Britain's Sikhs

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 plebeian.

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 otherwise unattainable.

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 nationhood.

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, studying locally.

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.

Further Reading


  • 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. pp2l—56.
  • James, A. G., 1974, Sikh Children in Britain. OUP for IRR London.
  • Helweg, A. W., 1986, Sikhs in England. OUP Delhi.

Bhatra Sikhs

  • Ghuman, P. A., 1980, Bhattra Sikhs in Cardiff: family and kinship organisation in New Community VIII 3: pp3O8—316.

Jat Sikhs

  • Pettigrew, J., 1975 Robber Nobleman — A Study of the Political System of the Sikh Jats. Routledge, London.

Ramgarhia Sikhs

  • 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.
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