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At Gurdwara Sahib Guru Nanak Dwara in Phoenix, AZ, the pathways and porch are lit up with hundreds of candles, casting a cozy glow on the happy faces of children. They carefully carry their own candles to place them before the Guru, while older siblings light theirs from the others. The colors and lights make the scene enchanting. Meanwhile, on the back patio, a delightful feast is set up to celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas – Prisoner Liberation Day. This day marks the liberation of Guru Hargobind from Gwalior Fort, where he freed 52 prisoners. It's a joyous occasion filled with light, food, and celebration.

The occasion

In 1619, during the fall season, the first Bandi Chhor Divas took place. Currently it is celebrated  in either October or November, depending on the lunar calendar. This special day commemorates Guru Hargobind's selfless and brave act. His father, Guru Arjan Dev, had been killed by Mughal authorities about 13 years earlier, so everyone was keeping a close eye on Guru Hargobind.

When Guru Hargobind built the Akal Takht, known as the Throne of the Almighty, in Amritsar, and also strengthened his army, the Nawab of Lahore, Murtaja Khan, got worried. He thought Guru Hargobind might seek revenge for his father's death. So, Murtaja Khan informed the Mughal Emperor Jahangir about his concerns.

Jahangir acted swiftly and sent Wazir Khan and Guncha Beg to Amritsar to capture Guru Hargobind. This event marked a crucial moment in Sikh history, showcasing the challenges and tensions between the Sikh community and the Mughal authorities.

Wazir Khan and Guru Hargobind Ji 

Wazir Khan, however, greatly admired the Guru. Instead of arresting him, he convinced the Guru to go with them to Delhi to meet the Emperor. Even though Jahangir had ordered the execution of his father, the Guru accepted the invitation and journeyed to the Emperor’s court. When Emperor Jahangir met the young Guru, he was impressed by his charm and purity of spirit. He asked the Guru which religion was better, Hindu or Muslim. The Guru responded with words from Kabir, saying that the One Lord is within both Hindus and Muslims. The Emperor was fascinated by the Guru’s wisdom and arranged a grand reception for him. He even invited the young Hargobind to join him on his hunting trips.

During one of these hunts, the Emperor and his group were tracking a lion that had been causing fear in a village. Suddenly, the lion charged at Jahangir. Despite the other hunters firing their weapons, they couldn't stop its attack. At the last moment, Guru Hargobind stepped forward, shouting that it must face him first. Using his shield to block its jaws, as it leapt, he swiftly struck it down with his sword. The lion fell lifeless at his feet. Guru Hargobind had saved the Emperor’s life. 

The Guru and the Emperor became good friends. However, this made others envious, wanting the Emperor's attention for themselves. One of them was Chandu Shah, a wealthy banker with influence in the court. At first, he didn't approve of Hargobind marrying his daughter. But later, he changed his mind. However, Guru Arjan Dev, having heard about Chandu Shah's earlier remarks, declined the proposal. Chandu Shah played a role in arranging Guru Arjan’s death and now targeted his son, Guru Hargobind.

When the Emperor fell severely ill in Agra, nothing seemed to cure him. Chandu Shah took advantage of the situation. He convinced the court astrologers to blame the Emperor's illness on an unlucky star alignment. The only cure, they claimed, was for a holy man to go to Gwalior Fort and pray for his recovery. Chandu Shah cleverly suggested that Guru Hargobind was the perfect person for the job. So, at the Emperor's request, the Guru, along with some companions, headed to the Fort.

Gwalior Fort wasn't just a peaceful place; it served as a prison where the state kept its enemies, including Rajput princes. Despite the harsh conditions, the Guru managed to uplift the spirits of these detainees by leading them in daily prayers and trying to make their lives better. Eventually, they started admiring him.

The fort's governor, Hari Dass, who was a follower of the Guru, received a letter from Chandu Shah, instructing him to poison the Guru. Instead of following the order, Hari Dass handed the letter to the Guru, showing his loyalty and trust.

After spending several months in Gwalior Fort, the Guru's followers, led by the venerable Baba Buddha, journeyed from Amritsar to express how much they missed him. Even though the Emperor had recovered, the Guru remained captive. During this time, Mian Mir, a respected Sufi saint, went to the Emperor's court and urged him to release the Guru. Persuaded by Mian Mir, the Emperor instructed Wazir Khan to set the Guru free. Hari Dass conveyed this news to the Guru, who, despite the opportunity for his own freedom, refused to leave until all 52 Rajput princes held captive were also released.

When Wazir Khan presented the Guru's condition to the Emperor, he initially resisted. However, upon being reminded of the Guru's past act of saving his life, the Emperor relented, with a twist of his own: each prisoner must hold onto the Guru's cloak as they exited the fort. The Emperor assumed this would be impossible.

Little did he know, the Guru welcomed the challenge. He had his tailor craft a special cloak with an extra-long train, adorned with 52 tassels.The 52 princes lifted the cloak, each clutching their tassels—26 on the right and 26 on the left. Walking in procession behind the Guru, they cautiously moved into the sunlight, embracing their newfound freedom to the jubilation of the Guru’s Sikhs. Henceforth, Guru Hargobind earned the title of Bandi Chhor (liberator from prison), and the day of their release is commemorated as Bandi Chhor Divas (day of liberation).

Upon reaching Amritsar days later, during the Hindu festival of Diwali, the city illuminated in celebration of the Guru's return. For nearly four centuries, this tradition has endured, with the Harimandir Sahib glowing with candles and lamps, fireworks lighting up the sky, and joy spreading throughout.

Around the world, at places like Gurdwara Sahib Guru Nanak Dwara in Phoenix, Sikhs commemorate Bandi Chhor Divas by lighting candles, singing praises of Guru Hargobind, sharing in festive meals, and embracing the spirit of joy and freedom.

*Based on an article by S.S. Gurukirn Kaur Khalsa, published in Sikh Dharma on 11th November 2012


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