486.The Man in Blue – San Bonifacio (Verona) – Montecchia di Crosara (Verona) – Sint-Truiden (Limburg)

I came back to San Bonifacio from Pegognaga on Sunday evening 31 July and was booked to leave by train from Verona to Sint-Truiden on the evening of 5 August.

I stayed three nights in the Gurdwara, the second night disturbed by the heat, the mosquitoes and the 3 am arrival of the 10 young men strong Jatha of Duisburg (Germany) based Bhai Ranjit Singh. The third night I slept even less as there was a short-circuit in the system and the fuses kept tripping : no electricity, no fan !

The rooms in the front part of the Gurdwara are underneath a flat roof on which the hot summer sun shines all day, so you can imagine that nights without the cooling effect of a fan are tough. Opening the windows more mosquitoes enter, and these got to my feet and arms even when the fan was on.

So on Wednesday I made an emergency phone call to Montecchia and asked Harpal Singh and Gurminder Kaur if I could come back to their apartment for the last two nights. Gurminder Kaur told me that their house was my house.

On Thursday I went to the Gurdwara from early afternoon to early evening and on Friday I stayed in Montecchia till 4 pm. Bhai Manjit Singh came to visit us and we returned him home before I went for my last visit to the San Bonifacio Gurdwara.

It was good to see Bhai Manjit Singh before going back to Belgium, as it was on his invitation that I came to Italy in the first place. It was also good to say goodbye to many of the friends I made in the gurdwara since arriving on the 18th of July.

Another resident of the Piazza Umberto in Montecchia together with my tabla playing friend brought me to the station.

The train from Venezia to Paris Bercy arrived 25 minutes late in Verona and 2 hours late in Paris. I missed my connection but the Thalys staff at the Gare du Nord booked me on a train to Brussel that had spare seats. I arrived in Sint-Truiden at 15.43, three hour later than expected.

On the way out I shared the Paris – Verona ‘train-a-couchettes’ with a French couple, two Korean girls (or Japanese or Chinese ?) and an Italian girl.

On the return the ‘crew’ was made up of a young Italian woman who was going to walk from the French side of the Roncesvalles pass to Santiago de Compostella, one older Italian woman who was going to cycle in Bretagne (Brittany), one French men of African descent who also spoke Italian and an Italian father and son from Alto Adige/Südtirol. Südtirol is an autonomous German speaking part of Italy between Bolzano (Bozen) and the Brenner Pass.

This just goes to show how interesting it is to travel slowly, in spite of the minor delays ! In my next column, which will be less of a travel log, I will look back on my Italian experiences from the Sikh point of view.

483.The Man in Blue – San Bonifacio (Verona), Pegognaga (Mantova), Novellara (Reggio Emilia)

On Monday 25 and Tuesday 26 July I stayed in Montecchia till about 2 pm, then went to the Gurdwara and mixed with the ‘campers’ till after Rahiras. Monday evening after coming back from Gurdwara Sahib I went out into the square in front of the apartment where Harpal Singh was sitting with some friends.

I met a relative of his wife, who also lives local and who took me for a drive in the hills around Montecchia. We came to a village, turned into a yard and saw about 7 or 8 Panjabi men talking to each other, just as if we were in some village ‘back-home’. It was not only the rural setting, but also the fact that everybody seemed to be related to the family I stayed with that gave me that real Panjabi feeling.

On Wednesday I packed my bags and left at the usual time for the San Bonifacio Gurdwara. In the evening at about 8 pm Gursharan Singh from Pegognaga and his friend Daljit Singh arrived. We had langar and left in their car, first taking the east–west autostrada to Verona and then the north-south one. We arrived at Gursharan Singh’s house at about 10 pm, met with his family, including a cousin who lives in Germany and went to sleep at 11 pm.

This time there was no big bedroom just for me, but a smaller room for three of us. The climate is also different; I am further south and in the fertile flatlands where on Thursday the temperature goes up to 40 Celsius. In that temperature I only went for a local walk, but I did take some pictures. In the late afternoon Gursharan Singh’s father, the cousin and I went to Novellara to visit the oldest Gurdwara of Italy, an impressive affair, where we were welcomed nicely.

When we came back home some visitors came with whom I had a good conversation. I do not think that the Gurdwaras here offer any pastoral care, and therefore people are keen to share their concerns with a visiting ‘gianni’ like me. I do have some insights to share, and I do not just talk, I can also listen.

Especially here where most people speak good Italian and of course Panjabi but less English, it is important to notice ‘body language’. The Sikhs live in a foreign land, and they are supposed to be a success, but one of the men I met works very hard but had not received any pay for the last four months. I cannot change his situation, but at least I can listen and point to the source of strength.

In San Bonifacio I also had ‘pastoral’ conversations, but there most people I listened and talked to had better English. What I enjoyed most there was seeing girls and women trying to find a Sikh path in the surrounding patriarchal Panjabi culture. This also seemed to be supported by those in charge of the Gurdwara.

Gursharan Singh is on a job related visit to Switzerland for two days and will come back tonight. Tomorrow we are due to go to the north east and on Sunday we will again visit the ‘local’ Novellara Gurdwara, which is about 25 km away from here. The family I am staying with treat me nicely, in a way that I am comfortable with.

483.The Man in Blue – Verona, San Giovanni Lupatoto, San Bonifacio, San Giovanni Ilarione, Montecchia di Crosare

To go back to the two San Giovannis discussed in the previous article, I went first to San Giovanni Lupatoto, which is just outside Verona and to the east. After discovering that this was not where Manjit Singh lived I returned to Verona and took a train to San Bonifacio station, which is walking distance from the local Gurdwara. Going by the google map the Gurdwara is on the Localitá Ritonda 81b.

North of San Bonifacio are the two other villages mentioned in the title of this article : San Giovanni Ilarione and Montecchia di Crosare. I spent one night at San Giovanni Ilarione and moved the next day to the house of Manjit Singh’s ‘sister’ (not his real sister) Gurminder Kaur and husband Harpal Singh in Montecchia. These are both villages but Montecchia looks a bit more like a small town.

We are here north of the area along the river Po, which is as flat as Panjab or the Netherlands. North of San Bonifacio are the foothills of the Alps. The San Bonifacio gurdwara is called the Associazone Guru Nanak, Mission Seva Society.

The story about the two pardhan I misunderstood. Only one of the two gentlemen is the pardhan, the other for some reason is (jokingly) called the new pardhan.

I have gone everyday at about 2 pm to the Gurdwara with the ‘new pardhan’ and stayed at least until after Rahras, when Gurminder Kaur came to pick me up.

There was a good attendance to the Sikhí camp, which was mainly devoted to learning Panjabi and learning how to play waja (harmonium) and tabla, a set of Indian type drums. Many of the youngsters had a good understanding of the Sikh way of life, and were more open-minded then UK and the Belgian Sikhs.

I also discovered that many of the older members of the sangat were quite well educated. They had learned English in Panjab, and although they could not practise their English in Italy, it was easy to communicate with them.

On Sunday I spoke for about 20 minutes in the divan. I was talking about simple things like simran and seva, ‘one God, one humanity’ and that all human beings, regardless of caste, faith, nationality, skin colour or gender are the children of God. When I said that the Guru Granth Sahib was my Malik, my Teacher and my Baba, and that I did not follow any Jathedars or Sant Baba’s I ‘earned’ a jaikara.

I have spoken to two young men from Novellara in Reggio Emilia who wanted me to come to their Gurdwara. I discussed this with Manjit Singh, making sure he had not made any other arrangements for me, and then phoned Gursharan Singh, one of the two young men, and arranged for me to go to Novellara on Wednesday and come back to San Bonifacio on Sunday after the divan. When I come back I hope to stay in the San Bonifacio Gurdwara for a couple of days and make excursions to Venice and Brescia from there.

434.The Man in Blue – Meeting Limburgers

Last week I went on my bicycle to Hoepertingen to visit the local Gurdwara. I did not go along the main road, but followed one of the cycle routes which you find throughout Limburg. These routes are not the shortest way to get from A to B, but they do take you along nice country lanes.

Hoepertingen is part of the borough of Borgloon, just to the east of Sint Truiden. I planned to use a route north of the village and then turn right into a ‘dirt road’ which would take me straight to the Gurdwara.

 The map I have is quite good, it shows all the metalled roads and most of the ‘dirt roads’, but not all of them, and when I came to a crossing with a slightly wider road I was sure that I missed my turnoff.

I spotted a farmer and asked him for directions. He was helpful and we had a very interesting conversation. The gentleman (he was a gentle man), asked me if I believed in God, and I answered that through following Guru’s way I met with God.

The farmer had lost his belief in the ‘church’ but was still interested in God. I explained that our ‘church’ also had its fair share of dodgy characters, but I tried to follow God and the Guru Granth, which contains the light of God.

We also talked about Jesus, who did not found a Church bureaucracy with Popes, Archbishops, Bishops and other VVIPs. His followers were simple fisherman and Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, were simple people too. I explained the notion of dharm to him, the importance of being righteous, to be a positive force in society.

It was not just me who did the talking, and I was not preaching at him, I just tried to explain what guided my life, trying to share my experiences. When I talked about the fact that teachings on honesty, sharing and compassion are what the world religions have in common, he agreed.

He told me about a Turkish friend of his who had invited him to his house. Like most Turkish people he was a Muslim, and my new friend had no problem with that, but he did not like it when it was made clear to him that all non-Muslims are unbelievers.  

I have had mixed experiences in Belgian Limburg. I have been called Osama Bin Laden, some idiots shouted ‘jihad, jihad’ at me and some others called me Sint Nicolaas (Santa Claus). But I also met Limburgers who were open minded and interested to learn more about other traditions.

My best experience so far was a visit to the Mosque where we sat together after evening prayers and had a very constructive conversation.

386.The Man in Blue – Hounslow Singh Sabha Youth Programme

As part of the celebration of 300 years of the Guru Granth Sahib as Eternal Guru of the Sikhs, Hounslow Singh Sabha last year launched a year long programme of various activities highlighting our eternal Guru.

One of these activities was a monthly kirtan with kathá in English for and by the Gurdwara youth on Sunday afternoon, and on Sunday September 20 it was already the last one in the series (and one of the best !).

Recently we had a couple of meetings looking back on the last year and forward to the next. We concluded that we have a small group of volunteers who can run this type of programmes in the Gurdwara. Although one of them is a greybeard, the others are young enough to call him dada.

We have also found out that Sunday afternoon is not the best time to put on a programme. There was always some sangat coming in and going out, but it was in trickle and never a stream.

The following ideas have been accepted by the committee. On the last Friday of the month the 6 pm Rahiras, Kirtan and Kathá programme will be organised by the volunteers, using as many naujawán as are able and willing. We will follow the Rehat Maryádá and we will also encourage sangat to take part in the reciting of the Rahiras and in the kirtan.

We hope that the sangat will stay with us for the Sukhasan and accompany the Guru Granth Sahib on its way to the Sach Khand.

On the first Sunday of each month the usual kirtan hour done by the children of the Gurdwara will be extended till 12.00. In that hour the more accomplished students of the kirtan classes and other non-professional kirtanis will come on stage.

In that hour there will also be a presentation on Sikh history, particularly on the lives of our Gurus, demonstrating points of gurmat.

The katha in English on the evenings of the last Friday of the month will combine simran realising the meanings of words we meditate on, with simple explanations of sabads. We will link Guru’s teachings with life in the 21st century in the UK.

All members of sangat, from toddlers to centenarians are welcome, all are encouraged to take part, all are encouraged to share their love for Guru. Sádh Sangat, the True Congregation, is where we will find the strength to continue on Guru’s way. Sikhí is not what you do on Sunday morning in the Gurdwara, Sikhí should be 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (And you should have heard the kirtan on the 20th of October !)

373.The Man in Blue – A Visit to the burnt down Sikh Sangat Gurdwara

On Sunday the 17th of May I paid a visit to the Sikh Sangat Gurdwara, Harley Grove, Bow, which recently was set fire to by ‘person or persons unknown’. In this column I will not discuss the possible motives behind this.

After getting up, taking a shower and doing my ‘nitnem’ I did some work related to ‘fbfe’, updated my weblog and added some pictures to my flickr account. Like I do every morning I had Panjabi style tea with cloves, cardamom and fennel and a Dutch style breakfast with different types of bread, peanut butter, marmalade and cheese.

I then went out to Elthorne (Hanwell) to deliver Lib Dem leaflets encouraging people to vote Lib Dems at the European election. We might be reasonably successful, as voters are less unhappy with our lot than with the Conservatives and New Labour. Our voters are also more motivated to vote in a European election, as Lib Dems do not suffer from Europhobia.

At about 13.00 I took a bus to Ealing Broadway and went from there by train and underground to Bow.

Sadh Sangat was having langar in the street in front of the Gurdwara and I was invited to take part. I was recognised by a Singh who studies at Walthamstow College, and talked to him and to another Singh who has a stall in the Roman Road street market.

After langar I helped with removing, cleaning and stacking the tables and chairs, which gave me the chance to have a good look at the damage done to the Gurdwara. The back of the building with the langar and the kitchen is intact, the front where the beautiful divan hall and the ‘sach khand’ were is in an awful state. The outer walls are standing but this part of the building is an empty shell with a caved in roof.

I enjoyed being with sangat, I liked the langar in the street and the divan in a tent on the green across the road from the Gurdwara, but seeing the damage done made me feel sad over the loss inflicted on the community and over the lost ‘birs’ of the Guru Granth Sahib.

This building symbolises the rich and diverse history of the area, first a church, then a synagogue and finally a Gurdwara. It should be restored to its original state, respecting the faith traditions that it housed. Whoever the arsonist was, whatever his motives, regardless whether he acted on his own or not, he should not be allowed to win.

We should all contribute to a restoration fund that has both local and outside Gursikhs as trustees, making sure that this monument for the rich social and religious history of East London is preserved.

Published in: on May 23, 2009 at 7:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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370.The Man in Blue – Peace of Mind in the Kingston Gurdwara

As happens to me too often I went through a period during which I was very busy both with working for Faiths & Beliefs in Further Education (fbfe) and also with the various other things I get up to.

On the 30th of April I held my bi-annual fbfe London Region Forum. It was quite successful, and it is likely that things are going to be less hectic between now and September.

I had agreed to a first visit to Kingston College for the 1st of May, but I felt more like having a day off instead of going to yet another college to make my case for multi-faith activities.

It was a beautiful morning and I decided to leave early and pay a visit to the Kingston Gurdwara before going to the college. As there is no direct rail link between Kingston and Southall I took the 607 bus to Ealing and from Ealing the 65 bus to Eden Road in central Kingston. From there I took the K1 bus to the Guru Har Rai Gurdwara.

The only sangat present in the Gurdwara was a lady busy preparing langar. She asked me if I liked some ‘nasta’ and whether I wanted ‘chai’ or ‘dudh’. I sat down and enjoyed my parantha, sabzi and chai with chini (not khand). The lady either spoke Hindi or city Panjabi strongly influenced by Hindi.

The big advantage for me was that she used fewer nasal sounds and less high speed talking, so I could actually understand her and answer her in my version of Panjabi (you are allowed to laugh).    

But my inadequacies in the field of understanding and speaking Panjabi are not the subject of this article. What I found was that by simply being in the Gurdwara, listening to the reading of the Guru Granth, enjoying my cup of tea and my bit of langar I calmed down, I relaxed and when I went to the Kingston College everything went really well.

The Gurdwara is to be a refuelling station where both physical and spiritual food is on offer. Even when no function takes place, when there is no kirtan, katha (and especially no extremely noisy dhadis) the Gurdwara is (should be) a place of peace.

Nobody needs to do anything very special, just treat all comers with respect, try to leave those that just want some peace and quiet alone, and sit down with those that need a listening ear.

What we do not need is sevadars that shout at each other, or even worse at the sangat. What we need even less is Prabandhaks fighting each other.

364.The Man in Blue – Gurdwara Sikh Sangat, Bow, London, UK

It is not good news to hear that a Gurdwara has been set fire to, and that the fire was started from the sach khand, destroying birs of the Guru Granth Sahib and doing very serious damage to the building. 

Even so, a building, even a building that has been a Church, a Synagogue and then a Gurdwara, is at the end of the day only ‘bricks and mortar’. The burning of birs of the Guru Granth Sahib is very sad and very regrettable, but the arsonist has burnt paper, cardboard and bookbinding, not the Shabad, not the word of God, which is eternal and indestructible.


The Indian media have widely reported the fire as a racist attack. Apparently Sikhs in Hyderabad burnt the UK flag during a protest. In reality we do not know the motives of the arsonist. Some of the rumours doing the round suggest a worse possibility than a racist attack.


I heard from three different sources (who might all have heard it from one source) that there is a conflict between committee members and within the sangat over a possible sale of the present building. Some are very strongly in favour of selling and building a new Gurdwara elsewhere, others are very strongly against it.


Apparently a very acrimonious debate on this issue took place the day before the fire. I know that conflicts in Gurdwaré are often taken to extremes, and I know that in the past crimes have been committed as part of Gurdwara conflicts. You never know of course, but I would think or sincerely hope that Sikhs, however misguided, would not set fire to a Gurdwara, would not set fire to the sach khand.


It is of course possible that there is a racist or ‘religious’ motive behind the attack. But here too there are doubts : which non-Sikh group or individual would know the meaning of the sach khand and know where it is located ?


If the arsonist is an individual acting on his own, and if he does not start talking about it to family and friends, it is going to be difficult for the police to find the culprit. If he is part of a right-wing racist group or a Taliban or RSS type outfit, it should be easier for the police to track him down.


The police might know far more than even Harmander Singh, and surprise us all by arresting a criminal who does not fit any of the speculations that are doing the rounds.


Once we know why the arsonist set fire to the Gurdwara, we should not burn flags or hate all people of the same background as the criminal. Sikhs should at all times seriously try to practice the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib, as per the hukam of Guru Gobind Singh.

Published in: on March 21, 2009 at 4:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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349.Man in Blue – Hounslow Singh Sabha Youth Programmes

From October 20 2008 (300 years of the Guru Granth as our eternal Guru) until October 20 2009 the Hounslow Singh Sabha Gurdwara is running a series of programmes for the young members of the sangat, which should lead to a better understanding of the Guru Granth. 

The Prabandhak committee has asked a group of Sikhs to help organise some of the programmes directed at the youth, and the ‘man in blue’, young at heart but getting on in years, is part of this group. Since then we had a youth kirtan darbar with katha in English on Sunday afternoon 23 November.

Between now and the end of 2008 the following youth programmes are planned to take place :
14/12 14.00 – 16.00 Youth Kirtan Darbar

21/12 14.00 – 16.00 Youth Kirtan Darbar with katha in English

27/12 (time to be decided), Lecture followed by questions and answers : ‘Becoming a Sikh’, Gurpreet Singh & Harjinder Singh.
28/12 One Day Sikhí Camp, workshop for the young, lectures and interactive activities.

30/12 Seminar for the young, understanding Guru’s teachings.


More details on the December 27, 28 and 30 programmes will follow.  


We are dealing with an audience that might be as young as 5 or 6 but also with attending parents, grandparents aunties and uncles.


Our main challenge is to go easy on storytelling, and concentrate instead on the teachings of the Guru Granth. Stories can be used to a limited extent to illustrate points made in Gurbaní, but we have to be aware of the fact that South Asia has a rich tradition of storytelling, and no tradition of history.


To give an example of what I mean take the story of Bhai Lalo and Malik Bhago. There might have been such persons and Guru Nanak might have visited them, but we do not know how ‘historical’ the story is. What we do know is that it is a ‘True Story’ in another, much more important sense : the teachings of the story are in line with Gurbaní.


Guru teaches us about One God, One Humanity, making an Honest Living, about not concentrating on Me, Me, Me but instead on seeing God’s presence in ‘All and Everything’. Can we make the youngsters aware of God’s Love for us ? Can we develop their love for God ?


Can we make our sangat understand that a shahíd, a martyr, is the opposite of a suicide bomber, that a shahíd is looking for justice, is defending the oppressed regardless of the consequences ? Can we educate young Sikhs to be Spiritual Heroes, sacrificing all in the quest for truth and welfare of all.

Published in: on December 9, 2008 at 7:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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345.Southall Singh Sabha & the Sikh School

As a member of the Southall Singh Sabha I received a letter about the Khalsa School under construction in the grounds of the Norwood Hall in Southall, in the London Borough of Ealing.


Here follows the text of the English version of the letter :

Respected Sadh Sangat Ji,


Vahiguru Ji Ka Khalsa  Vahiguru Ji Ki Fateh


A new primary school ‘Sri Guru Singh Sabha Khalsa Primary School’ is under construction. The co-operation of all the Sikh Sangat is crucial. Learned scholars have stated that to expand a religion, it is very important encourage its language and culture. For these reasons the development of Khalsa Primary School was deemed necessary and has begun. In this institution, in addition to the standard school syllabus, religious education will be incorporated. Although we have received a governmental grant, contributions from the community are required to maximise the potential of this project. The administration would be extremely obliged to you for your co-operation if you would make your one tenth contribution towards the school building. If every Gursikh family contributes £ 5 a month, it generates £60 a year. 1,000 families making such donations will contribute £60,000 and 10,000 families will contribute £600,000. Let us get together and provide our next generations an excellent opportunity for a glorious future and a wonderful educational institution.


A direct debit form is provided. Please complete it to Sri Guru Singh Sabha office by post or deliver it the Sabha’s office.


Humble request by Sri Guru Singh Sabha sevadars


I like the letter, it is more ‘Sikh’ to raise small amounts of money from many than raising huge amounts from few (and then put their names on the wall). I also like the fact that the letter is not signed by the pradhan or general secretary, but by the team.


I do not like direct debit very much, I prefer to be in control, but I will make a contribution equivalent to £ 5 a month.


You will not be surprised, me being an awkward sort of person, that there are some questions that bother me. Can the humble sevadars please explain to me what they mean by ‘its language and culture’ ?    


I also hope/expect that the Prabandhak Committee will set up a governing body for the school which is controlled by parents, not by the Gurdwara.

Published in: on November 7, 2008 at 6:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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