Vaisakhi: Sikhs, Indians worldwide commemorate ancient festival & faith

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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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