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Bandi Chhor Divas

This year the Sikh celebration of Bandi Chhor fell on 12 November, the same day as the start of Diwali, the festival of lights and one of the major festivals celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and some Sikhs and Buddhists.

Bandi Chhor Divas literally means Prisoner Liberation Day, and that is the day when the sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind Sahib ji, was freed from Gwalior Fort and he took 52 prisoners to freedom along with him!

An artist impression of Bandi Chhor Divas by Arjun Kashyap 2022.

The occasion of Bandi Chhor Divas first took place in autumn of 1619 and is now celebrated in October or November as the date changes according to the Lunar calendar. Guru Hargobind Sahib ji’s father, Guru Arjan Dev ji, had been martyred nearly 13 years before 1619 and the Mughal authorities weren’t taking their eyes off the young Guru. When he constructed the Akal Takht, the Throne of the Almighty, in Amritsar, he simultaneously strengthened his strong, fierce army. The Nawab of Lahore, Murtaja Khan, grew alarmed and suspicious so he informed the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The Nawab conveyed their fear that the Guru might just be planning to avenge the horrible death of his father. At once, Jahangir sent Wazir Khan and Guncha Beg to Amritsar to arrest Guru Hargobind Sahib ji.

However, Wazir Khan was a follower and admirer of the Guru so instead of arresting him, he persuaded and convinced the Guru to join them to Delhi and meet the emperor. Even though Jahangir had ordered the execution of the Guru’s father, he accepted the invitation and came along to the emperor’s court. When the Guru Sahib reached Delhi, he stayed with his army at a place called Majnu ka Tilla. When the Emperor Jahangir met the young Guru he was captivated by his charm and purity of spirit, and over the next few days Jahangir asked Guru Sahib a lot of questions regarding his spiritual kingship and warlike preparations. Guru Sahib answered each and every one of his questions with grace, compassion and spiritual wisdom. One of his questions was which religion was better, Hindu or Muslim, to which the Guru quoted lines from Kabir proclaiming that the One Lord is within both Hindus and Muslims. The emperor was very pleased and happy with Guru Ji and was desperate for him to be in his presence. The queen, Noor Jehan, had a strong interest in Guru Sahib, and became his follower.

The emperor was entranced by the Guru’s wisdom, so he had prepared a royal reception for him, after which he invited the young Hargobind to come with him on his shikars or hunting expeditions. During one of these hunts Guru Hargobind Sahib ji saved the emperor’s life. The Guru and the emperor became good friends, but this only increased the jealousy of others who wanted the emperor’s favour for themselves. One of these people was Chandu Shah, a rich banker, with influence in the court.

While in Agra, the emperor fell very ill and it seemed that nothing could cure him. Chandu Shah cornered the court astrologers and convinced them to tell the emperor that his illness was caused by an inauspicious alignment of the stars which could only be cured if a holy man would go to Gwalior Fort, situated to south of Agra and offer prayers for his recovery. Chandu Shah using the garb of innocence suggested that there was no one could fit for this precious task except for Guru Hargobind Sahib ji. Thus, at the emperor’s request, the Guru ji agreed and left for the Fort with several companions. Rather than being a sanctuary of tranquillity, Gwalior Fort was really just a prison where enemies of the state, including a number of Rajput princes, were kept. True to his nature, the Guru inspired them to join him in daily prayers and did his best to improve their conditions. In time, they came to revere him.

The governor of the fort, Hari Das, was a Sikh of the Guru and turned over to him, a letter from Chandu Shah ordering him to poison the Guru. After the Guru had been in Gwalior Fort for several months, his Sikhs, including Baba Buddha ji, made the long journey from Amritsar to tell him how much they missed his presence. Even though the emperor had recovered, the Guru ji was still held captive. At this time, Mian Mir, a noted Sufi saint, travelled to the emperor’s court and asked him to release the Guru. Upon his persuasion, the emperor commanded Wazir Khan to free the Guru. Hari Das informed the Guru of this fortunate turn of events; however, the Guru could not embrace his own fortune at the expense of the other prisoners and refused to leave the fort until all 52 of the Rajput princes were freed as well.

When Wazir Khan put the Guru’s condition in front of the emperor, he initially refused it. It was only when Wazir Khan reminded the emperor that the Guru had saved his life that the emperor relented. The emperor added a condition of his own: if the Guru wanted to be released from the fort, each prisoner must be holding on to the Guru’s chola, which is the Punjabi word for robe, as he walked out of the prison gates. The emperor was pleased with himself because he was sure that only a mere handful would be able to fulfil this condition.

Little did the emperor know, that the Guru was delighted by this challenge. He had his tailor make a special chola with 52 panels attached to it. At the appointed time, the Guru donned the heavy chola, which stretched for yards behind him. The 52 princes each gripped onto a panel; 26 on the right and 26 on the left. Walking behind the Guru, careful not to let go, they stepped out into the sunlight and freedom, to the cheers of the Guru’s Sikhs.

From this time on, Guru Hargobind was known as Bandi (prison) Chhor (liberator), and the day of liberation is celebrated as Bandi Chhor Divas (day). Several days later, when Guru Hargobind Sahib ji reached Amritsar, the Hindu festival of light, Diwali, was being celebrated. In their joy at seeing their Guru ji again, the people lit up the whole city with candles, lights, and lamps. After almost four hundred years, this tradition continues in Amritsar, and on this day the Harmandir Sahib is glowing with thousands of candles, floating lamps, strings of lights decorate that decorate the domes and fireworks bursting in the sky. Same is done in every Sikh Gurdwara and household across the world to celebrate the occasion of Bandi Chhor Diwas by lighting candles and fireworks.

Story of Bandi Chhor Divas- by Avleen Kaur and Jasmeet Kaur, Sikh Gurdwara, Cardiff.

13/11/2023

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