London celebrates colourful Sikh festival Vaisakhi

Jasvir Singh, Chairman of City Sikhs Network and Foundation, writes about the true meaning of the colourful Vaisakhi festival and explains how communities across London will be celebrating the special event.

Vaisakhi is one of the most important dates in the Sikh calendar and it takes places on 13th or 14th April each year. It has been celebrated in the Indian subcontinent for centuries as the spring harvest festival and the Punjabi New Year.

When the Sikh religion was founded in the early 16th century, Vaisakhi became one of the three main religious festivals of the year and Sikhs would travel from far and wide to visit the Guru on the day of Vaisakhi and learn more about the faith from the head of the religion.

The 9th Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadar, had been martyred in Delhi whilst protecting the rights of Hindus to practice their religion, and Sikhs had been too afraid to come forward and collect the Guru's body. Many religious groups in India at the time were facing discrimination from the Mughal authorities and Sikhs were amongst those people being targeted.

The 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Rai, wanted to create a fearless force of people within the Sikh religion who would always be recognisable in public and would defend the rights of the vulnerable, whoever they may be.

Members of the Asli Baharan Punjab Diyan dance group performing in Trafalgar Square last year. Credit: PA

On the day of Vaisakhi 1699, some 14 years after his father's martyrdom, the Guru asked for five Sikhs to come forward and give their heads to him. Some of his followers who had gathered that day went off to find the Guru's family and tell them that the Guru had gone mad. Others ran for their lives, hoping not to be picked by the Guru. Eventually, five Sikhs went to the Guru and offered to give their lives to him. The Guru took the five Sikhs one by one into his tent which was pitched on a hill.

When the Guru re-emerged, he brought out the five Sikhs now dressed in identical clothes and revealed that a new group called the Khalsa had been founded in the religion. The five Sikhs who had offered to give their lives would from now on be known as the Panj Pyare or Five Beloved Ones.

Sikh men were then given the name 'Singh' or 'Lion', whilst Sikh women were given the name 'Kaur' or 'Princess'. The Guru himself was initiated in the Khalsa by the Panj Pyare and he changed his name to Gobind Singh. All Khalsa Sikhs wear the 5 Ks or articles of faith at all times, which include a ceremonial dagger, long uncut hair, a steel bangle, a small comb in the hair, and drawstring shorts.

2007: Dancers in London's Trafalgar Square for the fifth annual Vaisakhi celebrations. Credit: PA

Vaisakhi is now celebrated by Sikhs as being the birthday of the Khalsa, and the celebrations are spectacular. Colourful street processions called Nagar Kirtans (or 'Street Hymn Singing') take place in various places throughout London during March, April and May to mark the occasion.

The Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh scripture, which is also the 11th and last Sikh Guru) is taken through the streets whilst Kirtan (Sikh hymns) are sung by the crowds and free food and drinks are given to everybody along the route.

Street processions take place in Hounslow, Ilford, East Ham and Woolwich, whilst the streets of Southall play host to one of the biggest Nagar Kirtans outside of India with up to 50,000 people from across the country turning up to celebrate.

Last year: Members of the public at the Mayor of London Vaisakhi celebrations in Trafalgar Square, celebrating the holiest day in the Sikh calendar. Credit: PA

During Vaisakhi week, the celebrations take place at the Gurdwaras where the flag outside of the Gurdwara is ceremonially replaced and a non-stop reading of the Sikh scriptures takes place over 48 hours. Food is a central part of the Sikh faith, with each Gurdwara having a free kitchen, and some Gurdwaras are known to provide over 100,000 meals during Vaisakhi week alone.

Everybody is welcome to take part in the Vaisakhi celebrations, even if you are not Sikh yourself.

For more information, feel free to email and we can tell you where your nearest celebrations will be.