Of Southall’s population of 70,000, over 55% are of Indian or Pakistani origin. This has led to the area gaining the affectionate moniker of London’s ‘Little India’. To accommodate the area’s huge Punjabi and Sikh communities, Southall has 10 Sikh Gurdwaras including Sri Guru Singh, the largest Gurdwara outside of India.

In early April, the streets of Southall are transformed by a kaleidoscopic array of colours. The reveller's queue at the many food stalls for free traditional Indian food, as Punjabi music (both vintage folk styles and modern energetic bhangra) blasts from speakers. This vibrant celebration is a commemoration of Vaisakhi, the most important day in the Sikh calendar.

The story of Vaisakhi (also known as Baisakhi) dates back to 1699 with the founding of the ‘Khalsa’. The Khalsa translates to ‘the pure ones’ and is recognised as the foundation of Sikhism as we know it today. 

The story goes that Guru Gobind Singh held a meeting to bring together hundreds of thousands of Sikh followers for the beginning of the harvest festival. He told the Sangats (Sikh communities) that this Vaisakhi festival would be special and that this time they must arrive with unshorn hair; the men with full beards. During the meeting, the Guru shocked the Sangats by stating ‘my sword is hungry for a head’, demanding the head of a follower in sacrifice. Eventually, one man stood up from the crowd and offered his life, the Guru led him into a tent, emerging moments later with his sword dripping with blood. He then demanded the same again and another walked to the Guru to offer his life. This continued with three more men until the terrified crowd began to disperse fearing their Guru had gone completely insane. To the crowd's relief, the men suddenly emerged from the tent unscathed, yet now dressed completely in white.

The men had passed the Guru’s test and proved their dedication to him by showing they were willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for their belief. In a ceremony called the ‘Pahul’ the men were initiated into a new order of the Sikhs known as the Panj Pyare - ‘The Five Beloved Ones’. The Guru asked them to baptise him in the same manner, as the Panj Pyare were now an embodiment of himself, proclaiming:

'Where there are Panj Pyare, there am I. When the Five meet, they are the holiest of the holy’. 

The Guru then bestowed the name ‘Singh’, meaning lion, on all Sikh men and ‘Kaur’, meaning princess, on all Sikh women, a tradition that continues to this day.  

In the afternoon a procession known as the ‘Nagar Kirtan’ parades through Southall high street with the crowds of thousands lining up along the pavement to chant prayers and sing hymns. Firstly, volunteers known as ‘Sewadars’ sweep the street to clear any debris from the street floor to make way for the 5 beloved ones, who walk barefoot holding either swords or the Nishan Sahib ‘Sikh flag’. The focal point of the parade is an extravagantly decorated float carrying the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy book) and whilst this float passes, the previously patient crowds scramble for a closer view. As the procession continues traditional ‘Dhol’ drums are banged feverously providing the chaotic backing track to displays of acrobatic sword fighting and dancing. 


Words and photographs by Jared Phanco.


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