From Punjab to Southall: Learning to be a Sikh in London

By David Olson

Welcome to West London
A small group of boys and girls sit cross-legged beside an open window and bow their heads. Men wrap lengths of orange or blue fabric around the boys’ heads to make turbans. It’s Friday night at the Sikh gurdwara, or temple, in Southall, a suburb west of London. The men are teaching the youths to tie and knot a turban properly. Because Sikhs don’t cut their hair — hair is regarded as a gift from God — the turban keeps it in place. It’s also a symbol of Sikh identity.

Preserving one’s identity is important in a town as multicultural as Southall. The streets here buzz with conversations in languages from Europe and Asia, underscored by the hiss of air brakes on double-decker buses and the strident wail of police cruisers. At High Street and South Road an open-front store called A Bollywood Corner sells CDs and DVDs of Indian entertainment. Next door is a food shop, Chhapara Bhog, with “Pure Vegetarian” under its name. Across the street, signs at The Three Horseshoes pub proclaim “Welcome to a Traditional Free House” and “Pool and Darts Played Here.” The words, in elaborate silver cursive, mostly go unnoticed by passersby in turbans or hijab headscarves, white caftans or colorful saris, jackets and ties or blouses and skirts.

Southall is largely a suburban area, with long, neat rows of little cottages spreading out beyond the shops and railway station. The buildings are two or three stories, four at the most, of red brick or wood or stone painted white, looking weathered and tired under the cloudless June sky. The streets beyond South Road are shaded by enormous trees, with some leaning over the dingy cottages and sari shops.

One of Southall’s most visible religious groups is the Sikhs. Almost 400,000 live in the United Kingdom, according to the 2001 census, making it the largest Sikh population outside India. London itself is home to about 104,000. Sikhs make up about 10 percent of the population of Ealing, the borough Southall is part of, and Hounslow borough to the south, according to the Museum of London. White British make up about 45 percent of Ealing’s population, according to the Greater London Authority.

At the heart of this tight-knit Sikh community is the largest Sikh temple outside India — Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara. Here, Sikh children come to learn the tenets of their faith and celebrate their culture.

A Sikh Community
The gurdwara, a large, white boxy building topped with a row of bulbous white domes, overshadows the neighboring houses and a Christian church offering services in both English and Hindu. Built in 2003 with a price tag of £1.87 million, the temple was paid for with money donated by the Sikhs of Southall.

This temple is both a community center and a place of worship. Inside, Sikhs pray before the Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of holy texts considered the 11th and final guru — the Living Guru. Sikhs bring their children here to language and religion classes. Downstairs, anyone is welcome to eat free vegetarian meals in a community kitchen called the langar.

Sikhism began in 1469 with the birth of the first guru. It is not so much a religion as a way of life; the word “Sikh” comes from Persian and means “student” or “learner.” For Sikhs, the whole world is like a university campus, and the experiences of living are their classes. They spend their lives learning spiritual truth and seeking union with God.

About 200 children attend classes to learn Punjabi, the native Sikh tongue from the Punjab region of northwest India, near Pakistan. The children, all pre-teens and teenagers, learn Punjabi the same way as English — first with letters, then basic words and finally whole sentences. They practice writing and reciting with older Southall Sikhs fluent in Punjabi.

A group of parents started the classes in 2009. “The kids were just mucking around, and we thought we’d teach them something,” said Jugpred Kaur, a mother of two. “And the classes just got bigger and bigger.”

The classes run from 6 to 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The parents reward the students for their hard work with fun days in a nearby park, where the children play games and romp on inflatable pads and slides. On a Thursday afternoon in early June, parents kept a watchful eye or served pizza and juice. Behind the play area a group of young men sat around a DJ playing CDs through speakers.

One of them was Benraj Singh, who teaches Punjabi and Bani, the ceremonial reading of the holy texts. For him, the classes let the children celebrate their Sikh identity. “They can learn about their region and roots,” he said. “They can recognize they’re unique and learn their identity…. It’s all practical. You do it, you put it through your life, for all your life.”

Class Time
The children were back in class Friday night, gathered in a high-roofed hall at the gurdwara to practice Punjabi and read the holy texts. At one end of the hall, a curvy dome on four pillars capped a white-and-gold altar upon which the Guru Granth Sahib lay. Above the dome a pink-tasseled shade hung from the ceiling. A large stained-glass window dominated the room. Long strips of white sheets lay in parallel rows over the dark blue carpet.

The students sat cross-legged on the sheets and wrote in their workbooks. The children wore white shirts and pants, with turbans on the boys’ heads and scarves on the girls’. Most head coverings were orange or white, with a sprinkling of black, red and gold. The choice of colors is largely a personal preference, although some have deeper meanings. White is for a person’s aura, dark blue for spiritual knowledge, orange for wisdom.

Voices filled the room as students recited Punjabi words and expressions at the direction of teachers sitting at the ends of the rows. Mothers reclined against the wall by the doors, chatting and keeping an eye on the toddlers. Men with prayer books sat in the far corners and recited their evening prayers alone.

Near the front doors a small group of older children sat in two rows around a single sheet, learning to recite the Guru Granth Sahib. At the opposite end of the hall, other children took a break from writing to engage in question-and-answer sessions with their teachers.

Balsharon Kaur, 10, has been learning Punjabi for a year. She prefers speaking to writing. “It takes some time to memorize,” she said. “At home, when you speak it, you get confident [from] using it outside, and want to practice more.”

Learning how to speak Punjabi, read the holy texts and knot turbans or headscarves is part of living proper, Kaur said. Being Sikh means “not eating meat or cutting my hair. My brother is a proper Sikh. He doesn’t eat meat or cut his hair. The tenth guru said not to.

“Don’t eat meat, yeah. How would you feel if someone ate you?”

Learning Discipline
Arshdeep Singh, 11, sat cross-legged at the end of a row. “I’m proud to be a Sikh,” he said. “I can protect myself. I’ve been learning gatka for four months. It means ‘martial arts.’”

He paused, and then nodded. “It you start it, you don’t give up. You don’t stop doing it. My teacher has been doing gatka for nine years, and he’s still doing it. It’s not about just learning, but also to serve, to learn discipline.”

This form of martial art is intended to improve self-discipline and improve physical fitness. Although Sikhism emphasizes peaceful living and respect for other ideas and religious beliefs, Sikhs resort to force to fight oppression. In the past they battled the Mughal Empire—Islamic rulers who oppressed their ancestors in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Gatka originally involved sparring with wooden sticks, although Sikhs in the British Indian Army added swordplay in the late 19th century. Today, practitioners train with sticks before using swords or other weapons, such as the katar, a short sword shaped like a dagger and used to punch through armor, and the chakar, a spinning weapon that looks like a wagon wheel with weights on the end of each spoke. Sikhs often perform gatka at Sikh festivals throughout the United Kingdom.

Gatka techniques emphasize balance and rhythm. They also build confidence. “My oldest son was shy. He wouldn’t talk to anyone,” Jugpred Kaur said. “I think he needed to focus on something,” she said. “When I introduced gatka to him, he was so happy. He’s much more disciplined now.”

The gatka class had less than an hour to go. The children would be back Saturday evening. On Sunday they could attend a gatka demonstration at the park—a reward for their hard work this week.

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