Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Soul of Vaisakhi Festival in the Heart of Punjab

A few days ago, with a DSLR on the neck, I attended a colorful Vaisakhi, the Sikh harvest festival in a small corner of Punjab in India. For the large farming community of Punjab and Haryana, Baisakhi marks the New Year, as it is time to harvest the rabi crops. Could I let such a riot of music and colors escape me, which marks the beginning of the beautiful season after the long winter?

Red, yellow and blue. And again green, white, indigo and lots of orange. A rainbow that moves fluctuating and praying, with a rhythm and a grace that only Punjabi women can express. Dressed up for partying in their shalwar, they recall the colors of nature when she wakes up.

In the morning of the day, there is a frantic movement of people. Everything must be ready for the afternoon procession. In fact, wherever there is a gurdwara, there was a large crowd to pray and read Gurbani, the precepts of the book, sing kirtan and bathe in the temple pool. Women wash the langer, the community kitchen that in a few hours will work to prepare the meal not known for how many people. Nobody seems to worry about it. Here visitors of any religion are welcome.

This festival is also an opportunity for farmers to thank God for having had a good harvest and to pray that the next one will be equally prosperous. Some men with turbans, outside the Gurdwara wash the tractor that will transport the chariot with the Holy Book, the Guru Granth Sahib. It will be placed under a canopy, also cleaned and covered with garlands of fresh and colorful flowers for the solemn procession through the streets of the village.

The sun shines. Before the solemn ceremony, the devotees, along with other volunteers, drop the huge temple flagpole to wash it with a big rope. At the top stands the Khanda, a circle with a two-edged blade in the center. Once the flagpole has been raised again, the devotees stand in front in prayer. Some women turn around us.

The solemn procession is about to leave. At the head of the procession, the tractor pulled in a glossy way drags the cart on which the Holy Book is displayed. Immediately behind some barefoot warriors, with unsheathed swords, are preceded by a cistern that symbolically purifies the contaminated soil before their passage. Other warriors dressed in white and blue precede the line of the praying community. First the women, and then the men, all move in a composed way and hold signs that proclaim the wise reflections of the Book. Mock duels, bhangra performances and Gidda make the procession a very happy and colorful time.

At the temple, the adepts arrive in dribs, but without stopping. Before entering, they take off their shoes, wash their feet and cover their heads as a sign of respect. From the central door one can see a large room at the end of which the altar is placed. In the center an old man solemnly oscillates the chauri (a fan of hair of yak) on the Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred Book.

Words alternate with traditional music performed by a group of musicians. The crowd is divided. On the one hand there are women. On the other are the men. In the middle a slow and silent procession arrives in front of the altar, where all prostrate themselves and leave an offer.

It is almost time for lunch, but already from the morning we can smell spices. We sit on the ground, barefoot, next to each other and expect our turn to eat the chapati accompanied by basmati rice and fried lentils. The glass is always full as the chai is served non-stop.

The Soul of Vaisakhi Festival in the Heart of Punjab

After a while, everyone spills into the sports field. In every village the party goes on with colorful markets, skilled jugglers, and compelling matches of Kabaddi. There is a group of martial arts that shows physical abilities with sticks and big shining swords. Tournaments last until sunset. The public are intrigued. The long day comes to an end.

In the evening, people had fun doing the Bhangra, a dance that tells the story of the whole agricultural process, from working the land to sowing and harvesting. People dress in orange, and green, but also in blue and white and continue to intertwine in a harmonious movement. The dancers and percussionists challenge each other to continue the dance to exhaustion. As night dawns the large crowd thins out. Slowly the rainbow of colors disappears on the horizon.

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Kalyan Panja
Kalyan Panja is a photographer and a travel writer sharing stories and experiences through photographs and words