Covid shadow continues to curtail Vaisakhi celebrations 

Vaisakhi, after Diwali, has emerged as the biggest north Indian festival whose celebrations with fervor and gaiety are gradually gaining the tones of acceptance of a global event.  It has given the overseas Punjabis in general and the Sikhs a distinct socio-economic-cultural identity. Besides its religious significance – birth anniversary of the Khalsa, the pure – it has traditionally been correlated to the start of harvesting season (of wheat crop) in north India reflecting in the process great socio-economic strides the farming community of North has made. Besides, for many Indian communities, it marks the start of a New Year.

Though the Covid pandemic has greatly subsided, it still continues to shadow major public events like  City Parades or Nagar Kirtan processions organised as part of Vaisakhi celebrations in North America.

Because of this dreadful pandemic in 2020 and 2021, “nagar kirtan processions” or “City Parades” could not be organised. Instead, special gatherings were held in Sikh temples – gurdwaras – by following the safety protocols of wearing face masks and maintaining a physical distance.

This time again the scheduled “nagar kirtan procession” will be replaced by a special congregation to be held at Town Hall in Toronto on April 24. Similarly, other major cities in North America plan to hold special “Vaisakhi” celebrations by following the government guidelines.

 It was on this day in 1699 that the 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, chose the historic town of Sri Anandpur Sahib for the launch of the Khalsa. Though main religious celebrations are held at Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib (Sri Anandpur Sahib), Golden Temple (Amritsar) and Takht Sri Damdama Sahib (Talwandi Sabo), the Sikhs all over the world mark the festivities not only by holding special congregations in gurdwaras but also in a global show of their progress in social, political, and economic fields as followers of one of the most recent and modern religions.

Since Sikhism had its origin in Pakistan – Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev – groups of the devout also visit Sikh shrines there as part of Vaisakhi celebrations that are held in the second week of April every year. After almost 230 years of the birth of Guru Nanak Dev, Guru Gobind Singh had given the Sikhs new identity of the Khalsa by introducing the concept of Saint Soldier.

Vaisakhi celebrations’ global significance can be measured from ever expanding number of cosmopolitan and metropolitan cities the world over that reverberate to the beats of bhangra and display of traditional martial art of gatka as part of “Nagar Kirtan processions” or Sikh Parades. Sikhs pride in claiming themselves to be one of the most affluent minorities in the world

While Sikhs in India have Nagar Kirtan processions and special congregations on the Vaisakhi day, overseas Punjabis make it special with lavish celebrations. There,

Nagar Kirtan processions or Sikh parades alone do not mark the celebrations. They, in fact, come as a socio-cultural package comprising competitions in games, sports and cultural events besides holding of special religious congregations that continue for weeks together.

Holding of community kitchens, illumination of the entire route of the procession and distribution of literature about Sikhism besides updated copies of telephone and business directories have come to stay as integral part of celebrations. One of the latest additions to the event witnessed in some major North American cities has been the use of smaller aircraft for showering floral petals over the processions.

Since the entire World was reeling under dreadful Corona pandemic in 2020 and 2021, “nagar kirtan processions” could not be taken out. Instead, special gatherings were held in Sikh temples – gurdwaras – by following the safety protocols of wearing face masks and maintaining a physical distance.

This time again the scheduled “nagar kirtan procession” will be replaced by a special congregation to be held at Town Hall in Toronto on April 24. Similarly, other major cities in North America plan to hold special “Vaisakhi” celebrations by following the government guidelines.

This year, the “Vaisakhi” celebrations will have added significance as Ontario is all set to hold its Provincial Parliament elections in the first week of June. The process of filing nomination papers has started. 

 Since the Sikhs are a growing political minority, leaders of various political parties, both at provincial and federal level, make it a point to get their presence noticed during the celebratory processions or special congregations in major centers like Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Montreal and Winnipeg.

Besides the major Commonwealth nations like England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand several other countries have accorded recognition to some of major Sikh festivals in general and Vaisakhi in particular. In 2015, for example, the Malaysian government allowed Sikhs an off day on Vaisakhi day.

In 1999, when the entire world celebrated the tercentenary of the Khalsa, Canada became the first country other than India to take out a commemorative stamp to mark the event. Vaisakhi celebrations are now held inside Parliament complexes, including Parliament Hill in Ottawa, besides several Provincial Parliaments in other Commonwealth nations. In the United States, Sikh Parades are taken out in almost every major city, including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Yuba City.

In England, besides London, they are organized in several cities, the biggest being in Birmingham.

Historically, the Sikhs had to struggle hard not only to shrug off the blot of “second rate citizens” in many parts of the erstwhile Commonwealth but had to fight hard democratically for their rights and absorption in mainstream of their new countries of abode.

In fact, the concept of the Nagar Kirtan processions, or the Sikh Parades has proved to be an effective tool for the overseas Sikh community to introduce itself as a peaceful and hard-working group that had no qualms of making countries of their present abode as their homes.

It has been this commitment that has helped them to script an unprecedented success story the world over. Though the Punjabis – described as Hindus – started reaching Canada in early 1900, they were denied voting right in British Columbia from 1907 onwards. They had to wait for 40 long years to win back the right to vote. In 1947, the requirement to be a voter was changed to Canadian citizenship in addition to being a British subject. It was in 1950 that the first Sikh – Narjan Garewal – was elected to the City Council of Mission in British Columbia.

The first ever-Sikh Parade or Nagar Kirtan procession was organized on January 19, 1908, along Second Avenue in Vancouver. On August 28, 1912, Hardial Singh Atwal earned the distinction of becoming first Canadian born Sikh.

Each Nagar Kirtan Procession comprises among other things a tastefully decorated truck trailer that carries scared Guru Granth Sahib in a golden or silver palanquin, five baptized Sikhs (Panj Pyaras) who carry Kesri flags (Nishan Sahibs), Gurbani reciting groups or “Parbhat Pheris” besides Bhangra and gatka players.

The scale at which the Nagar Kirtan processions are now organized in North America started in 1979 when the Canadian Sikhs organized a massive Nagar Kirtan procession to mark the 500th birth anniversary of Guru Amar Dass. Since then, holding of Sikh Parade has become an annual feature.

Many historians and social scientists subscribe to the view the Nagar Kirtan or Sikh Parade paved way for consolidation of overseas Sikh community as a strong political group that ultimately saw a turbaned Sikh – Gurbax Singh Malhi – in the Canadian House of Commons. It was he, who six years later, persuaded the then Liberals to hold inside the Parliament Hill a big celebration to mark the tercentenary celebrations of Khalsa on Vaisakhi Day. In May 1999, Canada issued a 49-cent special commemorative stamp to mark the tercentenary of the Khalsa.

Not only major TV channels but also the mainstream Media runs special features and articles on Sikhs and their immense contribution to the economic growth of the new countries of their abode. Success stories of young Sikh boys and girls, too, are played up as a build up for the Vaisakhi supplements.

Since then, Vaisakhi celebrations inside Parliaments and State Assemblies have become a regular feature not only in Commonwealth countries but also in some European and African nations.

The celebrations not only ensure holding of competitions, tournaments, folk events and religious congregations but also organization of lavish feasts where the local populace is invited as a part of “know your neighborhood communities better” programme launched by some of the enterprising Overseas Sikh Organisations. This was necessitated more as a mode of defence and awareness to thwart growing incidents of hate violence witnessed in several parts of North America after the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Vaisakhi – Box

Vaisakhi is not only a Sikh festival, but it is celebrated in different parts of India as the start of a new Solar year. According to Sikh religious calendar – Nanakshahi – the first day of “desi” month of Vaisakh is observed as Vaisakhi. It was on this day that five devout had volunteered to sacrifice their lives in response to a call made by the 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. The five – Bhai Daya Singh, Bhai Dharam Singh, Bhai Mukham Singh, Bhai Himmat Singh and Bhai Sahib Singh – later had the distinction of baptizing Guru Gobind Singh after their own captivation at a special congregation held at Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib.

While people in Tamil Nadu celebrate Vaisakhi as Puthandu, the festivities are known as Vishu in Kerala. In Bengal, this seasonal festival is celebrated as Naba Barsha (New Year). In neighboring Assam, it is called Rongali Bihu.

In Bihar, celebrations are again connected to observation of start of a new solar year. It is called Vaishakha in Bihar in honor of the Sun God. While in Haryana, like Punjab, Vaisakhi continues to be a major religious and socio-economic festival. However, in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, people make a pilgrimage to Jawalaji temple and take a holy dip in the hot springs there.

Traditionally, religious celebrations comprise of taking out a nagar kirtan procession – that normally is done a day or two before the actual Vaisakhi day – besides holding of a special religious congregation at gurdwaras where at community kitchens – langars – jalebis are a special attraction.

Normally one or more jathas of Sikhs go to Pakistan to join the Vaisakhi celebrations there. There is uncertainty about the jathas going there this time because of the political situation there after PTI Government led by Imran Khan lost vote of confidence. Though a new Prime Minister, Shahbaz Sharieff, has taken over, still it will take a while for the things to normalize. Incidentally, the new Prime Minister’s family comes from Jatti Umrah village in Taran Tarn area in Punjab where the locals have celebrated his elevation. 

There are special Vaisakhi congregations and political rallies held at Talwandi Sabo in Bathinda. Leaders of other political parties, including Congress, Shiromani Akali Dal, Communists, AAP and various factions of Akali Dal, too, hold their political rallies at Talwandi Sabo on Vaisakhi day.

 * Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered  Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows. For more in-depth analysis please visit  or follow him on