Sikh festival of Vaisakhi celebrates guru’s fight against injustice

The float carrying the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, in the Southampton Vaisakhi procession. Image credit: Anguskirk flickr CCLicense 2.0

By Hardeep Singh

This weekend, Sikhs throughout the world are marking one of the most important festivals in their religious calendar — Vaisakhi. While Vaisakhi, also pronounced Baisakhi, marks the onset of the Indian spring harvest festival — which is on 13 or 14 April each year, for Sikhs it marks a seminal moment in 1699 when the 10th guru of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh, established the Khalsa — meaning to be “pure, sovereign”.

The Khalsa were created to stand up to injustice, to protect innocent people from religious persecution, uphold freedom, foster spiritual observance, promote honesty and equality, and to ensure all people could access basic needs such as food and health.

The first five to join became known as the Panj Piare or the Beloved Five. The Khalsa was open to all — irrespective of caste, background, or denomination. All men baptised were given the name Singh (lion), and women Kaur (princess).

All were to carry five symbols (panj kakaar) of their faith — colloquially known as the 5Ks — which included the keeping of unshorn hair or kes (covered by a turban or dastaar), as well as a ceremonial sword or kirpan, for self-defence, and the defence of those facing oppression. This year, Sikhs mark the 325th anniversary of the birth of the Khalsa.

How is Vaisakhi celebrated?

Sikhs will attend services in gurdwaras, which include the singing of kirtan or hymns from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, or Sikh scriptures. Vaisakhi is also publicly marked with annual nagar kirtans or processions, in towns across with significant Sikh communities, such as Southall in west London and Gravesend in Kent — where 5,000 people are expected to attend this weekend.

According to the 2021 Census there are 525,865 people who identified as Sikh in England and Wales. West Midlands council data from the 2021 Census, indicates 7.5 per cent of the population in Sandwell identify as Sikh, and 6.1 per cent of Wolverhampton. There are also significant Sikh communities in London too, such as Ealing, to the west of the capital, where 5.4 per cent are Sikh.

The nagar kirtan procession is led by five Sikhs who represent the original Beloved Five, and a float with the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Southall held its procession last Sunday, an event that has previously attracted more than 20,000 people.

This year there has also been a notable increase in corporate involvement with the festival. Tesco is marking a Sikh festival for the first time and launched a Vaisakhi promotion at the landmark Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara in Gravesend last month, including a promotional image on a lorry depicting Vaisakhi celebrations.

Tesco stores will have displays for Indian groceries to mark Vaisakhi. A spokesman says many of its staff like to get involved with Vaisakhi, and some will be attending the nagar kirtan in Gravesend this Saturday. They will be giving free drinks and sweets to those attending the procession outside their store in New Road.

Tesco is not alone. The John Lewis Partnership has collaborated with Guru Nanak Aid by helping to design and create Vaisakhi displays in stores in Leicester and Solihull. Another display will be launched next week in the White City store in, west London. The partnership has gone a step further in its engagement with the Sikh community, with performances from Gurdwara congregations — at John Lewis Solihull on 13 April, Leicester on 25 April, and White City on 27 April.

A spokesman said: “We look forward to the opportunities in future to continue celebrating this special occasion with our customers and partners [employees].”

Other public events this year include:


The meaning of Vaisakhi

At Vaisakhi, Sikhs are required to pledge themselves to reflect on and uphold key Sikh beliefs. These include the belief in one God, and that Sikh teachings see different religions as separate paths to God, all of which must be equally respected. They also reflect on the courage required to stand up for the rights and freedoms of others, as exemplified by the martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth guru, who was executed in 1675 for standing up for the freedom of religion of Hindus in Kashmir, being forced to convert to Islam by Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor.

The Khalsa reminds Sikhs of the open, tolerant, and egalitarian principles of Sikhism, its condemnation of subjugation through caste discrimination, and its emphasis on the full equality and dignity of women.

The 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh was explicit: “Recognise the human race as one,” he said.

More information

Religion Media Centre Vaisakhi factsheet


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