Standing in the middle of it, you’d think this was a typical amusement park. Gravity-defying rides that thrill the kids yet terrify most adults. Midway games featuring balloons and darts and whack-a-moles.
But walk a few hundred feet to the west and everything changes, and the tone is far more reverential.
It is the 12th of April, a Sunday, and you are in the midst of an annual event that attracts thousands but is lost on most outside the Sikh community. It is called "Nishan Sahib Sewa," and it is the place to be when Vaisakhi is just around the corner.
Walking with Vaisakhi spokesperson Moninder Singh, you learn what makes this day – and this preparatory occasion – so special.
You enter the Gurdwara Sahib Dasmesh Darbar temple, remove your shoes, tie a headband around your noggin, and watch the people pray. And bow. And pray some more. Up front, the head priest speaks and the worshippers listen. He sits inside an elaborate structure that Singh calls a "takht" and defines as a "door to the divine."
Outside again, you find a path through this sea of humanity to what surely must be the tallest flagpole you’ve ever seen. It’s wrapped – all 140 feet of it – in saffroncoloured cloth and topped with the national flag of the Sikh Nation.
This day, you are told, is all about the flag and flagpole. Each year, one week
prior to Vaisakhi, the cloth is removed and renewed, washed and cleaned. The flagpole, you see, is as tall as it is and as important as it is because it’s a signal to all those who see it to gather under it, take shelter and be fed.
You walk some more and soon realize that being fed is not mere lip service. Indeed, food – hearty food, prepped on site and free for the taking – is everywhere.
Singh tells you it’s one of the three pillars of the faith. "Whatever you have, you divide and give to others."
That belief is also the underlying theme of Surrey’s Vaisakhi Parade, which celebrates the founding of the Khalsa in 1699.
Singh remembers the first Surrey Vaisakhi Parade – he’s been at every single one. In a word, he described it as "chaotic."
Now in its 17th year, the event is a welloiled machine, drawing upwards of 240,000 people last year, making it one of the largest Vaisakhi parades outside of India.
This year, Singh said there are people travelling from as far as California, even
the U.K. and Australia, to take in the event. He believes it’s the sheer number of attendees that draws international visitors.
"When they hear about Surrey, everybody’s eyebrows are pretty much onto their foreheads and beyond. They’re thinking, ‘How do you draw 250,000
people? How do you actually run an event with 250,000 people walking around and never have incidents and everyone gets along?’ It does speak to the event and the organizing of it and the support the community provides."
In recent years, Singh said organizers have done more community outreach and have involved the media more, being open to questioning on the
political stances of the gurdwaras involved.
"Now we find people from every faith who are comfortable coming."
Surrey’s Vaisakhi parade will begin Saturday, April 18 at 9:30 a.m. from the Gurdwara Sahib Dasmesh Darbar Temple at 12885 85th Ave.
Visit Surreyvaisakhiparade.ca for more details, road closures and a parade map.