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Sacred Symbols In British Sikhism

Discussion in 'Essays on Sikhism' started by kds1980, Dec 9, 2007.

  1. kds1980

    kds1980 India
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    Apr 4, 2005
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    DISKUS: Sewa Singh Kalsi


    Dr. Sewa Singh Kalsi
    Department of Theology and Religious Studies
    University of Leeds

    Leeds LS2 9JT

    This paper aims to examine the process of evolution of Sikh sacred symbols with a view to understanding their significance for the development of Sikh tradition in Britain. The importance of the notion of the sacred in Sikhism will be discussed with reference to the concepts of sacred knowledge, sacred space, sacred time and sacred persons. The major sacred symbols in Sikhism are the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture), the gurdwara (place of worship), amrit-vela (ambrosial morning), the holy men (including the Sikh Gurus and non-Sikh contributors to the Guru Granth Sahib) and the five K's (unshorn hair, comb, steel bracelet, sword and breeches). The paper further examines the significance of teaching Sikh children Punjabi, which is perceived as a sacred language by the Sikhs, and how this is linked with the maintenance of Sikh identity in the Sikh diaspora.

    Gurdwara and Gurbani

    The gurdwara is one of the fundamental institutions in Sikhism. A Sikh community cannot be conceived without a gurdwara in its midst. The term gurdwara is composed of two words: guru and dwara; guru means religious teacher/mentor and the remover of darkness, while the term dwara means house or door. The etymology of the term guru indicates the link between Sikhism and the centuries old guru-shishya (teacher-pupil) tradition in India. Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh tradition, firmly established the guru-shishya tradition by appointing one of his disciples as his successor before his death. A further line of nine human gurus continued Guru Nanak's mission and made distinctive contributions towards the development of Sikhism. Alongside the personal leadership provided by the human gurus, the notion of the sanctity of gur-bani (guru's word/shabad or compositions) emerged as an inseparable component of the Sikh tradition.

    The gur-bani is considered sacred by the Sikhs by virtue of its source, form and content. Addressing Bhai Lalo, one of his closest disciples, Guru Nanak said: "Whatever Word I receive from the Lord, I pass on the same strain, O Lalo" (AG 722-23). Reflecting on the status of bani, the third Guru, Amar Das wrote: "bani guru - guru hai bani (Shabad/Word is the guru and the guru is the Word). In his compositions, the personality of guru and his bani are depicted as two indistinguishable entities. Amar Das prepared two books called Goindwal pothis which contained his compositions and the works of Guru Nanak, Guru Angad and non-Sikh contributors known as bhagats (saints), for the use of Sikh sangats (congregations) in other centres. The formal recognition of the concept of bani as the guru remained dormant until the compilation of the Adi Granth (original book) by the fifth Guru, Arjun Dev , and its installation in the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) at Amritsar in 1604. The etymology of the name Amritsar describes the utmost sacredness ascribed to the geography of the place; it is composed of two terms: Amrit (nectar of immortality) and Sar (reservoir), which literally means the reservoir of the nectar of immortality.

    Sacred Places

    In the Sikh tradition the whole universe is believed to be the creation of God. Guru Nanak, in his celebrated composition japji, describes the earth as dharmsal (a place to practise righteousness), established by God within the universe. He also calls the earth mata dharat mahat (Great Mother Earth). Thus for the Sikhs, the earth and all that stands on it bears the divine signature; in fact she is divinity itself. And yet there are special places, like the Harmandir Sahib, which are regarded as the most sacred. What Mecca is to the Muslims, Amritsar is to the Sikhs. In their daily ardas (prayer), the Sikhs all over the world seek the gift of a ritual bath in the holy tank at Amritsar. Reflecting on the significance of the Golden Temple complex, Pritam Singh writes: "Throughout the five hundred and odd years of Sikh history, no place, not even the birth place of the founder of Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, can claim as intimate, effective and continuing a role in the high drama of the Sikh history as the complex of the Golden Temple" (Madanjit Kaur, 1983).

    The Golden Temple has a unique place in the history of the Sikh tradition. One of the unique features of this institution is the legendary origin of the place where it stands. Some traditions trace its origin back to prehistoric times and declare it to be a place of religious importance, having in its womb an amrit kund (reservoir of nectar). The legend is associated with the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. According to the Ramayana, Luv and Kush, two sons of Lord Rama, fought a battle with their father at this place, where he was wounded. When the identity of their father was disclosed to them, they brought amrit (nectar of immortality) and gave it to Lord Rama. After giving some amrit to their father, the rest was immersed in the nearby pond. From that very moment, the pond became a reservoir of amrit. According to the same tradition Lord Rama was lying wounded under the Dukh Bhanjani Beri (the tree of healer of pain); this tree still stands at the bank of the amrit sarover. (Madanjit Kaur, 1983). Another legend associated with the magical power of the water of the pond is the episode of Rajni, the daughter of Rai Duni Chand. It is claimed that her leprous husband was cured of his disease after taking a dip in the pond. The fourth Guru, Ram Das, happened to be near that place and learned about the miraculous event. He then decided to establish a place of pilgrimage on the site. The significance of the choice of this place for building the Golden Temple lies in the fact that it is believed to have been revealed to the Sikh Gurus. As T.N. Madan says, "...the sacred places are never chosen but are discovered by man" (1992:98).

    After the martyrdom of the fifth Guru Arjun Dev in 1606, his son took over the leadership of the Sikh community. At his investiture he wore two swords symbolising spiritual and temporal authority. He erected a meeting place for the Sikhs opposite the Harmandir Sahib and named it Akal Takhat (throne of the Almighty). It is the highest seat of authority in the religious hierarchy among the Sikhs. The hukam namas (edict or orders) issued from the Akal Takhat are strictly observed by Sikhs all over the world; they are perceived to be issued with the authority of the Guru and thus regarded as sacred injunctions. The destruction of the Akal Takhat by the Indian Army in 1984 was seen by the Sikh community as not only the desecration of their sacred institution but also an attack on their life and soul.

    Sacred Times

    Although Sikh teaching regards each and every day as auspicious, there are certain parts of the day which are perceived to be more auspicious and sacred. For example, the early morning is called amrit-vela (ambrosial morninig); it is considered to be the most sacred time for meditation. Guru Nanak says: "amrit-vela sach naon vadyai wichaar", 'One must utter the True Name in the early ambrosial morning and must ponder over His Greatness' (AG. 2). Reflecting on the qualities of a Sikh, the fourth Guru, Ram Das, writes: "He who calls himself a disciple of the true Guru should rise early in the morning and contemplate on God's name" (AG 305/6).

    The ceremonial practices observed at the Harmandir Sahib provide insight into the belief system of the Sikhs concerning their understanding of the concepts of sacred knowledge, sacred space and sacred time. As T.N. Madan says: "Sacred space and sacred time together and inseparably provide the setting for meaningful performances of the kind broadly called 'ritual'" (T.N. Madan, 1992:173). In order to comprehend the sacredness of amrit-vela in Sikhism, it is important to examine the ceremonial practices observed at the Harmandir Sahib. The Harmandir Sahib remains open throughout the day except for a short interval of four hours during the night (12 midnight to 4 a.m.). The washing of the floor is done at 12 midnight with milk mixed with water taken from the Har Ki Pauri in the Holy tank. The mixture used for washing the floor is collected in a bucket; it is received by the devotees as amrit (nectar). Afterwards clean sheets are spread on the floor. The kirtan (religious singing) starts at 4 a.m. followed by the recitation of Asa Di Var. At 5 a.m. the procession of the Guru Granth Sahib starts from the Akal Takhat for the Harmandir Sahib where the Guru Granth Sahib is placed on the rostrum called Manji Sahib; the musicians now start reciting Asa Di Var. The ritual of installing the Guru Granth Sahib in the early hours of the morning signifies the symbolic sacredness of amrit-vela; this practice is observed by Sikhs all over the world.

    The Centrality of the Guru Granth Sahib

    According to Sikh tradition Guru Arjun Dev used to place the Adi Granth at a higher level than his own seat; it symbolised the superior status accorded to the gurbani by the fifth Guru. But the title of the scripture remained Adi Granth until the status of the Guru Granth Sahib was bestowed upon it in 1708 by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh just before his death, when he is believed to have declared the end of the line of human gurus. Since then the bani (word) of the six Sikh Gurus and thirty non-Sikh (Hindu and Muslim) saints represented in the Adi Granth is revered as their Guru by the Sikhs. The Guru Granth Sahib has the highest authority in Sikhism. The centrality of the Guru Granth Sahib is evident from the fact that all significant rites and ceremonies are performed in its presence. The Guru Granth Sahib is the main focus at a Sikh service; it is always placed at a higher platform called palki (palanquin). When a Sikh enters the gurdwara, he/she goes in front of the Guru Granth Sahib and places his/her offerings and then bows signifying his/her reverence to the scripture. All services culminate with the reading of a randomly chosen hymn from the Guru Granth Sahib; it is called the hukamnama (order of the Guru for the sangat). The hukamnama is regarded as the most sacred gift by the Sikhs. Moreover, the first letter of the hukamnama is used to name newly born Sikh children.

    Within the structure of Sikh worship the centrality of the Guru Granth Sahib is much more than a merely physical presence. Its presence is mandatory at Sikh ceremonies, e.g. wedding, amrit (initiation), and the naming ceremony etc. Whenever the Guru Granth Sahib is moved from one place to another, it is always carried on the head while one Sikh sprinkles water before it and another waves the chauri (ritual fan) over it. The ritual of sprinkling water symbolises the act of sanctifying the space over which the Guru Granth Sahib is being taken. On the birth anniversaries of the Sikh Gurus the Guru Granth Sahib is taken out in a palanquin carried by four Sikhs while another five Sikhs in the traditional uniform of panj pyarey (first five beloved ones) march with swords in their hands in front of the palanquin. The members of the Sikh sangat walk behind the palanquin in the form of a procession singing hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib. It is a public demonstration of the status and reverence accorded to gurbani (sacred word) as their Guru by the Sikhs.

    During a service in the Gurdwara a large pan full of karah-parshad (sweet pudding)is placed next to the Guru Granth Sahib. At the end of the service, ardas (prayer) is recited by the granthi (reader of the Guru Granth Sahib) who invokes the blessing of God on the karah-parshad by uttering the words "aap ko bhog lagey - seet parshad sadh sangat ko vertey" (after You have tasted the karah-parshad it will be offered to the congregation). At the time of the recital of these words a Sikh who stands next to the pan and holds a small sword touches the karah-parshad with it. This ritual is called kirpan bhaint karna (offering food to the sword which symbolises God); it is mandatory and only then is the karah-parshad perceived as sacred and blessed by the Guru. It is first served to the five amritdhari Sikhs symbolically representing the panj pyarey (first five Sikhs initiated by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh in 1699). The ritual of kirpan bhaint karna is a post-Khalsa invention when the doctrine of the Guru Granth Sahib was firmly established among the Sikhs.

    At the akhand-path (continuous reading of the Guru Granth Sahib) ceremony, a jote (traditional lamp made of a container full of clarified butter in which a cotton wick is lighted) remains burning for forty-eight hours symbolising eternal light. Usually a large vessel full of water is placed near the Guru Granth Sahib at the start of the ritual of Akhand-Path. After the bhog (culmination of the reading) the water contained in the vessel is believed to have been transformed into amrit (nectar of immortality) and it is received by members of the family and congregation as parshad (blessed food). The medium of transformation is the gurbani (sacred word of the Guru) which is described by the third Guru, Amar Das thus: "Sweet is the Nectar-Name of the Lord; but rare is the one who tastes the Word". (AG 113-14)

    The Five K's.

    The notion of sacredness ascribed to the five K's or outward symbols (unshorn hair, comb, steel bracelet, sword and breeches) is vital for understanding the Khalsa identity in Sikhism. The origin of the five K's is an integral part of the tradition of the founding of the Khalsa by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh in 1699. The founding of the Khalsa signified a fundamental change within the Sikh tradition. It replaced the traditional initiation ceremony called charan-pahul (water touched by the Guru's toe) with khandey di pahul (water stirred with a double-edged sword) which is then called amrit. After the initiation ceremony the first five Sikhs popularly known as panj-pyarey received the new name of Singh (lion). The ritual of amrit symbolises new birth into the Khalsa Panth and the neophytes are considered to have renounced their traditional caste identity. Moreover, Sikh women were also given the right to the amrit ceremony; it rejected the Hindu tradition of excluding women and members of the Shudra caste from the upanayana (Hindu initiation ceremony). After the amrit ceremony a Sikh woman receives the name of Kaur (princess) and wears the five K's.

    The status of panj-pyarey (symbolically representing the first five Sikhs initiated by the tenth Guru) is regarded as the most sacred, authoritative and exclusive within the Sikh tradition. Two main reasons are put forward by the Sikhs to explain the authority of the panj-pyarey. Firstly, they volunteered their lives to the tenth Guru on the Baisakhi day in 1699. Secondly, after they had been initiated by the Guru, he asked them to take him through the initiation ceremony thus enhancing their authority to the same level as his own. According to the Sikh tradition, Guru Gobind Singh is believed to have made the declaration: "Khalsa mero roop hai khas" (Khalsa is my own true self). It is a common practice among the Sikhs to appoint panj-pyarey to recite ardas before starting big projects like new gurdwaras and to adjudicate on matters of discord within the Sikh community.

    The Nishan Sahib (Sikh flag)

    The nishan sahib is an integral part of a gurdwara; it is fixed within the gurdwara complex. The tradition of fixing a nishan sahib is said to have originated with the sixth Guru, Hargobind. It is a steel pole with a safron covering called chola (a long robe sanctified by its use by the Guru). The flag which is triangular bears the Sikh emblem. The sanctity of the nishan sahib is evident from the ceremony of nishan sahib-chardna (changing the old covering at the Baisakhi festival (founding of the Khalsa day). After the culmination of the akhand-path the sangat (congregation) moves to the nishan sahib. First it is lowered onto wooden supports on the ground three to four feet high, and then the old covering is removed with care. Thereafter the pole is washed with yoghurt and water and then dried with clean towels; this ritual is symbolic of giving a living holy person a bath. Participation in washing and cleaning the nishan sahib is regarded as sewa - all participants remove their shoes and cover their heads before taking part in the ceremony.

    Usually the new covering is donated by a Sikh family in fulfilment of a vow. As soon as the covering is replaced ardas is recited, invoking God's blessing to let the nishan sahib fly forever, before it is uplifted into its base. During the whole operation the congregation recite shabads (hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib). Before entering the gurdwara a Sikh will bow in front of the nishan sahib, showing his/her reverence. At the time of relgious processions five nishan sahib are carried in front of the Guru Granth Sahib. The etymology of the chola (covering), the ritual of washing and cleaning the flag pole and the choice of Baisakhi festival for changing the covering demonstrate the notion of sacredness accorded to the nishan sahib.

    The Sikh Diaspora in Britain

    Since the beginning of the twentieth century a significant number of Sikhs have emigrated to Canada, America, East Africa, Britain and other countries. In the 1950's a large number of male Sikh migrants came to Britain directly from the Punjab. The major reasons for their migration to Britain included pressure on land and the scarcity of industrial jobs in India, and a labour shortage in Britain coupled with the boom in the British economy after the second world war. Jobs, mainly unskilled, were not hard to find in the textile industry and foundries. The arrival of the pioneer male Sikh migrants in the industrial towns unfolds as a fascinating drama of the development of a migrant community in Britain; a community which displayed an enormous capacity for restructuring their religious and cultural tradition in an alien environment.

    In the early period of settlement in Britain, most Sikhs removed their outward religious symbols (turban, hair and beard) in order to obtain jobs. Reflecting on his experience of going to a hair-dresser, one pioneer Sikh migrant said:

    "All other Sikh migrants in our house had removed
    their turbans, hair and beards. I reluctantly agreed to go
    to the hair-dresser. For a couple of days I felt very depressed
    and felt as if I had lost a limb of my body. I remember that some
    Sikhs had saved their shorn hair neatly in their suit-cases. It
    was the most painful experience of coming to England".

    Although many Sikhs had removed their outward symbols to gain employment, their commitment to their religious tradition remained strong. Despite their low earning capacity and dedication to remitting money to their families in India, the pioneer Sikhs engaged themselves in setting up gurdwaras. The 1950's were exciting years for the rapidly growing Sikh community in Britain. There is a long tradition of building gurdwaras among the Sikhs. As soon as there is a small number of Sikh residents in a town, they will start taking steps to establish a gurdwara which becomes the focus of their religious and social activities. For example, the development of Sikh tradition in Leeds began with shabad-kirtan (religious singing) sessions among a small group of pioneer male Sikh migrants in their homes in the early 1950's. They were mainly clean-shaven Sikhs. The first significant step they took was the celebration of the festival of Baisakhi (founding of the Khalsa day) at the Leeds Civic Theatre in 1957. The sociological significance of the celebration of the festival of Baisakhi lies in the fact that it was one particular aspect of the Sikh tradition which emerged as the main focus of Sikh corporate identity in Leeds. Moreover, it also laid down the foundation for the establishment of the first gurdwara and hoisting of the Sikh flag (nishan sahib) in Leeds in 1958.

    In the 1950's, most members of the gurdwara management committee were clean-shaven Sikhs from all caste groups. They were all sewadars (volunteers) who working as joiners, bricklayers, foundry workers and market traders during the week and spending their weekends renovating the gurdwara building and collecting funds for repaying the Building Society loan. The arrival of East African Sikhs with their families, and more Sikh families from India, had a significant impact on the development of the Sikh tradition in Britain. East African Sikhs had had the experience of living in the Sikh diaspora for more than seventy years before emigrating to Britain. The overwhelming majority of East African Sikhs belonged to a caste group of skilled artisans popularly known as Tarkhans (carpenters, bricklayers and blacksmiths) or Ramgarhia Sikhs. These Ramgarhia Sikhs had established their traditional biradari (caste) institutions and caste-based gurdwaras in East Africa. They were orthodox Sikhs who had kept their outward symbols intact and took great pride in their Khalsa identity. Commenting on the significance of the five K's, one Ramgarhia Sikh said:

    "I came to Leeds in 1956. At that time there were
    approximately forty Sikhs in Leeds - only three had their
    families with them. I was told by my colleagues that I will
    have to remove my hair and beard to obtain a job. I told them
    that I had made a vow to keep my outward symbols intact whether
    I get a job or not. I got one as bricklayer within no time. One
    day a reporter from The Evening Post came to the site
    to take my photograph - it was published on 3o March, 1956 under
    the heading 'Man in the turban puzzled them'".

    Another significant development was the arrival in Britain of Baba Puran Singh Karichowaley, a Sikh holy man from East Africa where he had a large following. Most of his followers had migrated to Britain in the 1960's and 1970's. They strictly observe the Khalsa code of discipline. His presence had an enormous impact on the development of Sikh tradition in Britain. For example, many clean-shaven Sikhs came back to the fold; they had amrit (initiation) and started growing their hair and beards. They also introduced major constitutional amendments in the management structure of the gurdwaras. As a result of these changes only kesdhari (a Sikh with un-shorn hair and beard) and amritdhari (initiated Sikhs) were eligible to become members of the management committee and hold important office such as president, general secretary or member of the board of trustees.

    A major development of this period was the establishment of a separate room called sach-khand (residence of Truth) for keeping the Guru Granth Sahib at night. Commenting on the tradition of sach-khand in Leeds, P.S. Chaggar, one of the founding members of the first gurdwara in Leeds, said:
    "Before the arrival of the followers of Baba Puran
    Singh from East Africa, we used to keep the
    Guru Granth Sahib in a large cupboard behind the
    palki (palaquin) after the main service on Sunday".

    Nowadays, all gurdwaras have a sach-khand room which represents the resting place for the Guru Granth Sahib. The sach-khand is always located at a higher level than the main congregation hall. In the evening the Guru Granth Sahib is taken to the sach-khand; this ritual is called sukh-asan (resting). In the morning, the Guru Granth Sahib is installed in the main conregation hall. The practice of setting up a sach-khand room in a gurdwara is based on the daily ritual of Sukh-asan and maharaj ji di swari observed at the Harmandir Sahib. Extra copies of the Guru Granth Sahib are also kept in the sach-khand which is regarded as the most sacred room in the gurdwara.

    The followers of Baba Puran Singh have established their own gurdwaras in Britain. Their main gurdwara is in Birmingham where the successor to Baba Puran Singh has his headquarters. Apart from celebrating anniversaries of the Sikh Gurus, they also celebrate the anniversary of Baba Puran Singh himself. At their gurdwaras a special place is reserved on the platform known as the asan (seat) of Baba Ji; it is regarded as most sacred. The anniversary of Baba Puran Singh begins with the organisation of five akhand-path signifying his sacred status. They have also started celebrating the anniversary of his wife called Mata (Mother) Charan Kaur, elevating her status to that of a holy person. Followers of Baba Puran Singh will proudly declare that they received amrit from the hands of their spiritual leader.

    Caste and sacredness

    Although the Sikh Gurus rejected the doctrine of varnashramadharma most emphatically, the presence and continuity of caste among the Sikhs is evident from the establishment of caste-based gurdwaras and biradari (caste) associations, e.g. Ramgarhia Gurdwara and Ramgarhia Council, U.K. Moreover, marriages are still arranged following the rules of caste endogamy and exogamy. One would like to pose a question. If caste status is so important for the Sikhs, can we define it as a sacred entity? I am inclined to agree with M.N. Srinivas that "More recently [the concept of] 'purity' has come to be studied in relation to 'auspiciousness'" (1992:25). Caste-based gurdwaras and biradari associations are organised on the principle of ritual purity and pollution which demands the exclusion of outsiders, i.e. those members who do not belong to one's own caste. Caste members are recruited only through birth as a result of arranged marriages within one's biradari (caste).

    The establishment of caste-based gurdwaras is a public statement of pride in caste identity. The application form for the membership of the Ramgarhia Board, Leeds provides a fascinating example of the supremacy of caste status over one's religious identity. It has the Sikh/Khalsa insignia on the left and Sikh greetings 'ek onkar satgur parsad' on the right hand side; underneath is printed Ramgarhia Board, Leeds, incorporating: Ramgarhia Sikh Temple, Ramgarhia Sikh Sports Club and Ramgarhia Sikh Ladies Circle. The second part of the application reads as follows:

    Please enrol me as a member of Ramgarhia Board, Leeds,
    with effect from.....
    I hereby declare that:
    a) I am a Ramgarhia.
    b) I promise to keep in mind the religious and social
    welfare of the community.
    Applicant's signature.

    It is evident from the declaration that the Ramgarhia Sikhs consider their caste membership to be as sacred as their Khalsa identity. As a matter of fact, caste status takes precedent over the Khalsa identity because an applicant for the membership of the Ramgarhia Board takes a vow to uphold and safeguard the interests of his/her biradari (caste). Moreover, the application form excludes all non-Ramgarhia Sikhs from the membership of the Ramgarhia Board, affirming the superiority of their caste identity. Another interesting feature of the nature of membership of the Ramgarhia Board is the presence of the followers of Baba Vishvakarma, a Hindu god of craftsmen; most of these are clean-shaven and have Hindu names. They have been actively involved in setting up the Ramgarhia Board in Leeds. Marriages between the Ramgarhia Sikhs and the followers of Baba Vishvakarma are a common occurrence within the Ramgarhia biradari, as both groups trace their common ancestry to Baba Vishvakarma. The Vishavakarma identity is defined in the International Ramgarhia News as follows:

    Vishwakarma is a composite sanskrit word denoting
    VISWA (Universe) and KARMA (Dimentional Creator). Therefore
    Vishwakarma are a Class of skilled people who create visual
    dimensions by using Matter. A Ramgarhia is a Sikh
    Vishwakarma, both belonging to the same ancestral stock and
    having their remote origin on the Indian sub-continent.
    (International Ramgarhia News, January/February 1993)

    To examine the importance of un-shorn hair and caste identity for the Sikhs born and educated in Britain it is vital to analyse the contents of matrimonial columns in The Desh-Pardeh Weekly, a Punjabi language newspaper published in Southall. This paper has the widest circulation among the Sikhs in Britain. The matrimonial column is always printed in English, which suggests that it is mainly intended for second-generation Sikhs born and educated in Britain. For example, there are thirty-five advertisements in the matrimonial column of The Desh-Pardesh of 11th February, 1994. The breakdown of these advertisements is as follows:

    Jat Sikh: 22
    Ramgarhia Sikh: 2
    Khatri Sikh: 5
    Julaha Sikh: 1
    Ghumar Sikh: 2
    Tank Kashatyria Sikh: 1
    Others: 2

    In this sample, all thirty-three Sikh families clearly indicate their caste identity, i.e. Jat Sikh family, Ramgarhia Sikh family or Khatri Sikh family etc. Out of thirty-three Sikh families, seventeen seek clean-shaven spouses for their children, who are born and educated in Britain. Within this group of seventeen Sikh families, thirteen want clean-shaven boys for their girls while four families are looking for suitable spouses for their clean-shaven sons. A significant change from the 1960's emerging from the study of these advertisements is that almost all the boys and girls have been born and educated in Britain and hold professional jobs. Analysis of the matrimonial advertisements demonstrates the significance of caste for the Sikhs when it comes to the question of choosing spouses for their children. Another important factor emerging from this analysis is the growing preference among Sikh girls for clean-shaven boys. Moreover, only one out of thirty-three Sikh families states that their son wears a turban; it suggests that the common presumption about a male Sikh having un-shorn hair is losing its universal appeal within the Sikh diaspora.

    Here are three samples of the advertisements:

    1. Jat Sikh parents seek suitable match for their
    daughter 26, 5 feet 2 inches. Born and educated in
    England. Graduated, works in Retail. Appreciates
    both cultures. Boy should be clean-shaven and
    professionally qualified.

    2. Well settled and respectable Ramgarhia Sikh family
    invite matrimonial correspondence for their attractive
    daughter 22, 5 feet 2 inches, slim and beautiful, appreciates
    both cultures, born and educated in the U.K. (O' Level and
    business studies) and at present holding a good position
    with multinational finance company. Boy must be of Ramgarhia
    family, clean-shaven and about 27 years old.

    3. Well established Jat Sikh family from district Jullundar
    seek a suitable match for their handsome, clean-shaven British
    born son, 25, 6 feet 1 inch tall. Qualified Pharmacist B. Pharm.,
    M.R. Pharm. Running his own successful Chemist Business. The girl
    should be at least 5 feet 4 inches, slim, beautiful with similar
    attributes. (Desh-Pardesh, 11th February, 1994)

    It is evident from the analysis of matrimonial advertisements that the process of self-definition among the Sikhs is never-ending; it presents a serious challenge to a Sikh community trying to maintain the Khalsa identity in the Sikh diaspora.

    Sacred Language

    The question of teaching Punjabi to their children has been a serious concern for the Sikhs in this country. They give two reasons for the importance of teaching Punjabi. Firstly, the gurbani (scripture) is written in Gurmukhi script; if their children do not learn Punjabi they will not be able to read and understand gurbani (Guru's word). Punjabi is perceived as a sacred language in which their Gurus received and transmitted the divine message, therefore knowledge of Punjabi language is regarded as an essential tool to comprehend Guru's message. The compositions recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib are believed to be the authentic voice of their religious teachers, and it is through the sacred word of gurbani that a special bond is perceived to be forged between a Sikh and his/her Guru. English translations of the Guru Granth Sahib do not have the same status as that of copies in Gurmukhi script. The translated version of the Guru Granth Sahib is kept in the gurdwara library alongside other books instead of in the sach-khand where the Guru Granth Sahib is placed at night. Secondly, Punjabi is regarded as an important medium of communication with the parents as well as their relatives living in India, and also a symbol of Sikh identity. Nowadays, almost all gurdwaras maintain Punjabi classes.


    I have shown that the concept of amrit (nectar of immortality) is fundamental for understanding the notion of sacred symbols in Sikhism. It is applied to the sacred word of the Gurus (gurbani) and to sacred space, e.g. Amritsar, the Golden Temple complex and Har Ki Pauri (steps leading to the pool of nectar on the southern side of the Golden Temple where all pilgrims take a handful of amrit from the sacred tank - water at this spot is believed to be the most sacred). Sacred times include amrit-vela,the anniversaries of Sikh Gurus and holy men, the festival of Baisakhi and its association with the founding of the Khalsa tradition in 1699. Sacred substances include the sacred water called amrit prepared for the initiation ceremony and sacred food or karah-parshad. There are sacred persons within the Sikh tradition, e.g. the panj pyarey who symbolically represent the first five Sikhs initiated into the Khalsa Panth by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, as well as holy men who dispense amrit. At the culmination of a Sikh service, karah-parshad is first served to five amritdhari Sikhs, symbolising the sacredness of the karah-parshad as well as the status of the panj pyarey within the Sikh tradition. Finally, the teaching of Punjabi is organised with a view to arm Sikh children with the knowledge of the sacred Gurmukhi language of the Guru Granth Sahib.


    Barrier, N.G. and Dusenbery, V.A. (eds.) (1989) The Sikh Diaspora:
    Migration and the Experience Beyond Punjab.
    Delhi: Chanakya Publications.

    Cole, W.O. (1982) The Guru in Sikhism.
    London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

    Gold, D. (1987) The Lord As Guru.
    Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Kalsi, S.S. (1992) The Evolution of a Sikh Community in Britain.
    University of Leeds.

    Kaur, M. (1983) The Golden Temple: Past and Present.
    Amritsar: Guru Nanak University Press.

    LaBrack, B. (1979) 'Sikh Real and Ideal: Discussion of Text and Context
    in the Description of Overseas Sikh Communities' in
    Mark Juergensmeyer and N. Gerald Barrier (eds.) Sikh Studies:
    Comparative Perspectives on a Changing Tradition.
    Berkeley: Graduate Theological Union.

    Madan, T.N. (ed.) (1992) Religion in India.
    Delhi: Oxford University Press.

    McLeod, W.H. (1989) Who is a Sikh? The Problem of Sikh Identity.
    Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Singh, G. (1987) Sri Guru Granth Sahib (English Version).
    New Delhi: World Sikh Centre Inc.

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