Vaisakhi 2022: The inspiring stories behind the sea of colours

Kaveen Dhesi

On the day of April 16th, a sea of vibrant colours disembarked upon the streets of Leeds. Soft hymns drifted amongst the masses of head scarves, creating a serene atmosphere. Spirited children lined up with open arms as they were gifted traditional Indian delicacies, emanating sweet aromas.

On the day of April 16th, a nation came together to celebrate one of the most significant days within Sikh history.

Vaisakhi (also known as Baisakhi), is a harvest festival that marks the birth of Sikhism.

However, I have never taken part in the celebration of Vaisakhi and being Sikh myself, I am almost disappointed. Within my adolescence, I was naïve, I overlooked my faith and its customs. I would turn my nose up at my lunchbox when it was filled with chapati or when I would have to come home to an array of curry’s for dinner.

But one should try to embrace their faith with open arms, especially one that teaches us to see beyond our differences and work together for peace and harmony.

So, I decided to embark on a journey through the celebration of Vaisakhi. I wanted to achieve an increased understanding of the birth of my religion and speak to the inspiring individuals who have come together in support of the Sikh community.

A plethora of people as they parade through the streets of Leeds

Vaisakhi was traditionally celebrated as a new year and harvest festival in the Punjab region of India long before Sikhism began. However, in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh – the tenth and final living guru for Sikhs – used the occasion of the festival to challenge Sikhs to show allegiance to their religion. Five volunteers responded to his challenge to enter his tent and sacrifice their heads to their Guru. In the end it is said that they were miraculously unharmed and, because of their willingness to sacrifice themselves, the Guru baptised them and gave them the title of Panj Piare (the five beloved ones).

Vaisakhi commemorates the beginning of the Khalsa (fully initiated Sikhs), or collective Sikh brotherhood, and many Sikhs choose to be baptised into the Khalsa during Vaisakhi.

My journey started with a Nagar Kirtan. Sikhs celebrate Vaisakhi through a Nagar Kirtan, which is an annual procession, where communities take to the streets to sing hymns. The procession is led by five chosen men who represent the Panj Piare (five beloved ones).

The Panj Piare (beloved five) standing ready to lead the procession

As I walked alongside the Panj Piare, I noted that they stood tall and honourable. Their facial expressions held sincerity as they led the Sikh community through the streets of Leeds.

For Raja Parkash, having the opportunity to represent the beloved five is an honour. Parkash is a practising Sikh and has attended Vaisakhi celebrations in Leeds since he was ten years old. “I remember when I was little, I always used to be the one who would be standing on my tip toes, trying to get a better view of the Panj Piare in their bright orange robes, wondering how they managed to walk such a long distance with no shoes on.” He explains smiling.

“Now it’s hard to believe that I am one of those men in the robes. To be chosen, is a memory I will never forget. You would think that walking barefoot for over four hours would cause some problems, but I zone out, I focus on the ones I love, and I focus on serving our Sikh community.”

Raja honouring those closest to him

But for Parkash, this year’s Vaisakhi is not just about celebrating the creation of Sikhism. This year’s Vaisakhi is about remembering his wife.

Parkash and his wife were married for 25 years, however last year, his wife sadly passed away. Before the pandemic hit, they used to celebrate Vaisakhi together almost every year. “Vaisakhi was my wife’s favourite Sikh celebration. So not having her here by my side has been quite hard, but I do know that she is watching down on me. I hope that I have led this procession in a way that has made her proud.”  

Pakarsh’s demeanour remained cheerful, even when touching on sentimental memories. To him, Vaisakhi is not just a celebration, it has become a day where he can honour those closest to him.

However, the Panj Piare, were not the only group of significant men leading the procession. With thousands of people weaving through the streets of Leeds, from Chapeltown to Millennium Square, we cannot forget those who allowed for this to occur safely.

Five motorcyclists played a key role in ensuring that the procession was led through the correct roads. 59-year-old Gurjeet Kapoor, was amongst one of them.

Gurjeet readies his motorcycle for the long journey ahead

Kapoor grew up in the Punjab in India, he learnt how to ride a motorcycle at the age of 12.

“Even though I grew up riding my bike in the hectic streets of the Punjab, leading the procession during Vaisakhi can be equally as stressful,” he shares.

With road closures and delayed traffic lights being prominent throughout the city, he explains how some members of the public become irritated by the matter. “People do get impatient, that is expected. But on the odd occasion I have had to deal with some people being racist towards me.

“I once had someone tell me to swap my turban with a helmet, some may view that as disrespectful, but I laughed about it. I am getting old now, I have heard it all before,” he explains laughing. “I will always believe that everyone is equal as that is what our faith teaches, I am here to celebrate my religion and I have a number of people who come to see me and support me.”

Gurjeet smiling as he is surrounded by loved ones

When Kapoor discussed the racial discrimination that he had encountered, he continued to stay positive – instead reflecting on how Vaisakhi enables him to maintain his faith and move past negative situations.

As my journey continued through the Nagar Kirtan, I had already started to feel inspired by those around me. After speaking with Kapoor, he was adamant that I be introduced to some old friends of his, who supported him in a time of need.

Back in 2004, Kapoor had just recently migrated to Leeds from India – he had come alone and was struggling to adapt to the British lifestyle. He then met Tracy and Mark Evans at a Vaisakhi event the year after. Tracy and Mark have been married for 18 years and have attended every Vaisakhi celebration in Leeds since crossing paths with Kapoor.

Tracy reminisces on the time they met, “we had always wanted to get involved with Vaisakhi, the parade would always go right past our house. One year we were standing outside and Gurjeet approached us. I remember his warm expression; he was very welcoming as he handed us some food and told us to join in.

“Gurjeet will tell you that we helped him but, in our eyes, he helped us.”

The Evans family coming to support the Sikh community

Vand Chakna is one of Sikhism’s core principles, it teaches people to share with others, help those in need, as well as participate as part of a community. The spirit of giving, sharing and caring, even to those from different faiths, is central to Sikhism.

When the Evans family first got involved in Vaisakhi, they instantly felt a sense of belonging. Mark explains, “we were amazed at how friendly everyone was, we were welcomed into the community as if we were one of their own.

“For years we have joined the parade, and not once have we felt left out. Me and Tracy admire the Sikh religion and everything they stand for. We have encouraged our friends and family to get involved, and together we have made loads of great memories whilst celebrating Vaisakhi.”

Throughout my journey, it is clear that Sikhs use Vaisakhi to emphasize the importance of inclusivity, as people from different backgrounds and communities are urged to take part.

For this year’s Vaisakhi, Yorkshire Air Ambulance (YAA) were invited by the Sikh community to get involved. The YAA are an independent charity that rely on the generosity of individuals and organisations to help save lives across Yorkshire.

The giving of charity is considered a religious duty within Sikhism as they believe it encourages compassion. Therefore, by inviting the YAA to the procession, it allowed for their volunteers to fundraise in a fun and interactive way.

A volunteer for The Yorkshire Air Ambulance handing out stickers to children

As I approached members of the YAA, the enthusiasm that radiated from them was admirable. Kerry Dwyer, who is the Director of Fundraising for the YAA, explains how this year’s Vaisakhi is the first religious event that they have taken part in.

“This year our charity wants to be involved and immersed in all of the different cultures in Yorkshire,” Dwyer shares, “so we were delighted when we knew that we would be able to come out today to celebrate Vaisakhi.

“It’s great to see all the different communities and all the different religions coming together as one. Because of Vaisakhi, we have managed to build really strong contacts with all of the Gurdwara’s during the walk today. The Sikh community have really supported us, and we couldn’t be more appreciative.”

The Yorkshire Air Ambulance’s Mascot: Dr. Priti, bonding with a priest from The Sikh Temple

As I drew towards the end of my journey, I observed that there is a palpable need for communities to be integrated. The reason behind this primarily stems from the fact that we have not been able to celebrate Vaisakhi properly for the past two years, due to Covid-19.

However, even though the majority of us have abandoned the masks and are back out in full force, there are still some who cannot celebrate Vaisakhi the same anymore.

Before the pandemic hit, 65-year-old Bhajan Atwal and his wife used to come out and celebrate Vaisakhi every year. However, last year his wife caught Covid and fell critically ill, meaning that this year she could not attend.

Atwal explains, “I had in my mind that I wasn’t going to come today but my wife insisted that I had too. It does not feel the same celebrating without her but there are people here who have helped the both of us, so I know that I need to show my support for them.”

Bhajan wearing a mask amongst the busy crowds

As Atwal described his wife to me, his eyes lit up and even though he was wearing a mask, I could still make out the huge grin that was starting to spread across his face. He continues, “I tried to get some pictures and videos to take back to her but with my old Nokia, I can’t say that they are the best.

“But I know she will be pleased because she appreciates the small gestures and that is why I love her.”

Hearing Atwal’s touching story was a pleasant way to finish my journey. Vaisakhi has taught me that the Sikh community is compassionate, considerate and welcoming. But it’s not just the Sikhs that inspired me along my journey, those who come from different faiths allow there to be integration which instils a sense of union across all communities.

I finished my journey feeling motivated and ready to commence on my next journey as I now have more of an insight into my faith.

The sea of colours as it comes to an end