Misconceptions about Vaisakhi

Vaisakh is the second month of the Nanakshahi calendar — a tropical solar calendar used in Sikhism

Misconceptions about Vaisakhi


his year, Vaisakhi – also known as Baisakhi – was celebrated on the 14th of April. It is one of the most prominent festivals celebrated in northern India and Pakistan in general and in the Punjab in particular. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs all celebrate it. Despite its unique popularity, some myths and controversies have come to be associated with its history, evolution and association.

Some people believe that Vaiskahi is a religious festival of the Sikhs. The Sikh community in the Punjab, in particular, and the diaspora in general, celebrate it with great zest and zeal. On the occasion, they perform Nagar Kirtan and organise processions through the streets while singing hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib). They also distribute langar, visit gurudwaras, offer prayers, seek blessings and participate in cultural programmes. The festival celebrates unity and diversity.

During the times of the early Sikh gurus, this day was reserved for guru darshan. Gatherings for organisational matters started later. Thus, the day and the festival have religious, cultural, political and historical importance for the Sikhs.

History books tell us that Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru, had formally initiated five of his companions in 1699 on this day. They later came to be known as Panj Pyaray. This way, he had established the Khalsa (pure) community. Panj Pyaray were the first members of the Khalsa community. The guru then asked the Beloved Five to formally initiate (baptise) him. For this, he came to be known as Gur-Chela (a mentor as well as a disciple of the Khalsa).

Vaisakhi also holds particular importance for the Sikhs because, as many researchers have shown, Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, was born on the first day of the month of Vaisakh. However, his birthday is traditionally celebrated worldwide as Guru Nanak Gurpurab on Kattak Pooranmashi (on the full moon of the tenth month of the Nanakshahi calendar).

Nevertheless, this does not justify circumscribing the festival to the Sikhs alone.

Vaisakhi had been celebrated in the region even before the 1699 initiation ceremony. The Tenth Guru himself had chosen the day for the Amrit ceremony. There are clear directions to the Sikhs in the Hukumnamas (written orders) of the early Sikh gurus. The disciples were directed to see the guru on the occasion of Bisoa (Vaisakhi). Earlier, masands used to collect donations from the Sikhs and bring them to the guru on Bisoa or Vaisakhi. In a similar vein, local Hindus used to visit the brahmins. The offerings they brought were donated to the brahmins in the name of pitras (ancestors).

It is unfair to circumscribe the festival with only one religious community without extracting its religious, cultural and political significance for them.

Many Muslims in the Punjab also celebrate the festival of Vaisakhi. They arrange mailay (fairs) in villages and small towns. They participate in these fairs, wearing traditional attire, beating dhols (drums), performing dances (luddi, bhangra and gidda), distributing and eating sweets, playing sports, relishing traditional Punjabi cuisine and watching circus and theatre.

It is generally accepted that the festival marks the beginning of the Sikh New Year. Some other scholars hold that the festival of Bisoa marks the beginning of the Hindu lunar calendar. In other words, it is celebrated on the first day of the new year of both the calendars.

However, the first month of both the Nanakshahi calendar and the Hindu lunar calendar is Chet, while the festival of Vaisakhi is celebrated on the first day of Vaisakh, the second month in both calendars.

Vaisakhi is also seen as an agricultural festival that marks the beginning of the harvest season. When the wheat is ready for harvesting, the farmers enter the fields to the beat of dhol.

Vaisakhi has been celebrated as a day (or a season) of relaxing and rejoicing. It was the time when the farmers, just before harvesting the wheat crop, were in the best position to take a few days off. Before engaging in the hard work of harvesting wheat in the hot summer, they used to spend some time re-energising and revitalising themselves through this festival. They used to celebrate the expected reward and joy of their investment and hard work. For this purpose, they arranged gatherings, marriages and fairs; and visited their relatives in far-off places.

Similarly, the Lohri festival is celebrated just before sugarcane harvesting to commemorate the bravery and generosity of Dulla Bhatti. It does not mark the beginning of the harvest but the rejoicing and relaxing before it. Both Vaisakhi and Lohri signal prosperity and the beginning of good times for the farmers.

The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University. He is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad, and a research fellow at the PIDE, Islamabad. He can be contacted at mazharabbasgondal87@gmail.com. He tweets at @MazharGondal87

Misconceptions about Vaisakhi