The colours of Baisakhi and the dark blot
Baisakhi (or Vaisakhi) is one of the most popular Sikh festivals and is celebrated worldwide by Sikhs mostly on 13th April. In India, it is predominantly celebrated in the state of Punjab (which has a Sikh majority).
It also marks the beginning of the harvesting period of the wheat crop, hence also gets the name of the harvesting festival of Punjab. On this day, the foundation of Panth Khalsa (The Order of the Pure ones) was laid down by Guru Gobind Singh (10th Sikh Guru).
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Digging deep into the history....
On this day in AD 1699, Guru Gobind Singh had called a meeting at Kesgarh Sahib near the magnificent city of Anandpur Sahib. People from all caste and creed came in multitudes to attend the meeting of their beloved Guru. All had a secret desire in their hearts - to hear some profound words from the mouth of their beloved Guru which could ease their senses.
But they were more shocked, than disappointed, to see their Guru aggressively wielding a sword in his hands at the designated place. Guru cried, "Is there anyone in this crowd who would like to sacrifice his life for Dharma?" There was stun silence all around. No one came forward out of the fear of death. He cried again but to no avail.
On his third call, Daya Ram came forward. He was a Khatri (a caste belonging to the northern Indian subcontinent) from Lahore. Guru took him to an enclosure and soon came out. To everyone's astonishment, blood was dripping from his sword. A chilling fear gripped the people as he wielded his sword and thundered again, "Who else would like to sacrifice his life for the cause of Dharma?" A Jat from Delhi, Dharam Das, came forward. He, too, was taken into an enclosure and, again, after some time the Guru came out with blood dripping from his sword.
Guru made his demand for sacrifice three more times and found the able ones in Mohkam Chand, a Chhimba (an ancient Muslim community which consisted largely of tailors) of Dwarka (state of Gujarat); Himmat, a cook of the city of Jagannath (state of Odisha); and the third was Sahib Chand, a barber of the city of Bidar (state of Karnataka).
After the devout sacrifices, people were wondering about what was to come next. To their amazement, Guru brought all the five people in front of the audience. They all were alive and healthy but were dressed in rich robes of orange now. They all belonged to different castes of the society but now none were able to distinguish the inferior from the superior ones.
Guru Gobind Singh, then, administered them with Khande di Pahul (Sikh ceremony of initiation, also known as Amrit Sanskar). They were, then, knighted as Singhs and as the Panj Pyaare (Five Beloved Ones). They became the first members of the Order of Khalsa. Sikhs, since that day, have highly regarded the Panj Pyaare and, even till today, processions are carried out in which little kids are made to dress up as the five beloved ones and praise and love are showered on them.
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The Dark blot...
Baisakhi celebrations in Sikh history has been marred twice by external ruling forces, all leading to bloody massacres wherein thousands were killed. Following are the 2 occasions, as per my limited knowledge, which I can highlight -
Ghallughara (Bloody carnage) of 1769
In 1769, Ahmad Shah Durrani (founder of Durrani empire, also known as Ahmad Khan Abdali) conspired to crush the entire Sikh and Muslim population of Punjab by declaring a Jehad (a holy war) against them. As per ancient chronicles, over 20,000 Sikhs were martyred in a single day.
Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919
On 13th April 1919, more than a thousand (Britain's figure was 379 whereas unofficial figures are much higher) innocent people, including kids and women, were mercilessly gunned down by a troop of around 50 soldiers under the order of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. There was continuous unrest in the city which had forced Dyer to impose a ban on any public meetings on the day of Baisakhi. He was later quoted as saying that this act was not done to disperse the meeting but to 'punish' the Indians for disobedience.
Being a Sikh myself, I would like to talk more about the Punjabi style of celebrations (as that is what I know more).
To mark this pious day, Sikhs throng Gurudwaras before dawn with flowers and generous offerings in their hands. In Punjab, the offerings are still in the form of freshly-prepared dishes and sweets but in cities, these are being replaced, disappointingly, by money. Processions (with Panj Pyaare in the middle) are made throughout the lanes of the state of Punjab. Flowers are also showered on them by people wherever they go.
Rural folks of Punjab can often be seen as performing the brilliant dance form of Bhangra (which tells the story of the entire process of farming - from tilling of soil to harvesting). This prepares Punjabis (as people of Punjab are known as) for the joy of harvest season coming ahead.
In short, its a day of joy and celebrations before the hard yet fruitful period of harvesting begins.
Some general misconceptions regarding Baisakhi
There are some misconceptions in the society (and world alike) regarding the day of Baisakhi. I will try to clear most of them -
Myth: Baisakhi is only a Sikh festival.
Fact: It is predominantly a Sikh festival but is also celebrated (under different names, of course) in various parts of the subcontinent. Eg: Rongali Bihu (Assam), Naba Bharsha (West Bengal), Pohela Boishakh (Tripura), Vishu (Kerala), Pongal (Tamil Nadu), Vesakha (Buddhists areas), etc. The names might be different but the flavour is, essentially, the same.
Myth: Baisakhi is only celebrated on 13th April.
Fact: This is incorrect. Baisakhi is a 3-day festival in the state of Punjab.
Myth: Baisakhi marks the new year for Sikhs.
Fact: This is incorrect. Though, Baisakhi marks the new year for some communities of India, it is not the start of the Sikh new year. According to Nanakshahi calendar (the most followed one by Sikhs), new year begins on the first day of Chaitra month (around 13th-14th of March usually).
Myth: Baisakhi is a holiday in India only.
Fact: Even I used to think so until recently, when I bumped into one of the latest news from Malaysia. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, has announced that beginning 2013, all government servants from the Sikh community will be given a day off on Baisakhi! (Please do correct me if I have heard it wrong!)
My message to all..
My best wishes to all my readers (from India or abroad) on this joyous and colourful day of Baisakhi.
Though the day is meant to be celebrated with gay and joy but please don't malign the culture by infusing your money in mass-dramatization and mass-advertisement of the pure festival of Baisakhi. A huge amount of money goes to the drain when lavish parties are thrown in various cities marking the celebration of this day but remember with a mug of beer in your hand and several green leaves (read: money) in your pocket, you are not celebrating Baisakhi but only your lack of understanding of Indian culture!
Please also respect the ones who were forcefully and mercilessly laid to rest by the evils on this day. They were also someone's children, parents, brothers, sisters and grand-parents.
Peace and love to all!