Vesakhi (Sikh New Year)
The festival Vesakhi (or Baisakhi) is the Sikh New Year. It typically falls on 13 April annually, or the first day of the Sikh calendar.1 Instituted by the 10th Guru, Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the festival commemorates the occasion in which five brave Sikhs offered themselves as a sacrifice for their community. The celebrations are closely tied to the Amrit ceremony, or the initiation rite into Sikhism.2
During the 17th century, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was spreading Islam by oppressing non-Muslims. Guru Gobind Rai (later known as Guru Gobind Singh) observed that the growing power of the Mughal rule had made the Hindus and Sikhs submissive. The Hindus and Sikhs were known to be brave and strong people who fought for what was right, but the invasion of the Mughals and their growing power had made them weak and submissive. Guru Gobind wanted to build a nation of men with strong character who were willing to sacrifice everything for their rights and for justice, but were unable to find such men. When he retired into the hills near Anandpur in Punjab for 11 months, he had a vision of a powerfully built soldier, with a flowing beard, a shining turn and a sword fixed to a girdle running from the right shoulder to the left hip, who called himself the Khalsa. On Vesakhi in 1699 (celebrated on 30 March that year), Guru Gobind gathered members of the community together and, with a sword drawn, called for the head of a brave man. There was chaos initially as fear spread among those who had gathered, but when a moment of silence descended, a total of five men offered their heads. Each time a volunteer offered himself, Guru Gobind brought him into a tent and returned to the crowd with a blood-stained sword. However, to the amazement of the audience, all five men later emerged from the tent unharmed. Guru Gobind then baptised them in a ceremony now known as Amrit. He also bestowed the title of Panj Pyaray (which in Punjabi means “five beloved ones”) on the five men, and they were considered the embodiment of the Guru.3
The Sikh New Year is celebrated on the first day of the month of Vesakhi (which usually falls on 13 April), and is hence also popularly known as Vesakhi. Prior to 1699, Vesakhi was a festival to celebrate a good harvest.4 With Guru Gobind’s creation of the Khalsa, which means the “pure ones” to refer to the Sikhs, Vesakhi has since become associated with the birth of the Khalsa.5 Since then, Sikh men are known as Singh (which means “lion”) and Sikh women, Kaur (which means “princess”).6
Closely related to the Khalsa is the initiation rite known as the Amrit ceremony, by which a person embraces the Sikh religion. The Amrit ritual is thus performed with a double-edged sword symbolising the spirit of bravery reflected in the five men who had sacrificed themselves for the community. Those who receive Amrit receive the spirit of courage and strength to sacrifice everything for their rights and for justice. Guru Gobind also introduced the five “Ks” – kesh, kanga, kara, kirpan and kachh (which mean “uncut hair”, “wooden comb”, “steel bracelet”, “sword” and “undergarment” respectively) – which are five items that Sikhs are expected to wear at all times. These five symbols – which represent inner virtues, namely, sacrifice (kesh), cleanliness (kanga), honesty (kara), courage (kirpan) and chastity (kachh) – form the external identity of the Sikh and inspired many to fight for the cause of Sikhism. Vesakhi is thus closely tied to the initiation rites into the Sikh religion.7
Sikhism rejects the caste system as it is based on the principle of universal brotherhood. The belief in one creator marks it as a monotheistic religion.8
Vesakhi celebrations are typically held the entire day at gurudwaras (or Sikh temples). Sikhs begin the day with a worship session comprising hymns (kirtan), stories and lectures reminding devotees of the first Vesakhi and referring to its various symbolisms. The session ends with langgar (communal free kitchen), which provides free food to everyone, and karah prasad (sweetened semolina offerings). The karah prasad is offered to all devotees in equal portions to show that everyone is equal in the eyes of Waheguru (God), as well as to ensure that no one leaves the guru’s presence empty handed.9
One of the rituals observed during Vesakhi celebrations is the renewal of the Nishan Sahib, or Sikh flag, which flies from each gurudwara. This is held on the grounds of the temple, led by five Sikhs representing the first five men who had offered to sacrifice themselves. During the ritual, the chola or covering on the flag pole is taken down, the flag pole washed in yoghurt symbolising purity and a new chola rehoisted.10 At most gurudwaras, the Amrit ceremony is also carried out on this day.11 In addition, folk dances – of which the most popular is Banghra – associated with the joy of a bountiful harvest are also performed at the celebration venue.12
Vesakhi in 1999
The year 1999 was an especially auspicious occasion for Sikhs worldwide as they marked the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa Vesakhi. In Singapore, the 15,000-strong Sikh community commemorated the occasion with year-long celebrations that included 14 major events, ranging from exhibitions to sports and all-night walkathons.13
Suchitthra Vasu & Renuka M.
1. Singapore. Sikh Advisory Board, Vesakhi 1997: Singapore 13, April 1997: The Sikh Community, Singapore (Singapore: Sikh Advisory Board, 1997), 19. (Call no. RSING 305.8914205957 VES)
2. Tharam Singh, The Story of the Sikhs: Covering the Lives of the Sikh Gurus (Singapore: Pan Asian Pub., 1975), 139–140. (Call no. RSING 294.6 THA)
3. Singh, Story of the Sikhs, 129, 137, 139–40.
4. Singapore. Sikh Advisory Board, Vesakhi 1997, 19; “When is Baisakhai,” Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India, last retrieved 25 April 2017.
5. Gurdip Singh Usma and Dilbagh Singh, eds., Sikhi: A Way of Life (Singapore: Sikh Advisory Board, 2008), 174. (Call no. RSING 294.6 SIK)
6. Usma and Singh, Sikhi: A Way of Life, 79; Tan Tai Yong, Singapore Khalsa Association (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish for Singapore Khalsa Association, 2006), 81. (Call no. RCLOS 305.8914205957 TAN-[SRN])
7. Usma and Singh, Sikhi: A Way of Life, 79–80, 174.
8. Usma and Singh, Sikhi: A Way of Life, 80.
9. Usma and Singh, Sikhi: A Way of Life, 174; “What is Prashaad in Sikhism?” Learn Religions, last updated 20 February 2019.
10. Nick Hunter, Celebrating Sikh Festivals (London: Raintree, 2016), 12—13.
11. Usma and Singh, Sikhi: A Way of Life, 174.
12. Hunter, Celebrating Sikh Festivals, 15.
13. “Sikhs Celebrate New Year,” Straits Times, 15 April 1999, 41; “Sikhs to Mark Anniversary of Birth of Khalsa,” Straits Times, 19 March 1999, 47. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 1999 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.