Sikhs from Woolwich's two Gurdwaras took part in a Vaisakhi procession through the centre of the town, celebrating the creation of the Khalsa in 1699. London, UK. 09/04/2011
Sikhs around the world celebrate Vaisakhi on the 14th April, but events marking it are held throughout the month in various places. The celebrations in many places include a religious procession (Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan) through the town.
The two Woolwich Sikh temples take turns to be the starting point of the procession, which this year started from the Ramgarhia Sikh Association Gurdwara in Mason's Hill and made its way to the Gurdwara Sahib Woolwich in Calderwood Street in the centre of the town. The Ramgarhia Sikh community had its origins close to Amritsar in the Punjab, and were renowned for their military prowess and the victories of the armies.
The Vaisakhi festival, which takes place on April 14 each year marks the formation of the Khalsa by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh guru, in 1699. Sword in hand he called upon the assembly of Sikhs, asking who was willing to give his head for the sake of his faith. One brave man stood up and went with him into a nearby tent; shortly the guru returned, his sword now dripping blood and repeated the call. Again a man stepped forward, and three more times the guru made the call before he finally returned to the crowd but this time he was is time hand in hand with the five "beloved ones" who had been willing to die for their faith - and who the crowd had thought dead - still alive and dressed in saffron robes and turbans. These "Panj Piare" were the first Khalsa - baptised Sikhs - and their baptism was marked by drinking Amrit, sugar mixed with water in an iron bowl using a khanda (double-edged sword) over which the guru recited sacred verses.
Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru, was the last living guru, and gave Sikhism its modern form. He established the five symbols - the five K's of Kesh, unshorn hair; Kangha (wooden comb), Kara (iron bracelet), Kirpan (dagger) and Kachera (underwear) and gave all male Sikhs the name Singh (Lion) and females the name Kaur (Princess.) But most radically he declared that his successor as guru was to be the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs and now their eternal guru.
I arrived early for the procession, and after having been welcomed was given a Sikh headscarf to wear and taken to the community eating hall or Langar, where I enjoyed some of the tasty free vegetarian food on offer to all. Unlike some other gurdwaras, most of those eating here sat on chairs at tables to eat, rather than on the floor, although there was a carpet along the far end for those who preferred that more traditional practice. After eating I was able to talk to some of the people there before wandering around the gurdwara taking photographs.
The Ramgarhia Association converted an existing landmark into a Sikh temple in 1970, and it is flourishing - they have great plans to expand. Built as the Freemason's Hall around a hundred years before they acquired it, is actually a few yards east of the Woolwich boundary in Plumstead. The name of the road it is in, Mason's Hill, gives a clue to its former use, although this street was formerly known as Mount Pleasant. The building, which is now considerably more colourful and has a tall Nishan Sahib (a saffron fabric covered flagpole with a Sikh symbol at its peak) at one corner occupies a little-known but important place in the history of football, as it was here that the Royal Arsenal Football Club held its annual meetings and dinners - and on 16 May 1891 that the Annual General Meeting of the Royal Arsenal Football Club was informed of the committee's decision two weeks earlier to turn professional - and on which account it had resigned from the amateur Kent and London Associations in which it had previously played. Still on its outside wall, although now largely unreadable is a ''Roll of Honour' for members of a Woolwich social club who fought in the First World War.l
The Mayor of Greenwich, Cllr Barbara Barwick, arrived around 1pm, and I followed her into the worship hall, having taken off my shoes, and there we listened to the three musicians playing while people came in to show respect to the Guru Granth Sahib which was on an elaborate throne at the front of the hall.
Twelve Khalsa dressed in saffron robes and turbans then entered, and having bowed to the Guru sat cross-legged on the floor with the rest of the congregation, and there was some recitation and standing prayers. They were then presented with garlands of flowers and saffon sashes, and five were given their swords as the Panj Piare, while the other five were given Sikh flags to carry.
A small with the remaining two Khalsa procession then came down from the upper worship room, with one carrying the Guru Granth Sahib on a cushion on top of his head, and the other walking behind it joined behind the Panj Piare as, led by the standard bearers and followed by a small group of musicians, they made their way out of the Gurdwara to the float that had been prepared outside to carry the Guru Granth Sahib in the procession.
Waiting outside the Gurdwara were a large crowd of worshippers who threw handfuls of flower petals over the Khalsa and the Guru as they made their way to the float that would carry the Guru in the procession. Also waiting were several open lorries in which the older women were taking part as well as the huge war drum (Nagara) mounted on top of a vehicle that would lead the procession.
Unfortunately there had been one or two holdups, and things were running more than half an hour late and I had to run to catch a train before the actual start of the colourful procession, with its joyful singing of Sikh hymns, martial arts demonstrations and Dhol drumming through the town, expected to take several hours.