The biggest Sikh Harvest Festival outside India

IT WAS A WEEKEND of spectacle, merriment, music, dancing, hymn singing ,religious devotion and, above all, good food, as the Sikh community from Canada and the Northwestern U.S. celebrated the Vaisakhi or Baisakhi Harvest Festival in Surrey, B.C.

Meenakshi Alimchandani, director, South Asian markets, Balmoral Marketing, was on hand to join 200,000 other marchers on an 8 km parade which took the Sikh Holy Book, the Guru Granth Sahib, around the Sikh neighborhoods in Surrey and Abbotsford.
Meena, who attended on behalf of Clorox, one of Balmoral’s clients, found it exhausting and exhilarating as did the 200,000 other marchers, who converged on Surrey on the weekend of April 19-20 for the Harvest Festival, which also coincides with the day the Sikh religion was founded.

“It was huge. Lots of free food. It’s part of the Sikh custom of worship and service within the community. Within the Sikh religion, breaking bread together is part of the act of community participation as well as a service to those marching in the parade. Serving food and offering water are also a way to achieve good Karma.”

The food came from individual families, restaurants, volunteers and corporate sponsors – from grandmothers offering snacks and cups of tea made at home and brought to the parade route to Omni TV, one of the media sponsors, which gave out gift bags.

Clorox, which gave out gift bags of its products, was the silver sponsor and an exhibitor at the event. General Motors was a gold sponsor.

The festivities got under way on Friday night, with an evening of fun, Indian music and dancing in a carnival-like atmosphere.

On Saturday morning, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Book, was transported on a decorated float in a parade around Sikh neighhoods in Surrey and Abbotsford. The floats, which included one from Balmoral and Clorox, Canadian Armed Forces, schools, religious organizations, were followed by members of the Sikh Motorcycle Club on their Harley Davidsons, dancers, and marchers.

The parade started at 9.30 a.m. and ended around 5 p.m. at the Sikh Temple, where the Holy Book is kept. Everyone was in Indian clothing, including the B.C. politicians who took part.

Sikhism was founded in the 16th Century as a reform movement within Hinduism that had become ultra orothodox in the hands of the Hindu clergy. It also started as a martial sect to protect Sikhs from Hindus and the rest of the community from Moghul invaders, a dynasty that ruled India for almost 300 years. Today in Canada, you’ll find Sikhs in the Canadian Armed Forces as well as the RCMP.

‘What stood out was the reverence people had for their holy books. The religion didn’t have a spiritual leader after the 10th Guru. After him, there was no human representation but the book,” said Meena.

Balmoral recommended participation in the even to Clorox. “It was a big success. Many attendees were surprised. Some did not not have any product awareness. Their participation in the festival helped to change that.

“It also gave us an insight into the Greater Vancouver Area (GVA), which sometimes feels they’re the stepchildren of multicultural marketing.” South Asians who emigrated to the GVA consisted primarily of skilled workers, who tend to live in exclusive cultural communities, with little or no interaction with the mainstream.

GVA’s South Asian market is very fragmented. Some have been there two or three generations and others, new arrivals. Some of the street signs around Surrey are in Punjabi.

Meena’s advice: “If corporations are really interested in the South Asian market, or any other ethnic group, that they have to have a true engagement with those groups and incorporate it in their multicultural programs.”