A few weeks ago it was the sikh new year, Vaishaki. We have a few big Sikh temples in Hitchin and one of the biggest is just up the road from us, in the industrial area.
I don’t know much about Sikhism, and Sikh beliefs seem to be intricate and mystical, but how I’ve come to understand Vaishaki is that over the course of a few hundred years the Sikh people had ten Gurus. The tenth decreed that there would be no more and then the ten Gurus combined to become one eternal Guru (i can’t help thinking of transformers and power rangers). Sikhs celebrate the day that this happened as their new year.
I like the story, and how the mix of recent history and spirituality adds a spark of realism to it.
On the day of the parade S and I had fallen out and during the argument I had gone out into the garden to escape from it. I stood in the garden, which was wet from the morning rain, and I could hear horns blowing from the direction of the Gurdwara. They sounded muffled and far away, like the echo of the ancient horns that must have sounded in Punjab, 200 years ago. I went inside and we made up.
S and I walked up to the park, slowly, because S was 34 weeks pregnant. It was a bright and cloudy day, the tarmac had not really started to dry and the metal railings by the park were still shining wet. We walked past the white, pillared housed of the Sikh families who lived on our road. They were standing outside, minding trestle tables which were piled with cardboard boxes of samosas, crates of drinks cans and plastic buckets of sweets.
We stood by the park and watched as the parade unfolded itself through the arch of the railway bridge. The police came first. A marked carrier, a riot van, driving slowly with it’s blue light bar flashing lazily. Then clusters of young Sikhs who handed out sweats and chocolates, leaflets and papers flags, to us and the other onlookers. The men had black beards or black stubble and their heads were covered with orange napkins that were pulled tight across their scalp and knotted behind their heads. The women had their long black hair tied under colourful head scarves and saris.
The first thing one noticed of the procession itself was the slow lumbering of a heavy motorised float as it passed under the bridge. It was covered with shining silver domes, fluted spearheads and a spiked crescent that is a symbol of the Sikh world. In front of the float was a bright, whirling, joyful press of people. School kids wearing orange turbans and midnight blue uniforms twirled blue rope-webs that were weighted by silver balls and spun in cone shapes above their heads. An older boy and girl took turns in spinning a larger net, made from yellow and blue rope, and they were followed by teenage girls wielding plastic swords. Then came a big warrior of a man who was dressed all in black with an impressive black beard and an orange turban. He walked alone and swung a heavy silver metal ball; a mace.
Next was the drum. A flatbed lorry drove past with a huge, round, skin drum on its back. Standing behind the drum, hitting it with big bent sticks, was a very serious looking Sikh with a wide neck and a round, heavy chest. He had a brilliant glower at the camera as I took his photo.
Then came two ranks of old Sikh men with grand mustaches and long, pointed, grey beards. They stood very strait and wore robes and orange turbans that were spiked by shining metal pins. The first rank carried tall saffron flags that were emblazoned with the crescent emblem in bright blue- the Nishan Sahib, the flag of the Sikh nation. The second rank held long, curved swords with highly polished steel blades in front of them.
Finally came the float, which was carrying musicians (I think) and old men who squatted cross-legged in a sumptuous cushioned and tasseled space, which we could glimpse through the float’s scalloped blue and orange arches. It was surrounded by banners, one of which made S cry as she read it. I can’t remember what it said.
My favorite said, in bright orange letters “He may be cut apart, piece by piece, but never leaves the field of battle”.
Behind all the swords, banners and orange turbans came the people. Hundreds and hundreds of Sikhs, and a few locals, came in a good-natured flood of colourful saris and knotted head coverings, prams and balloons, jeans and hoodies. To keep the marchers strength up (For the walk into town and back again) the local Sikhs pressed busily into the crowd and handed out sweets and cans of coke and home cooked samosas from fat-stained cardboard boxes.
Walking with the crowd were stewards in hi-viz jackets who tried to keep the pavement clear by shooing people into the carriageway. One young Sikh lad was about to shoo us when he noticed that we weren’t Asian.
“Are you with the procession or just walking?” He asked.
“A bit of both!” We said. At the same time he said “Or a bit of both!” And laughed.
He let us stay on the pavement.
It was bizarre and wonderful to walk beside this procession, with a paper flag sticking out from the pocket of my jacket, and watch it flow past our house, with the silver domes of the float shining in the sunlight like the housing of a lumbering elephant, adorned for ceremony.
This was the day before Ada died.