A memorial complex and park in the heart of Amritsar
, Punjab, north-western India
, which in 1919 was the site of one of the worst atrocities ever committed by the British colonial forces during the 20th century. It was a mass shooting supposedly meant to merely “disperse a crowd”, but in fact it was a proper bloodbath, a massacre – and it had significant repercussions, both back in Britain
and in terms of the course India's struggle for independence took in the decades afterwards ...
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More background info:
The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (aka “Amritsar Massacre”) happened at a time of widespread unrest in parts of India
, including especially Bengal and Punjab. It was just after World War One
, in which many thousands of Indians had fought on the British
side and India had supplied plenty of material resources for the war effort too (including ammunition and food). Yet during the war the so-called Defence of India Act of 1915 had given the administration in India wide-ranging powers to suppress the nationalist movements and severely curtail civil liberties and human rights.
In Punjab, this was implemented and overseen by the Lieutenant Governor Michael O'Dwyer, a strong proponent of the repressive approach in his province. In the difficult times immediately after WW1, unrest and resistance grew, especially in Punjab in early 1919 after the passing of the Rowlatt Act (officially “Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act”), which had extended the repressive measures further. The unpopular legislation fuelled yet more anti-colonial sentiments and political and physical resistance. In turn, the British became increasingly worried about “conspiracies” for a wider uprising.
It was also at this time that Mahatma Gandhi had returned to India and was emerging as a leading figure in the (non-violent) struggle for independence (cf. Gandhi Smriti
Fearing an imminent revolt, and following outbreaks of violence, much of Punjab was put under martial law on the morning of 13 April 1919. Part of this was outlawing freedom of assembly and imposing evening curfews.
That day, however, happened to be the date of a traditional Punjabi harvest festival, and so lots of people were coming into the city for this purpose – just as the new rules were being proclaimed. Many of the villagers arriving in Amritsar would not yet have even heard of them.
By midday thousands had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh and the military commander of Amritsar
, Colonel Reginald Dyer was getting nervous because he had got wind of a political protest meeting apparently having been scheduled for that afternoon. He sent a reconnaissance aeroplane to fly over Jallianwala Bagh to estimate the size of the crowd (given at probably over 20,000).
Later that afternoon Dyer set off for the site with a contingent of 90 Gurkha soldiers (note: a non-Sikh ethnic group known for its loyalty to the British Crown). Immediately blocking the sole usable exit to the complex he ordered shooting at the dense crowd.
The physical nature of Jallianwala Bagh was such that this meant that no escape routes were available: the area was/is ca. 200m square and enclosed by walls on all sides, with houses rising high above the wall. The few narrow gates other than the main one were usually kept locked. With the passage serving as the only access point to the area now blocked by the soldiers this meant the victims were trapped. What's worse, at the time there was an area of higher ground by the entrance while most of the remainder of the area was lower-lying than it is today, so it gave the soldiers an enhanced vantage point from which to shoot at the crowd.
The shooting continued for something like ten minutes and only stopped when the soldiers' ammunition had almost run out. Apart from being mortally wounded by gun shots, many victims died in the stampedes triggered by panic breaking out, so many were trampled to death or crushed at the closed gates. Most tragically, many tried to seek refuge in large well only to drown or be crushed to death in there. As many as 120 bodies were allegedly retrieved from the well after the event.
The figures for the total number of casualties differed widely. The “official” death toll given by the British was 379. And independent inquiry conducted by the Indian National Congress arrived at an estimate of over 1000, perhaps it was as many as 1500 – which is indeed more in line with the crowd size, their exposed position as targets and the number of rounds fired (ca. 1650, calculated on the basis of the spent cartridges collected at the site afterwards).
News of the massacre spread within India
and beyond, despite efforts by the British to suppress this – but soon outrage about the brutality and scale of the atrocity also reached the homeland
. The incident was famously condemned in strong words in the House of Commons in 1920 by Winston Churchill
Before that an inquiry commission had been set up and Dyer was cross-examined. He tried to defend his actions as required to crush an imminent rebellion, but his actions were eventually judged as “committed in grave error”. Yet many others continued to consider Dyer a “hero”. He never had to face any disciplinary action, let alone penal prosecution, though he (was) “retired” from military service. Already in ill health at the time, he died only a few years later in 1927.
But this was not the end of the story.
In March 1940, Dyer's superior at the time of the massacre, Michael O'Dwyer, who had openly approved of Dyer's actions, was assassinated in London
by Sikh independence activist Udham Singh. He had been a witness to the massacre and was himself wounded and had apparently sworn revenge. My guide at the site even ventured that Singh had mistaken O'Dwyer for Dyer due to the similarity of the two names – but my research afterwards did not confirm this. Singh is on record as having said he was after the “real culprit”, the man in command who was behind all the repression that culminated in the massacre.
While some reactions in the media (not only in India) expressed understanding and even praised the assassination as just and courageous, Udham Singh was sentenced to death and hanged on 31 July that same year.
Efforts to commemorate the Jallianwala Bagh massacre began almost immediately in Amritsar
and a trust founded for the purpose acquired the plot of land. But it wasn't until several years after India
had gained its independence that a proper first memorial was inaugurated, namely in 1961.
Since then other commemorative elements have been added and a wall with bullet marks still visible has been preserved. The well has also been preserved and is now called “Martyrs' Well”. Several specially constructed memorial monuments were also added over time (see below
An official apology by Britain
is still outstanding, even though prominent figures including, the Queen and Prime Minster, have expressed “regret”.
A scene depicting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre famously features in the movie “Gandhi” (1982, directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley), which raked in eight “Oscars” and countless other awards.
What there is to see: Since the park is surrounded by houses and walls you can't look in until you get to the entrance. Outside the entrance is a small square. On the walls the name of the site is written in a number of languages, so you can't miss it.
Just outside stands a modern sculpture/memorial of white marble. Staring out of the marble are reliefs of faces that look like they are drifting heaven-ward in a cloud of steam or smoke that encircles a golden torch inside. Embossed in gold at the base of the monument are names of “martyrs” who lost their lives in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. My guide said this sculpture was brand new and it looked it too, but I couldn't see a date.
Along the walls of the square outside the entrance to the park there are several text plaques, including one that gives a brief history of the site in flowery words, but also pointing out that back then the area was just a vacant lot, not the garden-like park it is today. Another plaque set out the house rules of the Jallianwala Bagh Trust … forbidden are things like making fires, damaging the monuments, behaving in a disrespectful manner and so on – all rather predictable, but the fine threatened for transgression of any of the rules was stated as a meagre 100 rupees. In today's money that would be a mere 1.4 EUR – so I guess the plaque (and the figure) must be much older.
You enter the park through the so-called “historical lane
”, i.e. the same narrow passageway used by first the Indian crowd and then Dyer and his soldiers on that fateful day of 13 April 1919 (see background
At the other end of the passage you get to a paved area, into which a pyramid-shaped marker stone is set. On it it says “people were fired at from here”. To illustrate this more graphically, several bushes in the gardens stretching out from here are sculpted into the shape of soldiers aiming their rifles at the far end of the park. Some are standing, some kneeling, some lying on the ground. It's looks a bit comical to the western eye, but also endearing. But of course it's just one way of commemoration, I guess.
There are signs pointing towards two of the authentic sites inside the park: “bullet marks” and “martyrs' well”.
The former are found on a red brick wall at the far end of the area. 36 bullet scars are marked here with white squares – and frankly, without those markings or the plaque explaining them, you wouldn't think of them as traces of violence. They'd just look like parts of a crumbling old wall.
The Martyrs' Well
) in the eastern part of the park is these days inside a temple-like building which I presume must have been erected afterwards as a specific commemorative gesture. Through wire mesh you can peek down the well, which is ca. 6m in diameter and probably 10m deep (these days, and without any water in it any more). At the bottom you can spot coins presumably thrown in there by visitors.
The main symbolic monument of Jallianwala Bagh dominates the southern half of the park and consists of a tall column-like sculpture of red stone.
Closer to the entrance to the complex is another smaller shrine around an eternal flame, 'Amar Jyoti', interestingly donated by Indian Oil (who I guess also see to the fuelling of the flame) in November 2000. To walk up to the flame and shrine, you're supposed to take your shoes off, as in a temple. And most visitors I saw obeyed this rule.
Generally the behaviour of local visitors left a little bit to be desired. Despite the call for respectful behaviour, I saw dozens and dozens of people taking grinning selfies at the bullet hole wall or the well or wherever. That's just typically Indian, though. The selfie-taking craze knows no bounds in this country, no matter what the setting.
There is also a small museum, or rather single exhibition room, where photography is strictly forbidden, and here it was largely observed (also by myself, hence no photos of this part of the suite below).
The exhibition consists of some photos, text documents, and a few artefacts. Amongst the latter is a coin damaged by a bullet – apparently it belonged to one of the people wounded in the massacre who later died of his injuries. The text documents include letters (in English) from high-ranking officials. All labelling is trilingual (English, Hindi, Punjabi). Newspaper clippings are also on display as well as various photos of “martyrs” who were killed at Jallianwala Bagh.
Remarkably the exhibition also contains the ashes of Udham Singh, the assassin of Michael O'Dwyer, Punjab's Governor at the time of the massacre (see above
). Apparently the ashes of Sigh, who was executed in 1940 just months after the assassination, were brought here in 1974. There is also a text plaque about Udham Singh, but this was so faded it was barely legible.
All in all
, the commodification
of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at the original site may be a little bit scant and at times a little skewed, but it is still a very powerful place to visit. Given the leisure-park atmosphere, and some locals' jolly behaviour, however, you have to remind yourself from time to time what a tragic place this really is.
right in the centre of Amritsar
, the capital city of the north-western Indian state of Punjab, just a short walk (ca. 400 yards) from its main attraction, the Golden Temple.
Access and costs: easy to get to, thanks to its central location; free.
Details: From the main train station of Amritsar it's a bit under two miles (2.6 km), so best get a taxi or so, if you're coming here on an independent basis. When I visited the place it was part of a longer guided city tour, which included transfers by car. So I didn't need public transport – but like in every Indian city, there was no shortage of rickshaws, taxis and tuk-tuks vying for customers.
From the Golden Temple, Amritsar
's main attraction, the distance to Jallianwala Bagh is easily walkable (in fact the only other option would be a short rickshaw ride), along the pedestrianized Golden Temple Road heading east, and then turning right where the main road bends off northwards. It's impossible to overlook – the name of the sight is written in large letters on the walls in at least two places around the little square by the entrance.
Opening times: I couldn't find any 100% definite statements of timings, but a few sources I did find claim 6:30 a.m. to 7 or 7:30 p.m., daily – however, I suggest you better aim for mid-morning or afternoon times to be sure and avoid public holidays.
No photography allowed in the small exhibition room.
Time required: Not that long, perhaps half an hour to 40 minutes … or a little longer if you want to read everything in the small exhibition and also want to enjoy the park for it being a tranquil oasis from the city hustle-and-bustle for a while.
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