Why Do Sikhs Celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas?
Bandi Chhor Divas (“Day of Liberation”) is a Sikh festival which coincides with the day of Diwali. Bandi Chhor Divas celebrates the release from prison in Gwalior of the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, and 52 other princes with him. Guru Amar Das chose the Diwali Days, later referenced as Bandi Chhor Divas, as one of the three festivals to be celebrated by Sikhs (the others being Maghi and Baisakhi)
In the Sikh struggle for freedom from the oppressive Mughal regime, the festival of Bandi Chhor Divas did become the second most important day after the Vaisakhi festival in April.
In addition to Nagar keertan (a street procession) and an Akhand paath (a continuous reading of Guru Granth Sahib), Bandi Chhor Divas is celebrated with a fireworks display. The Golden Temple as well as the whole complex is festooned with thousands of shimmering lights, creating a unique jewelbox effect.
The death of his father Guru Arjan, at the hands of Mughal emperor Jahangir prompted Hargobind to emphasize the military dimension of the Sikh community. He symbolically wore two swords, which represented miri and piri (temporal power and spiritual authority). He built a fort to defend Ramdaspur and created a formal court, Akal Takht.
These aggressive moves prompted Jahangir to jail Hargobind at Gwalior Fort. It is not clear as to how much time he spent as a prisoner. The year of his release appears to have been either 1611 or 1612. By that time, Jahangir had more or less reverted to tolerant policies of Akbar and after finding Hargobind innocent and harmless ordered his release.
According to Sikh tradition, 52 Rajas who were imprisoned in the fort as hostages for opposing the Mughal empire were dismayed as they were losing a spiritual mentor. Guru Hargobind requested the Rajas to be freed along with him as well and stood surety for their loyal behavior. Jahangir ordered their release as well. Hargobind got a special gown stitched which had 52 hems. As Hargobind left the fort, the captive kings caught the hems of the cloak and came out along with him.
Thenceforth, the Sikh struggle for freedom, which intensified in the 18th Century, came to be centered on this day. In addition to Vaisakhi (now in April), when Khalsa, the Sikh nation was formally established by the Tenth Guru Gobind Singh, Bandi Chhor Divas became the second day in the years when the Khalsa met and planned their freedom strategy.
Another important event associated with Bandi Chhor Divas is the martyrdom in 1734 of the elderly Sikh scholar and strategist Bhai Mani Singh, the Granthi (priest) of Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple). He had refused to pay a special tax on a religious meeting of the Khalsa on the day of, Bandi Chhor Divas. This and other Sikh martyrdoms gave further momentum to the Khalsa struggle for freedom and eventually success in establishing the Khalsa rule north of Delhi.