Through the door of… Croydon gurdwara

By - Friday 23rd January, 2015

In the first of a series examining faith and community in Croydon, Rosie Edser visits a place of worship for Croydon’s Sikhs under the guidance of Virgo Fidelis school pupil Divya

Worship hall at Croydon Gurdwara.
Photo author’s own.

I’m off to visit the Croydon Gurdwara. Toe-nail varnish in decent condition? Check. Pashmina for covering my head? Check. Sense of respect and preparedness for worship? Check. A lifetime of yoga and nice loose hamstrings? Ah, whoops…

Photo by Divya, used with permission.

I have passed Croydon Gurdwara in St James’s Road every day for years. Now, invited along by one of the mums at my son’s school, I’m hoping to be educated by the experience… and possibly enjoy some fine Indian cooking afterwards. Having visited Birmingham’s gurdwara twenty years ago as part of teacher training I have a vague expectation of hospitality and private uncertainty over the etiquette and implications of participating in the worship service of a faith that isn’t my faith.

So what’s in the name? Gurdwara translates as “gateway to the Guru” referring to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book which is revered like a living guru for the wisdom it contains. The Gurdwara is where Sikhs gather for congregational worship and the serving of food. There are 250 in the UK and the one in Croydon serves the 1,500 or so Sikhs in the local area. So how does this one compare with a Gurdwara in India?

Divya tells me: “I feel this is something really interesting because each gurdwara is just the same. Every gurdwara has a ‘langar hall’ where food is served to everyone free. There are no idols (or statues or religious pictures, nor are there candles, incense, bells, or any other ritualistic devices). The only thing that varies is probably the size of the gurdwara.”

Services are held in Punjabi with English translation on a screen

Visitors are expected to remove their shoes, cover their heads and be free of drugs or alcohol, and when we arrive on a Saturday evening, many people are greeting each other quietly. Services are held in Punjabi but the English translation is shown on a screen and services include music with percussion, prayers and a talk. The worship room is upstairs and the floor is covered in clean white sheets. There is an aisle with the Guru Granth Sahib at the front on a highly decorated table under a richly embroidered canopy.

Croydon Gurdwara.
Photo author’s own.

One by one we walk up to the front and donate whatever offering we have chosen to bring (financial or edible). These offerings cover the expenses of running the gurdwara as well as community work. Each person kneels for a few moments – forehead to the floor – and prays. Divya assures me that I am welcome to pray to the Christian God: “We welcome everyone irrespective of their caste, creed, colour/race and religion. All different faiths are welcomed. The Golden Temple has four doors signifying that every religion is allowed to come to our gurdwara.”

The atmosphere at gurdwara makes me feel so peaceful and calm

We sit on the floor, women on the left, men on the right and the holy food is distributed. This is known as ‘Prashad’ and has been made by a priest and cut with a sword. Everyone who comes to worship is given a helping which it’s polite to receive in cupped hands. This is the part where we sit quietly and reflect. Divya tells me: “I’m thinking about how lucky I am to belong to the Sikh community and I’m always thanking Waheguru (God) for it and everything else. It helps me cope with stress and reminds me that my guru is always there for me. It also helps boost my confidence immensely as I feel divine power is beside me, helping all the time. The atmosphere at gurdwara makes me feel so peaceful and calm. I enjoy the hymns (shabads) that are sung in praise of the supreme power because it seems to answer all my questions and makes me feel more attached to God.”

As I watch the worshippers go past, it’s tempting to focus on unspiritual observations – who cuts their hair and borrows one of the Gurdwara’s bandanas, how supple most of the pensioners are as they get down to kneeling position and sit cross-legged and straight backed for so long. Actually there’s also good disability access with a designated lift and cushioned chairs for those in need but I gather during the meal afterwards that it’s a point of pride to sit on the floor if you can.

The food is strictly vegetarian so no visitors are excluded

The principle of the meal is that everyone is equal and every visitor receives some hospitality and is content. The food is strictly vegetarian (and not even eggs or dairy), so no visitors are excluded even if they require halal food. Around 5,000 meals are now served to non-Sikhs by Britain’s gurdwaras each week and this is seen as a way of serving the community.

After the Saturday evening Diwan.
Photo author’s own.

As the meal is cleared away there are quite a few children and teens chatting and playing. Divya explains: “We have a self-led youth group in the gurdwara, which helps us stay attached to our Sikhi roots. We discuss topics that the upcoming generation really needs to know about; the sacrifices our gurus have made, reasons why we do not cut our hair, reasons why one should wake up in the ambrosial hours, why one should chant Waheguru, do honest work. I want everyone in Croydon to know that Sikhs aren’t just those who don’t cut their hair, tie a turban or wear a steel bangle. There is more to us.”

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Rosie Edser

Rosie Edser

Rosie is a member of the team at Croydon Refugee Daycentre. She's a teacher of both adult English learners and (in her day job) children. She relishes the fact that her own offspring have attended a school in Croydon with over forty first languages spoken. She lives in Waddon.

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  • lizsheppardjourno

    That photo has helped me realise for the first time where it actually is :) I have seen people in rather lovely clothing crossing that road and never known where it was they were going…..

  • Rosie E

    Whoops – a factual correction; the Gurdwara kitchen may well serve dairy food.
    It is meat, fish and egg free.