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Vaisakh (Baisakh, Baisakhi)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Sikh, Hindu), Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: April 13; first day of Vaisakha
Where Celebrated: India, Malaysia
Symbols and Customs: Akhand Path, Bhangra, Charity, Five K's, Pahul Ceremony
Related Holidays: Guru Nanak's Birthday


Vaisakh is a new year's celebration in both the Sikh and the Hindu faiths. Among the Sikhs who live in Malaysia and the region of northwestern India known as the Punjab, where the Sikh religion was founded, the first day of the month of Vaisakha is New Year's Day. Because the date is based on the solar calendar used in this part of the country, it normally coincides with April 13, although once every thirty-six years it falls on April 14.

Aside from being the first day of the year, Vaisakh is also the anniversary of several important historical events. It is the day on which Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last of the gurus whose teachings are central to Sikhism, founded the militant Khalsa brotherhood in 1699. And it was on this day in 1747 that the Sikhs decided to build a permanent fortress at Amritsar, which is why this city has become a focal point for their worship. On Vaisakh in 1919, the British lieutenant governor of the Punjab tried to prevent the Sikhs from gathering there. They assembled anyway and were fired on by the army, an act that resulted in the deaths of 337 men, forty-one boys, and a baby. Because of the day's historical and religious significance, all Sikhs are required to visit the largest and most important gurdwara (public place of worship) they can get to. If possible, they should visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where a continuous reading of the Granth Sahib (see AKHAND PATH ) and certain other rituals are held. After the religious ceremonies are over, there is feasting and folk dancing. Thousands of Sikhs visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar every year and bathe in the Pool of Immortality.

Among Hindus, Vaisakh marks the beginning of the new year. Early in the morning, people bathe in sacred rivers, pools, or wells. They then dress in festive clothes and visit houses of worship for prayers. A pilgrimage to the only shrine of Badrinath, in the Himalayas, begins on this day. Vaisakh is also a harvest festival in northern India, particularly in the Punjab, where most of the country's grain is grown.


Akhand Path

For Sikhs, the main religious event that takes place on Vaisakh is the reading of the Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, from beginning to end. This takes approximately forty-eight hours and begins two days before the holiday so that the reading will end at dawn on the first of Vaisakha. It begins with the preparation of karah parshad, the "gift of God to his devotees," prepared in an iron bowl (karah) and made of equal portions of flour, sugar, and ghee (clarified butter). Then the Ardas, a three-part prayer, is recited by the entire congregation, standing with their palms pressed together facing the throne of the Guru Granth Sahib. Then the holy book is opened at random, a verse is read for spiritual guidance, and the akhand path begins with the Japji, written by Guru Nanak, the first guru.

Members of the community visit the gurdwara whenever they can during the two days during which the scripture is being read. A number of readers participate in the round-the-clock reading of the scripture, each reading for about two hours before the next one takes over. At the end, everyone gathers at the gurdwara and shares some karah parshad. Then the Granth Sahib is carried in a procession to the accompaniment of religious music. Five leaders of the congregation walk in front of the Granth with drawn swords in memory of the panj pyares (see PAHUL CEREMO NY ) of Guru Gobind Singh.


In the Punjab region, Vaisakh is a harvest festival for Hindus. People dance the strenuous folk dance known as the BHANGRA , which involves movements that reenact the entire agricultural process: plowing, sowing, weeding, reaping, and winnowing. The final sequence of the dance shows the farmer celebrating the harvest. In addition, these festivals might include singing folk songs accompanied by drums, feasting, and other merry-making.


Many Hindus believe that charity given during Vaisakh is especially worthy. Therefore, people are generous in giving money, grain, and other items to the poor.

Five K's

Members of the Khalsa or militant brotherhood of the Sikh religion distinguish themselves by the wearing of five symbols: the kesh (uncut hair), khanga (comb), kirpan (sword), kara (steel wrist band), and kacch (a pair of breeches that must not reach below the knee). The kesh and the khanga symbolize an orderly form of spirituality, since unlike other religious groups that wear uncut hair, the Sikhs are instructed to wash their hair regularly and comb it twice a day. The kacch symbolizes modesty and moral restraint. The kara, worn on the right wrist, is also a symbol of restraint, although some believe that it was originally a means of protecting the wrist from the bowstring. But the circular shape of the wristband serves as a reminder of the Sikh's unity with God and with the other members of the Khalsa. The sword or kirpan symbolizes dignity and self-respect. Khalsa members are supposed to be ready to fight, but only in self-defense or to protect the weak and the oppressed.

Pahul Ceremony

For Sikhs, Pahul means "baptism," and the initiation ceremony for new members of the Khalsa that frequently takes place on Vaisakh recalls the "baptism of the sword" used by Guru Gobind Singh to select the first members of this militant brotherhood in 1699. Since it was customary for Sikhs to gather on Vaisakh, Guru Gobind Singh took advantage of the annual gathering to remind his followers of the dangerous times in which they lived and the importance of being a strong, unified people. Then, drawing his sword, he asked any man who was willing to sacrifice his head as a show of faith to step forward. There was a prolonged silence during which no one responded. Then one man came forward and was taken into the guru's tent. When the guru reappeared with a bloody sword in his hand, four more men followed. After the last of the panj pyares ("beloved five") had disappeared into the tent, the guru emerged with his small band of dedicated followers. To celebrate their courage, he gave them nectar (amrit) made from water and sugar crystals prepared in an iron bowl and stirred with a double-edged sword. Vaisakh

Although new members may be initiated into the Khalsa at any time of year, Vaisakh is the most popular season for doing so. Initiates must be at least fourteen years of age and must possess the five symbols of their faith (see FIVE K ' S above) and be devout members of the Sikh community. The initiation ceremony begins with an explanation of the principles of the Sikh faith, readings from the scriptures, and the preparation of amrit. Five men representing the original panj pyares kneel around an iron bowl and take turns stirring its contents with a double-edged sword (khan- da). When the nectar is ready, the panj pyares lift up the bowl and offer a prayer. One by one the initiates come forward and are given a handful of amrit to drink. Then the remaining nectar is sprinkled five times on their hair and eyes. The initiation ceremony ends with the reading of a passage of scripture chosen at random and the sharing of karah parshad-flour, sugar, and ghee mixed in equal proportions in an iron bowl, symbolic of the equality and brotherhood of the Sikh faith.


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Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


April-May; first day of Hindu month of Vaisakha
Vaisakh is the Hindu New Year and a harvest festival, celebrated primarily in northern India and Bangladesh with temple worship, ritual bathing in rivers, and a New Year's fair. For Sikhs, it is their most important holy day.
In Malaysia and India, especially in the Indian state of Punjab, where the gospel of the Sikhs began, Vaisakh (also spelled Baisakh ) is particularly significant. On this day in 1689 Guru Gobind Singh chose the five leaders (called the Panch Pyare, or "Beloved Five") who formed the Khalsa, the militant fraternity of the Sikhs. There the holiday is celebrated in the temples, with a 48-hour reading of the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book), prayers, hymns, and sermons. Castelessness, an important Sikh principle, is emphasized by everyone eating and sitting together. Afterwards, there is feasting and dancing of the bhangra, a popular and athletic folk dance for men, depicting the entire farming year.
In the Indian state of Kerala, the festival is known as Vishu . Activities include fireworks and what is called Vishu Kani, a display of grain, fruits, flowers, gold, new cloth, and money, which is supposed to ensure a prosperous year.
The festival is called Bohag Bihu in Assam, and there it is celebrated for a week with music, folk dances, and community feasting. Traditions include decorating cattle, smearing them with turmeric, and giving them brown sugar and eggplant to eat. Also during this time, there is a day on which young people look for marriage partners. The girls wear beautiful scarves, and the boys look for the most lovely orchids; they present these to each other and then dance.
Punjab Tourism Development Corp.
Sector 8-C
Chandigarh, Punjab 160 018 India
91-172-781138; fax: 91-172-548828
AnnivHol-2000, p. 61
BkFest-1937, p. 157
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 790
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 306
HolSymbols-2009, p. 997
RelHolCal-2004, pp. 167, 203
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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