1st of Vaiaskh in the desi Bikrami calendar falls sometime around the 14th of April every year. This date also marks the beginning of the Vaisakhi festival, known as Baisakhi too, all across the Indian peninsula. The celebration of Vaisakhi commences the beginning of the cutting of wheat all over the country. Wheat being the most important stable in South Asia is the reason why this festival is so significant to farmers in both India and Pakistan. Having purely originated from seasonal changes, Vaisakhi has been given cultural and religious hues from the local communities. The Hindus in different regions of the country pray to their local deities during this time of year. For the Sikhs however, there is a different significance. In their culture it was on the 1st of Vaisakh that the tenth Sikh Guru finalized their religion. He gathered all his followers at Anandpur, India, where he gave them the famous 5 ks of Sikhism. He also ordered them to end their names with Singh. This is how Vaisakhi, a celebration of the harvest, became a religious festival for the Sikhs. Every year, Sikhs from all over the world, flock to their religious sanctuaries to commemorate this auspicious day. The Sikh celebrations in Pakistan which begin from Gurdwara Punja Sahib, Hassan Abdal, and then move to Amenabad, Gujranwala, are part of the annual event.
In its inception Vaisakhi represents the joy of a farmer. Irrespective of their religion, color and caste, farmers all over South Asia have celebrated this day for thousands of years. Naturally by becoming Muslims, the farmers didn’t cease being farmers, and hence continued celebrating this event along with other religious communities. Besides the melas at Sikh Gurdwaras, other important shrines of celebrations were Ram Thaman, Kasur District, and Sakhi Sarwar, DG Khan.
The ability of Vaisakhi to bring together people beyond their religious pales is the reason why even after so many years of Partition, and decades of puritanical propaganda the people of both of these localities still celebrate this event. Another village is Jaman, at the border; however the festivities there are much smaller in scale. It is reported that the mela of Vaisakhi at Ram Thaman (originally in Lahore district, now in Kasur) used to be of an immense magnitude. Special trains from Lahore, Amritsar, Ferozpur, and other areas used to come to Kalu Khara this time of year, where the temple of Ram Thaman is located. In the Intelligence Reports of Police, found in the archives of Lahore Secretariat, it is said that around 35,000 people were present at this mela in 1946, when it was celebrated for the last time, in its former grand scale.
Munawar bibi, an old woman in her 70s, living in one of the various houses constructed in the complex of the temple, told me that she had seen the festivities at its zenith. So many people used to invade her village at that time that they would stock their food and water supplies for 3 days, and then would lock their doors. There wouldn’t be any space for people to walk on the streets, she told me. People used to keep on coming to the festival from all over the country even after Partition. But slowly the festival lost its vitality. Now only a few hundred people come here every year now. Haji Gud Khan, an influential landlord of the village has started halting people from taking part in the Vaisakhi celebrations, she tells me. Whenever the number of devotees exceeds the tolerance threshold of this gentleman, he brings in the authorities to intervene, who of course do what they are told.
Despite a backlash against the ‘non-Islamic’ celebrations, I met one gentleman, who had come all the way from Pak Pattan, to attend the mela. Faisal told me that he had come to attend the festival of Baba Rehmat Shah. He had heard about it at Pak Pattan, but was rather disappointed to see the event, he heard so much about. He might not come next year.
I did not want to correct Faisal for calling the festival of Baba Ram Thaman, Baba Rehmat Shah’s. This is an oft-repeating phenomenon I have noticed in various cases. A celebration or a sanctuary, associated with a non-Muslim person, has been Muslimlized to retain its status as a revered.
Baba Ram Thaman was an elder cousin of the Guru Nanak. He is revered by Hindu Udasis, and Sikhs. He belonged to the neighboring village of Kalu Khara, however he settled outside of it, and when he died, a smadh (stupa) was built where he rested. Over time, this smadh became a huge complex. The entire structure is spread over an area of around 22 acres, with the adjacent pool as big as 8 acres. There was a concrete boundary wall, protecting it, and various magnificent gates leading into the temple. Now however most of these moats, gates, and walls have been lost to the encroaching population. Besides the two main buildings of the temple, one of which is the Smadh, and the other one a Hindu temple, all the remaining structures now house occupants, who have wrought changes to the original architecture to suit their needs. Inside these various compartments are remnants of glorious art work. Any keen observer of art history is advised to visit Ram Thaman as soon as possible, before even these relics are lost. This village is on the Kasur-Raiwind road, about 7 km from Raiwind and 20 from Kasur. It is next to the railway station of Raja Jang.
The Vaisakhi mela at Ram Thaman has found its way into the folk songs of Punjab; such is the significance of this festival in our cultural heritage. In Heer-Waris, when the writer is describing the scenario of Heer’s barat, he says: ‘Jevein log nigahein te raatan thaman dhol marde te rang lawande ne’. Thaman is Ram Thaman here. He is comparing the festivities at Heer’s Barat to those at the festival of Ram Thaman. Amongst other folk songs are: ‘Tumba wajta Thaman nu jawe, te rukhan wale dhaad wajti’ and ‘Jage wadiyan Thaman dein Kudiyan te Pind che Paachal ah gaya’.
It is really a pity that an event of such culture should be neglected this way. Vaisakhi festivals all over the country are slowly fading away. It is binding upon the Pakistan government to view the festival of Baisakhi beyond the narrow window of religion and see it as a cultural event, which marks the beginning of the harvest season. Vaisakhi should be celebrated at a State level, just like the way it is in India, and all religions, castes, and creeds should be encouraged to participate in it.