Home   Gravesend   News   Article

From Sikh Street to the Gravesend Gurdwara: Marking ten years of the Guru Nanak Darbar Temple

Sikhs across Kent are set to mark the tenth anniversary since one of the largest temples in Europe was unveiled – the Gravesend Gurdwara.

Each year tens of thousands flock to the international landmark but as more muted celebrations take place this week to coincide with Diwali we look back at the origins of the milestone construction.

The Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara in Gravesend is one of the largest in Europe. Picture: Gary Browne
The Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara in Gravesend is one of the largest in Europe. Picture: Gary Browne

At the last census in 2011, there were more than 10,000 followers of the Sikh faith across Kent but the latest estimates suggest that figure has been surpassed in one town alone.

More than 15,000 Sikhs are believed to be living in Gravesend and the surrounding suburbs, making up more than 15% of the total local population.

The origins of the community can be traced back to the 1950s when a shortage of cheap labour fuelled demand for workers from abroad.

Many Sikhs left India's Punjab state to venture to post-war Britain and take up work in the riverside town's paper mill industry and later major construction projects such as the Dartford Tunnel, opened in 1963.

Of these workers, many sought lodgings in Pier Road, affectionately dubbed "Sikh Street" in a 2002 Channel 4 documentary on the first Sikhs to arrive in Kent.

A sweet shop owned by the Virdee family in Cutmore Street in 1968
A sweet shop owned by the Virdee family in Cutmore Street in 1968

It showed how the comparatively generous pay packets they sent home to their families often sugar-coated the image of life in Britain with many Indian workers living in crowded conditions.

Before the first Gurdwara was established in 1956 by Bhat Sikh, Giani Santokh Singh Nirpakh it was common for Sikhs to gather at each others homes each day to pray.

In fact the origins of the communal prayer can be traced back to a single terraced home in Edwin Street.

Later a group of Sikhs would club together to acquire the previous Gurdwara, in Clarence Place, which opened in 1968 on the site of a former church.

This temple was eventually closed to make way for the current site in Saddington Street, which now lays claims to being one of the biggest Gurdwaras outside of India.

Opened on November 19, 2010 at a cost of £18 million – and funded entirely by the local community – the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara boasts three meditation halls, two langar halls, a lecture theatre, ICT suite, library, and various sporting facilities.

The construct was produced and carved in India and the interior architecture was modelled on the sacred Golden Temple, known as the eighth Wonder of the World.

Stonemasons worked for two years solid on the temple which has been clad inside and out with granite and marble.

It is a source of great pride for the Sikh families who come to pray, learn and socialise, but as Jagdev Singh Virdee, spokesman for the Gurdwara explains, it also takes on a much larger role at the heart of the Gravesend community.

"During the lockdown we have had a food service helping many people in the Gurdwara," he said.

The temple came together with other local organisations to provide more than 60,000 meals for hospital staff, isolating residents and anyone in need of help, he adds.

Langar is the term used in Sikhism for a community kitchen where a free meal is served to all visitors, regardless of faith or ethnicity.

Meals being prepared in the Gravesend Gurdwara kitchen. Photo: Jagdev Singh Virdee (43021849)
Meals being prepared in the Gravesend Gurdwara kitchen. Photo: Jagdev Singh Virdee (43021849)

Mr Virdee said the Gurdwara was a huge centre for everyone, not just Sikhs, which is reliant on people volunteering their time.

This he explains is a fundamental part of the religion which he says is built on the principles of hard work, daily prayer and sharing with others.

It has been a challenging time for the Gurdwara with extra protocols put in place to ensure the health and safety of all attending.

This includes temperature checks on arrival, limiting the number of people and even creating a new mobile app to give people live updates of the busiest times so people can plan their journey.

"We can make out space and get 180 sat a a time but we don't let in that many," said Mr Virdee.

"On the weekend we can get 50-60 at a time. We encourage people to come at all times of the day."

A Langar service at the Gravesend Gurdwara. Photo: Jagdev Singh Virdee
A Langar service at the Gravesend Gurdwara. Photo: Jagdev Singh Virdee

During the latest lockdown all group prayer has been suspended but is broadcast live via the website and social media daily at 4am and 4pm. It will however be open for limited-time individual prayer.

Mr Virdee said the response to the change had been "very positive" adding: "The audiences have been growing day by day."

Sadly, the latest national lockdown has meant the Gurdwara 10 year anniversary later this month will also be somewhat muted but Mr Virdee said Gravesend's Sikhs were determined to mark the occasion.

"We are going to have a few celebrations but can't have much more than that because of the restrictions," he said, adding events will mostly be online.

The Gurdwara is the centre of Gravesend’s Vaisakhi Festival which takes place every April and marks the year Sikhism was born as a collective faith, or the birth of the Khalsa.

Thousands of residents of all races and cultures descend on the town each year to celebrate and mark the start of their New Year.

Gurdwara Gravesend celebrates Diwali
Gurdwara Gravesend celebrates Diwali

But this year the procession – usually flanked with crowds lining the streets with music, dancing and laughter – was shelved in response to the virus outbreak and replaced with a live feed showing prayers at the Gurdwara and community videos.

Diwali is also set to begin on Thursday, November 12 with the main celebrations to take place a few days later on Saturday, November 14.

It is billed as the Hindu and Sikh equivalent to Christmas with homes decorated on mass with colourful light displays, gifts exchanged and fireworks to mark the occasion.

But things will again look different this year as celebrations are moved online.

It will also have an impact on long-standing confectionary shops such as Virdee Stores for which Diwali is the busiest time of the year.

The sweet shop was first opened by Jagdev's father Balwant Singh Virdee in Cutmore Street in 1968 before relocating around the corner two years later to its current location in Arthur Street.

A queue for jalebis outside Virdee Stores
A queue for jalebis outside Virdee Stores

Jagdev's brother Hardish helped his parents run the store with his wife Surinder but since lockdown their youngest daughter Gurpreet Virdee Saib has taken over the reins due to their age placing them at risk from Covid-19.

In normal times there would be up to 30 customers jostling in the shop but now they are restricted to just three at a time, Gurpreet explains.

Each year massive queues form outside to buy Indian sweets for the festival but this month the store is asking customers to pre-order for collection at set times.

"Now we are thinking how we can deliver sweets in the safest way," said Gurpreet

"Traditionally people want hot jalebis so people will wait for up to an hour for a fresh batch."

On the challenge of running the store, the 43-year-old, who also works for a charity supporting woman and girls at risk of violence adds: "It has been fun but quite difficult as well – you can't run a business in the same way."

Gurpreet Virdee Saib is running Virdee Stores in her parent's absence
Gurpreet Virdee Saib is running Virdee Stores in her parent's absence

However, Gurpreet says she has enjoyed minding the shop which she has helped out in since she was a little girl.

And she has even tried to stamp her own take on the sweets as she follows in her father's footsteps of creating new exciting flavours.

Her latest concoction consists of Orio mixed with Barfi, a milk-based Indian sweet in a modernising move she calls "East meets West".

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

Read more: All the latest news from Gravesend

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More