GURPURB, a compound of two words, i.e. gurū, the spiritual preceptor, and purb, parva in Sanskrit, meaning a festival or celebration, signifies in the Sikh tradition the holy day commemorating one or another of the anniversaries related to the lives of the Gurūs. Observance of such anniversaries is a conspicuous feature of the Sikh way of life. A line frequently quoted from the Gurū Granth Sāhib in this context reads "bābāṇiā kahāṇīā put saput kareni -- it only becomes worthy progeny to remember the deeds of the elders" (GG, 951). Among the more important gurpurbs on the Sikh calendar are the birth anniversaries of Gurū Nānak and Gurū Gobind Siṅgh, the martyrdom days of Gurū Arjan and Gurū Tegh Bahādur, and of the installation of the Holy Book in the Harimandar at Amritsar on Bhādoṅ sudī 1, 1661 Bk/16 August 1604. Alongside these may be mentioned Baisākhī, the first day of the Indian month of Baisākh, which marks the birth, in 1699, of the Khālsā Panth, and the martyrdom days of the young sons of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh. There are indications in the old chronicles that the succeeding Gurūs themselves celebrated the birthday of Gurū Nānak. Such importance was attached to the anniversaries that dates of the deaths of the first four Gurūs were recorded on a leaf in the first recension of the Scripture prepared by the Fifth Gurū, Gurū Arjan. The word gurpurb had come into use in the times of the Gurūs. It occurs in at least five places, in Bhāī Gurdās (1551-1636), contemporary with Gurū Arjan. To quote, "kurbānī tinā gursikhā bhāe bhagati gurpurb karaṇde. -- I am a sacrifice unto Sikhs who with love and devotion observe the gurpurb" (Vārāṅ, XII.2).
What happens on gurpurbs is a mixture of the religious and the festive, the devotional and the spectacular, the personal and the communal. Over the years a standardized pattern has evolved. Yet no special sanctity attaches to the form, and variations can be and are indeed made depending on the imaginativeness and initiative of local groups. At these celebrations, the Sikh Scripture, the Gurū Granth Sāhib, is read through, in private homes and in the gurdwārās, in a single continuous ceremony lasting forty-eight hours. This reading, called akhaṇḍ pāṭh, must be without interruption; the relay of reciters who take turns at saying the Scripture ensures that no break occurs. Additionally special assemblies are held in gurdwārās and discourses given on the lives and teachings of the Gurūs. Sikhs march in processions through towns and cities chanting the holy hymns. Special laṅgars, or community meals, are held for the participants who at certain places may be counted by the thousand. To partake of a common repast on these occasions is reckoned an act of merit. Programmes include initiating those not already initiated into the order of the Khālsā in the manner in which Gurū Gobind Siṅgh had done in 1699. Sikh journals and newspapers bring out their special numbers to mark the event. There are public functions held, besides the more literary and academic ones in schools and colleges. On gurpurbs commemorating birth anniversaries, there might be illuminations in gurdwārās as well as in residential houses. Friends and families exchange greetings. Coming into vogue are the printed cards such as those used in the West for Christmas and the New Year day.
Sikh fervour for gurpurb celebration had an unprecedented outlet at the time of the tercentenary of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh's birth in 1967. There is no evidence on record whether centennials previously had been similarly observed. References are however traceable to a proposal for especially marking the second centennial in 1899 of the birth of the Khālsā. The suggestion came from Max Arthur Macauliffe, author of the monumental work, The Sikh Religion, but it did not receive much popular support. The three hundredth birth anniversary in 1967 of Gurū Gobind Siṅgh turned out to be a major celebration evoking widespread enthusiasm and initiating long-range academic and literary programmes. It also set a new trend and format. With the same ardour have been observed some other days as well; in 1969, the fifth centennial of Gurū Nānak's birth; in 1973, the first centenary of the birth of the Siṅgh Sabhā in 1975, the third centenary of the martyrdom of Gurū Tegh Bahādur; in 1977, the fourth centenary of the founding by Gurū Rām Dās of the city of Amritsar; in 1979, the 500th anniversary of the birth of Gurū Amar Dās; in 1980, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mahārājā Raṇjīt Siṅgh; in 1982, the third birth centennial of Bābā Dīp Siṅgh, the martyr.