Faith in Leeds: Sikh temple visit

As part of a series of features profiling the major world religions, the YEP asks what it means to be religious in Leeds in 2010.

Neil Hudson visits a Sikh temple..

The night before I visited the Sikh temple on Chapeltown Road, a man rang me and asked that I eat no meat for my breakfast, than I consume no alcohol and be prepared to cover my head upon entry.

Of course, I agreed.

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To most people, the grandiose temple – called a gurdwara – set back off Chapeltown Road, with its ornate golden domes and intricate lattice facade, contrasts immensely with the surrounding grime-laden brickwork, which itself harks back to a time when Leeds was dominated by the daily grind of heavy industry.

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In fact, it was that heavy industry and the need for labour to sustain it that brought many Sikhs to Leeds. Like most migrant populations, they moved to find work and thereafter settled.

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There are some 330,000 Sikhs in the UK, about 7,500 of whom live in Leeds.

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Most emigrated from the Punjab region, now mainly in modern day Pakistan but a sizable proportion came from Kenya and other East African countries, which themselves had attracted migrant workers from the Punjab at the height of British colonialism.

Sikhs tend to be spread out across Leeds, although there are pockets where the population is more concentrated, such as Beeston, Chapel Allerton, Alwoodley and Gledhow.

There are seven gurdwaras in Leeds, including Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha on Lady Pit Lane, which is also the second largest in the UK.

I was greeted at the Chapeltown Road gurdwara by Giani Gurbax Singh Ji, a scholar and leader of the temple. I removed my shoes and covered my head with a hat, washed my hands and was offered some fragrant tea, infused with spices.

Giani Ji, 57, lead me into the gurdwara's main room, a vast open plan carpeted space with an elaborately decorated golden shrine at one end.

It houses the resting place of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, which Giani Ji is capable of reciting from memory, all 1,430 pages of it.

He said: "To recite the entire contents would take 48 hours. This is done regularly but we take it in shifts, so the task is shared between five people, including myself."

Sikhs are identified most clearly by the wearing of the turban, which is both a symbol and statement of their faith, a sign to others that they are a Sikh.

Giani Ji explained: "Sikhs who are baptised observe what we call the five Ks, also known as the Khalsa, which means they do not cut their hair, they carry a wooden comb to symbolise cleanliness, they wear a steel band, cotton undergarments and a ceremonial sword, which is very small."

Sikhs meditate throughout the day, reciting prayers in song; they undertake to eat a vegetarian diet and pledge to act honestly and to share their money and time.

However, the religion is not dogmatic in that all adherents must follow strict codes of conduct. For example, some Sikhs do cut their hair, others do not wear turbans and rarely visit temples. Still others eat meat and even celebrate Christmas, yet remain Sikh.

Keranjeet Kaur Virdee, 49, is Chief Executive of Leeds-based South Asian Arts UK, an organisation set up to promote and teach South Asian music.

She is a divorced mother-of-two and a practising Sikh – but she also likes to celebrate Christmas.

She said: "At the moment, we go the whole hog at Christmas. The Christmas tree comes out on the right date, it goes down on the right date, we do a huge Christmas dinner, which means cooking everything from strict vegetarian to fish and, of course, turkey or chicken.

"My brother drinks the milk and eats the mince pie after the children have gone to bed and we leave footprints on the steps. It's a big deal.

"It's mostly because the children are at an age that when they go back to school and hear about their friends talking about it, they want to be able to have a conversation; and the message is one of giving and love, so there is no conflict with our faith.

"The cross-over comes when some of our children's friends come to our houses when we celebrate Diwali and our new year."

Keranjeet, who was born in Kenya, lives with her two children, her mother and father, her brother and his wife and their three children.

She said: "It is not uncommon for Sikh families to live together in this way. And it's great in a recession. There are other benefits, such as not paying for child care. There is a strong sense of family values, we all sit down for a meal on an evening and the children are brought up in a caring, loving environment. If they need a cuddle, they do not have to wait for mum and dad.

"My father wore a turban all his life but when he came to Leeds, he removed it and cut his hair. He looked almost Greek. But later he started wearing it again.

"My son doesn't wear a turban, he has a haircut. I went through a stage which was very punky, I did a degree in fashion and design and had my hair very short, then went through a stage of back-combing it.

"In terms of tradition, Sikhism is very tolerant."

She added: "The gurdwara is always open. If I feel I need to have a quick word with the Almighty, whether it's giving thanks or because life's got a bit heavy, I can go and leave my troubles there."

Dharambir Singh, 51, a Leeds-based lecturer in music and founder of the

South Asian Arts UK organisation, said: "The idea with Sikhism was to wrestle religion out of the clutches of the priest class and make it open to everyone, which is why it was written in the common tongue of the time, Punjabi.

"The teachings of the Gurus form the main body of Sikh (doctrine]. The Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book] is recited to music but it's up to you how and what tune. Sikhs in America might use guitars, while Sikhs in India will use sitars."