Mela mood dominates as devotees make their way to Damdama Sahib.
Mela mood dominates as devotees make their way to Damdama Sahib. — Photo Dev Inder

Baisakhi has evolved from a harvest festival embodying religious fervour to a global celebration of Punjabi exuberance. Nirupama Dutt captures the flavour of Baisakhi from Damdama Sahib to Trafalgar Square

"So you have come for the Baisakhi Mela?" The rickshawala asks in his earthy Punjabi and before waiting for an answer asks another question, "Why haven’t you brought your children?" ‘Children’ in Punjabi parlance includes the spouse. Not wanting to perplex this friendly Talwandi Sabo man, I reply tactfully, "You see the children are having their exams." It is not the done thing for a single woman to be heading for a Baisakhi mela at Damdama Sahib. People go to melas with families, friends and sometimes the entire village neighbourhood. As he drops me at a house by the famous gurdwara, he adds, "Next time do bring the children."

Well, there is always a next time for a mela in Punjab for the folks are as ‘funjabi’ as they can be. But the Baisakhi mela is celebrated with a heightened sense of jubilation. Baisakhi or Vaisakhi derives its name from the month of Vaisakh and marks the new year of the Indian calendar just a little short of mid-April. It is usually the 13th day of the month and some times spilling over to the 14th. It has been a time for celebration since ages and for the Punjabis it was the harvest festival to be ushered in with the shout of Jatta aayi Vaisakhi.

In 1699, the festival got an added dimension as the 10th Guru of the Sikhs founded the Khalsa panth this day at Anandpur Sahib. Soon after followed the Guru’s battles with the Mughals. After the pain and sorrow of war, including losing his four sons, Guru Gobind Singh came to rest on a sandy mound at Talwandi Sabo. It was here that the Guru and his armies celebrated Baisakhi once more.

Baisakhi time at Trafalgar Square
Baisakhi time at Trafalgar Square

Fun and fair time in Punjab means going to the Maghi mela in Muktsar in January, Hola Mohalla at Anandpur Sahib in March and Baisakhi at Damdama Sahib.

But of late Baisakhi, like much else, is not just Punjabi fare but a global festival of sorts with the Sikhs scattered all over the world. Since 2003, Vaisakhi is being celebrated with gusto in Trafalgar Square in London with other communities joining the song and dance. Farther away in Toronto it is time for a gala banquet with dinner, dance and entertainment available at $ 150 per person and a discount for students. Last year concerts by ghazal singer Jagjit Singh were a sell-out at Baisakhi time in New York and New Jersey. Not just that, for the first time last year the festival was celebrated in New Jersey State House with Governor James E. Mcgreevy speaking of "our common humanity" to the Sikh community and adding: "Together we can create a better world, a better nation."

So the festival of simple peasant folks has now come with a bang on the international scene. The multinationals too have owned this article with greeting cards, wallpaper and other knickknacks. Celebrations abroad have angel dancers and ‘Funjabi’ pop singers. A long way from the old soft tones of yesteryear Punjabi song in Asa Singh Mastana’s sombre tone speaking of ripe wheat stalks, plenty to eat and spend on and the simple pleasure of the village fair. And now gourmets are offering exotic Baisakhi cuisine, which perhaps would humble the rustic jalebis and pakodas fried in oil as of old.

Although Baisakhi was primarily a harvest festival in which all Punjabis participated, irrespective of what religion they belonged to yet it did a vanishing trick from West Punjab after the Partition. In fact, it had gained identity as a Sikh festival with the establishing of the Khalsa on this day. That was the time when the Sikh Gurus were waging battles against the Mughals. However, at the village level people of all faiths participated in it. Pakistani diplomat Munnawar Bhatti, who comes from the farming stock near Sialkot, says, "In my childhood, well after the creation Pakistan, I recall going to the Baisakhi melas and seeing villagers do the bhangra. But then over the years the practice stopped. It was during the dictatorial regime of Zia-ul-Haq that all multi-faith celebrations with song and dance came to a stop in Pakistan. Painter Akram Varraich, a Muslim Jat of Wazirabad, says: "Old habits die hard and the people of Wazirabad and Amenabad still continue with the practice of taking a dip in the Chenab river on this day."

The traditional significance of Baisakhi is that it marks the completion of a cycle in time and the beginning of new ones. Thus the day is counted most auspicious. Painter Malkit Singh recalling the harvest days in Lande village near Moga, says, "We would cut the crops moving on our haunches. The most haunting image I have of my youth is of the drumbeater. He would beat the dhol to buck us up. Thus we would cut the wheat daylong and wait for lunch, as it would bring rest. Harvest time we would get a special treat of shakkar and ghee to energise us." Gulzar Singh Sandhu, born of peasant stock in Doaba, says, "It is basically a crop festival. This would be a time when the crops would be harvested and money would come home. So it would be time for new clothes and weddings for the eligible." Eating drinking and making merry are the traditional Punjabi traits and Sandhu recalls that on Baisakhi in his Sunni village, the people would pool in to buy the fattest goat and share the meat. He recounts an interesting festival-time anecdote, "I would help my father in the harvest as a boy and those days we cut the crops manually. One Baisakhi my father and uncle went off to the fields to feast on mutton and country-brew and I with my friends. We drank from pitchers buried in the ground and drank so much that neither my father nor I could get up early next morning. We went to the fields nevertheless with sickles in hand. I was hardly able to cut the wheat. My father told me to go home and rest. Later I learnt that the moment I left he too went off to sleep in the fields. Such was our Baisakhi hangover."

And so people get ready to celebrate the big day in a big urban way all over the world and the village folk plan a pilgrimage to the neighbouring gurdwaras and with Guru di kirpa to Damdama Sahib. And my old rickshawala friend will be greeting an odd visitor or two saying, "So you have come to the Vaisakhi mela but why haven’t you brought your children. Do bring them next time!" And there is always a next time, a next Baisakhi and a new beginning.

Baisakhi of 1919
Anuradha Thakur

The Jallianwala Bagh Memorial
The Jallianwala Bagh Memorial

The Baisakhi of 1919 is etched in the memory of every Indian for it was on this day that a turning point came in the country’s struggle for Independence from British rule. Hindi singer Pradeep recalled this day in a popular post-Independencepatriotic number: Jallianwala Bagh yeh dekho, Yahan chali thhi goliyan, Yeh mat puchho kisne kheli yahan khoon ki holian. Ek taraf bandook thi dandan ek taraf thi tolian. Marne waale bol rahe thhe, Inquilab ki boliyan.’’

In 1919, the political scenario in Punjab was in a turbulent state. World War I was over, and the Indian soldiers returning from war were dismayed to find India a poorer and more subjugated country than they had left it. Unfair trial and martyrdom of Sikh leaders had added fuel to the fire. The "Anti-Rowlatt Act" agitation was at its peak, and both Hindus and Muslims had come together to jointly fight against the oppression. Under these circumstances, the British seemed to be losing their authority over their Indian subjects. In the morning of April 13, 1919 , Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, convinced that the events of 1857 were about to repeat themselves, ordered his troops to march through Amritsar and disburse all assemblies "by force of arms, if necessary".

Unaware of the morning announcement banning assemblies, about 20,000 people had peacefully gathered in Jallianwala Bagh to listen to a series of speeches condemning the Rowlatt Act and recent arrests and firings. A majority of them, visitors from the nearby villages, had come to Amritsar to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi.

The entrance to the Bagh was blocked by troops. When the meeting was on and General Dyer, without warning, ordered his soldiers to open fire. Nearly 400 persons were killed and over thousand were wounded. vain. The slogans for change of the dying gave impetus to the movement all over the country and change did come within three decades. India was free at last. The massacre is counted as one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century but the supreme sacrifice did not go in vain.

Revenge was to come some 21 years later when Micheal O’ Dwyer who had imposed the martial law in Punjab was shot dead in Caxton Hall in London by Udham Singh. At the time of the holocaust, Udham Singh was a teenager. Later he came under the influence of the Ghadar Movement and on March 13, 1940, under the assumed name of Mohammad Singh Azad shot dead O’ Dwyer. Udham Singh was sentenced to death and executed on July 31, 1940.

The reverberations of the holocaust and the indignation trailed till October 1997, half a century after Independence, when Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh visited the Jalliawala Bagh. Demands for an apology came from many quarters as the world had moved into an era of reconciliation. The Queen did not apologise but laying a floral wreath at the spot was her way of expressing regret.

Blossoms and waves

Celebrating the season
Celebrating the season.
— Photo Dev Inder

Baisakhi in the hills of Himachal Pradesh comes with pink beach blossoms, white dog roses and flamboyant red rhododendrons. People flock to the temple of Jwalamukhi and take a holy dip in the hot springs. This is also time for Vishu or New Year celebrations in Kerala, which were shunned this year to share the grief of the Tsunami victims. Instead, clothes and food were collected for the victims.

Greetings of Puthandu Vazthukal, (Happy New Year) are exchanged on this day in Tamil Nadu, which is supposedly the day when Lord Brahma, according to Hindu mythology, started creating the world. A ceremonial morning bath, prayers and funfair in the evening is the way Baisakhi is celebrated in the plains of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

Baisakhi is observed as Naba Barsha (New Year) in Bengal. On April 14, the people take a ritual bath in the Ganga and bedeck their houses with rangoli (floral patterns) drawn on the entrance of their homes with a paste made of rice powder. Bihar celebrates a festival in Vaishakha (April) and Kartika (November) in honour of the Sun God, Surya, at a place called Surajpur-Baragaon.

In Kashmir, Baisakhi is marked by a ceremonial bath and general festivity. In Assam, it coincides with Goru Bihu or cattle festival when cattle are bathed, anointed with turmeric paste and decorated with flowers, before being treated to a repast of jaggery and brinjal.