Sikhs: Holidays And Festivals
The Sikh way of life aims to strip back the trappings of religion to find the truth, and in this spirit there are very few special rules and behaviours to follow on festival days. Fasting is not stipulated for any festival - in fact, most are celebrated with a communal meal at the langar or with large family gatherings. Most festivals involve a visit to the gurdwara for prayer, singing and to hear passages read from the Guru Granth Sahib; festivals and important events in the life of a Sikh may be given an air of special sanctity by a full reading (cover to cover) of the Guru Granth Sahib during two or more days.
The Sikh festivals are based on a combination of the lunar calendar and the solar calendar of Northern India, and so although they are not static within the year of the Gregorian calendar, they do not vary much more than by a fortnight from year to year. There are two broad categories of festival; the celebration of the birth or martyrdom of some of the Gurus (these events are collectively known as Gurpurbs), and festivals that celebrate important events in the development of the religion itself.
Although there are technically 20 of these festivals every year (one for the birth and death of each Guru), only four major ones are celebrated in this country:
- Guru Nanak Dev's birth (November)
- the Martyrdom of Guru Tegh Bahadur (November/December)
- Guru Gobind Singh's birth (December/January)
- the Martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev (May/June)
These festivals are celebrated by the community at the gurdwara with a meal in the langar, prayer and a continuous, unbroken reading of the Guru Granth Sahib (akhand path). Relays of readers begin at the first page, and take over from each other as they read their way through the book. A full reading like this takes about 48 hours; the reading begins two days before the festival, and the last reading is usually timed to coincide with the climax of the celebrations. Once the reading has been completed, other works are read, services are held and prashad is shared among the community.
This festival takes place on the Hindu festival Holi, and is another example of the Gurus ensuring that their followers were committed to Sikhism. It is an ancient Punjab Sikh festival, where groups of Khalsa Sikhs came together to display their prowess in martial arts, riding, archery and mock battles. Nowadays, there may be mock fights, wrestling and fairs at this time, and feasting in the langar.
Baisakhi mela or New Year(13 April)
This is the only fixed festival of the year, and is the start of the new year, originally celebrated in the Punjab as the harvest came in. The day is celebrated with feasts and dancing; the traditional bhangra dance owes many of its moves to stylised versions of the actions used during harvest such as reaping, winnowing and threshing. A Sikh patient would expect to have many visitors on this day, bringing prashad for them to share. Staff might want to take the day off to be with their family and friends.
Vaisakhi or Founding of the Khalsa(13 or 14 April)
This day, New Year, also celebrates the day in 1699 on which Guru Gobind Singh gathered together his followers and forged the Khalsa or Brotherhood. He offered them amrit and they were then baptised. He chose this day to forge the Khalsa because it is shared with the Hindus as new year; his followers had to make a choice between celebrating new year with their Hindu contemporaries or becoming a Sikh. The day is celebrated by a procession through the streets, carrying the Guru Granth Sahib. The gurdwara is decorated and a new cover is put onto the book, and the flag outside the gurdwara (nishan sahib) is changed for a new one.
Installation of the Guru Granth Sahib(August/September)
Diwali or Festival of Lights(October/November)
The Diwali festival celebrates both the foundation of the holy city of Amritsar in 1577 and the release of the imprisoned Guru Har Gobind. In a legendary story, he asked for the release of 52 Hindu kings who were imprisoned with him and was told that only as many as could hold onto his cloak and walk through a narrow passage would be freed. He sent his followers to make a cloak with very long tassels; all 52 kings could hold onto the threads and so were all released along with the Guru. The festival celebrates deliverance from hardship and the foundation of good fortune. Lights are set up all over homes and the gurdwara, and people gather together for meals, fireworks, story-telling and the exchange of presents. Staff may like a day off to celebrate with family, and any patient in hospital will be deluged with well-wishers and visitors bringing gifts, prashad, food and candles.
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