Vaisakhi is one of the most important religious festivals in India, particularly in the state of Punjab which is the heart of Sikhism. It is celebrated on April 13 by people of all faiths in India and is called by different names in different regions. It celebrates a combination of the new year and the harvest which is important in Punjab as the region is often referred to as the breadbasket of India due to all the wheat grown there. Among the Sikhs, Vaisakhi is also important because it commemorates the establishment of the Khalsa, or Pure Ones, which took place in 1699 under Guru Gobind Singh.
Since 1919, Vaisakhi is also a day of remembrance because it was on the 13th day of April in 1919 when British troops opened fire on unarmed Indians who had gathered to celebrate the festival at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. The Jallianwala Bagh garden is very close to the Golden Temple, the holiest site of Sikhism in the Punjab. It was Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer who ruthlessly ordered his troops to fire their rifles into the crowd of unarmed civilians until they were out of ammunition. The massacre killed more than 1,000 people and caused an enormous international outcry. It brought him adulation at home in Britain but caused such great international shame that General Dyer was relieved of duty and forced into retirement. To many people this is seen as a major turning point in the push for Indian independence.
As we celebrate this holiday, we should all be mindful that many of our freedoms, both civic and religious, have come at a heavy price. All of us, no matter what our belief system, have many heroic ancestors who were willing to give their lives for what we have today. The harvest we reap today is the gift of our ancestors’ hard work.
New York City will celebrate the occasion of Vaisakhi as part of the Sikh Day Parade on Saturday, April 21. The parade will begin at 1 p.m., leaving from 39th St and Madison Avenue, proceeding downtown to 24th St at Madison Square Park where there will be a langar with free food in keeping with the spirit of Sikh hospitality. Please do go to the festival and enjoy the day among a group of people who know how to have fun and share in the truest spirit of giving.