Recently I have been highlighting the rich customs of Nottingham; a county which rarely gets a focus in folklore circles (unless it is Robin Hood of course) however in the process of writing my Customs and Ceremonies of Nottinghamshire there is a rich range and Vaisakhi the annual Sikh celebration is without doubt on of the most colourful.
Nottingham’s Sikh celebration consists of a Nagar Kirtan procession which starts at the Lenton’s Sri Guru Teg Bahadur Gurdwara early in the morning and snakes its way around the perimeter of the city arriving around three pm at the newest Gurdwara Ramgarhia Sabha to the north of the city.
The Nottingham Sikh’s Website sums up the significance of the custom well:
“Vaisakhi has traditionally been a harvest festival in the state of Panjab, in modern day India. It is marked by the first day of the month of Vaisakh on 14th April. For Sikhs, Vaisakhi is the highlight of the year marking the Birth of the Khalsa and a time to celebrate their faith and identity.
The Sikh Gurus began their mission of teaching spiritual enlightenment at the start of the 15th century with their first Guru, Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469 – 1539). The subsequent nine Gurus contributed to making Vaisakhi an annual time of gathering for the Sikhs. Each year, at Vaisakhi, the Gurus would introduce new elements to the Sikh teachings.
At this time, the Sikh faith was under vicious attack for its revolutionary nature. The rise of the faith promoted many new freedoms, such as the outlawing (by the Sikh Gurus) of female infanticide, the affordance of equal rights for women and the advancement of an egalitarian society. The fifth and ninth Sikh Gurus were martyred whilst peacefully undergoing torture from the rulers of the time. In reaction to these martyrdoms, the Sikhs were militarised by the sixth and tenth Gurus, by varying degrees, to ensure the survival of the Sikh faith.
The Vaisakhi of 1699 was to be the most revolutionary yet.”
For Sikhs, Vaisakhi celebrates the formation of this Khalsa Panth in 1699 by their 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh Ji and thus is a time to celebrate their faith and identity. Unfortunately, to the ill-informed, or rather local media this has been dubbed Sikh new year, but as one of the attendees told me ‘ this is a big day for Sikh’s think of it as Sikh’s equivalent of Christmas’…pure fodder for the those ill-informed newspaper hacks! However, a closer association would be the harvest home celebrations perhaps of the pre-Industrial age; although they did not include any religious associations.
Sikh more information
My first encounter of this custom was in the early 00s when it came past my house. First I heard the sound of music and chanting and then coming to the front door was confronted with its colour and splendour. According to one of the attendees it was already 10 years old by this stage and indeed the earliest account I can find is from The Nottingham Evening Post of Friday 13th 1990 which states:
“Hundreds of Sikhs formed a colourful procession through Nottingham today – to celebrate one of the most important days in their religious calendar. Ceremonial horses and a sacred float carrying a model of the Golden Temple at Amritsar in India led the way in the parade for Vaisakhi – the day when the Khalsa movement of baptised Sikhs was formed in 1699. Most of Nottingham’s Sikh community joined the inner-city march, which visited five temples.”
A good account and informative of the reason for the custom, however, by 1993, the Nottingham Evening Post from the 22nd of April journalist sloppiness had crept in:
“HAPPY NEW YEAR s was celebrated with a spectacular procession through the streets of Nottingham At its peak up to 2000 people joined in the celebrations on the five-mile parade along a route past the city’s six gurudwaras Sikh temples People lining the roadside were handed sweets as a sign of goodwill by children Among those joining the fun for Vaisakhi the most important day in the Sikh calendar were Sukhdeep Singh Badyal seven (left) and Charn-jit Kaur Rayat eight The event was organised by the Sikh Community.”
I wonder if these children were still attending? It appeared as a regular feature in the post for the next decade and appears on line although lacks perhaps the details needed for those interested in the custom and rather focuses on the road closures!
Processing it all
I recently came across the parade, in the middle of the day, twenty years after my first encounter and it did not disappoint. The main focus was a float carrying as it traditional the turrets of the Sikh’s golden temple, bedecked with ribbons and adorned with gold as below musicians played music, sung and chanted. A LED sign informed those unaware of what it was about with a Happy Vaisakhi. In front of the float were ceremonial sword dancers and staff bearers who periodically stopped and displayed their splendid skills. Leading the procession was a truck with a large ceremonial drum which was enthusiastically beaten. Behind them helpers swept the ground and sprinkled holy water and behind them barefooted ceremonial sword bearers and flag holders shuffling along. The whole spectacle was a vibrant aural and visual delight of blue and orange, made even more palatable by the free sweets and later on the Langar (free vegetarian food). Following up the float was the assembled Nottingham Sikh congregation dressed in their finest and not looking particularly worn out as I would have done if I had been parading since the early morning. Now 40 years old this custom is a firm fixture in the city’s ceremonial customs so much I am surprised Robin Hood has yet to make an appearance!