Over 200 gurdwaras across the United Kingdom will be seen as part of British heritage, according to an expert from Historic England, a body that advises the British government on such matters after a major doctoral project highlighted their architecture, growth and use.
The project completed at the University of Leicester by researcher Clare Canning means that experts in historic environment now have the knowledge and understanding in order to think about the future management and protection of gurdwaras in the country.
Linda Monckton from Historic England said: “The project came about because although we knew that many gurdwaras were re-used from existing, often historic, buildings, we needed to better understand the specific way in which gurdwaras are valued by the communities who use and look after them”.
Historic England is the apex adviser to the British government on the protection and management of the historic environment. It is a public body with the mandate to “champion and protect historic places, helping people understand, value and care for them”.
“Little was previously known about gurdwaras in this way but Clare’s project explored the everyday value of Sikh religious spaces and their continuing potential for evolution and adaptation into the 21st century. We are now considering them as important historic places and thinking about their management and protection for the future,” Monckton added.
Announcing her research last week, Canning, who visited gurdwaras in several towns, said prior to the study, there was very little known about the development of gurdwaras outside the Sikh community, since the first Sikh place of worship was set up in 1908.
Researcher Clare Canning visited gurdwaras in several towns in Britain. (HT Photo)
She said: “A key outcome of the project is that current heritage frameworks, where original purpose and aesthetic value are given importance, are not necessarily relevant in the assessment of the significance of gurdwaras”.
“There is now an obvious need to incorporate dynamic change into heritage frameworks in a positive way, in order to appropriately recognise the significance of Sikh heritage in the built landscape of England”.
Sikh migration to Britain is largely considered a post-war story, sparked by a boom in industry and apparent shortage of labour in the reconstruction of post-war Britain, as well as the partition of India in 1947, and Africanisation programmes of Kenya and Uganda in the 1960s and 70s.
The majority of the over 200 gurdwaras – ranging from previously used properties to multi-million-pound purpose-built structures – share a religious focus on the Guru Granth Sahib and basic tenets of the Sikh faith, but there is diversity in their architectural characteristics.
Canning explained that some gurdwaras have been purpose-built and clad with imported Indian stone, while others occupy buildings once used as factories, warehouses, churches, synagogues, hotels, houses, garages and schools.
“A key element of the project sought to build our understanding of the religious, social and communal value of gurdwaras. Overwhelmingly, they are valued as the home of the Guru Granth Sahib and related practices, such as the tradition of Langar”.
The principle of seva, or selfless service, has also led to the development of a wide range of activities and services within gurdwaras, including gyms, libraries and Punjabi schools, she said and added that their architectural characteristics could be considered as less important than the everyday practices taking place within them.
Canning noted that the first gurdwara, the Khalsa Jatha British Isles, was formed in 1908 by a group of Sikhs studying at Cambridge University. With the financial assistance of the Maharajah of Patiala it later opened in 1913, in a terraced property at 79 Sinclair Road in Shepherd’s Bush, London.
For several decades later, the Sikh community of the UK remained small, and the gurdwara served the social and religious needs of Sikhs across the country. This was the only gurdwara in the UK until the growth of the Sikh population in the second half of the 20th century.
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18 Mar 2018
19 Mar 2018