The Important Sikh Festivals
Gobind Singh Mansukhani
Religious festivals are intended to focus their followers' attention to a revival of their faith and devotion by its historic linking to the past and to its project for the future by way, for example of community uplift and public benefit. It is at such times that Sikhs take stock of their religious performance during the past year and analyse their success or failure. DuringThecelebration of Sikh festivals, good speakers and professional Ragis with their instrumentalists are asked to sing special hymns for the occasion. Some time KirtanDarbar (professional hymn-singing session) and Kavi-Darbar (poetic symposium) may also held.
Sikhs regularly celebrate Sangrand, (the first day of the Indian lunar month). On that day, the appropriate verse for the month from the Barah-mah (Calendar) of Guru Man Dcv (AG, 133-136) is read. The Sikh calendar begins from the month of Chet (Mid-March) and ends with the month of Falgun. The Baisakhi festival-the day on which Guru Gobind Singh established his Khalsa Brotherhood-falls on 13th April. All festivals which celebrate the birthdays or deaths of the Gurus, or events of special significance like Diwali and installation of Guru Granth Sahib, are called Gurprabhs (holy festivals). During such festivals, there are mass-prayers, meetings and personal rededication to the ideaje of the Gurus Special celebrations as for the centenary ceIebr~4
the Gurus (some of which occurred recently) have led tothø
of new Foundations dedicated to the dissemlnadofl of U~t GurU's teachings, and also to the initiation of new public welfare projects.
- The celebration of Gurprabhs held in India differ in many ways from those held in foreign counthes where large numbers of Sikhs arc now settled. In India the celebrations are held on the actual day of the Gurprabh, while outside India, on the nearest sunday or other public holiday. In India, festivals are held in spacious places or in the open air, save in the hills, while in cold countries like Great Britain and Canada,
the celebrations are held indoors. No processions are held overseas on account of the uz~certainties of the weather, but there are always langar
arranged for the Gurprabh.~ becausepeoplecome from bngdistancesfor
the celebrations. Akhand Paths which are easily done in India, are far
more difficult to arrange abroad. So very few Gurdwaras can arrange them, as insufficient readers for the Guru Granth Sahib are available.
The following Sikh festivals are celebrated in almost all Gurdwaras in India and abroad:
1. Guru Nanak's Birthday
Though latest research has shown that Guru Nanak was born on
15th April, 1469, (hence also Guru Gobind Singhs priniary reason for his selection of Baisakhi day for his Khalsa) the normal birth-anniversary by tradition and based on the Janam-sakhi of Bhai Bala, is celebrated on Kartik Poornitna (in November) both in India and abroad. The actual day varies from year toy~, as its calculation is based on the lunar calendar. The birth-place of Guru Nanak was at Nankana Sahib, (now in Pakistan) about thirty miles N.W. ofLahore. Even so, Sikh pilgrims go there in large numbers from all over India, to celebrate the Guru's birthday. They assemble at Amritsar three or four days before the birth-date, then go by special trains or coaches from Amritsar to Nankana Sahib under the leadership of the Shromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee. They are escorted from the border by the Pakistan authorities to Nankana Sahib. The number of visitors differs from time to time as allowed ~y the Pakistan government, which is responsible for their care and safety. The group arranges its Akhand Path two days prior to the birth-date. The Bhog is held on the actual morning of the birthday. Both Sikh and Pakistani singers join in the celebrations which are relayed by Radio Pakistan. A Free Kitchen is run for the entire period of the celebrations. After the function isover, thepilgrims may visitotherplaces likePanjaSahib, Dera Sahib at Lahore with Pakistan Government permission. Recently, The Nankana Sahib Foundation, incorporated in United States of America (with its headquarters in Washington has made an arrangement with the Pakistan government that Sikhs settled abroad, can visit Nankana Sahib and othetSlkh shrines at any time, when visas will be granted to them as required. ~ Slkhg however, do not enjoy the same facilities, they
must gain ~ p fO# specified festivals, when permitted by the Pakistan government. The gën~al supervision and care of the Sikh shrines in Pakistan is in the hands of the government-controlled Wakaf Board
The celebrations of Guru Nanak's birthday by important Gurdwaras and
Sikh organisations in India and abroad, last for three days.
Sometimes, two or more Gurdwaras situated in the same town may hold joint celebrations, and so split the functions that the individual Gurdwaras will host one or the other programmes which all the people will attend. Therewillbeajointprocession,theAkhandPath willbereadatone Gurdwara, while Kirtan, lectures and Kavi-darbar may beheld in another. On this festival, Amrit ceremonies are also held as a part of the celebrations,itit is requested.
Normally, the reading of the Akhand Path will begin two days before the birthday in the morning, the Bhog will be held 48 hours later on the actual birthday itself. In some cities, Prabht-feris (morning hymnsinging rallies) will be arranged to generate a greater awareness of the celebration-schedule.
Big processions are a colourful feature of these celebrations. In some places, the procession will be organised a day before the birthday, while at others, it will be arranged for the birthday itself, most probably in the evening. The processions are led by two Sikhs, smartly dressed, each holding Nishan Sahib (Sikh flag) followed by the Panj Piyara in orange robes, and the Palki (palanquin) containing the Guru Granth Sahib. This is normally carried on a motor-truck or in a handcart pulled bydevotees.There will be brass-hands and singers from local schools and colleges. Boy-scouts and girl-guides will join the function, as also women, singing hymns in chorus. Sometimes Gatka (sword-stick) players, will demonstrate their expertise en-route. At some important places, the procession will halt a while, to enable the organisers to address it and the spectators, and give them details of the celebrations. The procession will pass through streets which will be decorated with flags, flowers and bunting. There may be numbers of ornamental and floral floats specially decorated for the occasion. Food, snacks and soft drinks are served free to the participants as they march through the streets. The procession usually takes three to six hours on its journey to reach its destination, usually a Gurdwara or place, where the main celebrations are held.
On the birthday itself, after the Bhog ceremony in the morning, Asadi-var will be sung by Ragis. This will be followed by lectures, sermons and recitation of poems composed by Sikhs especially for the celebrations and referring to the life and work of whichever Guru whose birthday is being celebrated. At lunch time, Lan gar will be served. Sometimes, the programme continues, as people leave in batches to eat their food. In the evening, there may be hymn-singing by different
groups-possibly of women orstuden's until laeinñsiñ1ghtSon~etimes a Kirtan-darbar and Kavi-darbar is also arranged as 1 pert of the celebrations. At night, Fife-works display with the Ourdwara being illuminated by coloured lights and other decoration. Traditiónally~ Guru Nanak was born between 1 and 2 A~M., and therefore the celebrations run on until about that time in the morning. In small Gurdwaras or in remote vllages, they will hold only one-day celebrations. In foreign countries, Sikhs invite local people and tell them about the work and message of Guru Nanak. The birthday is celebrated on the nearest Sunday to the actual day.
2. Guru Gobind Singh's Birthday
Guru Gobind Singh's birthday is celebrated with the same enthusiasm and devotion as that of Guru Nanak. Guru Gobind Singh was born at Patna in December 1666. His birthday falling in December or January according to the lunE calendar. Th1s celebration lasts for three days generally, and the programme is similar to that for the birthday of Guru Nanak. The AJcJzand Path, procession, and full-day schedule with lectures, sermons, hymn singing and poetic recitals. All of which generate a lot of interest and respect~foc Guru Gobind Singh's mission. Sikhs who are unable to join in the Gurdwara celebrations for one reason or another have Kirtan, Ardas andKarahParsadin their own homes inviting relatives and friends to jointhem in the function. In the biggercelebrations in major cities,an Arnrit Ceremony (Baptism) isalso arranged for those whodesire to join the Khalsa Brotherhood.
3. Installation of Guru Granth Sahib as Permanent Guru
Before his death, Guru Gobind Singh declared that he had decided to end personal Gurship, and that after him, the Guru Granth Sahib was tobe regarded as the perpetual Guru of the Sikhs. Soon 3rd October, 1708, he held a special assembly at Huzur Sahib (Nander), where bowing to the Guru Grsnth Sahib ,he invested it with the permanent status of Guru.
From that time on, this day is sacred as the installation day of the Guru Granth Sahib. Again celebrations are held for three days In small towns
or villages, ft It cele~1~I1~èd fct ~Wie dày, ~1th Kls1~i, K~ha, lectures, Ardas, Karah Parsad and l~Cüd~ ~urá being given on the contents and significance of theOuñiOtiflthSihlbafldtheIieed to follow its teachings in daily life. Guru Gobind Slngh nominated the Scripture-
this devotional hymnody-as the spiritual guide for the Sikh community for all time to come, so that, there was no longer any need fó; a human
or deh-dhari Guru for Sikhs. that is why the Guru Oranth Sal~ib itself is
the focal point of any Gurdwara. Written expositions of the Guru Granth Sahib are now available in Punjabi, Hindi and English. Some people keep these books in their own homes and study it in their spare time. The most important studies and translation of Guru Granth Sahib, are those of Dr. Sahib Singh and Amir Singh in Punjabi and of Dr. Gopal Singh and of S. Manmohan Singh and Gurbachan Singh in English. Many eminent writers and philosophers dec!are that the Guru Granth Sahib contains very remarkable insights which can contribute to the modern Inter-Faith dialogue and problems of world peace.
Baisakhi or Vaisakhi, is the birthday of the Khalsaold/It first became of interest to the Sikhs in 1699, when the occasion of its f?stival was first used by Guru Gobind Singh as being the most suital~le time for his founding of the Khalsa Panth at Anadpur, where he initi4ted the baptism of Amnt or Khanday-di-pahu! and prescribed the Code of Sikh Discipline. Baisakhi day, now theBirth-day of the KhalsaPanth is fixed on 13th April. Every 36 years, however, there is a difference o~ one day, so that then it falls on 14th April. Baisakhi celebrations generally last for three days with the usual programme of Kirtan, Katha,AkhandPath,langaretc.
One special feature of Baisakhi celebrations is that of holding Amrit ceremony tobaptise those who offer themselves as Khalsa. After baptism, they become Amritdharis and Khalsa Sikhs. Details of th'e baptism ceremony are given in chapter VI. In foreign countries, Baisakhi is celebrated on the nearest Sunday. Baisakhi has now also a political significance. On this day in 1919, the British General Dyer, had his troops open fire on a peaceful Sikh gathering in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, and had killed some 400 unarmed men, women and children. An animat fair is also held on this day on the outskirts of Amritsar.
Diwali (though also a Hindu festival) is celebrated by the Sikhs since the time of Guru Amardas. He ordered that Sikhs should assemble on this day at Goindwal to discuss matters of religious and social interest.
The Sikh manjidars (missionaries) were also instructed to attend as it was a religious convention~ There is also another special reason for Sikhs to celebrate it. It was on Diwali that Guru Hargobind reached Amrftsar after his release from the Gwalior Jai1 where he had been imp nidby the Emperor Jehangir for some months. On his return to Amritsar, his Sikhs welcbmed him back with rejoicing. This day usually falls in November. Gurdwaras then hold a one-day celebration with sacred music sessions and lectures, to express their joy for the Guru's release and freedom. They distribute sweets, burn candles and light oil torches. They also have a ftrework, display in the evening at Amritsar. There, Sikh treasures, relics and heirlooms of the Gurus and Sikh Chieftains are displayed to the public, both in the Toshakana (treasury) and also in the Harmandar Sahib
6. Hola Mohalla
This is a local festival and it is not observed generally as other Gurprabhs are. Holi itself is another Hindu festival; on this day, Prahiad, child-saint of the Hindus was saved from the clutches of Hotika, the
demonic sister of his father-Hamakash. The festival falls in March, when the Hindus throw coloured water and powder on every one as a matter of fun and frolic. Some times, this sort of frivolity gets out of hand and leads to rioting. In order to give a healthy direction to this occasion of the victory of good over evil, Guru Gobind Singh held a fair at Anandpur on this day in 1680. Mock battles and competitions in archery, horsemanship, wrestling and athletics were and still are held at Anandpur, to mark the occasion. Thecelebrations lastfor threedays and include rural arts and crafts display and sales. This festival was given the name of Holla Mohalla.
7. Guru Arjan's Martyrdom
Guru Arjan the fifth Sikh Master who built the Harmandar Sahib (Golden Temple) at Amritsar became a victim of the jealousy and bigotry of the Moghul Emperor. On trumped up charges, the Guru was arrested and tortured in Lahore in 1606 under the Emperor orders. He died as a result of his tenures, on 25th May, 1606. The anniversary of his martyrdom fails during May-June every year. Generally, a one-day celebration is held, with the usual pr~grammc, but emphasising the life and work of the Fifth Guru. The main celebration is held annually at Dera Sahib, Lahore, where the Guru died in the river Ravi. Many Sikhs from India and other countries go to Dora Sahibto pay homagetothé firstGuru martyr. A special feature of the celebration is the offering of cold water, sweetened milk-shake and syrup to the general public, distributed at the sideof main roads, to remind localpeople of Guru Aijan's greatsacrifice.
8. Guru Tegh Bahadur's martyrdom
Guru Tegh Bahadur was arrested under an order of the Emperor Aurangzeb in 1675. The latter offered him a choice, accept Islam or die. The Guru did not recant and offered himself as a sacrifice in the cause of Religious freedom, worship and conscience. His martyrdom stopped the forcible conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. He was tortured for many days to break his spirit, but he still refused to change his religion. He was then beheaded in Delhi on 11th November, 1675. His anniversary falls in November/December, each year according to the lunar calendar. Most of the Gurdwaras hold a one day festival. However, in Delhi, there is a three-day celebration of religious music and discourse, specially the singing of his own hymns in the Sisganj Gurdwara built where he was executed and also at the Rikabganj Gurdwara where his body was cremated. A Kirtan and Kavi darbar are also very prominent in Delhi celebrations.