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Overview of Sikhs in United Kingdom

Onkar Singh*

There are over 400, 000 Sikhs and 150 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) spread across the United Kingdom, an island country, crammed with 60 million people. It’s a democracy of many faiths and cultures. Genuinely a multiracial, multicultural and multifaith society, it’s population growth is drawn from immigrants.

The first Sikh immigrants to Britain were the soldier-survivors of the First World War, though most of them came later from the Punjab, after India became independent. They were followed by thousands of Sikhs from East Africa.

They have done remarkably well in the last fifty years in many fields from farming and commerce to engineering, medicine and law, and distinguished themselves as businessmen, lawyers, judges, doctors and software experts.

An enterprising, resilient and industrious community, they have played a vital role in various professions, businesses and politics, not only in India, their country of origin, but also in other countries which they have made their home. Through hardwork, perseverance and honesty, they have made a life for themselves and their families.

In recognition of the brave Sikh community’s contribution to the British society, Prime Minister Tony Blair paid them a glowing tribute on the occasion of the 2003 Vaisakhi celebrations in London. Mr Blair said, “I know that British Sikhs have made a great contribution to the economic, cultural and political life of the United Kingdom, and I firmly believe that your faith and culture have brought tremendous strength and benefits to our society.”

Over 150 gurdwaras dot the skyline of the United Kingdom. The city of London has over two dozen, while other big cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Nottingham, Wolverhampton, Glasgow, Swindon, Warrington and Kent have several gurdwaras to meet the religious and social needs of the well established Sikh communities.

Southall (West London) is famous as an Asian commercial hub and residential district, with a predominant Indian population. The Sikhs are prominent in Southall, a place where they have a vibrant Punjabi way of life, and a spectacular spread of Indian supermarkets and popular eateries. Southall is home to six gurdwaras, three Hindu temples, a mosque and scores of churches serving immigrant communities. The gurdwaras are known by denominations such as, Ramgarhias, Namdharis, Sri Guru Singh Sabha and Shiromani Akali Dal. A gurdwara built on the basis of caste and communities is against the spirit and teachings of the Sikh Gurus, who worked to create a casteless society.

Southall now boasts of a magnificent 4-level newly-constructed “Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, Southall”, the largest gurdwara outside India and Europe. It blends traditional and modern architecture using the latest technology with a serene spiritual ambience and grandeur, dominating the picturesque Southall.

Built at a phenomenal cost of 17 million pounds, the ambitious project covers a sprawling area of 6000 sq meters with a marble and granite finish and a gilded dome which attracts attention from afar. The main congregational prayer hall on the first level can accommodate 3000 worshippers and another 1000 on level-2 gallery. The vast langar (dining) hall on the ground floor provides free meals for a thousand pilgrims daily with a capacity of serving upto 20,000 on festivals.

Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, paid a royal visit on 13th June, 2003. He praised the Sikh community, for having served this country with great loyalty for hundreds of years, adding to the rich tapestry in Britain.”

Another imposing Sikh shrine is the Gurdwara Singh Sabha in Hounslow. From a humble beginning, it has become a huge complex of a large marbled prayer hall, dining hall and classrooms, where hundreds of children are taught. The Queen accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, paid a moving royal visit to the Gurdwara on 25th October, 2004.

The Sikhs have generously contributed to the building of these magnificent gurdwaras to serve the rapidly growing Sikh community in London offering extensive modern facilities of a library, seminar room and a community center for educational, health and welfare services, and sports. An unmissable place of pilgrimage, these gurdwaras serve as a focal point of Sikh religion in Britain and Europe.

Wherever the Sikhs go to settle and live, they take with them the gurbani (Gurus Word), the divine hymns of their Gurus (spiritual prophets). They have a strong binding of unity and faith in the gurbani, a sense of responsibility to contribute to the general good of mankind.

The gurbani deprecates discrimination on grounds of religion and caste by birth. The core of gurbani is love and respect of all human being, despite their distinctive religions and beliefs, as they are all equal before the Creator. Meaningless rituals, ceremonials and rigid dogmas are disapproved.

The Sikhs abroad endeavour to have a gurdwara to install, with due honour and ceremony, their holy scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the very embodiment of gurbani, and the spiritual and religious guide of the Sikhs for all time. A large number of gurdwaras, spread the world over, speak of their abiding faith and overwhelming munificence.

The gurdwara is their place of worship. It is, practically, a meeting place for them. They come not only for religious ceremonies but also for social camaraderie. They may not see each other very often but do see them here, especially on Sundays and celebrated occasions such as, gurpurabs (birthdays and martyrdom days of their Gurus), and festivals like Vaisakhi and Diwali.

Every morning and evening, the gurdwaras resonate with the recitation from the Holy Granth and shabad kirtan (divine hymn singing). The live early morning (amritvela) religious ceremony direct from the Golden Temple, Amritsar, is also relayed. The devotees throng the gurdwaras at both times. Everyone is welcome. The visitor receives both blessings and hospitality. Free board and lodging is offered to wary travelers.

The love of one, omnipresent God, who is the Father of all creation and of all mankind, is the basic tenet of Sikhism. Guru Nanak, the Founding Prophet of Sikh Faith, showed a rational, practical way to live in religious harmony and peace. His prophetic vision of the future of mankind based on universal love and brotherhood of man and respect for all faiths, offer the world hope of living in peace and harmony.

Never before had the British people known about the Sikhs. They are expected to know more about the dynamic, peace-loving Sikhs, and their faith, which, according to the historian, Prof. H.L. Bradshaw, is the “Faith of the New Age.”

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