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

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.


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.


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.)

India: auspicious celebrations of Mela Maghi and Lohri

Two young Sikh boys stand outside the Golden Temple at Amritsar. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsSUNDAY, JANUARY 13: The auspicious month of Magh kicks off across India tomorrow, and Sikhs are the first to celebrate this major event—with the festival of Mela Maghi. Part of the larger jubilee of Magh, Sikhs today remember the honorable fight of the Forty Liberated Ones, or 40 Sikh followers who were martyred in a fight for the Guru Gobind Singh in 1705. Each year on Mela Maghi, Sikhs gather at the holy city of Muktar Sahib—the same place where the Forty Liberated Ones fought—to pray and recite their holy book, Guru Granth Sahib. (Wikipedia has details.)

As Magh marks a significant festival across India, Sikhs commemorate with one of the most vital religious gatherings in their religious calendar. Today, Sikhs will hear a centuries-old story repeated: In 1705, a group of former Sikh followers had abandoned leader Guru Gobind Singh and even signed a contract of desertion. Upon meeting a bold woman, Mai Bhago, they were first scorned for their cowardliness and then encouraged to recover their inner courage. Inspired, the 40 returned to the fight and died fighting off the massive Mughal army. (Read more at All About Sikhs.) Having fought to save Guru Gobind Singh, the Forty Liberated Ones were recognized the following day by the Guru. The bodies were cremated that day, on the first of Magh.

Magh events abound in the vibrant Punjabi region, but nowhere in Punjab are celebrations larger than in Mukstar. Here, enormous fairs delight young and old, and an overwhelming march of pilgrims lines the streets from a major shrine to the gurdwara Tibbi Sahib, which was sacred to Guru Gobind Singh. (Political conventions are also held during Maghi.) Customarily, Sikhs around the world are entertained on Maghi with end-to-end recitals of the Guru Granth Sahib.


As Sikh Maghi events wind down tonight—waiting to be picked up tomorrow—and the dusk gathers across Punjab, bonfires begin dotting the landscape: It’s the widespread Lohri, always marked on the eve of Makar Sankranti. People across India, including Hindus, eagerly anticipate the auspicious month of Magh, which dawns tomorrow and welcomes the umbrella festival of Makar Sankranti.

Tonight, Indians will light bonfires and lamps of sesame oil, in an attempt to literally Agh and Magh, “eradicate sin.” At the fireside, Punjabis eat rice in boiled milk and feast on warming treats like gajjak (a sesame bar—get the recipe here), roasted peanuts and popcorn. (Are Westerners really the ones in the dark on the Sikh Maghi festival? The Washington Post thinks so. Read an article all about it here.)


Lohri signals the distribution of alms across Punjab, along with bonfires that traditionally have helped families to welcome the birth of sons—but that tradition is quickly changing. This year, the Times of India reported the gathering of approximately 50 families at Sukhna Lake to celebrate their newborn daughters’ first Lohri. With corporate sponsors and musical performances, the event had a bonfire, peanuts and other customary snacks. Sponsors attest that as times change, families “take great pride” in their newborn girls, too.

Sikh: Rejoice in ‘holy city’ status at Guru Nanak Gurpurab

A Sikh procession, often seen in the days before and during a Sikh Guru’s birthday (Gurpurab). This year, Pakistan has granted the birthplace of the first Sikh Guru official status as a ‘holy city.’ Photo in public domainWEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 28: Sikhs worldwide rejoice today, as one of the most revered sites in their faith just received “holy city” status by Pakistan. Today is Guru Nanak Gurpurab, the birthday of the first Sikh Guru, and his place of birth has been honored with a new status. Each year, thousands of Sikhs, Nanakpanthi Hindus and other followers of Guru Nanak’s philosophies make the pilgrimage to Nankana Sahib.

In the days prior the festival, devotees flood the streets singing hymns, marching in processions and displaying martial arts and mock battles—a trademark of the faith. Forty-eight hours prior, Sikh houses of worship host nonstop readings of the Guru Granth Sahib, or Sikh holy book. (Wikipedia has details.) Finally, in the wee morning hours of the birthday (Gurpurab), hymns and readings precede a massive, free, communal lunch. This year, Times of India reported expecting more than 250,000 pilgrims at the communal lunch at Nankana Sahib. The lunches are always staffed by volunteers and open to both rich and poor in a spirit of service (seva) and devotion (bhakti).

The first of 10 Sikh Gurus, Nanak Dev Ji was born in 1469 in Rai-Bhoi-di Talwandi, in present-day Pakistan. Each year, Guru Nanak’s birthday falls on the full moon of the month of Kartik; this translates, roughly, to the month of November in the Gregorian Calendar. Though each Guru birthday is a cause for celebration, Nanak Dev holds a particularly high status in the faith.


At a recent dinner, Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik announced the new status of Nankana Sahib as a holy city—a “goodwill gesture,” he called it, toward Sikhs in India and in other communities worldwide. (Read more in India Today.) Furthermore, persons with Indian passports visiting Pakistan can now travel to Nankana Sahib regardless of what type of visa they hold, thus preventing major headaches for many travelers. Think this isn’t a big deal? Think again! These gestures display significant strides toward peace between the two countries, as Pakistan and India have gone to war three times since the split in 1947. (News Track India has the story.)

Furthermore, strict security will be in place for all Sikh pilgrims during this year’s pilgrimage, as newspapers have reported a Taliban kidnapping threat issued to Indian pilgrims.

Hindu, Jain, Sikh: Light up the night for Diwali

An Indian temple is illuminated during Diwali. Photo courtesy of FotopediaTUESDAY, NOVEMBER 13: Beacons of light soar across the night sky, announcing the triumph of good over evil, as hundreds of thousands of clay lamps—and neon lights—illuminate Diwali.

For five days, Hindus celebrate the extravagant event popularly known as the “Festival of Lights” with sweets, lanterns and firecrackers. (Learn more at Diwali calls all Hindus, worldwide, to examine the Atman: that is, the part of living beings that is beyond physical body and extends into the vast, the pure, and the infinite. After the firecrackers have been lit and the sweets enjoyed, devotees reflect on what the Festival of Lights is really about: the light of higher knowledge that is only realized when one awakens from ignorance and understands the oneness of all things. The bottom line—only inner light can bring true serenity and joy.

The very name Diwali means light. A contraction of Deepavali, the lengthy name for the festival translates into “row of lamps.” Inner light aside, the brightness of Diwali traces its roots to an agricultural harvest festival, when farmers would welcome the goddess of wealth with clay lanterns. Businesses, homes and public arenas today work hard to continue receiving her, hoping for auspiciousness in the coming year. (Wikipedia has details.) Each day of Diwali signifies a principal story in Hindu legend, with rituals that follow. The breakdown goes something like this:

Day 1: Homes are cleaned; devotees shop for gold
Day 2
: Hindus display clay lamps; rangoli created with colored powders and sand
Day 3
: The main day of the festival, familes gather to perform Lakshmi Puja, a prayer for the goddess of wealth; the prayer is followed by feasts and fireworks
Day 4
: The first day of the New Year
Day 5
: Brother-sister relationships are strengthened when married sisters welcome their brothers into their homes, often with a lavish meal.

For most Hindus, each day’s gladness is further enhanced with tasty sweets, gift exchanges and general gaiety. Even young people adore the traditions of old—according to one source in The Hindu, “In our ever-so-busy lives, these occasions serve the purpose of bringing the family together again. Tradition is fun, if I can say so.”


Upward of 10 countries mark Diwali as an official holiday. Even outside those nations, most major cities around the world host Diwali celebrations, too. Across the UK, Diwali has been an annual festival for years, and in 2003, the White House observed Diwali for the first time; Barack Obama became the first American President to attend Diwali at the White House, in 2009. The Australian Indian Innovations Incorporated (AIII) organized their country’s first major Diwali Festival in 2002; between that year and 2008, more than 140,000 people visited the festival of cultural programs, music, rides, food and fireworks.

Fireworks in India will bring pollution to ‘alarmingly high’ levels this Diwali. Photo courtesy of FotopediaJAIN: NIRVANA FOR A NEW YEAR

The second day of Diwali marks a New Year for Jains—two days earlier than Hindus—and Inner Light is embraced by this religion when recalling the attainment of Nirvana, or Moksha, by Lord Mahavira in 527 BCE. Of the 24 Tirthankars central to Jainism, Mahavira was the last. Mahavira rejuvenated the Jainism Dharma—the Dharma that devotees follow to this day. Legend has it that many gods were present during Mahavira’s attainment, thereby lighting the dark night.


Sikh history tells of the sixth guru, Hargobind Singh, and his release from prison during this time many years ago. It’s believed that 52 Hindu kings were also released by Guru Hargobind at that time, and today, Sikhs rejoice by sharing a vegetarian meal and reading Sikh holy scripture.


One of the primary elements of Diwali will threaten lives in India this year, and both young people and the Indian government are speaking out en masse: the fireworks that light up the night are threatening to bring pollution to extreme levels. (Read more in the Hindustan Times.) Children across India are crowding the streets, shouting slogans and waving banners that include “Say No to Crackers”, according to the Times of India, while thousands of students have vowed an eco-friendly Diwali. Still more students have informed local residents about focusing on traditional clay lamps. A Guinness World Record of “green” is being attempted by children at Prince Ashokraje Gaekwad School, by displaying more than 800 drawings for a “green” Diwali, according to the Times of India. For those fond of fireworks, eco-friendly varieties are available in markets, and many have reported opting for a virtual show, courtesy of software called “e-cracker.”


Planning a party for Diwali? The Hindu offers up ideas for a fabulous fete. Cook up some tasty sweets—and other traditional dishes—with help from the BBC. Kids can get a pint-sized explanation of the festival from National Geographic; craft descriptions and printables are at Activity Village.


India: Tie the knot with a sibling on Raksha Bandhan

THURSDAY, AUGUST 2: “Tying the knot” takes on a different meaning in Indian culture today, as Hindus, Sikhs and some Muslims celebrate Raksha Bandhan. Literally meaning “binding protection,” Raksha Bandhan calls all sisters to present their brothers with rakhi, bracelets of sacred thread, in exchange for his continuing vow of protection. By tying this bracelet on her brother’s wrist, a sister is promised a shield in times of need; the sister is promising to pray for her brother with intentions of well being. (Wikipedia has details.)

But wait! “Sacred thread”? This year, the Times of India reports that famous cartoon characters are featured on many rakhi: Spiderman, Harry Potter, Tom and Jerry, Hanuman and more are flourishing in rakhi shops. One of the hottest new styles is a tiny teddy bear loaded with music and internal lighting effects.

In one news story, the Times of India quoted a merchant marveling over the explosion of designs: Not long ago, rakhi were fairly simple, but now “we have rakhi made of gold and silver, artificial diamonds, pearls, stone work, chandan (sandalwood), Rudraksh (evergreen seeds usually used for Hindu prayer beads), lockets and tiny statues of gods. Apart from these, the markets this year have rakhi of various cartoon characters from Ben10, Spiderman, Ninja Hattori—to many others. You name the cartoon character and they are here on your wrist.”

That’s a long, long way from beautiful wrist bands of colorful thread or simply woven fabric strips!

What’s the actual tradition?

So, let’s return to the traditional expressions of this festival: Sisters awaken on Raksha Bandhan having prepared a spread of sweets in advance. Following a sacred bath and prayers, a sister presents her brother with the rakhi; she wishes blessings upon him. (Learn more at Festivals of India.) In return, a brother gives his vow and presents his sister with an envelope of money or other gift. Following the exchanges, siblings feed each other sweets and celebrate their brother-sister bond. Since its origins, Raksha Bandhan has evolved into a general holiday of harmony and brotherhood, welcoming male and female cousins, friends and even members of the same congregation or temple to exchange rakhi and vows today.

Rakhi can easily be made with thread and beads (get instructions here), but for most Indians, the tantalizing array of multicolored, glimmering rakhi for sale are too good to pass up.


For more than 32,000 prisoners in the prisons of Madhya Pradesh, this Raksha Bandhan means hope: Visitors have been allowed in past years on this holiday, but the department of prisons has decreed that prisoners are able to receive rakhis by mail in 2012. For prisoners serving a sentence far away from family, this new rule offers renewed potential for strengthening family bonds. (The Times of India reported here, too.) What’s more, the postal department has issued specific rakhi envelopes this year. Since Raksha Bandhan often falls during the wet, humid monsoon season, representatives say that the new options are tamper proof and waterproof.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Sikh: Live by example; the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev

The Golden Temple (pictured above, far right) was finished by Guru Arjan Dev. Photo in public domainSATURDAY, JUNE 16: The tragic death of a Sikh spiritual leader, centuries ago, forever shaped Sikh spiritual culture. On this day, Sikhs recall how Guru Arjan Dev died under orders of the Emperor Jahangir in a courageous defense of justice. (Wikipedia has details.) Guru Arjan Dev’s message was distinctive, because he had taught followers the value of preparing their own defenses, including weaponry skills, in order to defend themselves and the oppressed. This instruction came after generations of martyrs had shown the dangers of violent oppression Sikhs were likely to continue to face. However, during relentless days of his own torture, Guru Arjan Dev instructed his followers not to intercede; it was the will of the Almighty, he insisted, and it was his responsibility to provide inspiration for all those to come who would undergo tests of strength for their faith.

During the 17th century, Emperor Jahangir rose to power and attempted to turn India into an Islamic state. Sikhs, Hindus and others all faced oppression. Allegations were made against Guru Arjan Dev, and soon, the Sikh leader was arrested. Guru Arjan Dev underwent days of torture with boiling water, fire-hot sand and starvation. Finally, the Guru asked for a cooling bath in the Ravi River. The Emperor agreed, imagining that the cold water might be yet another form of torture; however, the Guru slowly disappeared into the water—never to be seen again.

Guru Arjan Dev, during his life, also compiled the writings of the four past Gurus into one sacred book. This book would become the Guru Granth Sahib (the name of the Sikh holy book).

This year, approximately 200 Indian Sikhs have traveled into Pakistan by foot to worship in the annual, nine-day “Jore Mela” for the martyrdom anniversary. (Read more in The Hindu.) The pilgrims’ train was refused by Indian officials.

Sikh, Hindu: A New Year, Khalsa and Ganges on Baisakhi

Serving the Common Good with the Bounty of Agriculture: It’s a perfect blend of Baisakhi (or Vaisakhi) themes. These young volunteers in the Punjab are operating a tractor-powered sugar-cane juicer (the large yellow device that crushes the canes and extracts the juice). They are making free juice for people celebrating the holidays. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.FRIDAY, APRIL 13: A primordial agricultural festival and solar New Year make for one big party in India today, primarily in the northern regions with major Sikh communities. For Sikhs, this is the 313th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa.

Vaisakhi, or Baisakhi, marks the beginning of the Indian agricultural season; for citizens in rural areas, it’s the start of months of grueling yet rewarding work in the fields. Passersby will even notice a complex agricultural dance being performed in many Indian villages today. (For history, customs and traditions, learn more from the Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India.)

For Sikhs, an event that occurred on this day in 1699 changed Baisakhi’s meaning for them forever. During Vaisakhi 1699, the tenth Sikh Guru—Guru Gobind Singh—set up a tent in the midst of the festivities. Sikhs gathered to visit him, but the leader had something more in mind: a test. Gobind Singh asked the crowd for a volunteer willing to give his life, and when one came forward, Gobind took this man into the tent. Some time later, he emerged from the tent with a blood-covered sword, asking for another volunteer. Four volunteers later, Gobind Singh revealed a surprise for the crowd: he had slaughtered goats, and the five men who had risked their lives were deemed the Khalsa, or “pure ones.” (Wikipedia has details.) The Khalsa now holds a prominent place in Sikhism and the Sikh way of life.

Although Baisakhi holds particular importance for Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists observe this day in religious ways, too. While Sikhs are visiting gurudwaras with offerings, Hindus are bathing in the sacred Ganges River. Buddhists commemorate the day Guatam Buddha achieved Nirvana, beneath the Mahabodhi tree. (Access Vaisakhi songs, poems and recipes at ILoveIndia.)

Baisakhi events have been growing in popularity in recent years, too: In 2010, more than 20,000 devotees were expected in Pakistan for (a spike since previous years. Read more in the Express Tribune). A Sikh parade in Los Angeles drew 15,000, and in Canada, Vaisakhi events are attended by approximately 200,000 people.