Sikhism in Suffolk
By Rachel Sloane
Food seems to be featuring highly as I make my way around the different faiths of Suffolk. I visited the Ipswich Sikh temple (the gurdwara) when they were celebrating the founding of their religion (Vaisakhi) and, yes, there was a meal to share.
Vaisakhi takes place on the 13th or 14th April each year. Decorated with saffron or orange-coloured flags and banners that were flying in the breeze, the temple was packed with Suffolk worshippers and their families and friends visiting from across the country.
Everyone was dressed in their best clothes with fabulously embroidered silk saris and gold jewellery. Excited children were proud of their new clothes and enjoying the important event of the year.
The musicians, from India, were playing and singing upstairs in the gurdwara and a hundred or so Sikh men, women and children were sitting listening to the prayers that were being sung.
For the past three days the whole of their Holy Book had been read and this was the culmination of festival that marked the day when the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708), decreed that there would be no more human gurus but that, in future, it would be the writings of the Sikh faith that would be the eternal guru.
Reading from the Holy Book
Containing 1430 pages, the Sikh scripts are in poetry form and have been set to music. They refer to other great prophets, such as Mohammed and Jesus Christ.
The book is still treated as though it is a real person. It's placed on a richly decorated raised dais in the centre of the large hall that is bright with jewels and coloured lights. It’s covered by a saffron canopy (the chandni) and fanned as though it was a Maharajah in a hot country.
There is also a room at the gurdwara where the book is, quite literally, put to bed at the end of the day in a double bed with shining brass bedstead.
The Sikh religion began at a time when India was made up of small kingdoms and principalities that were constantly warring and feuding. There was some dissatisfaction with Moslem and Hindu religions and what was seen as their bigotry and fanaticism, especially the Hindu caste system that condemned many of the poor to a life of misery. There are now 23 million Sikhs around the world.
As they arrived at the Ipswich gurdwara, the families removed their shoes, covered their heads (as all visitors do as well) and went upstairs to lay gifts of money, fruit or food before the Holy Book. It looked very much like a harvest festival!
The fruit and packets of food were blessed and then taken to the communal kitchen (the pangat, or Guru Ka Langar) where volunteers turned it into a delicious vegetarian meal.
Seva Singh is a trustee of the gurdwara and he says this vaisahki is one of the most important events of the year "In Suffolk we are a growing community – I’d say we have at least 200. We started on Friday at 11 o'clock with a 48-hour non-stop reading of the Guru Grant Sahib and then the hymns take place.”
The day would end after prayers when anyone of any faith could join the Sikh community for a meal.
“The Golden Temple of Amritsar has four entrances (north, east, south and west), that means that anyone from any race, colour or creed can come and it’s the same with any Sikh temple anywhere in the world. Anyone is respected as a human being, whoever they are, whatever their background.”
Seva's wife Prabhjeet explained that Guru Gobind Singh created the Khalsa and decreed that a “Sikh has to be baptised and lead a disciplined way of life so they have to get up in the early hours of the morning , prayer for an hour – and for 15–20 minutes in the evening. They also recite the Guru’s name throughout the day.”
The five symbols
Prabhjeet has a black and gold ribbon braid around her neck to which is attached a small dagger - the kirpan "This is one of the five symbols in sikhism. The others are the kara which is a steel bracelet whose roundness means only one god. We have long hair which is called kesh and we have the kachheira - a special pair of shorts or underwear. The fifth symbol is the kangha, a wooden comb. Our guru said we were to keep these, value them, and if you are a baptised Sikh you have to wear them all the time."
Seva told me about the very obvious sign of their faith, the turban "The hair is very sacred. We come into this world and we go as God sent us. The reason for the turban is to keep our hair all intact and clean."
Prabhjeet: “Within the Sikh faith men and women are equal. Anyone can read the Guru grath sahib, and some people have it in their own homes and they have a private room where they keep their holy book and they respect it.”
A Baptised Sikh is not allowed to indulge in one of the four Chief Vices - removing hair from any part of the body, using intoxicants such as cigarettes or alcohol, eating Halai meat or committing adultery.
Within the Ipswich Gurdwara there was a real contrast in atmosphere. Downstairs in the entrance hall was a vast collection of discarded footwear while, in the kitchen and dining room, a busy team of volunteers were preparing the free meal of vegetable curry, rice, naan bread and a sweet rice pudding dessert.
Upstairs worshippers of all ages quietly sat on the floor watching and listening to the musicians. Throughout the whole building the amplified sound of the instruments and chanting could be heard through loudspeakers.
The Sikhs of Suffolk are one of our most obvious religious groups with the men’s distinctive turbans. As Seva explained to me, they would very much like us to understand more about their customs and beliefs.
"We often get visits from schools and various other groups come for our help and we are here and we’d love to see anyone. Every Sunday morning we have prayers and there is a community kitchen from 11.30-2pm.
"If anyone wants to come just let us know beforehand so there is someone available to show them around, and they will be very welcome."
last updated: 11/06/2008 at 13:28
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