Fox Valley Sikhs celebrate Vaisakhi at Menasha Temple

MENASHA – It was a day of celebration and respect for Sikh culture and faith in Fox Valley Sikh Temple on Sunday.

People from across the region gathered at the gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, in Menasha to celebrate Vaisakhi.

Vaisakhi is celebrated on April 13 or 14 every year and is recognized as the day when Sikhism began as a collective faith.

Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world. More than 100 people practice the faith regularly at the northeast Wisconsin temple in Menasha.

Sikh families gather at gurdwaras around the world to celebrate their culture, reflect on their faith, and honor the sacrifices of generations that came before them.

A brotherhood of warriors

The festival started as a harvest festival in the agricultural state of Punjab. It also marks the establishment of the Khalsa in April 1699, which formed a distinct and united Sikh identity.

“This is the birth of my religion,” said Prabh Preet Singh Cheema, who was one of the founding members of the Menasha gurdwara.

Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th and last living guru of the Sikh religion, established the Khalsa, which means “pure”. According to tradition, Singh was in a large crowd and challenged any Sikh to come forward, have their heads cut off and give their life for the community to fight oppression.

As the faith grew in the 1600s, many faced religious persecution and Sikh leaders were executed by Indian Mughal rulers.

A volunteer came forward and Guru came out of the tent with a bloodstained sword. In all, five people volunteered. But all five came out unscathed and they became the Beloved Five – the first members of the Khalsa.

“It’s the training of what we call Sikh warriors,” said Menasha gurdwara member Sharan Kapoor.

Guru Gobind Singh also initiated what is considered to be the baptism ceremony of Sikhs which initiates them into the Khalsa order. Called the amrit ceremony, it involves drinking amrit (nectar), which is a mixture of sugar and water stirred with a double-edged sword.

When Sikhs are baptized, they accept the guidelines of the religion and wear the five Ks, each with various symbolic meanings and representing their commitment to the guru:

  • Kesh: uncut hair
  • Kara: a steel bracelet
  • Kangha: a comb
  • Kaccha: long underwear
  • Kirpan: a sword

Guru Gobind Singh was the last living guru, before the Guru Granth Sahib – the Sikh holy book – became the current and eternal guru.

The holiday now recognizes defenders of religion and the sacrifices they have made to protect those persecuted for refusing to convert.

“He actually taught us to resist aggression,” Cheema said.

Celebrating after the pandemic

It was a day of pride and celebration on Sunday in Menasha, and the first time gurdwara had been back in full swing for Vaisakhi since the pandemic began. Over 100 people gathered to celebrate and see familiar faces they hadn’t seen in three years.

The day began with the reading of the 1,430-page holy book and the singing of praises and hymns, followed by langar, a communal meal. Volunteers prepare the meal of cultural dishes and everyone gathers and eats together in the community kitchen.

Langar was created by the first guru to emphasize the equality and “humanity” of everyone regardless of caste, gender or race, Gurjeet Singh said. A unique part of the faith is that gurus and disciples are also identified as equals.

People enjoy langar, a free weekly communal lunch, at the Fox Valley Sikh Temple on Sundays.

“In the congregation, people from different religions came. Sikhism is a more universal religion than a separate one,” said Gurjeet Singh.

Pinder Singh, 22, drove three hours from UW-La Crosse to celebrate the gurdwara holiday with his family. The significance of the party changed as he learned more about it growing up in Appleton.

Being able to sing along with the hymns and understand the readings strengthened her faith and identity.

“With my religion, today is a big part of who I am,” he said.

The Menasha gurdwara: a community space

The Fox Valley Sikh Temple is one of four gurdwaras in Wisconsin.

It fills Cheema with a sense of accomplishment to see the gurdwara filled with families and children running around in traditional Indian clothes and joining in Vaisakhi hymns.

Cheema was one of the few people involved in establishing a temple in northeast Wisconsin in 2004. About five or six families opened the space, and now more than 100 families come from all over the area to attend temple services.

“Our mission was to promote the development of children, to promote our religion and basically to keep children out of trouble,” he said.

As one of four gurdwaras in the state, the temple serves as an important place of culture for local Sikh families and the wider Fox Valley community. Langar, which is served every Sunday, is an important part of the religion where anyone from the community is welcome to enjoy the free lunch.

The gurdwara also builds a support network for the children to encourage each other to have a solid education, Cheema said. Sometimes the building’s tight spaces can get crowded, so members hope to expand the space and add a children’s playroom or move into a larger building.

Having a gurdwara in the Fox Valley also helps educate non-Sikhs about the religion. Sometimes people may confuse Sikhism with other religions or make assumptions about it.

“They tend to view it (Sikhism) as violence,” he said. “But it’s about peace and coming together as a community,” Pinder Singh said.

Kapoor, who lives in Appleton, has been coming to gurdwara with his family for 18 years. For her, it became a community space and an opportunity to help children strengthen their own faith.

“The Sikh religion is about brotherhood, justice, giving back to the community, and everyone is welcome to gurdwara here,” Kapoor said.

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Contact Benita Mathew at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @benita_mathew.

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