Faith and festivity

Diwali commemorates many important dates and events in Sikh history. The Sikhs rejoice in their religious freedom, which was won against so many odds, writes Dhananjaya Bhat

The Golden Temple complex is decorated with thousands of shimmering lights during Diwali
The Golden Temple complex is decorated with thousands of shimmering
lights during Diwali
Photo: Vishal Kumar

MOST of us are aware of the fact that the Sikh community celebrates Diwali exuberantly, especially in the Golden Temple at Amritsar ó their most sacred shrine. There, on Diwali, in addition to nagar kirtan, and akhand paath , Diwali is celebrated by a grand fireworks display. The Golden Temple as well as the whole complex is festooned with thousands of shimmering lights, creating a unique jewel-box effect.

We normally put down these celebrations to the very close ties the Sikhs have with the Hindu community in Punjab. After all, as the saying goes, these two communities subscribe to the adage Roti & Beti, which is a key factor in social relations even today. These two words mean that the two communities can eat together (roti) and will marry off their daughters into the other community (beti). For many Punjabi Hindu communities, it was customary to convert one of their sons to Sikhism to show this close relationship.

But the great factor Diwali has played in Sikh history is not known so well. There are five important reasons for the Sikhs to celebrate Diwali.

It was on Diwali day in 1577, that Sikh Guru Ramdas started the construction of the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Then later, Sikh Guru Amar Das institutionalised Diwali as a Red Letter Day when all Sikhs would gather to receive the Gurusí blessings by incorporating two pre-existing festivals ó Baisakhi (at the time of the spring harvest) and Diwali (at the fall harvest) ó into the religious calendar. Then the festival of Diwali became the second most important day after Baisakhi, when the Khalsa was formally established by the Tenth Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, in 1699.

The Sikh struggle against the Mughal Empireís atrocities on non-Muslims, especially on Sikhs, which intensified in the 18th century, came to be centered around this day. After the execution of Banda Bahadur in 1716, who had led the agrarian uprising in Punjab, the Sikhs started the tradition of deciding matters concerning the community at the biennial meetings, which took place at Amritsar on the first of Baisakh and at Diwali. These assemblies were known as the Sarbat Khalsa, and a resolution passed by it became a Gurmata (decree of the Guru).

Then the Diwali of October 1619 happened to be the end of the imprisonment of Guru Hargobind Siugh by Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The Guru had been kept in prison in the fortress of Gwalior by the Emperor, and was later released when he was convinced of the piety of the Guru. But when Wazir Khan, the Governor of Gwalior Fort, informed the Guru of his release, the Guru (who had lived among the other prisoners for an year and knew the innocence of many of them, especially the 52 Hindu princes imprisoned for non-payment of tribute to the Mughal emperor) requested Jahangir to release all the princes with him. The Emperor first refused, but finally agreed. But not really wanting to free the prisoners, the Emperor cleverly added the following condition: "Whoever can hold on to the Guruís cloak can be released."

But to circumvent this, Guru Hargobind Singh asked his devotees to make a cloak with 52 tassels, and the dress was soon delivered. So, as the Guru walked out of the gate of`A0the fort, the 52 princes trailed behind, each holding on to his own tassel of the Guruís special cloak. The Guruís cleverness had trumped Jahangirís clever condition, and he liberated the 52 princes. This humane act of the Guru is termed in Sikh history as Bandi Chhor Divas (the day of freedom) for his co-prisoners.

Guru Hargobind Singh arrived at Amritsar on Diwali day in 1619, and Harmandar (now known as the Golden Temple) was lit with hundreds of lamps. He was given a grand welcome on Diwali day, away from the Mughal prisons. The day came to be known as Bandi Chhor Divas. On the occasion of Bandi Chhor Divas every year (that is Diwali day), Sikhs observe one-day celebrations in gurdwaras. In the evening, illuminations are lighted with diyas or candles, and a fireworks display also takes place. Such celebrations are held both in gurdwaras and in homes.

Then came a sad episode in Sikh history in 1737. Bhai Mani Singh, a Sikh saint, took charge of Harmandar Sahibís management. That year invitations were sent to the Sikhs all over north India to join the Bandi Chhor Divas (Diwali 1737) celebrations at Harmandar Sahib. A large amount of tax had to be paid to the Mughal governor of Punjab as bribe to the Mughal governor of Lahore, Zakariya Khan, to permit this. But Bhai Mani Singh later discovered that the secret plan of Zakariya Khan was to kill all the Sikhs during the gathering. Bhai Mani Singh immediately sent a message to all the Sikhs not to turn up for the celebrations. Zakariya Khan was not happy about the Sikh devotees escaping his clutches, and he ordered Bhai Mani Singhís assassination at Lahore by ruthlessly cutting him limb by limb to death. Ever since, in Sikh history, the great sacrifice and devotion of Bhai Mani Singh is remembered on Bandi Chhor Divas on Diwali day. ó MF