This year, on 13 April, nearly half a million Sikhs in the United Kingdom celebrated Vaisakhi, the most important day in the Sikh calendar. It was on 13 April 1699 that the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, laid down the foundations for the Khalsa movement - a collective body of initiated Sikhs who live by the Sikh code of conduct.
One of the most exciting things about representing Leicester is being part of city of so many faiths. We have our splendid churches, our mosques, hindu temples, synagogues, a Jain temple and of course our Gurdwaras. I'm proud that we are city that celebrates every major religious festival.
So in Leicester, every year we have the Nagar Kirtan procession through the city to celebrate this holy day. Thousands of people come from across the county to take part. This year's procession, organised, saw over 15,000 people walking through the City.
Every year I march with the procession and join worshippers at a number of Gurdwaras but this year I wanted to do something extra and try to gain for myself a more meaningful experience of Vaisakhi.
So, I decided to give my 'sewa' (or 'service') for my Vaisakhi experience. Offering one's service is an integral part of Sikh tradition, and this is epitomised in the daily langar served in Gurdwaras. During langar, Gurdwaras open their kitchens to everyone, regardless of background, and offer free food to all those in attendance. This generous service is offered by all Gurdwaras, and is a clear example of Sikh community organisation. I wanted to be part of this, so I offered to serve food in the kitchens on the day of the Leicester Vaisakhi Nagar Kirtan.
My day started at 11.00am at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara on Holy Bones. People of all ages were ready to start the procession, and there was a real sense of community and excitement. The procession was led by a dhol player on the back of a vehicle, and behind him were more than a dozen sweepers. These barefoot sweepers cleaned the streets, ready for a small group of men with swords to then follow. The swords were reminiscent of the kirpan, or dagger, that is one of the five key symbols of Sikhism. All around there were visual reminders of Sikh tenets, from these carefully-carried swords to the bright orange Khalsa flags. People were singing religious hymns as we walked along, and it was a fantastic environment to be immersed in.
I reached the Guru Tegh Bahadur Gurdwara for 1.00pm to start my seva and there was a lot of preparation to be done for this! The kitchens were impressively organised, fully ready and prepared to feed the thousands of people expecting to be fed after a long three mile walk! It was important for me to see and experience first-hand the effort that goes into this service. The langar is such a significant part of being in a Gurdwara, and the volunteers who provide these meals show a real commitment to helping others; cooking for thousands of people is no easy task, as I very much learned! I was later told that the Gurdwara would easily serve 20,000 meals that day.
As the government's austerity cuts bite some of the Gurdwaras in Leicester have reported they are seeing more and more people come in for food on a daily basis and it is an extraordinary testament to the Sikh commitment to the common good, that no one is turned away. Indeed as I served food I was serving not just to Sikhs but people of all faiths and backgrounds.
It was so noticeable about the langar was the way in which everyone there was united. They were united not only in their religious beliefs, but also in their support for traditions like this that are dedicated to helping others. People of all ages came together, and it was great to see three generations of one family all eating a meal together in the Gurdwara.
But what struck me most powerfully was that the Vaisakhi celebrations were more than a celebration of the Khalsa movement; they were a celebration of community, friendship and generosity, and I look forward to participating in next year's festivities.