Colourful day of thanks: Hitchin's Vaisakhi Festival
PUBLISHED: 17:38 30 March 2016 | UPDATED: 17:38 30 March 2016
The sights, sounds and tastes of the Punjab take over Hitchin at the annual Vaisakhi festival, which celebrates nature's bounty and community. Layth Yousif explores the colourful Sikh event
You might not associate an ancient Hertfordshire market town with a festival that has its roots in the Punjab region of India – but that’s exactly what you’ll find in one of the county’s most colourful cultural events.
Hitchin in North Herts might be better known for producing England midfield maestro Jack Wilshere and Brit Award singer-songwriter James Bay, but the town which has an entry in the Doomsday Book, recording Rex Willelmus tenet Hiz – King William holds Hitchin, is also a beacon for diversity. The vibrant centre boasting numerous independent shops, a 12th century church, a pleasant market place, many handsome timbered buildings – not to mention a burgeoning cafe culture with at least 92 coffee shops – is also home to the important Sikh festival of Vaisakhi.
Think of a cross between an English harvest festival and the Notting Hill Carnival. It’s a riot of colour, music and as many homemade mouth-watering samosas you can eat. It occurs every Easter in the town and is an event not to be missed by locals and intrigued visitor alike. Easter is early this year – Good Friday is on March 25 – and the Vaisakhi festival is scheduled for Easter Saturday. It is marked with a parade through the streets which forms an important part of Sikh culture and religious celebrations. A key component is Kirtan – the singing and chanting of hymns and scripture from the Guru Grath Sahib, the Sikh holy book, and celebrations always include music from traditional and modern instruments.
The vibrant celebration normally starts at the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara Temple in Wilbury Way around 1.30pm, threading its way through town – taking in Grove Road, Nightingale Road, Bancroft, Bridge Street, Queen Street, Market Place and Hermitage Road.
More than 700 Sikhs took part in last year’s procession with free sweets and savoury food given to the watching crowds and served after the procession. Leaders of the Hitchin Sikh community were in attendance and there was even a display of martial arts.
Vaisakhi is traditionally observed as a thanksgiving day whereby farmers and the community pay tribute to and thank God for the harvest and also pray for future prosperity.
Volunteer Gurdeep Singh has been involved in the event since it began in the town in the 1980s. He explains, ‘Vaisahki in Hitchin started through the old Hitchin Carnival when their used to be lots of farmers on the parade. Because it also has it’s roots in celebrating harvest festival the Sikh community decided to get involved and it grew from there. My grandparents and parents were involved in helping and I have been too.’
The former long-term Hitchin resident who now lives in neighbouring Stevenage added, ‘It’s a joyful and inclusive event in which the Sikh community is giving thanks to everyone for living in peace and harmony.’
In that spirit of inclusion and thanks the gudwara in Wilbury Way also provides a free community kitchen, called a langar, every Sunday morning, providing food to anyone who comes.
The Vaisakhi festival also commemorates the creation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh Ji in 1699; Khalsa being the collective body of initiated Sikhs that represent the living embodiment of the Guru.
The sights and sounds of Hitchin’s Vaisahki are unforgettable. To see a long line of orange and saffron robes led by barefoot sword carrying elders and banner bearers, traditional drummers and dancers on a gaily decorated float followed by a great colourfully dressed crowd snake round the town’s roads, which are closed for the event, is stunning.
The saffron colour, also called bhagwa, gerua or kesariya, symbolises the inner fire that drives a person to excel and to renounce certain worldly pleasures for the sake of the greater good. It is incorporated in the top band of the Indian tricolour known as the tiranga.
The greater good is what the Sikh commnunity embraces when grandmothers, mums and daughters gather together the day before the parade to make hundreds of succulent samosas to be handed out to onlookers; an act that is part of the notion of Seva, meaning selfless service.
To see and hear this parade characterised by the folk dance Bhangra – traditionally a harvest dance – is to want to join in with the mesmerising beat of the drums played with a beguiling mixture of fervour and gaiety.
The event – sustained by the Sikh population which has deep roots in the local and wider community, the local authority and townsfolk – is growing year on year, and Gurdeep encourages all to come and be part of it: ‘I would encourage everyone to come and visit the colourful procession, enjoy the food along the way and ask questions about our faith. It really is a lovely day, a very special day. The atmosphere is fantastic.’