Had you walked through Lister Park today, you would have seen a group of Sikhs having a quintessentially Desi feast with their chai and mitai in the children’s play area.
The men were sat with their patkas (turbans) intricately wrapped and folded around their heads; and the women were busy chatting away with their brightly coloured shalwaar-kameez’s adding some much needed colour to the cold spring weather.
The reason for their picnic in the park? They were celebrating Vaisakhi of course (the Sikh equivalent of New Year’s) a religious festival which commemorates the day Sikhism was born. It’s also the day when the Khalsa, a group of Sikhs who have been baptised, were established. For the rest of their lives, these baptised members live as vegetarians and never cut their hair, which is why you probably meet a lot of Sikhs (both men and women) with beautiful, flowing locks of Rapunzel-like hair.
The two elegant ladies pictured here are Amrat (left) and Jasbeer Kaur (right), who were only too happy to tell this nosy stranger all about Vaisakhi.
After offering me some fruity green tea and a savoury, salty cake (which was delicious!), Amrat explained how in the morning, they sang hymns in Punjabi at the local Gurdwara, accompanied with instruments like the harmonium, tabla and sitar to commemorate Vaisakhi. Most of these instruments are also used in Sufi Qawwali music. All three of us nodded enthusiastically when I remarked on this similarity and mentioned the name of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, perhaps the most renowned Qawwalli singer that ever lived.
If you’ve noticed that Amrat’s name sounds similar to Amritsar, the golden temple in India, that’s because it is. The golden temple of Amritsar is coincidentally enough where Sikhs receive Amrat (which Amrat herself told me means ‘holy water’), and are initiated into the Khalsa.
Jasbeer Kaur had a particularly interesting story. She is a Sikh woman not from India as I assumed, but from Kabul, Afghanistan. Sadly, there has been a mass exodus of Sikhs from Afghanistan, with an estimated 102 Sikh families remaining in the city of Kabul today. So you can imagine why I was equally ecstatic and equally surprised to hear that Jasbeer Kaur migrated from Afghanistan, and that her roots there extended back at least three generations.
Jasbeer Kaur and her family left Kabul 20 years ago after her brother-in-law was killed in an attack. Leaving only with whatever they could carry, they left for Dubai where her husband and her tried to set up a clothing business. Unfortunately, their business failed, and because you cannot legally apply for permanent citizenship in Dubai, they were told that they would have to go back to Afghanistan, which had at this point become a conflict zone following the Afghanistan war in 2001. They are now seeking asylum here in the UK.
The three of us talked almost nostalgically about the days when Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims lived side by side in what was then India, prior to the partition war in 1947. I say ‘almost’ because none of us were alive to see those days. Jasbeer Kaur cut the air with her hands when she tried to explain to me how divided we (Pakistanis, Indians etc) had become, to which I replied that the partition war not only split India into different countries, but its people as well.
“The Sikh Gurus and Muhammad, they all had one message, one God”, she said. Her words reminded me only too well of something attributed to Dara Shikoh, the son of a Mughal emperor.
That, in essence, “All roads lead to God.”