Last week was a pretty fun one, and it culminated on Sunday, when I got to experience the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi. Sikhism is a religion originally from the Indian state of Punjab, but its followers can be found all over the world, including Malaysia. Sikhism is a very comprehensive and interesting religion, and some of the main facets of the religion are the 5 articles of faith a Sikh man is supposed to wear or keep with him at all times. Because these 5 articles of faith all start with the sound of the letter “k," they are commonly known as the 5 Ks. The first two articles are the Kesh, uncut hair, and the Kangha, a small wooden comb. The Kesh symbolizes the perfection of God’s creation and that there is no need to tamper with this perfection. The Kangha signifies the need to be clean and tidy at all times. The next K is the Kara, a bracelet made of iron or steel. The Kara serves as a constant reminder to Sikhs that they are committed to God's will and must act righteously and honestly. The Kacchera, a piece of undergarment, reminds Sikhs of the need to control their negative impulses, while the Kirpan, a short dagger, represents a Sikh’s duty to protect those who are unfairly persecuted or oppressed. Vaisakhi’s religious significance comes from the 5 Ks, as it was on Vaisakhi day in 1699 that Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, created the Khalsa, the order of just and brave Sikhs who always donned the 5 Ks.
Since the inception of the Khalsa, Vaisakhi has become one of the most important Sikh festivals. Ever year on the day of Vaisakhi, parades and processions take place in India, Canada, Malaysia, the U.S., and many other nations with significant Sikh populations. However, I had never seen a Vaisakhi celebration or even been to a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, before Sunday. So, while I was still in Malaysia, I wanted to participate in a Sikh celebration, visit a gurdwara, and learn more about the Sikh people and its history. Due to the kind offer of one of my friends, I was able to accompany him to a large procession starting in a town outside of Ipoh. Leading the parade were five Sikh men who were part of the Khalsa and a chariot that devotees had decorated earlier in the day. Inside the chariot were priests and devotees leading the chanting of prayers and the Guru Granth Sahib, the main Sikh holy book. For the next 2 hours, we followed the chariot along with hundreds of devotees as it led us to the gurdwara in another town. The journey was actually quite interesting and fun, as I got to learn a lot about Sikhism and the importance of Vaisakhi through talking with nearby devotees.
The procession was led by 5 members of the Khalsa
The start of the procession
The beautifully adorned chariot
The large procession followed the chariot for nearly 2 hours!
After the trip, we arrived at the gurdwara and entered the centrally located prayer hall. I’ve seen the inside of temples, churches, mosques, and other houses of worship in the last few years, but the interior of the gurdwara was certainly unique. In many ways, it looked like a combination of several different types of places of worship. Inside the prayer hall was a carpeted floor on which people sat and a red rug that led to a sort of shrine. Behind this shrine sat two prayer leaders who recited verses and chants from Sikh religious texts. As the chariot came into the gurdwara, the Guru Granth Sahib was unloaded and brought into the gurdwara. The Guru Granth Sahib is quite interesting, as it is considered not only the central text of Sikhism but also the 11th guru of Sikhism. Therefore, it is revered and treated as if it were a human guru. After the book was placed in a separate shrine in the temple, all of the devotees in the temple gathered around the shrine and followed the prayers led by priests and the members of the Khalsa. When the prayers were over, the devotees moved to the dining hall, where chapathis and other offerings were served.
The stately exterior of the gurdwara
The prayer hall
The shrine in the prayer hall
The 5 members of the Khalsa accompanying the Guru Granth Sahib to the shrine
The prayers led by the priests and the members of the Khalsa
Celebrating Vaisakhi was definitely a really fun event. I learned so much about Punjabi culture and the importance of Vaisakhi. Before Sunday, I really did not know much about Punjabi lifestyle and celebration, but by the end of the festival, I had experienced a day in the life of a Sikh. Moreover, the generosity of the Sikh people truly amazed me; several benevolent devotees drove by in their lorries and trucks to give water and other drinks to anyone along the road during the procession. Even individuals not participating in the procession were given as much water as they could carry!
I’m so glad I got to tag along with my friend to observe the festivities for Vaisakhi. It’s great to learn about a culture in History or through reading, but it’s more enjoyable and enlightening to learn more interactively. The great part about Malaysian festivals and religious houses is that most of them are open to interested viewers and people who want to learn more about a certain group of people and their faith and culture. As I have participated in and experienced so many Malaysian religious celebrations directly, I have picked up so much about different religions groups and their beliefs, customs, backgrounds, and languages. Sunday was a great day culturally for me, and I hope to learn more about Malaysian Sikhs and their lifestyles before I return to the U.S.