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Gurpurab or Guru Nanak Jayanti is the most important and sacred festival of the Sikh community and is observed by them across the world. It is also known as Guru Nanak’s Prakash Utsav, that also connotes to the Sikh guru’s birth anniversary. The festival is celebrated every year on a full moon day in the month of Kartik, according to the Hindu lunar calendar – Kartik Purnima, falling mostly during October-November.
Guru Nanak, who is the first among the 10 Sikh gurus, was born in Talwandi, a village in the Sheikhupura district, near Lahore, Pakistan, on April 15, 1469. However, his birthday is celebrated during the month of Kartik in autumn. It is believed that in 1496 he received enlightenment and preached the world about peace and religious harmony.
The festival is observed over a period of three days. The celebrations of the holy festival begin with ‘Akhand Path’ prior to Gurpurab. The 48-hour long non-stop reiterations of verses from the Guru Granth Sahib – the holy book of Sikhs — are held in gurdwaras. The day before Guru Prakash Utsav, ‘Nagarkirtan’ is organised. The religious processions by followers of the faith singing and dancing is a medium to spread the guru’s message. The followers carry Sikh flag, known as the Nishan Sahib and the Palki (Palanquin) of Guru Granth Sahib, while marching through streets barefeet. This procession is led by the Panj Pyaras (Five Beloved Ones).
The parade also includes the ‘Gatka’ (Sikh martial arts), highlighting the valour and skills of the community. Many symbolic and decorative items are also part of the tableaux parade.
On the day of the main festival, people sing devotional hymns (Asa-di-Var) and set out for Prabhat Pheris early morning at dawn in the gurdwaras. The Prabhat Pheri ritual is observed during the early hours of the day, or Amrit Vela. Following the morning hymns, there is a ‘Katha’ session, where teachings of Guru Nanak from the holy scriptures are read to followers. After the Katha, the rituals end with ‘Kritan’, singing songs in praise of the guru.
As no festival is complete without a sumptuous meal, Gurpurab is no exception. The proceeding is followed with ‘Langar’, which let followers offer ‘Seva’ (offerings/serving). The community lunch – cooked and served by volunteers – is open for all, irrespective of religion, caste or creed. The vegetarian meal comprises simple food like daal, roti, chawal, sabji and halwa.
The chanting of prayers and singing of hymns continues throughout the day and a special prayer is organised at sunset, known as ‘Rehrasi’. The ritual is similar to the morning prayer with Katha and Kritan. It is believed that Nanak was born after mid night at around 1:20 am. The evening prayers continue till this auspicious time. The worshippers start singing Gurbani in his praise this time onwards and the celebrations finally come to an end at around 2am.
The festival is widely celebrated in northern India, particularly with much fanfare in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. The Sikh community has a large diaspora in the UK and Canada, where the festival is extensively celebrated.
In India, Guru Nanak Jayanti is a gazetted holiday, acknowledging the Sikh community.