The History Of Vaisakhi
Sikhs across the globe have been celebrating Vaisakhi with many gurdwaras holding processions throughout towns, inviting people to join in and sing hymns. Possibly the most important festival in the Sikh calendar, Vaisakhi commemorates the founding of Sikhism. But do the current generation of Sikhs truly appreciate the significance of the event or has the festival become another commercial convention?
Initially, Vaisakhi began as a harvest festival in the Punjab and was celebrated as such long before it became synonymous with Sikhism. On the Vaisakhi Day in the year 1699, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, laid down the foundation of the Panth Khalsa – the Order of the Pure Ones. The history of Sikhism dictates that during the Vaisakhi festival, Guru Gobind Singh came out of a tent carrying a sword. He then challenged any Sikh, who was prepared to give his life for the cause, to come to the tent. Each time a volunteer was taken to the tent, the Guru returned alone with his sword covered in blood. Once the Guru repeated this action five times, he emerged from the tent with the five men – all wearing identical turbans and dressed in blue.
These five men then became known as the Panj Pyare or ‘The Beloved Five’. After being baptised into the Khalsa by the Guru, they were sprinkled with Amrit (known as ‘immortalising nectar’ which is the Sikh term for holy water) and were then invited to say prayers. This then became the basis of the Sikh baptism ceremony.
Vaisakhi is truly a celebration of the establishment of Sikhism as a collective faith, therefore it is a vitally important festival, if not to appreciate the religion as a whole but to thoroughly understand its origins.
There is indeed a younger generation of Sikh people that are unfortunately forgetting the historical significance…
City Sikhs Network
This is something which younger generations are not focusing on says Param Singh of The City Sikhs Network: “There is indeed a younger generation of Sikh people that are unfortunately forgetting the historical significance of certain celebrations and their meaning. For example, it is a common misconception amongst Sikh people that Vaisakhi is something purely associated with the Sikh religion whereas in actual fact it is the new year for both Bengalis and Keralites. Vaisakhi as a festival has ancient roots dating back to Hinduism all the way through to the more modern founding of the Khalsa in 1699 and I personally believe it is good to know why you do something and to question everything because it helps to add a new depth to life.”
The story of Sikhism is essentially about brotherhood, unity and sacrifice. The founding of the religion is didactic to any member of the Sikh community as it shows the Panj Pyare’s commitment to their faith. With a story grounded in such devotion, it becomes imperative to each Sikh individual to learn the history in order to truly appreciate the festival.
However, 22-year-old Jagdip argues that the meaning is not lost on the younger generation: “As a Sikh and a Punjabi, this day would have been really important for my ancestors back in Punjab who were farmers. As a second generation British Asian, I guess the day is more symbolic for me but it is still quite important to me because it reminds me of my roots and engages me with the culture I’m from.”
Vaisakhi isn’t such a big thing commercially as it doesn’t involve the exchange of gifts or money.
Nagar Kirthans & Melas
As with many traditions, over time commercialism has taken over and the actual meaning has long been forgotten. Currently, there are many melas and Nagar Kirtans (processions) dedicated to the festival in the UK. The largest concentration of Sikhs in England can be found in Southall in West London and Birmingham in the West Midlands; as a result of this, both areas host Nagar Kirtans, with nearly 200, 000 attendees collectively. The events have become so accepted as part of British Sikh culture, that even Birmingham City Council lend their hand in hosting the event in the West Midlands.
The establishment of melas and public Nagar Kirans, while excellent in the promotion of Vaisakhi, does detract from the true meaning. In all the excitement of music performances at melas and community fun, are Sikhs ever really reminded of the Panj Pyare and their piety?
Param Singh argues that while Sikhism has not been commercialised, these large gatherings are not necessarily conducive to celebrations: “Vaisakhi isn’t such a big thing commercially as it doesn’t involve the exchange of gifts or money. So it’s not doing too bad on that front but I personally don’t think that clogging up the streets with a march or procession and annoying the local community is necessarily in the best spirit of the festival!”
Jagdip agrees: “I don’t think Vaisakhi has been commercialised at all! You don’t see Vaisakhi cards or food in Tescos. I think that’s a good thing because it stays true to the simplicity of Sikhism and the traditional Punjabi way of life.”
So Vaisakhi hasn’t been tarred by the commercial brush, which considering its importance in Sikhism’s history, is a great positive. But for second generation British Sikhs, whether you’re taking Amrit for the first time, or just joining the family at the gurdwara, it’s essential to understand the reasons behind the celebration.