagha border. This safari will have the potential to keep the tourists engaged for a few hours. The Europeans love the tigers, lions and the elephants in particular.
New Delhi being India’s national capital, proved a magnet for the refugees coming from Pakistan’s Punjab and the North West Frontier Province. As a result between 1941 and 1951 Delhi’s population jumped from half a million to 1.1 million. Being the capital of a fast developing nation with one billion population, New Delhi’s population has already exceeded 14 million. We may be able to build a multitude of elevated roads and metro railway system, but supplying potable water to this big population is going to be the worst problem of this city.
On the other hand Amritsar is very lucky, it has one-tenth the population of Delhi and if River Beas, located 25 miles to the East, is dammed at a location close to Beas Town, the storage of excess rainwater in the bed of the lake can keep the city of Amritsar supplied with potable water for 24 hours for the whole year. The lake thus formed can also be a tourist attraction for the second generation of the NRIs as well as the Americans, Europeans and Australian tourists. Recreational activities available at the lakes in Europe and America can consume several tourist hours. Boating, fishing and picnicking are the major lake centric recreations. We do need such a lake near Amritsar.
The Golden Temple will always be the primary tourist attraction for the followers of the Sikh faith in particular and non-Sikh tourists in general. The Central Sikh Museum, inside the Golden Temple Complex, is located at a very inconvenient spot. Not to speak of visiting it, the foreign tourists can not even locate it. It should be located in a separate proper building, on the ground floor and should be easily accessable. After seeing the Golden Temple, the foreign tourists develop the urge to know more about the great history of the Sikhs and there is no better place to see the Sikh History pictorially than through the scores of priceless paintings displayed in this museum. Tourism in the city, as an industry, will flourish only if some other side kicks are also developed and publicized. A well laid out zoological park and a lake can be ideal secondary tourist attractions.
Ram Tirath, considering the importance of its history, should be a very important place of pilgrimage for the Ram Bhagats, but even the upkeep of what exists there has been far from satisfactory. The continuous fighting amongst its priests belonging to different castes does not allow its proper re-construction and satisfactory maintenance. As the things stand today, this important pilgrimage spot is withering.
Heritage tourism can be developed around the Havelis of Sardars like the Majithias, the Sandanwalias and the Sardars of Rajahsansi. The ruins of 500 year old inn at Serai Amanat Khan, surrounded by well maintained grassy lawns, can also be projected as a heritage site. For better management and proper coordination, this place should be delinked from Tarntaran District and attached to Amritsar District. Bhai Vir Singh’s stylish cottage can be presented to the outside World as the dwelling of a poet laureate. For the less serious tourists, mostly the folks belonging to the younger generation, these days theme parks like the Universal Studios in Los Angeles, the Water Kingdom of Bombay and Disneyland can be very lucrative tourist attractions.
Later on, as the tourist activity expands further in Amritsar, the French style Jagatjit Palace in Kapurthala, only 45 miles away from downtown Amritsar, can also be added to the second day’s itinerary of the foreign tourists. This is an excellent architectural masterpiece, the only one of its kind in Northern India. Sitting in the middle of over 100 acres of grassed and forested area, it offers the look of a European chateau. It can, without much modification, be developed into a tourist attraction. The tourists can have picnics and open air dining experiences with the back drop of the magnificent palace. The Jagatjit Club at Kapurthala, only a short distance from the palace, is another specimen of the great French Architectural traditions. Another attraction can be the century old Shalimar Garden also at Kapurthala. This garden has several red sandstone monuments with intricate artwork. Although small in size, this is a very well planned garden, but it needs complete renovation. Other architectural attractions of Kapurthala include the eighty year old Moorish Mosque, the State Gurdwara and Panj Mandir. These buildings represent three distinct styles of Indian and Islamic architecture. Boating, fishing and picnicking can be done at Kanjli Lake at Kapurthala. This spot is only 39 miles from Amritsar and can be reached in an hour’s time from the city’s Interstate Bus Terminal.
We need to develop Amritsar as a first grade tourist city. Its old industrial economy has been ruined, but from the ruins of the old, a new tourism centric industry can be built, which will be sustainable. First of all the tourist attractions within the city and the nearby rural tourist spots need to be properly developed and projected, later on the heritage buildings in neighbouring town of Kapurthala can be added to the Amritsar Tourism Circuit.
Sultanpur Lodhi unfortunately has lost most of its Pre-Guru Nanak Period heritage buildings, but some buildings including the remnants of old fort within the town still remain, which can be restored and presented as tourist attractions. Even Jalandhar District has some tourism worthy heritage buildings like the “Serai of Noormahal”, the “Dakhni Serai in Village Jehangir” and the “Tombs of Islamic Elite in Nakodar”, all these can be added to “Amritsar Tourist Circuit”.
If I.T. Industry takes roots in this city, it can generate its own kind of tourism. The corporate tourism is most lucrative these days. The five star hotels love it. It needs air connectivity with San Francisco, New York and London. Amritsar is already connected to London and New York, it is planned to be connected to San Francisco too. We need a pro-active leadership to bring I.T. Industry to Amritsar.
India’s most popular tourist circuit consists of the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur Golden Triangle. Amritsar is so far quaranteened from it. If Amritsar can be integrated into this circuit, it will become Delhi-Agra-Jaipur-Amritsar Golden Quadrangle, which will result in construction of several two, three, four and five star hotels in Amritsar. The more the merrier.
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