“Vaisakhi” will be celebrated world wide on April 13/14. Celebrated by Punjabis (across either side of the India-Pakistan border) it is a harvest-linked festival to give thanks for a good crop and pray for abundance in the year to come. It also assumed a special significance for the Sikhs from the 17th century onwards.
Sikhism started with Guru Nanak, the first of ten Sikh gurus. He preached the existence of One God who exists in all creations and is the Eternal Truth (“Ik Oankar Sat Naam”). He encouraged communal amity through “satsang” (literally, “being in the company of people who are true/pure”) and selfless service (“seva”), using the “langar” (communal kitchen) to gather people from all backgrounds. Guru Nanak Dev emphasized three aspects – Kirat Karo (live honestly and work for the betterment of society), Vand Chhako (share with others according to your capacity and help others meet their needs) and Naam Japo (meditate on the qualities of God). He brought Hindus and Muslims together at a time of rising intolerance and religious divisions.
Guru Nanak’s teachings and simple messaging appealed to the populace. In Punjabi, “Sikh” literally means “to learn” and this is what people who flocked to join Nanak’s congregations came to be known as. In the Punjab, it became a tradition for the eldest male progeny of the family to become a Sikh. My maternal grandmother’s brother was a very devout Sikh, following his conversion in this tradition.
In 1699 on the occasion of Vaisakhi, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last guru of the Sikhs created the Khalsa Panth, a militant force for opposing the then ruling Moghuls. Legend has it that Guru Gobind Singh emerged from a tent brandishing a sword and challenged any Sikh from the gathering of thousands to come forward if he was prepared to offer the ultimate sacrifice of his life in the service of the guru and their faith. One after another, five males stepped forward and were taken into the tent from where the Guru re-emerged alone each time, with his sword covered in blood. The crowd became restive because they could not fathom why their leader would harm unarmed men. The Guru brought forth all five men who were presumed dead and the crowd learned that he had staged their slaughter by killing goats instead. Having thus tested their resolve and found them to be strong, the Guru then introduced these five men as his Punj Piare Singh, or the “Five Beloved Lions” and baptized them as the “Khalsa” (the “Pure”) by making them sip Amrit (“immortalizing nectar” or holy water).
This year Vaisakhi marks the centenary of the harrowing Amritsar massacre. On April 13, 1919 around 20,000 men, women and children had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh (Jallianwala park – an open area of approximately seven acres surrounded by high walls in the heart of the city of Amritsar, Punjab) to enjoy Vaisakhi celebrations and peacefully listen to some political speeches by nationalist leaders seeking independence from the British rule. Colonel Reginald Dyer of the British-Indian army entered the park with around 50 soldiers and blocking the entrance, ordered his men to open fire on the crowd without any warning. He directed his troops’ fire at people who were trying to flee through the other gates that were open. The assault continued unabated for over 10 minutes and stopped only when the company ran out of ammunition. While the official records stated that 375 persons including a baby had died, it is believed that over 1,000 people were killed that day. Celebrated author Rudyard Kipling later wrote that Dyer “did his duty as he saw it” and the then Archbishop of Canterbury called Dyer a “brave, public-spirited, patriotic soldier”. However, Indians believe that the unconscionable act committed on that Vaisakhi day set the wheels in motion that would later hasten the downfall of the British Empire.
Together with Vaisakhi, from April 6 onwards Hindus around the world have also been celebrating “Chaitra Navratri”. The celebration lasts for nine days in honor of the Goddess Durga and on the eighth and the ninth day, better known as Ashtami and Navami respectively, householders invite nine pre-puberty girls from the neighborhood into their homes, welcoming them as incarnates of the Goddess. The ritual is known as “Kanjak Poojan” (worshipping the girls) when their feet are washed as a symbol of repentance and washing away one’s own sins, before serving them delectable foods and sweets and handing over symbolic gifts of money and clothes etc. My grandmother would insist that my brother and I be present for the rituals. As the girls looked for bragging rights to gleefully announce the names of the boys who had been forced into the ritualistic washing of their feet, I would try to find some excuse to slink away and avoid this part of the ceremonies! However, I would always return in time to serve our guests the special dishes prepared for the occasion and join them in enjoying the scrumptious meal under the indulgent watch of our grandmother and assorted assemblage.
My personal celebration of Vaisakhi and Ashtami had a shared theme – it was the special “aate kaa halwa” (a sweet dish made of wheat flour roasted in “ghee” – clarified butter and cooked in milk and sugar). At Vaisakhi, the halwa was simply served as “karha parshad” (sanctified offering), but for Ashtami, it was accompanied by “kaalaa chanaa” (black grams) and “puri” (unleavened deep-fried bread). Food remains a redeeming feature of all our religious celebrations, thankfully so.
Food for thought is what appears to be missing, though. There is but one God and She exists in all creations.