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Sikhs, Hindus mark harvest festival across Long Island

Religious ceremonies might still look slightly different this

Religious ceremonies might still look slightly different this year, but some traditions are able go come back amid vaccinations. Board of trustees member at the Sikh temple in Glen Cove, spoke to Newsday on Tuesday about what this year's Vaisakhi holiday looks like during the pandemic.  Credit: Newsday / Reece T. Williams

It is known as the harvest festival.

But for practicing Sikhs, as well as Hindus, Vaisakhi, a holiday rooted in the Punjab region of India, has deeper meaning in celebrations taking place Tuesday and Wednesday across Long Island.

Celebrated on April 13 or April 14 under different names, Vaisakhi marks the traditional start of the Punjabi New Year, as well as the Hindu Solar New Year and the Nepalese New Year.

And, for Sikhs, "Essentially," said Rajanpreet Kaur, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Sikh Coalition, "the date that the religion was formalized" as a community of initiated Sikhs, or Khalsa Panth, in 1699.

"The prayer is the most important part of the celebration in the gurdwara [temple], followed by food served to all, like a feast," Harcharan Singh Sachdev, general secretary of the Gurdwara Mata Sahib Kaur, a Sikh temple in Glen Cove, said Tuesday. The gurdwara has about 400 members, mostly from Brookville and Manhasset, and was established in the 1990s, Sachdev said.

As his son, Prabjyot Sachdev, explained in an email: "The Khalsa Panth [tied to the Vaisakhi celebration] is meant to be a unionization of Sikhs to stand up for religious freedom for all religions and perform selfless service to anyone in need."

Sikhism, also known as Sikhi, is the fifth-largest religion in the world, with more than 25 million Sikhs worldwide, according to the Sikh Coalition.

Love, service and justice are the core values and there are an estimated 700,000 Sikhs in America, and more than 5,000 observant families on Long Island, according to Sikh officials. The most visible aspects of the Sikh identity is are unshorn hair [notably beards in men] and wearing of a turban.

In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, there weres recorded incidents of violence against U.S. Sikhs, mistakenly tying them to Islamic extremists.

In fact, Sikhism is an independent religion and is not a blend of Islam and Hinduism.

"Our simple belief," Harcharan Singh Sachdev, known as Bila, said, "is in goodness. That men and women are equal in all areas. That you should be good to all humanity."

In that sense, Sachdev said, Vaisakhi is the affirmation of that, the celebration of that, as well as of harvest and good fortune.

For those in the Hindu community, Priest Barghavan Sridharan of the Selden-based Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Long Island, the harvest festival also is a look at the year past — and the year ahead. A time when farming was the main livelihood in the Punjab region and farmers celebrated the harvest, also planning what crops to plant in the coming year.

"That's what makes it a very important day," Sridharan said. "If you believe everything happens for a reason, then you believe the New Year is starting — and this will be when you get a sign the year would be filled with [prosperity]."

Hinduism is the fourth-largest religion in the United States, with an estimated 766,000 Hindus in America. An estimate for Hindus on Long Island is unclear.

For his congregation, Sridharan said, Vaisakhi celebrations took place Tuesday, though COVID-19 pandemic protocols limited direct gatherings to just 10-15 celebrants at a time. In fact, Sridharan said many temple members elected to follow celebrations this year via livestreamed services — with many preparing traditional meals of roti, kadhi [a dish with yogurt, besan or gram flour, red onion, fenugreek and other dishes such as sambar and rice.

Other celebrations at local Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras were being held outdoors, when possible, as officials at Guru Gobind Singh Sikh Center on Old Country Road in Plainview said were taking place there Tuesday.

For many Sikhs, vegetarian dishes marked the celebration of Vaisakhi, with roti, dal, white rice and raita, a yogurt dish.

Many Sikhs also embrace outfits of a saffron color, anywhere from yellow to deep orange, in observance of Vaisakhi, Bila Sachdev and Kaur both said.

As Kaur wrote in her email of the message being celebrated at Vaisakhi by practicing Sikhs: "Living one's life in chardi kala [defined as "relentless optimism"] means feeling hopeful even in the face of great adversity."

Or, as Sridharan said of the message to his Hindu congregation this year: "People who lost because of the pandemic will gain again. This year seems it will be better than last year — and that it's going to be better next year than this year."

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