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.

 

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.

Vaisakhi, Baisakhi: Celebrating harvest, new year & Sikh revival

A Vaisakhi street festival in Canada. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A Vaisakhi street festival in Canada. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

SATURDAY, APRIL 13: Around the world Indian communities—especially Sikhs—are celebrating Vaisakhi (or Baisahki; spellings vary). It’s fun. It’s a source of pride and an occasion for colorful processions and public festivals. But explaining its exact meaning is difficult—because Vaisakhi holds many meanings to communities with origins in India.

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), one custom is an energetic dance called Bhangra. Centuries 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.

A BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVE: VESAK

The festival’s name refers to a month in the traditional Hindu calendar: Vaisakha. Within Buddhism, given the faith’s roots in India, this seasonal period of celebration is related now to what is commonly called “Buddha’s Birthday.” Here is Wikipedia’s overview of the Buddhist Vesak—which actually occurs in May this year. Once again, Buddhist customs for Vesak vary across the many cultures in which Buddhism now is deeply rooted around the planet. Decisions by Buddhist leaders in the mid 20th century are among the factors unifying their Vesak celebration as a divergent festival from Vaisakhi.

A 17th CENTURY SIKH REVIVAL: Birth of 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. (Read more from the BBC.) From that day, Sikhism became a faith of soldier saints—always prepared to fight for justice by protecting the vulnerable.

SIKH VAISAKHI AROUND THE GLOBE

Service for the common good is a major theme at Vaisakhi. In this photo, two young Sikhs operate a tractor with an attached machine that crushes sugar cane to make fresh sweet juice. They are giving the fresh juice to celebrants as their act of service. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Service for the common good is a major theme at Vaisakhi. In this photo, two young Sikhs operate a tractor with an attached machine that crushes sugar cane to make fresh sweet juice. They are giving the fresh juice to celebrants as their act of service. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tens of thousands of Sikhs make pilgrimage 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 can be found in west London, and events there draw up to 75,000. The prime minister of Malaysia has announced that this year—for the first time—all government workers of Sikh affiliation will be given a day of on Vaisakhi Day.

Snatam Kaur: An American-Born Sikh Musician

Care to read more about America’s own famous Sikh musician, Snatam Kaur? This spring, she is touring across the U.S. Our new profile of Snatam Kaur tells her inspiring story of trying to promote peace through traditional meditative Sikh hymns.

NEWS on Vaisakhi 2013 and EcoSikh

In efforts to promote justice, Sikh organizations are voicing concern over Pakistani rejection of Hindu visas for Sikh occasions such as Vaisakhi. (Times of India reported.)

Meanwhile, Sikhs from Pakistan celebrated the recent Sikh environment day by planting trees and raising awareness of the importance of plant life. The event was organized by both the Pakistan Sikh Council and the Washington, D.C.-based group EcoSikh. (Read more here.)