Ram Dās Founds Amritsar

Ram Dās, the fourth in the line of ten Sikh gurus, founded the holy city of Amritsar and inspired its development into what is still the center of Sikh pilgrimage, education, culture, and commerce.

Summary of Event

Sikhism Sikhism , which incorporates elements of Hinduism and Islam, was founded as a separate religion by Nānak (1469-1539), who subsequently took the name Guru Nānak. A series of gurus, or leaders, continued the Sikh tradition. In its early years, Sikhism was helped by a tolerant attitude on the part of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605), who was sympathetic to all religions in the region. Amritsar, founding of
Amar Dās
Ram Dās
Amar Dās
Ram Dās

It was in this relatively benign religious atmosphere that Guru Ram Dās was born in 1534 in Lahore. He was appointed as the fourth Sikh guru by the third guru, Amar Dās. Ram Dās, whose name means “slave of God” or “God’s servant,” was Amar Dās’s son-in-law, but historians agree that he was appointed guru on merit because of his selfless service to Amar Dās rather than because of his family connection. Ram Dās began his work as guru after the death of Amar Dās in 1574.

Verifiable details of his seven-year period as guru are scarce. Tradition says that Amar Dās wanted to establish a new place of pilgrimage, so he sent Ram Dās to locate a suitable site. Ram Dās founded the new city, which was to become the holy city of Amritsar, at the site that had been granted to his wife by Akbar. Another tradition states that Ram Dās purchased the land from the villagers of Tung, although this may have been at the request of Akbar as part of his land grant. Another tradition attributes the move away from the pilgrimage center of Goindwal, the home of Amar Dās in northwest India, to the hostility of the Amar Dās’s sons. According to some accounts, Amar Dās suggested the founding of a new center because he feared conflict between Ram Dās and his own descendants.

Yet another story says that before Ram Dās became the fourth guru, he was passing through the area where the new city would eventually be built and heard a story that a pond nearby had magical healing properties. The pond was said to have cured leprosy. Sikh historians would claim that this natural pond was where Ram Chandra, a hero in the ancient Indian epic Rāmāyana (c. 500 b.c.e.; The Ramayana, 1870-1889), was healed of wounds sustained in battle. When Ram Dās visited the site, the legend goes, he was so impressed by its beauty that he decided to create it as a new site of pilgrimage. Even before becoming guru, he would visit the site once every month and swim in the pond. Another story relates how he told his followers that the location would become a large pilgrimage site and would constitute an enlightened and emancipated society.

After Ram Dās became the fourth guru, he set about constructing the new city, which was about 25 miles north of Goindwal, in the Majha area between two rivers. The exact year in which the city was founded is disputed. Some historians date it to 1577, but others favor an earlier date, 1573, before the death of Amar Dās.

Ram Dās’s first task was to recruit labor from nearby villages and construct a tank at the site, to be filled with water from a local stream. He also encouraged his disciples to take part in the work. Construction of the pool was supervised by a Sikh saint. Building on the local belief that the water in the area possessed healing properties, the tank, or pool, came to be regarded as sacred, and was called Amrita Saras (pool of nectar). When the tank was completed in 1581, Ram Dās composed poetry in honor of the occasion. He assured his followers that those who bathed in the tank and meditated on the name of God would have their sins washed away.

Because building the tank was a large project, many houses were constructed in the area to house workers, disciples, and visitors. The city was first called Guru ka Chak (village of the guru), and later Ram Dās Pura (city of Ram Dās). Unlike the established site of Goindwal, Ram Dās Pura was not on the main road between Delhi and Lahore, but it was favorably situated for the development of trade between India and Afghanistan. Ram Dās Pura quickly increased its population and prospered. Many merchants, bankers, businessmen of all types, craftsmen, and workers traveled long distances to settle there, and a market called Guru-ka-Bazar was established. Wells were dug to provide drinking water. Ram Dās encouraged this economic development, urging his followers to raise capital so they could start their own businesses. Ram Dās is applauded in later Sikh literature for his work in building up the economy of the new town. The site emerged as a religious center, and the tank of water was visited by Sikh pilgrims.

Guru Ram Dās died in September of 1581, at Goindwal, at the age of forty-seven. Before his death, he appointed his youngest son, Arjan, as the fifth Sikh guru. It was Arjan who changed the name of the city from Ram Dās Pura to Amritsar. Arjan continued the work of his father by renovating and enlarging the tank and building a golden temple in the center of the pool. The golden temple, called Harimandir, is the spiritual center for the Sikh religion.


Although Guru Ram Dās did not live to see the full flowering of his work, the city he founded quickly became, and remains, the most important center of the Sikh religion. The fact that its name, Amritsar, refers to the pool of nectar that was constructed under his guidance is testimony to the enduring value of his contribution. When the golden temple was built by Guru Arjan, it became the holiest of all Sikh sites. Amritsar has been referred to as the Vatican of Sikhism, a sacred city of the developing Sikh Empire.

In later centuries, the Sikhs were periodically driven out of Amritsar by Muslim armies because Muslim leaders were alarmed at the number of converts from Islam Islam;India to Sikhism. On a number of occasions, the sacred pool was drained and filled in, and the golden temple destroyed. Both the pool of nectar and the golden temple, however, were rebuilt by determined Sikhs. It is said that even when Amritsar was under Muslim occupation, Sikhs would risk capture and death to bathe in the sacred water.

Today, Amritsar is a flourishing city on the border of India and Pakistan. It also is one of India’s foremost tourist destinations. A park called Ram Bagh was created in a new part of the town as a tribute to Ram Dās.

Further Reading

  • Banerjee, Anil Chandra. The Sikh Gurus and the Sikh Religion. New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1983. Explores the salient features of the lives and teachings of the ten Sikh gurus.
  • Johar, Surinder Singh. The Sikh Gurus and Their Shrines. Delhi, India: Vivek, 1976. Includes chapters on the ten Sikh gurus and their associated shrines. Also contains an account of Sikh beliefs and the role of the guru in Sikhism.
  • Kaur, Madanjit. The Golden Temple: Past and Present. Amritsar, India: Guru Nānak Dev University Press, 1983. A history of the golden temple, including its foundation, ceremonial practices, architecture, and ancillary shrines.
  • Khalsa, Gurudharm Singh. Guru Ram Dās in Sikh Tradition. New Delhi, India: Harman, 1997. A composite portrait of Ram Dās as it has appeared over the course of four centuries. Ram Dās is viewed through the eyes of his disciples and Sikh poets, teachers, and historians.
  • McLeod, Hew. Sikhism. New York: Penguin, 1997. Explores how Sikhism emerged from the Hindu background of the times, how a number of separate sects split off, and how far the ideals of sexual equality have been observed in practice.
  • Singh, Parm Bakhshish. “Devinder Kumar Verma.” In Golden Temple, edited by R. K. Ghai and Gurshan Singh. Patiala, India: Punjabi University Publication Bureau, 1999. A German-language chapter in a volume that contains thirty-six articles relating to the variegated aspects of the golden temple.

1451-1526: Lodī Kings Dominate Northern India

c. 1490: Fragmentation of the Bahmani Sultanate

Early 16th cent.: Devotional Bhakti Traditions Emerge

1556-1605: Reign of Akbar