Baisakhi: Sikhs and Indians of the Punjab region celebrate first of Vaisakh

Group of Indian men and women in colorful garb and native instruments gathered together in a field of tall wheat or other grain

Baisakhi is, in part, a Punjabi harvest festival. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

TUESDAY, APRIL 14: The grand Baisakhi festival sweeps across the Punjab region of India today, bringing lively processions and dancing, sacred baths, Sikh kirtans and expressions of gratitude for a good harvest. It is the first day of the month of Vaisakh, and the beginning of a new solar year.

For Hindus, Baisahki means Punjabi fairs, sacred rituals and a legend about the Goddess Ganga; for Sikhs, Vaisakhi is the anniversary of the organization of the esteemed Khalsa. (Tribune India reported on this year’s Baisakhi mela.) During the Baisakhi festival of 1699, Sikh Guru Gobind Singh Ji set the foundation for the Panth Khalsa—the Order of the Pure Ones. (Learn more at BaisakhiFestival.com.) Today, Sikhs visit a gurdwara (place of worship) with flowers and other offerings. The largest Sikh gatherings take place at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and at the gurdwara at Anandpur Sahib (the birthplace of the Khalsa).

Did you know? Spellings of the solar New Year festival vary widely, but generally, it is spelled “Vaisakhi” in specific dialects of Punjabi, and “Baisakhi” when referring to the Sikhs and the Khalsa anniversary.

While most Baisahki events take place around the Punjabi region, Sikh celebrations are carried out worldwide. (For an assortment of tasty Basaikhi recipes, visit BBC.co.uk.)  In New York, community service and food charity is practiced by Sikhs; in Los Angeles, a full-day kirtan (spiritual music) program is followed by a parade that contains an average of 15,000 participants. In British Columbia, a kirtan parade attracts tens of thousands annually (The Georgia Straight reported); in London, Sikhs gather for a kirtan and visits to the gurdwara.

Men in orange robes and turbans carry long wooden swords and walk in line in procession

A Vaisakhi procession in Southall, Great Britain. Photo courtesy of Geograph.org

BAISAKHI 1699

As Sikh’s recall their history this week, they will remember: In 1667 CE, the Mughal emperor installed himself as the emperor of India. Strict religious persecution followed, religious taxes gained momentum and temples and places of learning were closed. The Brahmins, eager to stop the emperor, approached Guru Tegh Bahadur (the ninth Sikh guru) for leadership in the conflict. At his son’s encouragement, the guru accepted the Brahmin invitation. (Wikipedia has details.) Guru Tegh Bahadur was later imprisoned and martyred for his fight against the emperor, yet when his body was left exposed, in the open, by the executioner, no one came forward to claim it.

Then, the Sikh narrative continues: In such dangerous and violent times, Guru Gobind Rai—son of Tegh Bahadur—wished to instill in the Sikhs a unique sense of identity and courage. During the Baisakhi festival, it was common for Sikhs to visit Anandpur for the guru’s blessings. Two months prior to Baisakhi 1699, the guru sent a message to Sikh followers: this year, Baisakhi would be different. (Get a Sikh perspective at Sikhism Guide.org.) With a massive crowd before him on that day, the guru declared that every great deed must be preceded by an equally great sacrifice—and, with that, he asked for a head. One man stepped forward from the crowd, ready to sacrifice himself, and the guru led him into a tent. Moments later, Gobind Singh emerged from the tent with a bloodied sword.

After four more men declared themselves for sacrifice, the guru emerged from the tent: the five men, all dressed in pure white, stepped out, too. The men were baptized, knighted as Singhs and called the Five Beloved Ones. They were deemed saint soldiers and the first members of a new community. The Sikh duty, it was proclaimed, was to dedicate life as a service to others and to pursue justice. The identity of the Khalsa embodies the five “Ks”: Kesh (unshorn hair); Kangha (the wooden comb); Karra (the iron or steel bracelet); Kirpan (the sword); and Kachera (the underwear).

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