Understanding Sikh Places of Worship
The gurdwara’s distinctive patterns of worship and community involvement.
The Sikh community in England
In 1911 the Khalsa Jatha British Isles opened the first gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) in Britain. It was located in a terraced house in Shepherd’s Bush, London.
Over the ensuing century, over 200 gurdwaras have opened, occupying a range of structures, from residential properties to schools, churches and industrial buildings. In recent years there has been an increase in purpose-built gurdwaras, with approximately 40 now in existence across the country.
Prior to the 1960s and 1970s there were only a handful of gurdwaras in Britain; but migration, chiefly from northern India and east Africa, has created a growing Sikh population. Sikh communities initially gathered in houses or church halls before purchasing existing property which would gradually be made suitable for Sikh worship.
This story of development is familiar in general terms from other faiths, and indeed from the previous history of the Sikh diaspora, but less studied is the specific way in which gurdwaras are valued by those who use, manage and maintain them.
Researching congregations' views
As a result, a PhD project focused on developing an increased understanding of gurdwaras commenced in October 2013. It is jointly supervised by the University of Leicester and Historic England as part of a collaborative doctoral partnership and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council .
A narrative approach has been adopted, whereby informal interviews have been undertaken with members of the sangat (congregation) at gurdwaras in Leicester, London, Birmingham, Bristol and elsewhere. The approach offers an alternative to the top-down assessment of heritage value and significance, and the project aims to establish the everyday value of Sikh religious space and its continuing potential for evolution and adaptation into the 21st century.
The house of the guru
Although a Sikh identity is easily recognised by signs and symbols in both public and private places, most people in Britain have little understanding of Sikhism or the nature of Sikh worship.
In literal terms, gurdwara means ‘gateway to the guru’ or ‘house of the guru’, by which is chiefly meant the Sikh holy scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. In 1708 this text was declared the everlasting and living guru by Guru Gobind Singh, who was the last in a succession of ten human Gurus.
In each gurdwara, the Guru Granth Sahib is placed on a palki sahib (throne or platform with a canopy) within the darbar sahib (main hall), and above the congregation, who come and sit before it. The Guru Granth Sahib is shown the utmost humility and respect. On entering a gurdwara, visitors remove their shoes, cover their hair, wash their hands (and sometimes feet) and bow before it. Langar (blessed food) is prepared and served by volunteers and, in a statement of social equality, consumed while seated on the floor of a langar hall.
Community support is another important dimension of Sikhism. The principle of seva (selfless service) has many applications, supporting by gifts of money, materials or labour a range of social, health and educational projects as well as the preparation of langar – and it also has a significant impact on the fabric of a gurdwara.
Members of the community may give money or materials towards maintenance or new construction; Sikh architects, engineers and electricians may contribute voluntarily to the ongoing development and maintenance of the buildings. Seva has led to the development of a wide range of activities and services within gurdwaras, including gyms, libraries and Punjabi schools.
The spirit of seva also underscores the widespread creation of Sikh-managed, professionally-run community services, from secondary schools to pharmacies, through committees based at gurdwaras.
Religious and social practices alike are thus evident in the physical form of gurdwaras. Former industrial properties and religious buildings offer large open spaces suitable for people to gather in. Whether modifying or building anew, attempts to develop buildings are always in accordance with the holy scriptures and other forms of authority.
Converting existing buildings
One of the largest gurdwaras in the country, Guru Tegh Bahadur on East Park Road, Leicester, moved into its current home in a converted shoe warehouse in 1988.
Larger than 7000sq m , some felt it was too big for its intended purpose, but members of the community went about stripping the interior of thousands of wooden racks. The work was carried out by volunteers and the wood was offered to anyone wishing to reclaim it. In exchange, some left a contribution towards the cost of the project. Initially, efforts were directed towards establishing a portion of the building as a functioning space, suitable for worship and the production of langar.
Almost 30 years later, the building contains two darbar halls, a Punjabi school, a library and a museum. Plans for future developments continue. The industrial character of the exterior remains, though with the addition of a porch at the rear entrance and the installation of double-glazed stained glass windows.
At the Guru Teg Bahadur on Church Street, Nottingham, major internal renovations have also been carried out since the building was purchased in 1977. This was once a school attached to the neighbouring Holy Trinity Church, and is a Grade II-listed structure, noted for its group value.
The community used the ground floor for prayer and langar for the first decades of its use. Early in the course of a project to install a disabled toilet, a hammerbeam roof was discovered above a temporary ceiling. After subsequent phases of conservation supported by the community and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the darbar hall now sits above the langar hall and extended kitchen area.
There is a sense of accomplishment within the community about the discovery and the transformation of the building that resulted, as well as the fact that these works have brought an older property back to life.
The reuse and ongoing development of buildings as gurdwaras presents unique opportunities and challenges for Sikh communities. The original function of a building, and the many values and meanings it held or continues to hold within a locality, impacts on how adaptation to a new use can best be achieved.
For example, at another Grade-II listed building, formerly St Luke’s Church at Cranbury Avenue, Southampton, traces of the previous use remain. The very visible scars left by the removal of Christian imagery prior to the sale of the property to the Singh Sabha Gurdwara highlight both the history of the building and the value the church held for the local community.
In Bristol, at the Ramgarhia Gurdwara on Chelsea Road, there are few clues within the building (once a church, then a leather goods factory) as to its original function. Members of the community working locally as engineers offered their skills when the restructuring of the building was carried out. The palki sahib itself was designed by a member of the community. The fibreglass canopy is designed to suspend effortlessly from the ceiling.
Purpose built gurdwaras
More recently, there has been an increase in architect-designed, purpose-built gurdwaras, some of which have been built on a grand scale.
The Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall in West London opened in 2003 and cost in the region of £17 million to design and build. The building boasts beautiful stained glass windows, skylights and marble floors.
At the Karamsar Gurdwara in Ilford, pink sandstone was imported from India alongside a team of craftspeople to carve and install it. The financial cost and physical effort needed to realise such aesthetic ambitions is clearly considerable.
Primary religious significance at any gurdwara is always placed on the Guru Granth Sahib and the religious practices which make the building a holy place. However, the value of the community contribution is clear in the stories of these buildings, whether it be in their physical features or in the social programmes that have been developed within them.
As gurdwaras continue to adapt to the changing needs of their communities, remaining useful, relevant and purposeful, their relevance to England’s heritage is beginning to emerge.
Clare Canning began her PhD on Sikh buildings at the University of Leicester in 2013, after working for English Heritage (now Historic England) in the National Heritage Protection Commissions Programme team and as a business officer for the South West Planning and Conservation Department. The PhD is due for completion in October 2016.
Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bance, P, Paul, S S, Sidhu, A S and Anand, G S 2008 Khalsa Jatha British Isles 1908–2008. London: The Central Gurdwara/Khalsa Jatha.
Singh, G and Tatla, D S 2006 Sikhs in Britain: The Making of a Community. London: Zed Books.
Also of interest...
This page explains the projects that Historic England are involved in about the religious buildings of World Faiths.