Why Do We Have AMRIK KAUR
Roundtable Open Forum #160
Now that the extended Vaisakhi season of nagar kirtans and melas throughout the Sikh world has come to an end this year, it may be opportune to take stock and reflect about the true essence of that supremely spiritual event of 1699.
One of the earliest nagar kirtans I remember here in the United Kingdom was held in Southall in 1975 to commemorate the tercentenary of Guru Tegh Bahadar’s martyrdom.
As a 25 year old I participated in this historical event. It was a simple and small affair. 40 years on, the Southall Nagar Kirtan attracts over 100,000 members of the sangat from Southall and many surrounding towns.
Most major UK cities and towns with substantial Sikh populations did not begin holding nagar kirtans until the 1990’s.
For example, the city of Reading in the United Kingdom held its first such parade / procession in 2006, Preston held its first as recently as 2014.
Nowadays, nagar kirtans are held across Europe, North America and other corners of Sikhdom. Yuba City in California, USA, for example, has held it for 35 years.
By now, in 2016 we can view nagar kirtans in numerous towns and cities here in the United Kingdom as well as in mainland Europe on the various Sikh TV channels.
Clearly it has become one of the most prominent form of celebration in the Sikh calendar. It promotes friendship, mutual understanding and respect for each other and provides an opportunity to demonstrate core Sikh values of equality, communal harmony and, in particular, religious tolerance.
We should perhaps ask ourselves how it began and what was its initial concept
The origins of Nagar Kirtan are rooted in an old tradition called “prabhat pheri”. It is believed that the earliest prabhat pheri took place at the time of Guru Hargobind Sahib’s imprisonment in Gwalior Fort. Baba Buddha ji led a march around the fort as a sign of protest, to raise the spirits of Sikhs and to express love for the detained Guru Sahib.
Baba Attar Singh Mustuanewale promoted nagar kirtans on a large scale at the beginning of the 20th century with the sole purpose of uniting the Sikh Panth and facilitating Gurmat Parchar.
By the the 1950s and 60s, impressive parades (known as ‘jalloos’) were being held around the country at major Sikh population or historic centres to commemorate gurpurabs.
In the 1970’s memorable Nagar Kirtans were organised in Punjab by Sant Kartar Singh Bhindranwale to promote Gurus’ teachings.
This early tradition is being resurrected in many villages in Punjab. It takes place at Amrit Vela (literally, the ‘ambrosial hour‘ - pre-dawn). Groups of villagers go round the laneways, past homes, singing shabads accompanied by harmonium, dholki and chimtas. It affords people an opportunity to enjoy the bliss of singing, and sharing kirtan in the early hours as a sangat.
Essentially, its focus is spiritual.
This is the true essence of Nagar Kirtan. At the end of the procession, tea is served with light snacks at the house of a volunteer member of the community (picked in rotation, from day to day.).
I have a clear memory of such nagar kirtan in our village from around 1960. The
procession was led by Guru Granth Sahib in a palki and Punj Pyaare. Such events ended with langar for all the attendees, served by the host home of the day. Water was offered to the sangat along the route.
What has happened to that simple practice of singing shabads at Amrit Vela in the 21 century, particularly here in the West?
It has become more of a commercial fanfare, with all local businesses promoting their wares. The route is lined with marquees offering the sangat their favourite foods, such as pizza, fruit chaat, samosa and channa, etc, etc. There is no end to the culinary delights offered by the restaurant owners and food shops.
One wonders how much food the sangat can consume along the procession?
What is being encouraged is gluttony, which is in stark contrast to the spiritual nature of the occasion being celebrated. It has become a food-tasting festival, with much wastage, which is not how we should treat langar. Sadly it is not langar that is being offered to sangat. What is being catered to is the taste buds.
Is it still langar?
Langar should be simple and around the basic act of breaking bread together.
The atmosphere has become akin to a carnival rather than what it should be. Someone observed that the flag bearers have increased so much that it appears more like a flag waving crowd at football matches. Instead of singing shabad gurbani, sections of the procession are entertained by Bhangra groups and Gatka performances.
Should these popular forms of entertainment not be confined to Vaisakhi Melas only. Several towns are holding nagar kirtans as well as Vaisakhi melas, the mela being purely entertainment in nature rather than religious or spiritual.
Aspects of a street carnival in these nagar kirtans have become their central nature.
Our communities everywhere need to make a clear distinction between a nagar kirtan and a Vaisakhi mela, the former being spiritual in essence and the latter being no more than merrymaking.
Why do we take part in nagar kirtans?
Sadly some of us attend just to have a “good time” and to meet our friends and relatives. This purely social motive is not going to be of any benefit to us as communities or at a personal, spiritual level.
The practice of “mattha tek” at the palki in these events is also questionable. There is a massive crush causing much distress and possible danger of old and young people being crushed. Should we not pay our respects to Guru Granth Sahib in the gurdwara where there is ample space for the huge crowds to do this in an organised manner?
The sangat should respectfully follow behind the palki instead of running ahead on pavements. The whole sangat should be singing shabads so that the streets are resonating with gurbani.
Sadly, we fail in this area very badly. We tend to see that our role is to listen instead of singing with the raagi jatthas.
This is a sincere and humble plea to Sikhs all over the world. Let us preserve and promote the true spiritual essence of the Vaisakhi celebration during the nagar kirtan. We should ask ourselves what we can learn from the seminal events of 1699 and how we can become Guru Gobind Singh’s Khalsa.
Let us all remember that it is not a march, rally, parade or just a procession. The key aspect is kirtan. Let us retain the central, spiritual nature of the event.
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THE ROUNDTABLE OPEN FORUM # 160
We invite our readers to share their thoughts on the issues raised in this essay, by posting their comments below.
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[The author is a retired teacher based in Britain, with experience of primary school teaching and adult education.]
June 29, 2016
Conversation about this article
1: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), June 29, 2016, 5:56 AM.
Singing shabads from the Guru Granth Sahib requires devotion and dedication. Gurbani informs us that association with God is not a matter of accident. In order to attain the ultimate spiritual stage (sahaj avastha) one has to follow through an arduous process of spiritual practice or discipline and progress stage by stage. In Guru Granth Sahib, there are over 5,800 shabads and for a Sikh each one is a divine order (Hukam). It’s a huge ocean of knowledge and wisdom that requires contemplation with utmost concentration and consciousness. This cannot be attained in large gatherings on streets; gurbani never suggests this type of revelry. In the opening stanza of Guru Granth Sahib (p 14), Guru Nanak seeks a lifetime promise of honesty and loyalty towards The Guru, Gurbani and God in every situation and circumstance. The stanza suggests one can attain all the riches of the materialistic world by following Guru’s direction, one can receive blessings of Waheguru. Therefore O Sikhs, “mut daykh bhoolaa veesrai!” - be honest and loyal to your Guru, Gurbani and God (Akal Purakh) throughout your life as a true Sikh. Baba Nanak also urges us to develop humility, compassion and sahaj (equipoise) through constant remembrance of Waheguru. Spiritual and material life can be maintained in mutual harmony. Sikhi is a state of mind, while outlook is a reflection of a soldier; that is why a Sikh is also known as a “Sant-Sipahi” - Saint-Soldier. However such a temperament is missing today.
2: Ajit Singh Batra (Pennsville, New Jersey, USA), June 30, 2016, 11:06 AM.
Mere meditation and worship, divorced from life of active service, does not make people spiritual. Sikhs have to conform to the needs of the time. And that is why Sikhism is a most practical religion. A Sikh must have self respect and independence. Focus on spirituality lies in true detachment and renunciation, but holding aloof in mind only.
3: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), July 09, 2016, 10:35 PM.
I had the pleasure of attending one of these processions in London, England, and was impressed with the devotion and enthusiasm of Sikh-Britons of all ages and both genders. While appreciating the efforts to expose Sikhs to the British public, I did bring to the attention of the leadership a couple of things. There was not much educational material for the British public to take home about the message of Sikhism. Furthermore, on multiple floats there were completely different cantors signing kirtan. All were being simultaneously amplified with powerful loudspeakers for the public. As a result you heard many different hymns being sung simultaneously from different floats, all of it therefore making little sense. One could not decipher any one of them. This is the practice everywhere. Will it not be better if only one hymn is sung at any one time?
4: Jasbeer Singh (India), July 10, 2016, 3:11 AM.
Nowadays (in India), Nagar Kirtan is a way to waste money, food and other valuable resources by utilising "Guru ki Golak". Our so-called prabhandaks are not capable of thinking out of the box. In the past centuries there was an absence of electronic and social media for parchar; so at that time the Nagar Kirtan was the way to do prachar, educate and celebrate.