Thursday, 8 October, 2009
Jo Bole So Nihaal! Sat Sri Akaal!
First Sikh soldiers go on parade to guard the Queen…without the traditional forage cap!
They are not quite what the tourists might expect when they come looking for a snapshot of a Buckingham Palace guard. There's not a red coat or a bearskin in sight - but there are two immaculately wrapped turbans in fetching shades of blue. Because they are changing the guard at Buckingham Palace.
And Signaller Simranjit Singh and Lance Corporal Sarvjit Singh are it - the first Sikh soldiers to guard the Queen. There has been a long tradition of Sikhs serving in or with the British Army, but not until now has a Sikh soldier been among those charged with the responsibility of guarding the queen at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.
The honor of being the first Sikh to take up the prestigious role fell to Signaller Singh, 'Sim' to his colleagues, earlier this summer. The 27-year-old is serving with the 21 Signal Regiment, normally based in Colerne, Wiltshire, but is at the end of a summer 'tour' of London.
Mounting guard duty is normally carried out by the Guards of Household Division in their distinctive scarlet tunics and bear skin caps, but when the Guards units are busy with operational duties other regiments step in. Which is how Signaller Singh found himself leaving his normal duties at the headquarters' motor transport department looking after vehicles and radio equipment. As a Buckingham Palace guard he has had to adjust to the rigors of ceremonial parade, and, of course, standing motionless for up to two hours at a time while tourists do their very best to raise a smile. And because of his turban, in dark blue to coordinate with the forage caps of his fellow soldiers, Signaller Singh has become used to tourists.
'People do try to make me laugh,' said the soldier, who is married. 'They have made me smile a couple of times but not laugh. I'm there to do my job and I try to do my best.'
Born in India he came to Britain as a teenager and worked as a clerk in the NHS before joining the Army in 2006. He has uncles serving in the Indian Army and a grandfather who served with the British Army in Burma. His family are incredibly proud, he said, of his latest role. And his proudest moment on duty? Probably when the Queen gave him a wave. 'That was a good day,' he said modestly. 'Things like that do matter to you as a soldier when you are doing your job protecting the Queen.'
Lance Cpl Singh, 28, shares the same sense of pride in his job. He was born in India in 1981, but came to England in 2000 when his father, a state general secretary in India was working with the High Commission, and joined the Army Air Corps four years later. Due to marry later this year the soldier still has another month of Royal duty.
He said it was 'hard work' training for drill movements, and for the long periods standing stock still, but worth it. A medal marking the fact he has served in Afghanistan adorns his tunic. But Lnc Cpl Singh said that for his family, the greater emotional impact came when he told them he was guarding the Queen.'I feel very, very proud to have this honor,' he said. As for being a soldier and a Sikh he said he was treated like everyone else, apart from the occasional occasion about his turban and whether it gets hot.
Turbans, long hair and beards are considered a mandatory religious uniform for all Sikhs. Keeping uncut hair is required according to the Rehat Maryada, the Sikh instruction for living.