Sikhs mark 300 years as fighters sect

INDIA'S MOST easily recognised community, the Sikhs, formed a sea of turbans yesterday at the northern Indian town of Anandpur Sahib, which means "town of bliss", to mark the 300th anniversary of a defining moment in the history of their religion.

Sikhs are, perhaps, the most enterprising and mobile community from the sub-continent. "Sikhs and potatoes are found all over the world," goes a popular gibe. And beyond the world - when Neil Armstrong took his "small step for man" on the moon, Indians joke, he was surprised to bump into a family of Sikhs strolling about. "We came here right after Partition," they explained.

But the Sikh religion, an attempt to distil the best of both Hinduism and Islam, sprang from the soil of Punjab, near the present India-Pakistan border, and it is to this small town in Punjab that 2 million pilgrims have come to take part in the 300th anniversary celebrations of Khalsa (meaning "the Pure"). At Anandpur Sahib on 13 April 1699, the 10th and last Sikh guru, Gobind Singh, converted Sikhs from a docile religious order into a body of fighters, sworn to challenge both the Mogul conquerors and Hinduism's caste system.

The recent history of the Sikhs has been ferocious. A guerrilla movement to create an independent Sikh homeland, Kalistan, led by a charismatic country preacher called Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, split the Sikhs into factions in the 1970s. Sikhism is closely related to Hinduism, from which many of its ideas derive, and it is always at risk of being consumed by its parent - a "boa constrictor" as one British scholar put it.

The firebrand leader Bhindranwale hit on the perfect way to prevent absorption: make the two communities loathe and fear one another.

The hostilities led to the shelling of Sikhism's Holy of Holies, the Golden Temple in Amritsar (Bhindranwale died in the onslaught), on the orders of prime minister Indira Gandhi on 5 June 1984; in Mrs Gandhi's assassination by her Sikh bodyguards four months later; and in a subsequent pogrom of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere, in which the violence burnt itself out.

This all-too-recent history has not been forgotten, and extremist Sikhs still haunt the headlines of Indian newspapers.

At Anandpur Sahib, the Sikhs' temporal leader and his fanatical spiritual counterpart held rival celebrations. But this buoyant and adaptable community has devoted the past 15 years to finding new ways to express their identity - mostly by getting rich.

Punjab has the richest farmland in India, and is the seat of India's Green Revolution. Despite being as recognisable as Hassidic Jews, Sikhs are more versatile (and less prudish and inhibited) than most of their countrymen. Famous modern Sikhs include India's most reforming finance minister, Manmohan Singh; its grandest and most scandalous man of letters, Khushwant Singh; and its most successful (and irritating) pop star, Daler Mehndi, who is currently touring the US.

The energy that forced the British to acknowledge Sikhs as India's doughtiest warriors is finding more creative outlets.

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