November 24 is commemorated as the Shaheedi Divas of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth guru of the Sikhs, who stood up against forcible conversions by the Mughals, and was executed on the orders of Aurangzeb in 1675.
At the site of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s execution stands Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk.
Tegh Bahadur was born in Amritsar on April 21, 1621 to Mata Nanki and Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh guru, who raised an army against the Mughals and introduced the concept of warrior saints.
As a boy, Tegh Bahadur was called Tyag Mal because of his ascetic nature. He spent his early childhood in Amritsar under the tutelage of Bhai Gurdas, who taught him Gurmukhi, Hindi, Sanskrit, and Indian religious philosophy, while Baba Budha trained him in swordsmanship, archery, and horse-riding.
He was only 13 when he distinguished himself in a battle against a Mughal chieftain. His bravery and swordsmanship in the battle earned him the name of Tegh Bahadur.
He was married to Mata Gujri at Kartarpur in 1632, and subsequently left for Bakala near Amritsar.
The ninth Sikh Guru
After Guru Ram Das, the fourth Sikh guru, the guruship became hereditary. When Tegh Bahadur’s elder brother Gurditta died young, the guruship went to his 14-year-old son, Guru Har Rai, in 1644. He remained on the seat until his death at the age of 31 in 1661.
Guru Har Rai was succeeded by his five-year-old son Guru Har Krishan, who passed away in Delhi in 1664 before he could reach the age of eight. It is said that when asked about his successor, he took the name of “Baba Bakala”, his grand uncle.
Guru Tegh Bahadur had built a ‘bhora’ (basement) in his house at Bakala where he spent most of his time in meditation. In the ancient Indian tradition, ‘bhoras’ were considered ideal for meditation as they were soundproof and had an even temperature. But since Guru Har Krishan hadn’t directly named Guru Tegh Bahadur, many claimants cropped up.
Dr Hardev Singh from the Department of Religious Studies, Sri Guru Granth Sahib World University, Fatehgarh Sahib, said that according to lore, Makhan Shah, a wealthy trader whose ship was caught in a storm at sea, had prayed that if it was saved he would give 500 gold mohurs (coins) to the reigning guru. But when he reached Delhi, he learnt that Har Krishan had passed away and there was a line of claimants at Bakala. It is said that he decided that whoever was the real guru would ask him for the exact sum he had promised in his prayers.
He had exhausted his options when he was told about Tegh Bahadur meditating in the ‘bhora’. Tegh Bahadur took one look at Makhan Shah, and told him that he had promised 500 coins. He added, “It’s not wise to test your guru.” An ecstatic Makhan Shah is said to have run to the rooftop and shouted “Guru ladho re! (I have found the guru!)”
Soon afterward, Tegh Bahadur moved to Kiratpur Sahib. In 1665, on the invitation of Raja Bhim Chand of Kahlur who was his devotee, he bought land at Makhowal village and renamed it Chak Nanki (now Anandpur Sahib) after his mother.
The Guru’s times
Aurangzeb was the ruling Mughal emperor at the time. “There were conversions, either through a government order or through coercion. When people were charged with some crime or misdemeanour, they would be pardoned if they converted,” Dr Hardev Singh said.
Guru Tegh Bahadur who started travelling extensively through Malwa and Majha, first came into conflict with the authorities when he started questioning the tradition of worshipping at the graves of pirs and faqirs. He preached against this practice, and urged his followers to be ‘nirbhau’ (fearless) and ‘nirvair’ (without envy).
His sermons, delivered in a mix of Sadukhri and Braj languages, were widely understood from Sindh to Bengal. The metaphors he used resonated with people across North India. Guru Tegh Bahadur often alluded to Panchali (Draupadi) and Ganika in his preachings and declared that Hindustan could regain its piety if it took refuge in one God, Dr Hardev said.
Run-in with the Mughals
As his message began to spread, a local chieftain at Dhamtan near Jind in present-day Haryana picked him up on fabricated charges of collecting revenue from villagers, and took him to Delhi. But Raja Ram Singh of Amer, whose family was a long-time follower of the gurus, intervened and kept him in his house for around two months until he convinced Aurangzeb that the guru was a holy man with no political ambitions.
Earlier, Raja Jai Singh of Amer had donated land for a dharamshala where the gurus could rest while visiting Delhi. The present-day Bangla Sahib gurdwara is built on this site.
Travels beyond Punjab
Dr Amarjit Singh, director, Guru Granth Sahib Department, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, said that a little more than a year after setting up his headquarters in present-day Anandpur Sahib in 1665, the guru spent four-odd years travelling up to Dhaka in the east, and going up to Puri in Odisha. He also visited Mathura, Agra, Benares, Allahabad, and Patna, where he left his wife and her brother in the care of the local devotees. Guru Gobind Singh was born in Patna in 1666.
While the guru was on the way back from Dhaka, Raja Ram Singh sought his help to broker a truce with the Ahom king. Gurdwara Dhubri Sahib on the banks of the Brahmaputra commemorates this peace accord. The guru was also honoured at Guwahati’s Kamakhya temple.
According to historians, the guru rushed back to Punjab on learning about the increasing atrocities by the Mughals.
Back in Anandpur Sahib, the Guru was approached by Kirpa Das, a Kashmiri Brahmin who sought his protection with a group from the Valley. Das told Guru Tegh Bahadur that local chieftains had told him to convert or face retribution. The guru assured Das and his group of his protection and told them to tell the Mughals that they should first try to convert the guru.
Aurangzeb considered this an open challenge to his authority. According to the ‘Sri Gur Bilas Patshahi Dasmi’, a biography of Guru Gobind Singh by Kavi Sukha Singh written in 1797, the Guru himself went to Delhi where he revealed his identity, and was arrested by the Mughals.
In a paper titled ‘Who killed Guru Tegh Bahadur?’, historian Sardar Kapur Singh wrote that Aurangzeb ordered the public execution of the Guru on November 11, 1675 after the guru declined to embrace Islam.
He was tortured to death and beheaded at Chandni Chowk along with his three companions, Bhai Mati Das, who was torn asunder, Bhai Sati Das, who was burnt to death, and Bhai Dyala ji, who was put in boiling water. Till the very end they were asked to change their minds, but they remained resolute. Gurdwara Sis Ganj was built on the site on which they were executed in 1783.
There is some confusion regarding the date of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s martyrdom. Until a decade or so ago, it used to be observed on November 11 but ever since some scholars sought to introduce the Nanakshahi calendar to fix dates of important events in the Sikh history, it has been observed on November 24.
Dr Hardev Singh attributed this confusion to the change in calendars over the years. “The Islamic Hijri calendar was in force when Guru ji was beheaded. Later, Sikh historians started relying on the lunisolar Bikrami Samvat calendar traditionally used in the Indian subcontinent. And then the British introduced the Gregorian calendar. This led to some confusion.”
A few years ago, some Sikh scholars sought to introduce the Nanakshahi calendar to fix the dates of important historical events in the Sikh history but there was no unanimity on it.
Describing his father in Vichitra Natak, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru who founded the Khalsa, wrote: “Dharam het saka jin kiya, sees diya par sir nahin diya (He sacrificed his life for dharma, he gave up his head but not his honour).”