Today marks the beginning of the Hindu solar new year and this means its festival time! The new year is set in sync with the solar cycle of the lunisolar Hindu calendar and it falls on or about 14 April every year according to the Gregorian calendar. Across the Indian subcontinent, various communities celebrate the day as their new year. It is the New Year’s Day for Hindus in Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Kerala, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttrakhand and other parts of India. However, this is not the universal new year for all Hindus. For some, such as those in and near Gujarat, the new year festivities coincide with the five-day Diwali festival. For others, the new year falls on Cheti Chand, Gudi Padwa and Ugadi which falls a few weeks earlier. Essentially a spring harvest festival, in the state of Punjab, it is known as Baisakhi, Vaisakhi or Vaisakha Sankranti as it marks the first day of the month of Vaisakha.
Baisakhi is a historical and religious festival in both Hinduism and Sikhism. For Hindus, the festival is their traditional solar new year, a harvest festival, an occasion to bathe in sacred rivers such as the Ganges, Jhelum, and Kaveri, visit temples, meet friends and take part in other festivities. For the Sikhs, Vaisakhi observes major events in the history of Sikhism and the Indian subcontinent that happened in the Punjab region.
The significance of Baisakhi as a major Sikh festival marking the birth of the Sikh order started after the persecution and execution of Guru Tegh Bahadur for refusing to convert to Islam under the orders of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. This triggered the coronation of the tenth Guru of Sikhism and the historic formation of the Khalsa, both on the Vaisakhi day. The Khalsa tradition started in the year 1699, as it is on this day that the 10th Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh laid down the foundation of the Panth Khalsa, that is the Order of the Pure Ones, by baptising Sikh warriors to defend religious freedoms. This gave rise to the Vaisakhi or Baisakhi festival observed as a celebration of Khalsa Panth formation and is also known as Khalsa Sirjana Divas and Khalsa Sajna Divas. The Birth of the Khalsa Panth was probably on 30 March 1699. Since 2003, the Sikh Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee named it Baisakh or Vaisakh, making the first day of the second month of Vaisakh according to its new Nanakshahi calendar. A special celebration takes place at the Talwandi Sabo, where Guru Gobind Singh stayed for nine months and completed the recompilation of the Guru Granth Sahib, in the Gurudwara at Anandpur Sahib the birthplace of the Khalsa, and at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
Ranjit Singh was proclaimed as Maharaja of the Sikh Empire on 12 April 1801, which was the Baisakhi day, creating a unified political state with Sahib Singh Bedi, a descendant of Guru Nanak dev, conducting the coronation. Vaisakhi was also the day when the British colonial empire official, General Reginald Dyer, committed the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on a gathering, an event influential to the Indian movement against colonial rule.
On Baisakhi, Mandirs and Gurdwaras are decorated. Hindus perform a mandatory daan or charity especially of hand fans, water pitchers and seasonal fruits. A ritual dip in the Ganga river or other holy water bodies is often performed and community fairs are held at Hindu pilgrimage sites and in many areas, a procession of temple deities is taken out. Sikhs hold kirtans, visit local Gurdwaras, community fairs and Nagar kirtan processions are held, and people gather to socialise and share festive foods.
The tradition of celebrating Baisakhi among Punjabi Hindus predates the birth of Sikhism. In undivided Punjab, before India’s partition, the Hindu shrine of Katas Raj was known for its Baisakhi fair which was attended by around 10,000 pilgrims, mostly Hindus. Similarly, at the shrine of Bairagi Baba Ram Thaman, a Baisakhi fair was held annually since the 16th century, which is today in Kausar in Pakistan’s Punjab, which was attended by around 60,000 pilgrims and Bairagi saints from all over India used to throng the shrine. The most spectacular gathering of the Baisakhi fair is at Thakurdwara of Bhagwan Narainji at Pandori Mahatan village in Gurdaspur district of Punjab where the fair lasts for three days from the 1st day of Vaisakha to the 3rd day of Vaisakha. The celebrations start in form of a procession on the morning of the 1st day of Vaisakha, carrying the Mahant in a palanquin by Brahmacharis and devotees. After that, the Navgraha Puja is held and charities in money, grains and cows are done. At sunset, the Sankirtan is held in which the Mahant delivers religious discourses and concludes it by distributing prasad or holy offerings of Patashas or candy drops. Pilgrims also do the ritual bath at the sacred tank in the shrine.
According to the Khalsa Sambat, the Khalsa calendar started with the creation of the Khalsa which was 13 April 1699 and accordingly, Baisakhi has been the traditional Sikh New Year. The alternative Nanakshahi calendar begins its year a month earlier on 1 Chait which generally falls on 14 March and begins with the birth year of the Guru Nanak Dev in 1469.
Vaisakhi is an important festival among Dogra Hindus of the Jammu region. On this day, people get up early in the morning, throng the rivers, canals, and ponds and take a ritual dip on this occasion. In Dogra households, a puja or prayer is performed then and part of the food crop is offered to the deities. New fruits of the year are enjoyed with the ritual bath at the Tawi river being common in Jammu. Baisakhi is celebrated at Udhampur on the banks of the Devika river where for three days devotees enjoy folk songs. At Sudhmahadev, this festival is celebrated with great pomp and show where folk singers come down and competition of folk songs is held. You will find vendors with stalls of eatables and games during this time. People also go to the Nagbani temple near Jammu to witness the grand new year celebration. The occasion is marked by numerous fairs and people come by the thousands to celebrate the festival.
In Himachal Pradesh, Baisakhi is an important festival for the Hindus. People get up early in the morning and have their ritual bath. Two earthen lamps are lit on this day, one with oil and the other with ghee and kept in a large saucer along with a water pot, blades of evergreen turf, Kusha, Incense, sandal, vermillion and money and the household deities are worshipped with all these items. Alms are given in form of rice and pulses with small coins called Nasrawan. Fried cakes of black gram prepared a day in advance are distributed to neighbours after the prayers and other special delicacies are prepared. In the evenings’ people enjoy the many fairs organised for three days.
In the state of Haryana, Baisakhi is celebrated with a fair in Kurukshetra at Baan Ganga Tirtha, which is associated with Lord Arjuna of the Mahabharata. There is a Vaisakhi tradition of a ritual bath at the sacred tank of Baan Ganga Tirtha and a fair is held annually on Baisakhi. The Haryana government also organises a Baisakhi festival in Pinjore Gardens to commemorate this festival.
In the state of Uttar Pradesh, Baisakhi is also known as Sattua or Satwahi, as Sattu, made by dry roasting and finely grinding grams is donated and consumed on this day. The common rites during this festival are bathing in a river or pond and eating sattu and jaggery.
Wishing everyone who celebrates this festival a very Happy New Year! Enjoy this day and especially the yummy food, though socialising may still not be allowed under social distancing norms in most countries.
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