Guide to the Sikh Tradition

Dr Jasjit Singh, University of Leeds

Fast Facts:

According to the 2011 census, the Sikh population in Britain is mainly British-born (56.6%) and relatively young with 25% of the 423,158 Sikhs currently living in England and Wales being between the ages of 15 and 29. The main areas of Sikh settlement are the West Midlands and the South of England, in particular West London.

Sikhs tend to use the term Sikhi to describe their tradition as opposed to Sikhism. There are more than 25 million Sikhs around the world, making Sikhi the fifth largest religion in the world.

Sikhs in Britain

The first Sikh to arrive in Britain was Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1854, who was exiled from his Kingdom by the British. The very first Sikh settlers included Sikh soldiers fighting for the British Indian army in the World War One and Sikh peddlers known as Bhatras who mainly settled in port cities in Britain including Liverpool, Southampton and Cardiff.

The very first Sikh Gurdwara was established in 1911 in Shepherd’s Bush in London and attracted Sikhs from all over the UK. The Sikh population in Britain grew substantially following the Second World War as post war labour shortages combined with displacement following the partition of India led many Sikhs mainly from agricultural backgrounds (known as Jats) to gain employment, many in the industrial foundries of the West Midlands and the wool mills of Northern England. The next wave of Sikh migration occurred in the 1970s, as Sikhs (known as Ramgharias) who had been taken to East Africa by the British to work on the railways arrived in the United Kingdom following the independence movements in Uganda and Kenya. Recent years have seen a number of Sikhs arriving from Afghanistan as refugees having been subject to persecution by the Taliban. In 2014, 35 Sikhs from Afganistan were found in a container in Tilbury Docks.

The Sikh tradition

Sikhi was founded by Guru Nanak in 1469. Guru Nanak was born in Punjab, a region which spans some of modern-day Pakistan and northwest India. Born into a Hindu family, Guru Nanak challenged inequality and injustice throughout his life speaking out against gender inequality and the caste system among other things. He was succeeded by nine further human Gurus, the last of whom, Guru Gobind Singh passed the Guruship on to the current Guru of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs revere the Guru Granth Sahib (which is in the form of a book) as a “living Guru”, receiving daily guidance by open the Guru at random and treating the first composition read, as the ‘guidance for the day’. Unlike many holy books, the Guru Granth Sahib does not contain a history of the lives of the Gurus, rather it is a collection of poetic compositions about the human condition including the writings of non-Sikhs.

The most identifiable Sikh markers are the unshorn hair and the turban. Sikhs who desire to solidify their commitment to the Guru would also undergo an initiation ceremony after which they become ‘Amritdhari’ Sikhs. Amritdhari Sikhs wear 5Ks to symbolise their commitment, these being:

  1. Kesh – Unshorn hair symbolising the importance of living in harmony with nature
  2. Kangha – A comb to manage this hair and to symbolise the importance of controlling one’s thoughts
  3. Kara – An iron/steel bangle to act as a reminder to do good deeds
  4. Kaccha – Underwear to maintain modesty in all situations
  5. Kirpan – A sword acting as a reminder to fight injustice

It is important to note that although becoming an ‘Amritdhari’ is often described as ‘Sikh baptism’, this is not something that Sikhs would undergo at birth, rather this is a choice which Sikhs make themselves once they feel compelled to do so. In the United Kingdom, Amritdhari Sikhs are allowed to wear the 5Ks by law.

Patterns and places of worship

The main place of worship for Sikhs is the Gurdwara (lit. ‘house of the Guru’). There are currently around 250 Gurdwaras in Britain of varying sizes. As Gurdwaras are usually established by local communities, there are few organisational links between various Gurdwaras, with many operating as independent organisations. Gurdwaras are open to all to visit and regularly provide free meals to the poor and needy.

The majority of Gurdwaras in Britain are managed by committee where individuals are elected to roles to manage the Gurdwara for a period of time. Other management structures include the managing of Gurdwaras by charismatic leaders known as Sants, who select who is to manage the Gurdwara. For further details about Gurdwaras, see ‘Houses of the Guru’ below.

Denominations and differences

A non-Sikh would note few visible ideological differences within the Sikh tradition, as the practices which take place in most Gurdwaras are very similar. The main differences are based around jathabandi (group) affiliation and migratory background as described above. Historically Bhatras, Jats and Ramgharias have established their own Gurdwaras although this simply means that it is mostly members of these various communities who attend. Jathabandi differences are based on different opinions about Sikh codes of conduct but mainly apply to Amritdhari Sikhs. In addition, Sikhs from different jathabandis do attend one another’s Gurdwaras.

Major stories involving Sikhs

Recent headlines about Sikhs in Britain involve:

1.UK wide protests at arrest in India of Scottish Sikh Jagtar Singh Johal, accused of being involved in the murder of Hindu nationalist leader     Ravinder Gosain.

2. Sikhs providing free food to the needy

3. Mixed-faith marriage protests

4. The continuing impact of the events of 1984 on Sikhs in Britain

The narratives and issues behind these various events have been analysed in my recently completed research project.

Further Reading

House of the Guru? Young British Sikhs’ Engagement with Gurdwaras, Journal of Punjab Studies Volume 21, pp. 41-54

From the temple to the street: how Sikh kitchens are becoming the new food banks:

The idea, context, framing and realities of ‘Sikh radicalisation’ in Britain