Vaisakhi, also known as Baisakhi, is perhaps the most meaningful date in the Sikh calendar and is celebrated not only in the Indian state of Punjab, but across the world too. But what is Vaisakhi? What does it mean to Sikhs and Hindus everywhere? We delve into the reasons why Vaisakhi, the Sikh festival you might not have heard of, means so much to so many millions of people in India and the rest of the world.
What is Vaisakhi?
Without simplifying too much, Vaisakhi is probably most closely aligned with a sort of New Year festival among followers of the Sikh faith, and takes place on 13th or 14th April every year. It signifies not only the birth of Sikhism in 1699, but also coincides with the start of the harvest season in Punjab, where farming was – and still is – the lifeblood of this region in North West India. It is also widely celebrated in a number of different forms by Hindus, with its name and significance varying from region to region. What can we say? India is one complex, multifaceted country!
The Vaisakhi story
So where did it come from?
Although now joyously celebrated as the Sikh religion’s foremost festival, Vaisakhi’s origins were actually borne out of violent conflict and turmoil during the Mughal reign of India. Hindus and Sikhs resisted the Mughal Empire which had ruled for hundreds of years, and this resulted in the public beheading of the ninth Sikh guru, Guru Teg Bahadur, who was seen as a threat to the Empire. It was then down to Guru Gobind Singh, Guru Teg Bahadur’s son (and therefore successor as the next Sikh Guru), to lead the charge against Mughal rule.
In a showing of unity, on 30th March 1699, the first ever Vaisakhi Day congregation took place, where Guru Gobind Singh blessed five volunteers known as Panj Piara (Beloved Five) and the Sikh identity was created. The five volunteers emerged wearing turbans and orange garments, and Sikhs were asked to wear what are now known as the “Five Ks”:
- Kesh – long, uncut hair
- Kangha – wooden comb
- Kirpan – dagger
- Kaccha or Kachera – undergarment shorts
- Kara – steel bracelet
It was after this that Guru Gobind Singh declared the end of the Gurus in human form and bestowed the Guru Granth Sahib as the last Sikh Guru, a religious scripture now used in Sikh prayer.
How is Vaisakhi celebrated?
With a big ol’ party of course! Well, that’s not wholly true, but there’s always time for some Bhangra dancing in our opinion. In fact, Vaisakhi or Baisakhi, is celebrated all over the world by tens of millions of people in many different ways. Where possible, Sikh people celebrating will visit the Gurdwara – Sikh holy temple – and take part in prayers with family and the local community. Street processions called Nagar Kirtan take place in villages, towns and cities worldwide where participants sing holy hymns, often wearing orange clothing and sharing oh-so-scrumptious food.
Now, it’s no secret that Punjabi people love to enjoy themselves, so dancing in the street is by no means a rarity and is very much encouraged. And perhaps as you may expect, (it being an Indian festival and all) eating plays a huge part in Vaisakhi celebrations, with feasts and indulgent treats galore for all. It’s a time for family and friends, with presents being exchanged, phone calls being made to relatives around the world, and perhaps most importantly, the traditional sending of well-wishing gifs via Whatsapp.
Vaisakhi celebrations in India
With Sikhism’s birthplace being Punjab, it’s fair to say that the spotlight is well and truly on this North Indian state during the Vaisakhi festivities. Perhaps the most famous of all Sikh holy sites, Sri Harmandir Sahib or The Golden Temple, is the main focal point for celebrations and is located in the sacred city of Amritsar. Neighbouring state, Haryana, is also home to many festivities, with farmers in jubilation as the occasion also marks time for harvesting crops.
Not wanting to be left out, other parts of India celebrating variations of Vaisakhi include:
Vaisakhi celebrations in the UK and beyond
One of the largest Vaisakhi celebrations in the UK takes place in London’s Trafalgar Square. Each April, thousands descend upon this Central London landmark in jubilation, with live music, street food and other cultural activities open to all for free. If you squint, you could be in India (squint really really hard and maybe bring layers, because you know, cold). Further notable celebrations take place in Birmingham, Southall and Wolverhampton among others.