The Sikh Community of St. John's: Celebration of Baisakhi

by Scott Reid

Baisakhi is one of the most significant celebrations in Sikhism. This religious festival marks the beginning of the Sikh New Year, welcomes the beginning of harvest season, and commemorates the establishment of the Khalsa (the collective body of baptized Sikhs), which was established on March 30, 1699 by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. Baisakhi is celebrated annually on April 13th (or 14th) on the Gregorian calendar.

Baisakhi is an active and lively celebration where devotees have processions through the streets, eat a variety of foods, and bring offerings to the Gurudwara. In the Punjab regions of India, many Sikhs make pilgrimage to places significant for the history and current practice of Sikhism such as Takht Sri Damdama Sahib in Bathinda, Harmandir Sahib (The Golden Temple) in Amritsar, and Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib in Anandpur Sahib. Such sites also have specific significance for the origin and meaning of Baisakhi and so many Sikh celebrate at important centers like these. However, the festival is not only vibrant in these specific locations as the enthusiasm of this religious day is seen in many other nations including Canada. Even in smaller centers such as St. John's, Sikh communities keep many of the same traditions and focus on the same sacred connotations of Baisakhi, but celebrate more humbly.

The Sikh community in St. John's is small, but still celebrates Baisakhi with energetic devotion. The Sikh families in St. John's congregate at the local Gurdwara and invite friends and other Sikhs from across the province to participate in communal prayers, give offerings to the Gurudwara, and share a traditional meal along with snacks and tea. Although the meal is a custom that welcomes the harvest season in traditional Punjab regions in India and Pakistan, Sikhs in St. John's still acknowledge the harvest even though it does not hold particular significance to Newfoundland.

A practice of the Sikh faith that has its roots in Baisakhi is the five Ks, five articles of attire and personal appearance whose names in Punjabi all begin with the letter "k." The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, asked his followers to maintain the five Ks as symbols of their Sikh identity and their deep commitment to the Sikh community. Sikhs baptized as members of the Khalsa are required to observe the five Ks, which are:

  • kesh, a Sikh cannot cut his/her hair
  • kangha, he/she must carry a small comb
  • kara, he/she must wear a steel bracelet as a reminder to behave well
  • kachera, he/she must wear a white cotton under-garment and
  • kirpan, he/she must carry a small sword symbolizing bravery.

The vast cultural differences between Newfoundland and Labrador and the more traditional Sikh homelands in South Asia cause the local Sikhs of St. John's to adapt their celebrations and festivals to suit their devotion to their faith as well as adhering to the local culture and conditions. For instance, in St. John's, public holidays are not given to the Sikh families for particular Sikh religious days, therefore, unless a festival such as Baisakhi lands on a weekend, the festival celebrations might have to be scheduled to the weekend closest to the holiday. Also, given the small numbers of the Sikh society in St. John's, a parade cannot be organized like it is in larger centers such as Toronto, or Vancouver. However, local Sikhs feel a special intimacy in its more humble celebrations, and are happy to have close friends and family around to celebrate, and to express their devotion to their faith on Baisakhi.