A Sikh is literally a learner or disciple, for in Punjabi sikhna
means to learn. In particular Sikh refers to a follower of the
teachings of Guru Nanak (1469—1539) and his nine earthly successors.
Belief in one God is fundamental. Since Guru Gobind Singh’s death
in 1708 Sikhs have venerated their compilation of sacred hymns,
the Granth Sahib, as Guru. Orthodoxy requires a Sikh to undergo
amrit (initiation with holy water) and to observe certain rules
— above all abstention from tobacco and intoxicants, from halal
meat, adultery and haircutting — and observance of the five K’s.
Matching definitions such as this with the living, human reality
of Sikhism however is no simple affair. It involves examining
the nature of Sikh identity, whether perceived by individual Sikhs
in primarily spiritual, social or political terms. This is a burning
concern within the Sikh community.
In Britain there are very few western converts to Sikhism. They
include a handful of ex-hippy followers of Yogi Bhajan, formerly
Harbhajan Singh Pun, who began teaching Kundalini yoga in America
in the 1970s. Otherwise it is safe to say that a Sikh is always
of Punjabi origin. The state of Punjab (literally ‘five waters’)
was divided by the India-Pakistan border in 1947, and the Indian
portion was subdivided in 1966. Sikhs now identify particularly
with this smaller Indian state of Punjab as a spiritual homeland,
even if ancestral roots, like certain historic Sikh shrines, were
on the western side of the national border. Punjabi is the Sikhs’
mother-tongue, and unlike Punjabi-speaking Hindus and Muslims,
they take pride in the Gurmukhi script of the Guru Granth Sahib.
Diet, dress and customs, including celebrations such as Lohri
on 13th January, are distinctively Punjabi, the common heritage
of Hindu and Sikh alike.
Britain is the home of over 300,000 of the world’s approximately
14 million Sikhs, and there are almost 200 gurdwaras in Britain.
In 1908 the Khalsa Jatha was established and in 1911 a gurdwara
was founded in Putney, thanks in part to the patronage of Bhupinder
Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, who attended the coronation in London
that year. He was not the first royal Sikh visitor to Britain.
In 1854 Maharaja Dalip Singh and his cousin, Prince Shiv Dev Singh
had come to Britain. Subsequent Sikh settlement has been more
According to the Gurus’ teaching one’s birth and status are irrelevant
to one’s eventual union with God. However, Sikhs have, for the
most part, continued to marry spouses chosen from their own zat
(caste), though generally from a different got (clan) and village,
so following the same conventions as Hindus from the same communities.
Thus, however egalitarian the Gurus’ message and the practice
of langar (corporate meal) may be, the descendants of potters,
carpenters or peasant farmers have not intermarried and caste
is a key factor in analysing Sikh settlement in Britain. The paradox
of a theoretically casteless brotherhood, divided to some extent
by caste exercises many Sikhs. It must be stressed that by using
the word caste I am not attributing to Sikhs the connotations
of purity and pollution and caste-specific ritual observance that
the term has carried in Hinduism.
By focusing upon identifiable strands within the Sikh community
I am not denying what is common to Sikhs — a shared devotion to
the Guru Granth Sahib. I include Sikh-related groups as well as
mainstream Sikhs in this brief survey because teachers here encounter
members of these and wonder where they fit. Much background information
which is of interest to teachers would not be appropriate RE material.
Castes represented by Sikhs in Britain include Kumhar (potter)
and Khatri (the urban business and professional caste to which
the Gurus all belonged) but I shall concentrate upon the three
largest — the Jats, the most numerous in Punjab and in Britain,
the Ramgarhias and the Bhatras. The migration history of these
groups is different, as to some extent, are their attitudes and
aspirations. The caste factor is relevant, for example, to understanding
the dynamics of Pun- jab’s political crisis and its repercussions
in Britain. Khalistan has fired the imagination of Jats, whose
sympathies are overwhelmingly with the discontented farming sector,
but has much less appeal for the traditionally landless castes
who resented Jat dominance. Gurdwara management committees are
often exclusively of one caste. The congregation of a Ramgarhia
gurdwara will be predominantly, if not solely, Ramgarhia.
Before the late 1950s the majority of Sikh settlers in Britain
were Bhatra. Many originated from the Sialkot area now in Pakistan.
In India Bhatras have been perceived by others as a low status,
itinerant community of fortune-tellers. The visitor to New Delhi
may still find Bhatra Sikhs in this line of business. In contemporary
India members of all communities are to be found in widely ranging
occupations. In Britain they settled in seaports — Glasgow, Portsmouth,
Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, and in Manchester, London, Edinburgh
and Nottingham. At first they worked as door-to-door sellers.
Nowadays they run small shops, let property and engage in a wide
range of jobs. Although the longest established South Asian community
in Britain, the Bhatras preserve customs long since abandoned
by other Sikhs or unfamiliar to them. In the gurdwaras, contrary
to Sikh teaching, wives are totally veiled because of the presence
of senior male in-laws, and they are discouraged from working
outside the home. Education, especially for girls, has not usually
been highly valued and marriage takes place at an early age, at
least according to my observations during 1979/80.
Next to arrive in Britain in significant numbers were the Jats,
from the peasant, land-owning class of rural Punjab. Individual
holdings had become smaller and smaller as they were divided between
sons. Family honour (izzat) had to be maintained at all cost,
in particular the cost of an impressive dowry for one’s daughter.
Many families had been uprooted at Partition in 1947, or members
had moved to cities outside Punjab or travelled further afield
e.g. to Hong Kong or Singapore in the army. Between 1959 and 1963
particularly, because of British immigration policy and the availability
of work vouchers, young Jat men found emigration to Britain an
appealing prospect. Most cut their hair and removed their turbans.
Wives joined them later and entered the workforce. Most Jats have
come from the Jullundur Doab, between the rivers Satluj and Beas.
When the British were planning the East African railway and other
construction projects at the turn of the century they recruited
skilled Sikh artisans of the woodworking, blacksmith and mason
castes as indentured labourers. These people referred to themselves
collectively as Ramgarhia, a title originally assumed by a famous
military leader from the carpenter caste in the turbulent 18th
century. The indentured labourers returned to Punjab but caste
fellows migrated and Ramgarhia Sikhs established themselves as
a successful middle tier in colonial society. With the rise of
Idi Amin in Uganda and the Africanisation policy in other East
African countries, many Ramgarhia Sikhs arrived in Britain around
1970, joining those who had migrated direct from India. In East
African cities Ramgarhia men had frequently held professional
positions. They were used to maintaining their distinct identity
overseas and enjoyed pleasant houses, African servants and cars.
Unlike so many of the Jats, most saw no reason to cut their hair.
In a Ramgarhia congregation white turbans tend to predominate.
In Britain there are two further Punjabi caste groups with separate
places of worship e.g. in Derby and Coventry. Some members may
appear to be Sikh to the outsider, and if questioned might well
agree that they were Sikh. Others in the same congregation might
define themselves as Hindu. These communities are the Balmikis
and the Ravidasis — Punjabis whose ancestral occupations were
sweeping and leatherwork respectively, essential hereditary duties
discharged by untouchables now classified as scheduled castes
in India. Balmikis have adopted the Punjabi form of the name of
Rishi Valmiki (also, they believe, of sweeper caste). He is respected
as the composer of the Ramayan epic which Balmikis honour as their
holy book. Ravidasis have assumed the name of the 15th century
saint-poet Ravidas who was born into a chamar (leatherworker)
home in Banaras. The Guru Granth Sahib includes forty of his hymns
and is the scripture used in Ravidasi worship. Unlike Sikhs, they
call him Guru and celebrate his birthday as a major festival.
Neither Balmikis nor Ravidasis have felt welcome in either mandirs
or gurdwaras. With the increasing educational and economic opportunity
both in India and in Britain, their self-image has improved. Separate
place of worship provide a sense of identity and community pride
Religious fervour and renewed commitment are inspired by charismatic
individuals known as sant and usually referred to with respectful
affection as Babaji. Space permits mention of only a few. Sants
visit devotees in Britain with increasing frequency, and some
are permamently domiciled here. Sant Ishar Singh of Rara Sahib,
Punjab, died in Wolverhampton. Visitors to the vast gurdwara at
Rara Sahib see on display not only his ceremonial kirpans but
also an English folding umbrella.
Police estimate 10,000 mourners attended the funeral of Sant
Puran Singh in 1983. Known affectionately as Kerichowale Baba
from Kericho, the place where he had lived in Kenya, he inspired
numerous Sikhs in Britain to take their faith seriously, regrow
their hair and give up alcohol and meat. He founded the Nishkam
Sevak Jatha in Birmingham and lent his support to the successful
turban campaign that was mounted when Lord Denning upheld a Birmingham
headmaster’s refusal to allow Gurinder Singh MandeIa to study
at his private school if he wore a turban. In 1983 the Law Lords
reversed his ruling with implications for the concept of Sikh
Some Sikhs will regard a particular sant as an inspiration to
pure Sikhism. For others he will be a charlatan basking in adoration
appropriate only to the Guru Granth Sahib. Individuals may be
attracted to a sant because of the healing he offers. In Coventry
I have heard Sikhs testify to cures attributed to Baba Ajit Singh,
who has a large local following, and to Baba Harbans Singh Domeliwale,
now based in West Bromwich. For those members of an encapsulated
community, relatively isolated from mainstream British society,
contact with a sant can boost personal self-esteem.
Indian political forces are also at work. If a sant and his followers
proclaim themselves to be non-political this may also be interpreted
as a political stance. Some Sikhs revere the late Sant Jarnail
Singh Bhindranwale and want autonomy for Punjab (or Khalistan)
from the New Delhi government. For those campaigning for Khalistan
the ideal of the sant sipahi or saint-soldier as exemplified by
Guru Gobind Singh, is compelling. For youngsters growing up in
Britain, with no firsthand experience of Punjab’s intermeshed
social fabric, the notion of Sikh separatism can be attractive,
bringing with it the passionate sense of identity they need in
the inner city. Sikh youngsters have joined the International
Sikh Youth Federation set up by Bhai Jasbir Singh, Bhindranwale’s
nephew, as well as the Sikh Youth Movement and Damdami Taksal
Jatha. However, it must be stressed that Sikhs generally have
no desire to spoil their community image in Britain by violent
factionalism. To understand Sikhism in Britain as a living faith
we need to understand the dynamic interaction in which our Sikh
pupils are caught up.
In Coventry and Smethwick the Nanaksar gurdwaras share their
ethos with Nanaksar gurdwaras in Delhi and Punjab. At Nanaksar
itself a beautiful gurdwara stands where the saintly Baba Nand
Singh used to meditate. Certain features mark these gurdwaras
— an emphasis on spirituality for example. One observes in each
a distinctive portrait of Guru Nanak, veneration of the Guru Granth
Sahib on a grand scale, uniformly clad bahingams (celibate votaries),
a joyful celebration every full moon night. Sikh critics accuse
Nanaksar devotees of exalting their sants (there are several aspirant
successors to Baba Nand Singh) to the status of Guru.
This is one key to understanding how the same religious group
is described by Sikhs variously as pure Sikhism, non-Sikh or anti-Sikh.
For Hindus to call a spiritual teacher Guru entails no such bitter
controversy. Borderline Sikh movements often appeal to people
from Sikh and Hindu background alike. Not surprisingly this blurring
of the boundaries is perceived by many Sikhs as a threat to their
separate identity. One ambiguous religious movement whose spiritual
leader, Charan Singh, appears outwardly Sikh, yet is regarded
as Guru by his followers, is the Radhasoami Satsang, which has
affected the lifestyle of Sikhs and Hindus from a variety of castes
in Britain. Much more controversial because of his alleged connection
with the Indian Congress Party was Darshan Das’s Sachkhand Nanak
Dham. (In November 1987 Darshan Das was killed).
In Birmingham, Leeds and London there are Namdhari centres. Namdharis
or Kukas are not currently the centre of controversy. In fact,
they are respected for their part in 19th century Sikh history,
but their faith in a succession of human Gurus after the death
of Guru Gobind Singh conflicts with orthodox Sikh belief. The
movement owes its origin and disciplined lifestyle to the decisive
leadership of Guru Ram Singh (b. 1816) who exhorted his followers
to social reform including the termination of British rule in
India. Namdharis are strict vegetarians and wear white turbans
tied flat across the brow in the style of Guru Nanak. Expenditure
on Namdhari marriages is expected to be minimal with several couples,
clad in plain white, marrying at the same time on a festival day.
Instead of the Guru Granth Sahib a sacred fire is the centre of
their circumambulation. The present Guru, Jagjit Singhji, has
visited Britain many times. His 1976 visit made the headlines
as, after weeks of drought, raindrops rewarded his prayers. He
actively promotes international peace and the breeding of improved
strains of dairy cattle.
The Nirankaris were another Sikh reform movement roughly contemporary
with the Namdharis. But nowadays the name generally refers to
the Sant Nirankari Mandal or Universal Brotherhood which began
with Buta Singh (1873—1943). When their Guru, Hardev Singh, visited
followers in Britain in 1985 there was no outside publicity and
his visit was given police cover. In 1980 his father Gurbachan
Singh had been killed in Delhi in a crescendo of violent encounters
between Sant Nirankaris and Sikhs. Fourteen Sikhs who went to
oppose a Sant Nirankari rally in 1978 had been murdered and the
Sikhs’ highest authority, the Akal Takht, then ordered a boycott
of the sect. The Nirankari Guru’s combination of an outwardly
Sikh appearance with teachings that dispensed with the taboos
of any individual religion, Sikhism included, incensed Sikhs.
Members of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha derive their inspiration
from the teaching and example of Bhai Randhir Singh (1878—1961),
a saintly and learned Sikh who dedicated his life to India’s freedom
struggle. Akhand kirtan means continuous hymn-singing, and the
Jatha have overnight twelve hour performances of devotional music.
Devotees take amrit, are strictly vegetarian, and women wear a
keski or small turban under their chunni (Punjabi head-covering).
They are closely associated with Babar Khalsa, an organisation
which supports Sikh separatism.
Whatever their religious and political orientation most Sikhs
in Britain are ambitious for their children, urging them to achieve
the highest educational qualifications, so improving the family’s
status. However, parents fear that if children leave home to study
at university they may adopt western mores, choose a partner and
refuse to marry into a suitable family. As this would threaten
family honour and unity, parents may insist on daughters, in particular,
Sikhism is very much alive, as testified by both its unity and
its division but for the most part it has not tackled the issues
raised by the existence in Britain of a growing number of young
Sikhs ill at ease with the language of the scriptures and Sikh
worship. The Sikh Missionary Society is endeavouring to meet this
need and runs annual camps for children, realising that unless
more instruction is given in English the younger generation will
lose interest in Sikh belief and practice. Gurdwara and LEA provision
for Punjabi teaching is often ad hoc with inadequately trained
teachers, unsatisfactory books and erratic attendance by pupils.
Surely this could be a more real threat to British Sikhs’ continuing
identity than any legislation in New Delhi or racial prejudice
in Britain. Sants and preachers communicate in Punjabi and have
little idea of the children’s experience in a world infused with
western values. Here we teachers have a vital role to play as
interpreters of tradition who are aware of both the eastern and
western religious idiom. The more insight we have into the complexities
of British Sikhism the more sensitively we can play this role.
- Ballard, R. and C., The Sikhs — The Development
of South Asian Settlement in Britain in, Between Two Cultures
— migrants and minorities in Britain.
- Watson, J.L. (ed.) 1977 Blackwell. Oxford.
- James, A. G., 1974, Sikh Children in Britain.
OUP for IRR London.
- Helweg, A. W., 1986, Sikhs in England. OUP
- Ghuman, P. A., 1980, Bhattra Sikhs in Cardiff:
family and kinship organisation in New Community VIII 3: pp3O8—316.
- Pettigrew, J., 1975 Robber Nobleman — A Study
of the Political System of the Sikh Jats. Routledge, London.
- Bachu, P. 1985. Twice Migrants: East African
Sikh Settlers in Britain, Tavistock, London
Balmikis and Ravidasis
- Juergensmeyer M., 1982, Religion As Social
Vision: The Movement against untouchability in 20th Century
Punjab, University of California Press
Namdharis, Nirankaris and Radha Soamis
- Singh, K., 1977, A History of the Sikhs,
Vol. 2 1839—1974. OUP Delhi, ppl23—135
- Nesbitt, E. M., 1985, The Nanaksar Movement,
in Religion XV pp67—79.