Maghi: Forty Martyrs

Quick Facts and Stats

  • Summary: Winter Solstice Festival commemorating the deaths of forty Sikh Martyrs
  • 2020 Date: 15th January
  • Celebrated by: Sikhs
  • Linked Holidays: Lohri, Winter Solstice

Background and Theological Significance

Maghi has its origins in the wars fought between the Sikh community, the Khalsa, and the Mughal Empire in the 1600s and 1700s. It is perhaps one of the best examples of a key theme in Sikh theology: self-sacrificial defence of a persecuted minority. 

The specific story that gives Maghi its origin starts with the forces of the Mughal Empire sieging the city of Anandpur in 1705. In the face of certain defeat, many of the Sikhs, who were defending the city, deserted their post. They did not simply leave, they asked permission from their leader; Guru Gobind Singh. The Guru’s condition was that they personally renounce him, which forty of them did in letters of bedava (abandonment or renouncing claims.) After they left the fort was overrun by the Empire’s forces and the Sikh Khalsa was forced to flee.

These forty Sikhs returned to their homes where, according to the story, they were chastised by their wives and mothers. One of their mothers, Mai Bhago, even put on her sons armour and took up his weapons saying that the men would follow her if they had any sense of honour. They did.

The forty men, in some accounts accompanied by the mother Mai Bhago still dressed for battle, left to find and rejoin Guru Gobind Singh. The Guru had survived the assault but was being chased down by the imperial forces. They caught up with the Guru and the imperial forces at Kidrana. The forty deserters attacked the Mughal forces, prompting the Guru to also take the opportunity to join the fight against them. Together they successfully drove off the imperial forces.

In the aftermath the Guru found all of the deserters had died in the battle, except for one, Mahan Singh. They were declared Martyrs and Guru Gobind Singh tore up their letters of bedava in front of the dying man. The place was then renamed Mukstar, which translates to ‘The Pool of Liberation’. To this day Sikhs travel to Mukstar to bathe in the waters to commemorate the sacrifice made by these martyrs.

History

The Sikh community, alongside the other residents of North-west India, have long celebrated this time of year as the Winter Solstice. Maghi took on a new meaning after it came to be associated with the sacrifice of these forty martyrs, but it was still connected to other celebrations, like Lohri, that see community coming together in the depths of the cold and dark of winter.

Guru Gobind Singh holds a special significance for the Sikh community, having fundamentally reshaped the society. First he is attributed with the greater political and military organisation that led to Sikh’s physically defending themselves and others against persecution. In doing so he established the “Five K’s” of Sikhism.

Guru Singh is also credited with establishing the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture, as his successor and the ‘Eternal Guru’ for the Sikh community. This makes Guru Gobind Singh the last in the line of ten human Gurus that up till then had led the Sikh community.

What Happens?

The site of the battle, Mukstar, has become a site of pilgrimage for the Sikh community. This pilgrimage takes on a special importance at the commemoration of the sacrifice of these martyrs. Sikhs travel to Mukstar to ritually cleanse themselves in the waters of the pool of liberation.

Alongside this, special foods are eaten and prepared around Maghi. In particular special puddings called Kheen, made with sugarcane, and curd mixed with chili and another dish made with beans and lentils called khichdi.

Maghi is a commemoration of the ultimate sacrifice given to protect a minority community from destruction. The name of Mukstar highlights that in Sikh theology liberation from suffering can be found through such sacrifice. The timing of Maghi just after the Winter Solstice also reminds us of the potential and hope that such sacrifice can bring even in the depths of our most helpless time.

“20100429-P1040193-Edit” by brianholsclaw is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 

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