INDIAN FESTIVALS : Baisakhi - Day of Homage and Hope
By V.N. Narayanan
Baisakhi is a day of joy and festivity as the usherer in of a new harvesting season

Multi-lingual and multi-religious India shares a lot more than epics and heritage. For most of India the New Year begins around the end of March and the middle of April. It is no accident that the Punjabis and the Tamilians, physically separated by 3,000 km, share the same New Year day. Both have a hoary history. The names of the months are the same, derived as they are from Sanskrit.

For Punjabis as a whole and Sikhs in particular, Baisakhi is a day of joy and festivity as the usherer in of a new harvesting season, the bloom and prosperity of spring time, besides fun and games. It is also a holy day not so much for religious reasons as for socio-political events over the past many centuries.

It was on this day three hundred and two years ago (April 13, 1699), that the Sikh community as we know it today got its distinct identity giving birth to a race of saint-soldiers (sant-sipahi) primarily to protect the Hindus from Islamic onslaughts and conversions.

Sardar Kartar Singh Duggal, noted Punjabi litterateur and now a Rajya Sabha member, describes that fateful day in his book. The Sikh People - Yesterday and Today, in the following words:

"For the baisakhi fair in 1699, the Guru issued a general invitation to his Sikhs throughout the length and breadth of the country to visit Anandpur. He advised Sikhs to come with unshorn hair. Several thousand Sikhs came to participate in the fair in response to the Guru's call.

 "On the morning of the main fair day after the hymn-singing had concluded, the Guru appeared on the dais with an unsheathed sword dazzling in his hand and asked the audience, "My sword is thirsty. It needs the blood of a Sikh to quench its thirst. Is there anyone in the audience who is willing to offer his head?" There was consternation among all those present.

 "Is there no one who is willing to present his head to satisfy my sword?" the Guru repeated.

 "The gathering grew more uneasy. As the Guru repeated his call the third time, a Sikh called Daya Ram, a Khatri from Lahore, thirty years old, rose from the crowd to offer his head. "It's yours in life and death," said the Sikh humbly. The Guru caught hold of him by his arm and led him to a tent pitched adjacent to the dais. There was a thud of the sword.

 "A moment later the Guru appeared, with his sword dripping with blood. "I want another head," shouted the Guru. There was panic in the audience. Before the Guru could repeat his call, another Sikh, this time a Jat from Haryana, rose and placed his head at the disposal of his Master. The Guru pulled him into the tent. Again there was the thud of the sword followed by a stream of blood flowing out of the tent. And as before, the Guru came out of the tent with blood dripping from his sharp-edged sword.

 "I want another head, the third." He stood glowing with fiery eyes. Even at his first call, Mohkam Chand, a Sikh from far-off Dwaraka, hurried to the scaffolding, apologizing for not offering himself earlier. The same frightful thud of the sword followed; and the red blood squirted out of the sacrificial tent. The thirst of the Guru's sword was still not quenched. He came out the fourth time demanding yet another head and then a fifth.

 "Terror-stricken, some Sikhs ran to inform the Guru's mother; others thought of seeking the intervention of the Guru's senior advisers. They had gathered to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi and the Guru had started butchering them. They did not know what to do, when suddenly from behind the tent, they saw the Five Faithful Sikhs emerge one after another, radiant and beaming, like five resplendent stars descended from heaven! They were followed by the Guru glowing with a new confidence. The audience burst into spontaneous joy. They hailed the Guru with slogans: "The Guru is great! Long live the Guru! Glory to the Guru!" Shouting such slogans, they were jumping with joy when the Guru raised his hand and silenced them. "Great are the Five Faithful! Glory to them! They are the chosen ones. They have found immortality. Those who know how to die, only they win deliverance from the cycle of life and death," said the Guru.

 "The Guru, it is said, had slaughtered only goats. Every time he took a Sikh inside the tent, he slaughtered a goat and came out with its blood dripping from the blade of his sword.

 "The Guru then had a steel vessel brought and poured water into it. The Five Faithful Sikhs were asked to recite hymns from the sacred scriptures turn by turn, while the Guru stirred the water with a double-edged dagger called khanda. The Guru was preparing amrit-nectar to baptize Guru Nanak's Sikhs, to bestow on them the name of Khalsa, the chosen ones."

After the Sikhs had been blessed, the Guru himself stood before them with his hands folded and prayed to the Five Faithful to baptize him in return. Thus the Guru turned himself into a disciple. It was the first time in the annals of history that the Master sat at the feet of his disciples asking them to bless him with a draught of nectar. The moment he had the sublime sip, he then became known as Guru Gobind Singh. The Five Faithful Sikhs and thousands of the Guru's devotees who had gathered at Anandpur were also blessed with the nectar and called singhs (singh means lion). According to the report of a diarist of the Mughal court to the Emperor in Delhi, 20,000 Sikhs were anointed on that blessed Baisakhi day. This was the birth of the Khalsa, the reincarnation of Guru Nanak's Sikhs. A draught of amrit and every Sikh became a Singh, a lion. Everyone had to sip amrit from a common vessel, thereby joining the eternal brotherhood and casting away the barriers of caste and creed.

The Guru then enjoined those who had been blessed with amrit to wear long hair (kesh). The hair is sacred. It is the symbolof the Khalsa, the pure. They were also to wear a steel bangle (kada) on their wrist. It should serve as a reminder of their commitment to truth. An anointed Sikh must also wear short pants (kachha) to ensure cleanliness. The Sikh should have a comb (kangha) in the hair to keep it tidy. Also he should always carry a dagger (Kirpan) as a weapon of defence.

The Guru was aware that the need of the hour was an army of saint-soldiers who could effectively fight the forces of evil, exploitation of the poor, and communal hatred in Indian society.
In enacting this gory drama, the Guru had a distinct objective. He was out to create a whole new community of warriors for whom death held no fear. Throughout history, Punjab was the first target of every invader, marauder and plunderer from the West. Martyrdom was a thrust-upon necessity until Guru Gobind Singh made it a faith-based reflex.

The joy and frolic of Baisakhi often was accompanied by splattering of blood, symbolizing the birthday of the Khalsa. In the end, it was a day that etched itself in history records as the harbinger of happiness.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Amritsar in 1919 occurred on Baisakhi day when General Dyer's soldiers shot down a whole assemblage of Indians "till all ammunition was exhausted". That gruesome incident became the "first nail in the coffin of the British empire".

The people of Punjab celebrate Baisakhi by beginning the day with their homage to Bhagat Singh and other martyrs of the freedom struggle. Courage and compassion, the mark of Guru Gobind Singh's Khalsa, finds due expression in Baisakhi celebrations in North-west India.

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