Ancient harvest festival faces the modern age

Pall Singh-Beesla receiving an offering of Karah Parshad, a sacred pudding of the Sikh faith. | Photo by Danny Kresnyak

Pall Singh-Beesla receiving an offering of Karah Parshad, a sacred pudding of the Sikh faith. | Photo by Danny Kresnyak

The Sikh faith will be on display in the streets of South Vancouver for the annual Vaisakhi festival on April 16.This tradition is honoured world-wide on different dates to mark the open of the harvest season and the birth of Khalsa.

Khalsa is the living text of the Sikh religion. The scripture is recognized as the omnipotent 11th Guru that embodies Sikh identity and the core values of hard work, sharing wealth and meditation on God’s name.

The event features a parade and a diversity of free vegetarian food for all attendees to enjoy. The work is volunteer-run, community funded and organized in partnership with the Khalsa Diwan Society.

Going green

Pall Singh-Beesla is one of the principle organizers. He is proud to announce this year is “the first ever green Vaisakhi.” This step is a communal effort to cut down on the waste produced by a street festival which attracts more than 80 thousand spectators.

Singh-Beesla, 34, was born and raised in South Vancouver and describes himself as a “blue-collar guy who drives a city bus and takes his opportunities to give back.” He says the decision to “go green” is an important component as Sikhism faces the future, particularly as many of his generation no longer see faith as a priority. Also of importance are communal meals.

“In our religion it is important that we must eat together, from the community pot,” Singh-Beesla says. On the lower level of the Temple, 500 people a day are fed free vegetarian meals by a crew of volunteers. “It is against our beliefs to be apostolic. We do not demand people become Sikhs to eat here,” he says.

The Vancouver Vaisakhi festival was first established in 1979, around the time Singh-Beesla’s parents immigrated to Canada and construction of the current Temple facility began. The original Temple was built in 1906 at the corner of Burrard Street and 2nd Avenue. By the 1970s the need for a larger facility was evident. In response, a group of 20 members offered their homes as collateral to secure the funding to build the Temple in South Vancouver.

Singh-Beesla credits the rapid growth of the Sikh community during this period to the inclusive immigration policies of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the industrious nature of Punjabi people, “potatoes and Punjabis can be found in every corner of the world,” he says.

A rooted history

Communal kitchens, an important aspect of Sikh tradition. | Photo by Danny Kresnyak

Communal kitchens, an important aspect of Sikh tradition. | Photo by Danny Kresnyak

Vaisakhi is the veneration of the Khalsa Panth. Pal-Singh says the original Visakhi parade took place in the 16th century when the 6th Guru of the Sikh faith, Guru Har Gobind-Sahib Ji, was imprisoned for his refusal to convert to the official religion of the ruling class.

According to Pal-Singh, those faithful to the Sixth Guru walked from the cede of Sikh faith in Amristar, Punjab to Agra in modern day Uttar Pradesh where their Guru was held. The journey was hundreds of kilometres and those faithful to Har Gobind-Sahib sang the traditional hymns as they walked.

Pal-Singh says Sikhism was built on the philosophy “everybody has the right to believe in what they want to believe.” And that the Sikh religion recognizes only one God, yet acknowledges their way is not the only path to enlightenment.

This egalitarian spirit is still evident in the temple today. The sanctuary has doors facing in all four directions, symbolic of the willingness to let all walks of life enter. The leadership of the KDS are elected every three years. According the Singh-Beesla, only four members of the staff are paid wages and the annual operating budget of 1.1 million dollars is raised “a few coins at a time, plus about a sixty thousand a year grant from the provincial gaming authority.” He says the funds are stretched as far as possible as the Temple “barely breaks even each year.”

The parade starts at 11 a.m. at the Khalsa Diman Society Temple at 8000 Ross St., Vancouver.

Free vegetarian dishes will be available to all attendees along the route, which travels west down Marine Drive turns North on Main Street, East at 49th Avenue, South on Fraser then East on 57th before returning to the Temple at 5:30 p.m.