Perched on the fringe of Kampung Bharu, Gurdwara Tatt Khalsa, the largest place of worship for the Sikh community in Southeast Asia, is an oasis of tranquillity most times of the year.
Come 14 April, however, the atmosphere becomes carnival-like as the gurdwara (place of worship) plays host to Vaisakhi, the most important festival in the calendar year for the Sikh community. Dressed in their best attire – men in kurtas and turbans, women in salwar-kameez – thousands of celebrants flock here to enjoy food fairs and musical narrations called kirtan by popular artists specially flown in by the organiser.
One of the most meaningful ways to experience the spirit of Vaisakhi is to take part in langar. The term for a communal kitchen in a gurdwara, langar refers to free vegetarian food prepared by volunteers and served to anyone who walks in, regardless of their faith or background. Everyone sits side by side, often on the floor, to eat. All year round, langar is served three times a day but during Vaisakhi, as many as 12 meals are served round the clock to cater to the spike in visitor numbers.
“As long as prayers and performances are going on, there will be meals. We don’t want anyone who walks into our grounds to go hungry,” says Amandeep Singh, Gurdwara Tatt Khalsa’s manager. “The idea behind it is that everyone is equal in the eyes of a Sikh.”
At the heart of this custom is seva, a philosophy that describes selfless service and action motivated by pure intentions. Though Vaisakhi originated as a thanksgiving harvest celebration in Punjab, the rice-bowl region of India, the festival took on an added dimension in 1699 when the tenth guru – Guru Gobind Singh – established the Khalsa Panth (community of committed Sikhs) to protect the vulnerable against tyranny and oppression. From this day onwards, the title of Singh (which means Lion) was affixed to the name of a male Sikh and Kaur (Princess) to that of a female.
At Vaisakhi each year, those ready to join the Khalsa are baptised. The word ‘Khalsa’ means pure, and to join, Sikhs must undergo an initiation known as the Amrit ceremony. Baptised Sikhs commit to not removing or cutting any form of bodily hair, to abstain from using alcohol, tobacco or other intoxicants, adopting a vegetarian lifestyle and not committing adultery.
“Vaisakhi celebrates the culmination of a centuries-long journey, from the foundation of the faith in 1469, to ensure equality of all people — regardless of race, gender, faith, nationality, or any other identity," says Amandeep.
Celebrated on a grand scale by over 25 million Sikhs around the world, Vaisakhi preparations typically start days ahead of the actual festival day. The Akhand Paath, a recital of the 1,430-page Sikh holy scripture, is carried out to signify the start of the celebration. On the actual day, the new Nishan Sahib or flag ensign of the Khalsa is hoisted at every gurdwara.
In towns with large Sikh communities, colourful processions called nagar kirtan make their way through streets accompanied by recitals of religious hymns. Since 2015, the Malaysian Punjabi Chamber of Commerce and Industries has collaborated with the Ministry of Tourism and Culture to stage My Vaisakhi Fest, a grand showcase of Sikh culture that includes traditional musical and martial arts performances, at the Malaysia Tourism Centre. This year, the event will be held on 28 April.
Ultimately, Vaisakhi epitomises what religion is meant to do: bring harmony amongst all groups of people. “In the spirit of Vaisakhi, I invite you all to visit a local gurdwara, ask questions, and experience langar first-hand,” says Amandeep. “We hope that this Vaisakhi will open up the doors for a future filled with more harmony and understanding.”