To The Gurdwara We Will Go

We were at the Sikh Gurdwara yesterday as part of the Penang Heritage Trust monthly site visits. I often look forward to these events as we get an insider’s view of the historical building or place.

Sikh Gurdwara with flag pole denoting to travellers a place to stay for the night
Sikh Gurdwara with flag pole denoting to travellers a place to stay for the night

I am sure you’ve passed by this place of worship if you drive along Jalan Gurdwara going to GAMA or the Four Leaves Bakery. Most likely you would have thought it was a Sikh temple. It is but it is also more than that. And what with it being built in 1903, this building has seen more than 100 years of development in Penang!
Like everyone else, we were deeply curious about the Gurdwara. What is inside this place? What do the Sikhs do here besides pray? And we could finally get our myths righted then and there by asking the turbanned leaders.
Look closely at the mural...
Look closely at the mural...

I mean, have you ever wondered about the Sikhs? They are probably the most misunderstood people here in Malaysia. Everyone thinks Punjabis are Sikhs (the term is usually used interchangeably – I cannot think how annoyed the Sikhs are!). This is a misconception as Punjab is a state and in this state, the Punjabis could be of any religion – not necessarily Sikhism! Or the perennial favourite – Bengali as a term for the Sikhs. Again, it is misconstrued.
The Gurdwara is not only a place of worship but also a community centre for the Sikhs. It is a place for travellers (in those days of ship travel) to rest and have some clean accommodation before they moved on elsewhere. The accommodation is basic – the netting bed or charpoy doubled up as an easy bed without the need for mattress. (That is quite innovative because there won’t be any bedsheets to lug about!).
Pakoras served in stainless steel bowls
Pakoras served in stainless steel bowls

Everyone, regardless of their faith, could come into the Gurdwara for a free vegetarian meal. Their communal kitchen is fairly large. We were told not to miss the special milk tea and pakoras the Sikh ladies had prepared for us at the end of our visit. It was true. The milk tea was smooth and delicious (better than Hong Kong milk tea!) without being too sweet while the deep-fried vegetable fritters were simple and homely fare.
How do I look with a shawl over my head?
How do I look with a shawl over my head?

The first floor of the Gurdwara housed their prayer hall. To enter, we had to cover our heads with scarves. While we women looked rather sweet and demure, men with scarves just looked quite Taliban! We were told that the Sikhs would read from their Holy Book and in this hall, prayers would be recited every day.
The kind and humble people who prepared our tea
The kind and humble people who prepared our tea

We were also given booklets explaining about the Sikh religion and what their core beliefs are. Although I had friends who were Sikhs when I was in school, it never occurred to me to probe more. Now I know better of course.
Inside the prayer hall
Inside the prayer hall

If we could all visit each other’s place of worship and have the religion explained to us, we could all understand more. Understanding each other and appreciating each other’s uniqueness will alleviate fear. It is only fear which creates misunderstandings about religion.
Just the other night, I was speaking to Fabian and feeling really lucky that I have access to his Catholic mind and all the theology he’s learnt. Again, I may have Catholic friends but I sure did not dare ask too many questions back then. It is only with friends who are open enough does one dare approach the subject of religion. It’s all very curiously interesting!

4 thoughts on “To The Gurdwara We Will Go”

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Krista. I missed the visit but glad to learn about Sikhism from your post. I’m equally surprised that people with different faiths in Penang are much willing to share their beliefs with others. We just need to ask with sincerity.

    • Hi Reese: You are most welcome. I learnt a lot about Sikhism too and I find that cliche as it may sound, the more I learn, the more grateful I am to be living in Malaysia where we are truly multicultural. I was talking to a friend who now lives in Germany and she finds that Malaysia is still one of the places where we’re so cool with different faiths and languages. As she’s married to a German, she sees the differences even more clearly. She gave her daughter a henna tattoo on the palms and when her daughter went to school and told her classmates about henna, you know what the little kids said? “Is it Hannah Montana?” 🙂 Clearly pop culture is more significant in Germany than Asian culture, that’s for sure!

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