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Tuesday, April 13, 1999 Published at 02:42 GMT 03:42 UK

World: South Asia

Who are the Sikhs?

Sikhism's holiest shrine - The Golden Temple

Sikhs celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa - the core community of committed followers within the wider Sikh faith - on 13 April 1999.

The event is commemorated every year on Vaisakhi (or Baisaki), traditionally the beginning of the year in several South Asia countries and a major harvest festival. This year, however, an estimated 20 million Sikhs are organising events all over the world to mark the occasion.

The Sikh "mini-Millennium", as it has been dubbed, is generating interest across the media. Two new BBC productions provide comprehensive profiles of this small but distinctive community.

BBC World Service's series The Khalsa: Birth of a Community is presented by Indarjit Singh, a frequent contributor to Radio 4's 'Thought for the day' slot, and perhaps Britain's most prominent Sikh.


The Khalsa was formed to defend Sikhs against persecution, and has always had a leading role within the Sikh community. As the producer of 'The Khalsa', Kristine Pommert explains: "the last Sikh Guru, or spiritual leader, Guru Gobind Singh, said 'my Khalsa should be both saints and soldiers.'"

Sikhs is a two-part documentary on BBC Two which marks the event with a vivid and compelling portrait of the Sikh community. The first programme explains the background to the current celebrations by looking at the emergence of Sikhism as a compromise between Islam and Hinduism in the 15th century.

The faith taught justice, social harmony, peace and equality of all people regardless of religion, creed and race but in the face of tyranny eventually adopted a martial character.

Traumatic history

Sikhs have had "a very traumatic 500-year history" explains John Das, producer of 'The Sikhs', "particularly in the 20th century, with the storming of the Golden Temple, the subsequent killings of Sikhs in India, the partition of Punjab at the time of Indian Independence, and the consequent mass migrations."

The religion had to survive against the most astonishing odds, Delhi-based historian Patwant Singh adds, including "invaders, wars, persecution, repression - everything in the book was thrown at Sikhs and yet they came out of it stronger, better and more self-confident."

A message for all

Many Sikhs agree that the current celebrations provide an ideal opportunity to introduce the faith to a wider audience. "We've always been a bit lazy about making our beliefs known," says Indarjit Singh. Sikhs do not seek converts and so have failed to publicise their beliefs in the past.

Fundamentalism and terrorism were responsible in the 1980s for bringing notoriety to the community. It has taken a long time for Punjab to return to normality and now Sikhs around the world are keen to project positive images of Sikhism as a religion with progressive values.

This may account for the ease with which programme-makers gained access to religious ceremonies at some of Sikhism's most sacred places. Sikhs were very pleased that they were getting some attention, says John Das. 'When word got out in the UK that we were making a series about Sikhs, I was virtually fending people off who wanted to contribute in some way.'

Sikhism Today

In his talks on BBC Radio 4's 'Thought for the day' slot, and elsewhere, Indarjit Singh has tirelessly worked to communicate the modernity of Sikhism. It's a message which the historian J.S.Grewal expresses at the conclusion to 'The Khalsa':

"The Sikh people subscribe to the idea of cultural coexistence. They can live in other cultures and don't really entertain hostility towards any people at all. This is the contribution they have made to world civilization."

Both programmes go in search of Sikhs in the diaspora: Canadian Sikhs in positions of power; young British Sikhs who rediscover their religious heritage with a vengeance; and intriguingly, American converts drawn to a "happy, healthy and holy" New Age Sikhism.

The Khalsa is broadcast by the World Service in the UK on Mondays from 12 April at 7.30pm, and also on Radio 4 in an abridged form at 8pm on 15 April and 22 April.

For world-wide broadcast times click here

Sikhs is on BBC 2 on Monday 12 April: 7-8pm and 11.25-11.55pm

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