Vaisakhi is a festival observed by both Sikhs and Hindus in the Panjab. The festival is usually celebrated on the 13th of April, although in some years it has been celebrated on the 14th. Vaisakhi is a harvest festival for the people of Northern India, and for Hindus, Vaisakhi marks the beginning of the solar New Year. As well as cultural importance, the festival also carries religious significance for Sikhs. Guru Gobind Singh was crowned the tenth Sikh Guru on the 29th of March 1676. He was crowned following the martyrdom of the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Teg Bahadur Singh, who was killed by Emperor Aurangzeb for refusing to convert to Islam. Vaisakhi marks the anniversary in which Guru Gobind Singh formed the Khalsa, on the 13th of April 1699. On this day, Guru Gobind Singh asked Sikhs to gather at Shri Anandpur Sahib and addressed the crowd.
He emerged from a tent, carrying a knife, asking who would be prepared to give their life for their faith. One volunteered, went into the tent, but did not come back out. Guru Gobind Singh did, only with a bloody sword. Guru Gobind Singh continued to ask for volunteers, and five Sikhs disappeared into the tent. People feared the five to be dead, but they all emerged wearing turbans. Guru Gobind Singh proclaimed that these five were to be known as the Panj Pyare, the ‘Beloved Five.’ Guru Gobind Singh praised them for their dedication to their faith, as shown by their willingness to die for their faith. Guru Gobind Singh baptised the five men into the Khalsa, by saying prayers and sprinkling them with holy water called Amrit. The five men were then given the surname Singh, meaning lion.
On this day, Guru Gobind Singh also introduced the Five K’s.
- Kesh: Uncut hair. This stated that Sikhs should not cut their hair, out of respect for its status as God’s natural creation.
- Kangha: A wooden comb. Used to keep hair tidy.
- Kara: An iron or steel bangle worn around the wrist. It is supposed to remind Sikhs that God is eternal and that we should also strive to commit good acts, not bad.
- Kirpan: a small sword. This reflects the fearlessness of the Sikh warrior, and their willingness to defend their faith.
- Kachera: A pair of shorts usually worn as underwear. This is supposed to remind Sikhs that they should control their sexual desire, and treat those of the opposite sex respectfully.
The wearing of the Five K’s acts as a physical signifier of Sikhism. Mid-April is also a significant time for Sikhs as it marks the anniversary of the rise of Ranjit Singh. On the 12th of April in 1801, Ranjit Singh was named Maharaja of the Sikh empire which he had helped to establish. His crowning created a unified political state.
The 13th of April also marks the anniversary of the 1919 Armritsar massacre, in which Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered the British Indian Army to open fire at a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians. 379 died, and over a 1000 were injured. The civilians had assembled at Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate Vaisakhi, and were not aware that Dyer has banned all meetings, fearing an insurrection. Some, particularly those who benefitted from the formation of the British Raj, praised Dyer’s actions. However, many condemned them. He was never reprimanded for it however, and Britain has never formally apologised for the massacre. In light of this, one could say that Vaisakhi is an important day for many different reasons, but the one that is probably remembered the most is the formation of the Khalsa, which is representative of the dedication that people should have to their faith.
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