Jan 142020

Today is Maghi (or some variant), in many parts of the Indian subcontinent and SE Asia. It is an annual festival on the first day of the month of Magha in the Bikrami calendar, when the sun enters the sign of Makara or Capricorn. The eve of Maghi is called Lohri (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/lohri/ ). It is one of the seasonal gatherings of the Sikhs, and is celebrated at Muktsar in the memory of forty Sikh martyrs (Chalis Mukte), who once deserted the tenth and last human Guru of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur Sahib, but later rejoined the Guru and died while fighting the Mughal Empire army led by Wazir Khan in 1705. Sikhs make a pilgrimage to the site of this Sikh-Muslim war, and take a dip in the sacred water tanks of Muktsar. A fair (mela) called the Mela Maghi is held at Muktsar Sahib every year in memory of the forty Sikh martyrs. Before this tradition started to commemorate the Sikh martyrs, the festival was observed and mentioned by Guru Amar Das, the third Guru of Sikhism.

Makar Sankranti (or Pongal) is celebrated on this date in other parts of the Indian subcontinent by Hindus, always on the first day of the month of Magha in the Bikrami calendar. Hindus bathe in the Ganges or if that is not possible, in some other river, rivulet, canal or pond.

Maghi is celebrated by eating kheer such as roh di kheer which is an old dish in which rice is cooked in sugarcane juice. The dish is prepared in the evening before Maghi and is kept overnight to cool. It is served cold next morning on Maghi with red-pepper mixed curd. In some parts of Punjab, it is also traditional to eat kichdi (rice and moong beans) mixed with lentils, or raw sugarcane and jaggery.

Here’s a great video on preparing roh di kheer in a traditional Punjabi kitchen:

Jun 162016


On this date, devout Sikhs honor the martyrdom of Guru Arjan, fifth of the ten Sikh gurus. His actual date of death is not known, but this is the conventional date of memorial in the Sikh calendar. It’s not a big festival day, but it is an important memorial because of the importance of Guru Arjan in the development of Sikhism, particularly as a martyr. His death spawned the militant branch of Sikhism that has persisted for centuries, spurring endless violence between Sikhs and Muslims, as well as with other sects. Let me state this emphatically at the outset. Violence in the name of religion is wrong – period. Sikhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity, you name it, are all religions that are fundamentally opposed to violence, yet numerous followers use their “faith” to conduct holy wars or acts of terrorism. This is just plain wrong, and is nothing more than using religion as a cover for their own brands of bigotry and hatred.

Guru Arjan (sometimes spelled Arjun) was born in Goindval, Punjab, the youngest son of Guru Ram Das and Mata Bhani, the daughter of Guru Amar Das. Guru Arjan was the Guru of Sikhism for a quarter of a century. He completed the construction of Amritsar and founded other cities, such as Taran Taran and Kartarpur. The greatest contribution Guru Arjan made to the Sikh faith was to compile all of the past Gurus’ writings, along with selected writings of other saints from different backgrounds which he considered consistent with the teachings of Sikhism into one book, now the holy scripture: the Guru Granth Sahib. It is, perhaps, the only Sikh scripture which still exists in the form first published (a hand-written manuscript) by the Guru.


Guru Arjan introduced the Masands, a group of representatives who taught and spread the teachings of the Gurus and received the Dasvand, a voluntary offering of a Sikh’s income in money, goods or service. Sikhs paid the Dasvand to support the building of gurdwaras and langars (shared communal kitchens). Although the introduction of the langar was started by Guru Nanak, Guru Arjan is credited with laying the foundation of the systematic institution of langars as a religious duty, one that has continued ever since.

Guru Arjan was arrested under the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and ordered to convert to Islam. He refused, was tortured and executed in 1606 CE. Historical records and the Sikh tradition are unclear whether Guru Arjan was executed by drowning or died during torture. His martyrdom is considered a watershed event in the history of Sikhism.


Sikhism is not especially well understood in the West although it is easy to spot a Sikh male by his beard and turban. Sikhism ( ਸਿੱਖੀ Sikkhi), is a monotheistic religion that originated in the Punjab region of South Asia during the 15th century. The fundamental beliefs of Sikhism, articulated in the Guru Granth Sahib, include faith and meditation on the name of the one creator, unity and equality of all humankind, engaging in selfless service, striving for social justice for the benefit and prosperity of all, and honest conduct and livelihood while living a householder’s life (marriage is an important obligation). Although one of the youngest amongst the major world religions, with over 25 million adherents worldwide, Sikhism is the fifth-largest religion in the world.


Sikhism is based on the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak, the first Guru, and the ten successive Sikh gurus. After the death of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, became the general spiritual guide for Sikhs. Sikhism emphasizes simran (meditation on the words of the Guru Granth Sahib), that can be expressed musically through kirtan or internally through Nam Japo as a means to feel God’s presence, and to have control over the “Five Thieves” (lust, rage, greed, attachment and conceit). Secular life is considered to be intertwined with the spiritual life. Guru Nanak taught that living an “active, creative, and practical life” of “truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity” is above  metaphysical truth, and that the ideal disciple (i.e. sikh) is one who “establishes union with God, knows the Will of God, and carries out that Will.” Sikhs established the system of the langar, or communal kitchen, in order to demonstrate the need to share and have equality between all people. Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh Guru, established that the political/temporal (Miri) and the spiritual (Piri) realms should be mutually coexistent.

Sikhs also reject claims that any particular religious tradition has a monopoly on Absolute Truth. The development of Sikhism was influenced by the Bhakti movement, which developed out of the Vedic tradition of Hinduism. However, Sikhism was not simply an extension of the Bhakti movement, but a radical change in direction – rejecting polytheism, for example. Sikhism developed while the Punjab region was being ruled by the Mughal Empire. Both Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur, after they refused to convert to Islam, were tortured and executed by the Mughal rulers. The Islamic era persecution of Sikhs triggered the founding of the Khalsa, as a militant order to defend freedom of conscience and religion. A Sikh is expected to embody the qualities of a “Sant-Sipāhī” – a saint-soldier.

God in Sikhism is known as Ik Onkar, the One Supreme Reality. or the all-pervading spirit (which is taken to mean God). This spirit has no gender in Sikhism, though translations may present it as masculine. It is also Akaal Purkh (beyond time and space) and Nirankar (without form). In addition, Guru Nanak wrote that there are many worlds on which Ik Onkar has created life.


Guru Nanak further states that the understanding of Akaal is beyond human beings, but at the same time not wholly unknowable. Akaal is omnipresent (sarav viāpak) in all creation and visible everywhere to the spiritually awakened. Guru Nanak stressed that Ik Onkar must be seen with “the inward eye”, or the “heart”, of a human being: devotees must meditate to progress towards enlightenment of “higher” life. Guru Nanak emphasized revelation through meditation, as its rigorous application permits communication between God and human beings.

The Mul Mantar, the opening line of the Guru Granth Sahib and each subsequent raga, invokes Ik Oankar:

ੴ ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ ਕਰਤਾ ਪੁਰਖੁ ਨਿਰਭਉ ਨਿਰਵੈਰੁ ਅਕਾਲ ਮੂਰਤਿ ਅਜੂਨੀ ਸੈਭੰ ਗੁਰ ਪ੍ਰਸਾਦਿ॥

Transliteration: ikk ōankār sat(i)-nām(u) karatā purakh(u) nirabha’u niravair(u) akāl(a) mūrat(i) ajūnī saibhan gur(a) prasād(i).

There is but one all pervading spirit, and truth is its name! It exists in all creation; it does not fear; it does not hate; it is timeless and universal and self-existent, You will come to know it through seeking knowledge and learning!

In Sikhism, only lacto-vegetarian food is served in the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) but Sikhs are not bound to be meat-free. The consensus is that Sikhs are free to adopt a meat diet or not as they choose. Sikhs, once they become Amritdhari (initiated) via the Amrit Sanskar (initiation ceremony), are forbidden from eating Kutha or ritually-slaughtered (Halal, Kosher)meat because it transgresses one of the four restrictions in the Sikh Code of Conduct. According to the Akal Takht (Central Body for Sikh Temporal Affairs), Sikhs are allowed only to eat Jhatka meat (meat from animals that are slaughtered instantly by a single blow).

Guru Nanak said it was pointless to debate the merits of either not eating or eating meat in the context of religion, as maintaining a strict diet does not make one blessed or elevate one to a superior status over another, spiritually or otherwise. Being a member of a religion incorporates not only one’s dietary customs, but the entire way in which devotees govern their lives. He advocated a life consisting of honest, hard work and humility, focus and remembrance of God, and compassion for all of humanity. These three key principles take precedence over one’s dietary habits.

I tend to agree with one branch of Sikhism which argues that both plants and animals have life, and so it is not rational to separate the one from the other by arguing that eating meat involves taking life whereas eating plants does not. Just because a carrot does not scream when you harvest it does not mean that it is less of a living thing than a cow. Humans eat living things – and they eat us. Such is the nature of life.

Nonetheless I’ll highlight a classic vegetarian Punjabi dish here, aloo gobi. It’s one of my favorites, and has taken me a long time to perfect. It’s a dry spicy dish made with potatoes and cauliflower. For a very thorough account of how to go about cooking it go here: http://www.vegrecipesofindia.com/aloo-gobi-recipe-punjabialoo-gobi/  It takes a lot of practice to get it right. The potatoes and cauliflower have to be cooked properly without boiling. The dish is very spicy, but dry, unlike the more usual heavily sauced curries you find in Indian restaurants that cover the waterfront from Goa, Kerala, Bengal, Madras, Gujarat, etc, but which can be highly generic.

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The principal seasoning of aloo gobi, added towards the end, is garam masala. I usually buy mine readymade, but it can vary considerably in content and quality. The basic ingredients are black peppercorns, mace, cinnamon, cloves, brown cardamom, nutmeg, and green cardamom. If you’re a real purist you can buy these spices whole and grind them together yourself. Ghee (clarified butter) is the preferred cooking oil, but plain vegetable oil is all right, and makes the dish vegan.


Aloo Gobi

1 medium cauliflower (450 g), cut into florets
5 or 6 medium size potatoes (350 g), pealed and sliced in wedges
2 inches ginger peeled and chopped
1 tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp garam masala powder
coriander leaves for garnish
4 tbsp oil or ghee


You need a deep, heavy skillet with a tight fitting lid for a successful dish.

Heat the oil over medium-low heat and add the potatoes and cauliflower. Sauté the vegetables for about 10 minutes, but do not let them take on color. Stir continuously while cooking.

Add the ginger and turmeric and stir thoroughly to make sure that they are evenly distributed. Cover tightly and reduce the heat to low. Cook undisturbed for about 20 minutes. The water in the vegetables will steam them.

Uncover the pot, add the garam masala, turn the heat to medium high. You may need to add a little more oil at this stage if the pan is completely dry. Sauté for a few minutes to release all the flavors from the garam masala, stirring constantly to make sure the vegetables are evenly coated.

Serve with plain boiled basmati rice, chutneys, pickles, and flat bread.