Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Edinburgh's Sikhs mourn their 'Queen'

A remarkable journey, which began 60 years ago, when a heavily pregnant Sikh woman walked to safety from the strife-torn region of the Punjab, has ended this week in Edinburgh.

The body of Lachmi Wanti Singh Landa, 86, dressed in fine robes of peach and powder blue, was laid to rest at the centre of a crematorium chapel in Leith.

To her right, a priest in a golden jacket led a chant that was taken up by hundreds of men crushed in around the dead woman. "Satnam waheguru," they cried, "The truth of the creator is eternal", lifting their prayers to heaven for one of the most significant and beloved of women, whose life story echoes the experience of the entire Sikh diaspora.

No-one could doubt the depth of feeling for Mrs Singh, whose passing meant so much to so many. She bore eight daughter and six sons. Between them, her children have produced 63 offspring. There are 85 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, Luckvinder Singh. A further 34 wives and husbands have married into the clan. All are members of a family who knew this woman as "the Queen of Queens".

Edinburgh's Sikh community numbers between 500 and 600. Mrs Singh, who died after a short illness last week, almost 12 years to the day since her husband passed away, was directly related to more than a third of them.

In the chapel, the crowd kept moving forward. From the pews in the body of the kirk, older women in white robes shuffle up to the coffin. They approach the body to touch the dead woman’s feet, paying her the respect which age is due.

Finally, after the coffin lid had brought from the south wall of the chapel, it fell to Akbal “Aaki” Singh, Mrs Singh’s eldest son, to push the button that consigned the body to the incinerator.

An hour later, In Leith’s Gurdwara, the temple converted from St Thomas Church, the family could at last come to terms with their grief.

“She was very highly respected by everybody,” said Aaki Singh. “She loved to give people things. She spread happiness. She never had a bad word to say about anyone. If someone said a bad thing about another, ‘She would say, ‘Never say that.’ She was a peacemaker.”

Born in Lahore, Mrs Singh’s journey to Scotland began after her marriage to Karnel Singh. Sikh tradition dictates that a woman joins her husband’s family and the couple set up home in Gorashah in 1944.

This was the age of partition, the division of India and Pakistan by the British authorities, which led to a form of ethnic cleansing as Muslims were driven from the India, and Sikhs were forced from the new Muslim stage, Pakistan.

Eight months pregnant, and leaving all her possessions behind, Mrs Singh was among thousands of refugees forced to walk the 100km which led to safety in the town of Phagwara, south east of Amritsar, in the Indian Punjab. Here her first daughter Raspal Kaur, was born in August 1947. Four more children would come into the world in Phagwara and Ludhiana, before in 1958, she followed her husband to Britain, and settled with her family on St Mary’s Street in Edinburgh.

“When we came to Edinburgh we were welcomed with open arms, not like we came from some foreign land. Until I was 16 I didn’t even realise I was coloured – this is why the love for Edinburgh is so great,” said Ragbir “Rab” Singh, who came to the city at the age of four.

“There was a difference in England, a kind of segregation. We came from a community with love and care. I was welcomed into my friends at Christmas or at any other special occasion. That was the love we got from Scotland and Edinburgh.”

The family have moved around, briefly as far as Birmingham, but mostly in Edinburgh, to Gayfield Square and now a little further north, to Pilrig. Some of Mrs Singh’s children have been trailblazers. In 1971 Aaki was the first Sikh to win his case as a bus conductor and to be allowed to wear a regulation turban to work. Many of the men have been shopkeepers with premises of their own, others property dealers. Some work in the community, others in big city stores.

These days, many of the younger women are not content with just being housewives, and take jobs, unlike Mrs Singh, whose life was dedicated to her husband, her children, and her children’s children. But all honour and adore her. Mrs Singh will never be forgotten.

“She was more than a mother to us,” said Jagdish Kaur, who married into Aaki Singh in 1969. “ One of her babies came after my own first child. She was very beautiful. We looked after her like a queen. She was a queen.”

The photographs show Karnel Singh and Lachmi Wanti shortly after their marriage, Lachmi Wanti with her great-great grandson, and, immediately abover, at her 75th birthday party with her sons and daughters alongside. Thanks to the family for helping with this article, which first appeared in The Times.


Anonymous said...

she had a great life, lived her life to the full. She never turned any one away empty handed.Always up for parties and havin a good time, thats the person she was and thats the person who will never be forgotten by any one who new her.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why but I was just thinking of Bibeji and I wanted to see Bibeji's picture so I googled it and found the article and seen Bibeji's picture. My family are related to Bibeji and to me she was one of my favourite Bibeji's. I loved seeing her in the Gurdwara and going up to her and greeting her. She always smiling and blessed me. I miss Bibeji alot and I will never forget her.