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A journey through the history of Sikhs in Gravesend

06:00 02 October 2013

Jagdev Singh Virdee at Gravesend Gurdwara

Jagdev Singh Virdee at Gravesend Gurdwara

Archant

The history of Sikhs in the Gravesend area can be traced back to the 1950s when they began to enter the UK to escape the poverty at home.

Sikhism fact box

Sikhism was founded over 500 years ago.

The founder of the Sikh religion was Guru Nanak, who was born in 1469.

Guru Nanak passed on his leadership of this new religion to nine successive Gurus. The final living Guru, Guru Gobind Singh died in 1708.

The Sikh religion today has a following of over 20 million people worldwide.

Sikhism is ranked as the world’s 5th largest religion.

The word Sikh in the Punjabi language means disciple.

Sikhs believe that there is only one God and that he is the same God for all people of all religions.

Sikhism condemns blind rituals such as fasting, visiting places of pilgrimage, worship of the dead and worship of idols.

Local historian Tony Larkin said: “Sikhs began coming to Gravesend in 1956 and 1957. They saw an opportunity to escape the poor conditions that they were living in and took up jobs in factories, docks and shops that British people didn’t want to do.”

Some of the first Sikhs in Gravesend lived in Pier Road and they have since spread out across the borough of Gravesham.

Jagdev Singh Virdee, assistant secretary of Gravesend’s Gurdwara, said: “The 1950s was a time when people were immigrating to improve their lives with a view to earn money and then go back home.

“They then had children here and, two or three generations later, the Sikhs now living here have never lived in India. This is their home. They are settled here and have good relations with the local community.”

The Gurdwara is the centre of Gravesend’s Vaisakhi Festival which takes place every April.

Thousands of Sikhs from across the south-east descend on the town to celebrate their religion and mark the start of their New Year.

A lot of the Sikhs who settled in Gravesend came from the small towns and villages in Jalandhar, one of the oldest cities in Punjab, and were relatives or friends.

Because of this everyone knew each other quite well and a close-knit community developed.

Before the first Gurdwara was set up in 1956 by Bhat Sikh Santokh Singh Takk, Sikhs used to gather at each others’ homes each day in order to pray.

The previous Gurdwara, in Clarence Place, opened in 1968 but that closed in 2010, the same year one of the biggest Gurdwaras in Europe opened in Saddington Street, Gravesend.

Before the Clarence Place site, there was a small one in Edwin Street.

Mr Virdee, 57, of Gravesend, said: “There are three basic concepts of Sikhism. The first is to work hard for a living rather than depending on others. The second is to pray daily and the third is to share with others: not just money but time also.

“The Gurdwara is a huge centre for the community and everything in it is run by people volunteering their time.”

At a cost of nearly £16million, of which £12million was raised and paid for by the local Sikh community, it boasts three meditation halls, a fully equipped lecture theatre, ICT suite and library as well as sports fields and sports hall.

The community is working at paying off a loan of £4million for the construction.

Mr Larkin, 75, of Constitution Hill, Gravesend, said: “As a community Sikhs are very hard workers and very family-orientated, which are qualities that they could teach us.

“Though the Sikh community is not yet fully integrated into the local community, it is only the third or fourth generation living here so they are working on breaking the barriers down.

“We now have two Sikhs serving as members of council and, I think I speak for locals, when I say that their presence in the community is a welcome one.”

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