An unexpected cultural education: Vaisakhi Southall
Driving back from our Twin Theme Park Adventure we stopped at some traffic lights in Southall, West London and ended up involved in one of the largest Sikh festivals of the year. After days spent visiting Legoland, Star Wars and Harry Potter, it was quite a contrast and proved something of an unexpected cultural experience and education in the festival of Vaisakhi….
Out of my depth at home
I know this place but feel out of my depth. Hannah grips one of my hands tightly, trying to keep us together against the pull of the crowd. My other hand’s full of some kind of crystal sweets, seeds and nut mix, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with it. Eat it? Scatter it? Present it as an offering?
Barefoot men and petals
In front of me a group of barefoot men are brushing the road and scattering soft petals. Further along, a decorated temple is edging through the crowd towards us. As the flower adorned shrine approaches, people elbow and nudge through the human chain surrounding the float to present offerings of money, flowers and embroidered linen. I figure the nut mix must be for eating.
“You need to cover your head please” says a young man, singling me out of the crowd and handing me a bright orange scarf, “in respect for the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book.” But I don’t have a spare hand with which to take the scarf and have no idea how to wear it. I am an idiot abroad, just a few miles from home.
I used to live near here but I don’t recognise it
We’re in Southall, just down the road from where I used to live in London. It’s home to Britain’s second largest Sikh community and on our way back from our theme park adventure, we’ve somehow got involved in an unusual cultural adventure.
We knew something was going on from the street stalls booming Bhangra outside Southall Park. But it was only when we stopped at the traffic lights we became embroiled in it. As I wound down the window to take in the music a group of bearded, turban-clad youths approached, passing in plates of naan, paratha and spicy toast, and bottles of mineral water. At first I thought it was a street food hard sell, but they quickly explained.
“It’s for Vaisakhi,” they explained which turns out to be a vibrant Sikh festival that’s part Harvest festival and part New Year, celebrating the birth of Sikhism, the world’s fifth biggest religion.
I barely recognise these streets today, a swirling sea of saffron turbans, flags and placards; the distinctive orange colour of the Sikh faith. In this crowd of tens of thousands of celebrating Sikhs it looks and feels like we are in the Punjab. The streets are lined with food stalls, giant woks, burners and ovens simmering away, turning Southall into in a giant spicey Lahore street kitchen. Pallet loads of bottles line the pavement – water, mango, orange, lemonade, pepsi, lucozade – everything but alcohol; that’s not the Sikh way. But equality and generousity are.
Food freely given
Since abandoning the car to search for the Nagar Kirtan procession that’s at the heart of this celebration, we’ve eaten bhaji’s, curry, kulcha, jalebi, rice, chips, lollies from an impromptu, eat as much as you like, Indian street banquet. All freely given.
“What’s with all the free food?” I asked a Sikh elder who insisted I take a few more pakora and another glass of lassi.
“It’s the Sikh way,” he explained, “To give, to share…”
I worry the kids may be taking advantage as they fill their pockets with lollies and lucozade for later. But no-one seems to mind.
A peaceful spirit
It’s not just the tang of chilli that lingers after this experience. I’m moved by the peaceful spirit and welcoming atmosphere. As five white faces amongst thousands of Sikhs we are in a tiny minority here but despite the crowds, despite looking like an Englishman abroad, despite the music and chanting, I feel quite at home.
“Could you tie it for me?” I ask the man who handed me the saffron scarf. He smiles, leans over the crowd, wraps it around my head and ties it off. My kids giggle at the sight of my pithy white face now wrapped in an orange bandana.
“You look like an orange being peeled.”
Do I stand out in my orange scarf
I feel like I must stand out even more now but no-one else seems to pay attention. There’s a real sense of community and acceptance in this diverse crowd; men, women and children; gurus and faithful; youth and elders; peacemakers and protesters. All are here and all are welcome and I like that.
As the traditional Nagar Kirtan inches through the streets led by the five saffron robed Panj Piare, the followers chant scriptures and sing hymns. Despite the presence of swords and sticks, of warriors fighting, of protests at the treatment of Sikh brother Rajoana, this is a peaceful and prayerful procession. We are crushed by a friendly crowd, held back from the holy Guru Grath Sahib by human chains. And while I panic inside about losing the kids no-one else seems to notice the crush. And as usual the kids take it all in their stride.
You can travel a long way without leaving home
After two hours in the crowd we squeeze our way out of the procession to continue our journey home and make sure we’re back in time for school.
“You can take off your hat now,” says Kirstie as we leave. But I’m reluctant; I’ve grown quite fond of it.
It takes us four hours of eating pakoras at 70mph to get home, the same time it takes the Nagar Kirtan to creep the holy mile or so to its destination, the Gurdwara. It’s four hours in which I realise how little I know of the many cultures and communities that are part of the 21st century British landscape, how much you can travel without ever leaving your home country, how much there is to learn in life if you’re open to it. Food for thought; that is, if I ever need anything else to eat again.
To get a sense of the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the Southall Vaiksahki Nagar Kirtan take a look at this video.
Have you had a cultural experience like this at home? Or visited communities to learn about their traditions?