Vaisakhi: Sikhs, Indians worldwide commemorate ancient festival & faith

Group of people smiling

Vaisakhi parade, Vancouver, 2017. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNDAY, APRIL 14: Around the world today, Indian communities and Sikhs are celebrating Vaisakhi (or Baisahki; spellings vary), an occasion for colorful processions and public festivals. From Salt Lake City, where the mayor has dedicated April as Sikh Awareness and Recognition Month (read the story here), to Dublin, where a major parade took place and rules were recently changed that now allow Sikhs serving with the Garda police service to wear turbans (read about it here), Sikhs are making an impact worldwide.

Did you know? The festival’s name refers to a month in the traditional Hindu calendar: Vaisakha.

In India, Vaisakhi holds varying meanings in different regions. First, this was an ancient agricultural festival in the Punjab; a time of prayers for bountiful crops. In the Punjab region (and among families with Punjabi roots around the world), it is an ancient agricultural festival and a time for prayers for bountiful crops; one custom is an energetic dance called Bhangra, which dates back centuries. Hundreds of years ago, while farmers were preparing to reap a harvest of wheat at this time of year, men would pause to perform this dance. The Bhangra has moved through several different eras and forms, according to scholars of Indian folklore. Today, there is a modern revival of the practice, complete with colorful costumes, that is often performed at Vaisakhi festivals.

THE KHALSA

Though celebrated by many, Vaisakhi holds particular significance for Sikhs who, in 1699, established the Khalsa. On Vaisakhi Day in 1699, Guru Gobind Singh emerged from a tent before thousands, asking for five volunteers willing to give their lives. Armed with a sword, the Guru took in the first volunteer; a few minutes later, the Guru emerged from the tent again, his sword covered in blood. By the time five volunteers had come forward, the Guru revealed his true intentions: to call forth a “Beloved Five,” who would be baptized into a new order known as the Khalsa. The five volunteers exited from the tent—unharmed and wearing turbans. To this day, Sikhism incorporates a readiness to fight for justice by protecting the vulnerable.

SIKH VAISAKHI: PILGRIMAGES & SERVICE

Tens of thousands of Sikhs journey to Pakistani holy sites each year for Vaisakhi—one city even bears the name of the first Sikh Guru, Nanak. Thousands more flock to the birthplace of the Khalsa, as well as to the famed Golden Temple at Amritsar. Sikhs in the United States can travel to Los Angeles, California for an entire day of Kirtan (spiritual music based on the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib) and a large-scale parade; in Manhattan, New York City, Sikhs flood into the streets to perform seva (selfless service) of charity.

Further north, Canadians in British Columbia parade through the streets for Vaisakhi, often drawing 200,000 attendees to the festivities. The UK boasts its own sizeable Sikh population, though most adherents can be found in west London; events there draw up to 75,000.

IN THE NEWS: PLANTING 1 MILLION TREES

Perhaps the biggest story involving Sikhs this year is one that is currently underway and reflects the 550th birth anniversary of Jainism’s founder, Guru Nanak: Sikhs have pledged to plant 1 million new trees, as a “gift to the entire planet.” (Read the story in The Guardian.) Aimed at fighting environmental decline, the Million Tree Project is being coordinated by Washington, D.C.-based organization EcoSikh. Tens of thousands of trees have already been planted, and saplings will be lain in India, the UK, US, Australia and Kenya.

 

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Holi: Hindus revel in festival of color and usher in a vibrant springtime

Crowd of people covered in colored powders with powders being thrown into the air, outdoors

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, MARCH 6: Explosions of color cross India today as the mega-festival of spring arrives. The ancient Holi festival celebrates the triumph of good over evil, and bridges social, economic and gender gaps in Indian communities. On Holi, colorful powders are thrown at friends and strangers, as everyone wishes each other a “Happy Holi.” Celebrations now rage worldwide, and in some parts of India, festivities last more than two weeks.

THE COLOSSAL HOLIKA BONFIRES

The night before Holi, excitement begins to build with massive community Holika bonfires. Around the bonfire, participants sing and dance, recalling the destruction of Holika, an evil demoness of Hindu legend. (Wikipedia has details.) The night before Holi, the scores of Holika bonfires serve as reminder of the victory of good over evil. In some regions, effigies of Holika are burnt in the fires.

Three boys happy covered in colored powder

Boys celebrate Holi in India. Photo by Jean-Marc Gargantiel, courtesy of Flickr

SHADES OF SPRING

Nothing says “spring” like vibrant hues, and Holi ushers in a fresh season in India with vigor and excitement. The morning of Holi, revelers head outdoors with colored powders and water guns, dousing passersby, friends and neighbors. (Learn more from HoliFestival.org.) Holi delicacies are consumed, past wrongdoings are forgiven and debts are paid. In many regions, broken friendships are addressed and families take time to visit each other. Some groups carry drums and instruments in a singing and dancing procession.

While Holika is brought to mind on the eve of Holi, Krishna is worshipped during the festival of Holi. The divine love of Radha for Krishna makes Holi a festival of love. Various legends explain the link between the child Krishna and Holi’s many colors.

Holi hues:
natural vs. synthetic

India’s Holi colors were traditionally plant-derived, serving a dual purpose as bright powders and supposedly serving as herbal protectants against springtime allergens. As urban areas became more populated, cheaper, more available synthetics began gaining in popularity. A lack of control over quality and content led to mass sales of synthetic colors that contained dangerous heavy metals, caused skin and eye irritations and polluted the groundwater and air. Organizations and environmental groups have taken action in recent years, campaigning for safe colors and making naturally derived powders available once again.

‘FESTIVAL OF COLORS’ ACROSS THE GLOBE

Outside of India, Holi is observed by Hindus in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Trinidad, Fiji and South Africa, among other countries with an Indian diaspora population. Recently, festivals and activities have sprung up in cities across the United States and the United Kingdom—Holi now is popular on many college campuses, for example. In some countries, Holi parties are scheduled according to the country’s climate and seasons.

FOR SIKHS: HOLA MOHALLA

While Hindus are throwing colored powders and rejoicing in spring, Sikhs turn to a different festival: Hola Mohalla, literally translated into “mock fight.” In 1699 CE, the 10th Sikh guru Gobind Singh inaugurated the Khalsa, a group of men who had shown immense bravery and selflessness. These saint-soldiers pledged loyalty to the poor and oppressed, vowing to defend wherever injustice was present. Two years later, Guru Gobind Singh instituted a day of mock battles and poetry contests, to demonstrate the skills and values of the Khalsa and to inspire other Sikhs. Today, these events have evolved into Hola Mohalla, a week-long festival replete with music, military processions and kirtans. Food is voluntarily prepared and large groups of Sikhs eat in communion. (Read more at SikhiWiki.) The largest annual Hola Mohalla festival is held at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, although many gurdwaras worldwide hold their own versions of the events at Anandpur.

The Nihangs, bearing the symbol of the Khalsa, often display their skills at Hola Mohalla and are distinct for their blue robes, large turbans, swords, all-steel bracelets and uncut hair. During Hola Mohalla, Nihangs display a mastery of horsemanship, war-like sports and use of arms. Guru Gobind Singh instructed Sikhs to obey the highest ethical standards and to always be prepared to fight tyranny.

IN THE NEWS:

Demand is rising for safe and natural Holi colors, as was recently reported from Pune.

Widows in India wear only white and are often neglected, but this Holi, a group is organizing colorful celebrations for the once-forgotten women. Learn more from the Times of India.

Online shopping for Holi is slowly gaining popularity, though doubts of timely deliverance and other concerns bring limitations. Check out this article to learn more.

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Categories: Faiths of IndiaHinduSikh

Maghi: Sikhs memorialize 40 martyrs at Muktsar, request status changes

Large white building with dome on top across body of water

Gurdwara Muktsar Sahib, so named for the 40 Sikhs who perished in the Battle of Muktsar in 1705. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 14: As the festival of Makar Sankranti surges across India with its kites and sweet treats, Sikhs recall a solemn and momentous anniversary: the death and cremation of the “40 liberated ones.” In December of 1705, 40 Sikhs who had previously abandoned the 10th Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, returned to battle at Muktsar and suffered martyrdom for their leader. The imperial Mughal army was forced to retreat, and Guru Gobind Singh was free from attack. Following the death of the Chali Mukte (40 Liberated Ones), Guru Gobind Singh blessed the Sikhs and declared that they had reached mukti (liberation). Today, the largest gathering for this event—Mela Maghi—takes place at Sri Muktsar Sahib, a revered city in Punjab where the Battle of Muktsar took place.

Did you know? The city of Muktsar was originally called Khidrana, but was renamed “Muktsar,” or “the pool of liberation,” following the prominent battle of 1705.

The story of the 40 Liberated Ones begins when the group, led by Mahan Singh, had formally deserted Guru Gobind Singh and had written a memorandum about their decision. Shortly thereafter, the Sikhs were met by a spirited woman by the name of Mai Bhago, who reprimanded the Sikhs for their lack of bravery. The men were inspired and experienced a renewed sense of purpose. The Sikhs engaged in battle with the fatigued opposing forces, and though outnumbered, were victorious. (Learn more from All About Sikhs.) Before his death on the battlefield, Mahan Singh asked Guru Gobind Singh to forgive the 40 Sikhs who had previously deserted the leader. Gobind Singh officially declared the 40, now martyrs, as forgiven.

During Mela Maghi, Sikhs in India and worldwide gather in gurdwaras to recite hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) and watch elaborate recitals. At Muktsar, a grand three-day festival offers Sikhs a chance to submerge in sacred waters, worship at various locations and participate in a procession to Gurdwara Tibbi Sahib, a renowned favorite of Guru Gobind Singh. (Wikipedia has details.) According to the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhs should take baths and gather in congregation to review God’s virtues.

IN THE NEWS:
OBAMA ASKED TO DISCUSS SIKH RIGHTS IN INDIA

An organization for Sikh rights has obtained more than 100,000 signatures on a petition requesting President Obama discuss Sikh status issues and more during an upcoming trip to India, report news sources. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited President Obama to be chief guest at Republic Day on January 26, and American Sikhs are urging the President to bring up the issue of separate status for Sikhs in India. The petition, entitled “Sikhs are not Hindus,” also asks President Obama to speak with Prime Minister Narenda Modi about bringing justice to the victims of the highly organized Sikh Genocide, which occurred in 1984.

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Categories: Sikh