Issue I 2013
SIKH HERITAGE: Ethos & Relics
A Review by Dr I.J. Singh
This book is the product of a five-year collaborative effort by the two authors. Full disclosure: I admit with pleasure that I have known the authors for years – Bhayee Sikandar Singh through my association with Nishaan magazine; Roopinder Singh as a friend for about 25 years who has reviewed my books and I have reviewed some of his. And a blurb by me graces the back cover of this book.
Whether human social units are small as families and neighbourhood large as countries with political borders, or secular and religious entities, relics and heritage define them; in fact, they are the glue that binds communities and give them structure and identity. Artifacts and relics connect people; they create and preserve history.
There are many milestones in the relatively young 544 year–old Sikh presence in the world. Historical narratives of a people take their life from relics and heritage. No history is a linear trek; there are many vicissitudes, turns, twists in the road, cul-de-sacs and pitfalls in the road. Sikhs have had more than their share in an eventful story; it adds richness to their existence.
The ten Founder-Gurus of Sikhism spanned two and a half centuries – from 1469 when Guru Nanak was born in a part of Punjab that is now in Pakistan to 1708 when Guru Gobind Singh breathed his last. The Gurus traveled widely across the Indian subcontinent, at times well beyond its borders; memorabilia of their visits and their influence, therefore, pervade the Indian countryside, transcending borders of language and culture.
Many of the heirlooms dating from the Guru period that are highlighted in this volume are now owned by families with long-standing, centuries-old connections to the Sikh movement. Many have preserved the relics with unmatched love and devotion; a few have neglected them because of ignorance of their value. Even though history is found in them, not many relics have been exhibited and discussed in public forums. Bhayee Sikandar Singh’s family is singularly rich with such artifacts and now with the collaboration of Roopinder Singh has brought the treasure trove out into the sunshine of public display.
Both families have been equally known for their long-term dedication to Sikhi and for their collections of Sikh memorabilia. For instance, Sikandar Singh’s ancestors became Sikh in the early 1600’s in the time of Guru Hargobind and the connection continues through the many collectables that the Guru gifted to the family. Their availability today creates a narrative that truly informs us. Roopinder’s father, the late Giani Gurdit Singh, was a respected scholar of Sikh scriptures besides being a well-known Punjabi author.
In a particularly cogent ‘Introduction’, Paul Michael Taylor, Director of the Asian Cultural History Programme at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC traces the story of this seminal project from the first discussions (with the participation of the West Virginia based Sikh Heritage Foundation) at America’s national museum, the Smithsonian in 2003, in which scholars from India and North America participated. Some of the heirlooms in this volume were exhibited and highlighted at the Smithsonian lectures.
As Taylor became more intimately involved with the collection and its possibilities both in the United States and in India, it was but natural that he would suggest to Sikandar Singh the possibility of a book. He did and I, therefore, without hesitation and singular appreciation, dub Paul Michael Taylor the midwife to this excellent work – a collector’s dream, way beyond a coffee table book.
The text is mercifully without the cobwebs and pontification that are the hallmarks of much religious writing, no matter what the religious label. Religions are products of a people, time and place, hence this context of historical and socio-cultural realities must always be front and center in describing a people and their faith. Although born amidst the clash of civilisations of Hinduism and Islam, Sikhism was–and remains–a smaller but dynamic third way. This theme is competently developed here in a well annotated and footnoted presentation and, therefore, provides a wonderful framing for the religious relics and memorabilia that are the kernel, the meat, of the project.
The historical socio-cultural framework is maintained throughout the book that is divided into two sections, Ethos and Relics The bios of the ten Gurus are brief but informative. The two-century development of the Sikh movement is sketched well. The evolution of Sikhism from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh is ably traced, as is the development of the Sikh scripture (Guru Granth).
The story moves seamlessly to the post-Guru period, the times of Banda Bahadur and Maharaja Ranjit Singh; the Anglo-Sikh wars, the Sikh struggle for self-governance of the historical gurdwaras and shrines, the Gurdwara Reform Movement, The Singh Sabha movement, and finally into the recent past – the movement for independence from the British in which Sikhs had such a momentous role, far in excess of their population.
In summary, the Ethos section is a coherent story of the Sikhs, briefly but well told. The people who made a difference find a place – men like Max Arthur Macauliffe and C.F. Andrews , Giani Ditt Singh, Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha, Captain Ishar Singh and many others. Even the infamous General Dyer, who was the architect of the 1919 massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh and Mahant Narain Das, the corrupt caretaker of the birthplace of Guru Nanak are not neglected.
The crown jewels of this book, however, are the heirlooms and relics of Sikh Heritage.
Locating relics from several hundred years ago is no easy matter. The land and people go through many changes; time, wars and pestilence take their toll, as do familial break downs and rivalries that surface everywhere. Where political strife is normal, relative poverty abounds and powerful institutions like the Catholic Church do not exist, collection and preservation of memorabilia then takes a back seat; it needs a miracle. Many of the relics are no longer in the keeping of Sikhs – individuals or institutions. Some are now in Pakistan, either individually held by Muslim families or in the care of government institutions. Many of the items highlighted in this book are not easily available to be viewed.
In this collection each item carries an explanatory note. There are paintings from that period, and items of personal use of the gurus — phulkaris and garments with their intricate designs, metal work, utensils from langar, old cots and many weapons, etc. And then, of course there are the handwritten documents that we need to value and preserve before time takes its toll and destroys them.
In this work we do have a miracle! This book depends primarily on the Bagrian family collection and also draws on the treasures held by many renowned families of the time and rulers of many quasi-independent states in the Indian subcontinent like Patiala and Nabha who were connected through historical and social ties with the Bagrian family.
The family of Sikandar Singh displays an unbroken line from the time Rup Chand came to the court of Guru Hargobind in the early17th century. He and his family became Sikhs and the intimate contact has remained ever since. And the Gurus – from Hargobind to Gobind Singh – blessed the family, sometimes with their own personal items. Now time has transformed these memorabilia to worth their weight in gold and more.
Remarkably, in the politico-cultural landscape of India, the family and its holdings have survived intact, as have other collections featured in the Relics section of the book—Patiala, Nabha, Drauli, Sursinghwala. Hence a coherent, cogent story can be constructed and that’s what the authors have done. In its entirety the story is also the history of the last half of the Guru period – an eye catching narrative of Sikhism and its evolution.
“Rare record of a glorious heritage” is how Harish Dhillon, a reviewer dubbed this work. This is no ordinary book; a degree of visible veneration has gone into its making.
At first glance one might find this book a bit pricey. But resist that thought; it’s worth it.
Authors : Bhayee Sikandar Singh & Roopinder Singh xvii + 204 pages, 2012, Price Rs. 1500.00 Rupa Publications India Pvt Ltd, New Delhi 100 002, INDIA A specially gilded edition is available outside India through the Sikh Heritage Foundation, 485 Colliers Way, Weirton,WV 26062, firstname.lastname@example.org ($100.00)
Issue I 2013
Reproduced from the book ‘Sikh Heritage: Ethos and Relics’ is this chapter on
Guru Nanak and His Teachings
Wahe Guru!’ the Sikhs exclaim in wonder as they endeavour to fathom the Reality of the Creator, the Ultimate Truth, the Timeless and Eternal Being. The understanding of God, who is the Ultimate Reality, forms the core belief of any religion. Guru Nanak uses the symbol pronounced Ekankar, to sum up the Ultimate Reality as One that permeates everything. This Reality has no name, and yet is known by innumerable names.
God is Naam, which means the name by which one remembers or addresses someone. In fact, He is remembered by His attributive names, names given by man according to his understanding.
In Sikhism, self-realisation is the primary step to God-realisation. Through intense devotion and repetition of His name (Naam), the soul progresses and ascends to achieve God-consciousness and feels God’s eternal presence within. Thus, Naam is close to what the Greeks called Logos.
Guru Nanak affirms, ‘In the beginning was the Truth. Before the beginning was the Truth, even now is the Truth. In future shall remain the Truth-God is Absolute and makes Himself manifest in His creation. ‘He is self-created, eternal and beyond time’, says Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh scripture, in its opening stanzas. ‘There is, therefore, no sin, no virtue, no Veda or any religious book, no caste, and no gender. When God became manifest, He became what is called the Naam (Name) in order to realise Himself. He made Nature, wherein He has His seat and is thus diffused everywhere and in all directions in the form of “love”. There is no antithesis to Him and as such the concept of evil incarnate or Satan does not exist.’
The self has always remained a favourite theme in the philosophical and religious traditions of the world, as it is considered essential, leading to the realisation of the Truth and Liberation moksha, mukti, or nirvana.
A Sikh does not aim for individual salvation or to enter a heavenly abode called paradise. He develops the best in himself, the human in the being, an element of Divinity.
As a personal God, He is capable of being loved and honoured. He has no incarnations. He Himself stands for the creative agencies. He Himself is Truth and Beauty and the Eternal yearning of the heart. In a way, the Sikh Gurus have combined the Aryan idea of immanence with the Semitic idea of transcendence, without taking away anything from the unity and the personal characteristic of God, and thus delineated a unique concept.
The universe, according to Sikh thought, is transitory, being rooted in God, who alone is Real. First, God is indivisibly one, above every other being. Second, He is the highest moral being who has inscribed all men with His Naam or moral presence. He is not a God belonging to any particular people; He is the dispenser of life all over the universe. He can be attained by practising His presence through the Shabad (Word) with intense devotion, and contemplation on Naam (His Name). The only way of worshipping Him is to sing His praises.”
The Sikh way of life believes in the upliftment of man based on his character and deeds. It thus distinguishes itself from idle mysticism.
An ideal man, conceived for an ideal society, is not the solitary individual of yogic mysticism, but a part of society (sagal jamaati). The message of Sikhism is- ‘Abide pure amidst the impurities of the world’. There can be no worship without good actions. These actions, however, are not to be formal deeds of so-called merit for compensatory benefits, but should be motivated by an intense desire to please God and to serve one’s fellowmen. Fundamental to the Gurus’ thought was building man’s character, based on values of truth, love and equality. It is character alone that helps in moral crises. Consequently, the Gurus did not think it sufficient only to lay down rules of conduct in a book, but built a living social organisation based on these principles.
Varanashram, and other philosophical Hindu concepts, were deeply embedded in the Indian social psyche, which they had dominated for thousands of years. The Gurus understood the strength of their challenge while asking people to adopt a new mode of living. The Gurus thus found it necessary to take in hand a whole people, through a continuous course of reorientation and schooling in wisdom and experience spread over many generations, before they were sure that the people thus trained had acquired a character of their own, and the ability to self-regulate and self-sustain.
Faced with centuries of entrenched biases, socio-religious prejudices and ritualistic redundancy, the whole value system had to be changed and it was, in fact, transmuted during this process. The spirit of man was thus raised with a belief that he was not a helpless creature in the hands of a Being with an arbitrary Will, but had the inherent Divine spark within him, which, when invoked, would enable him to uplift and redeem himself In Sikhism, the law of karma–according to which one reaps what one sows–is not inexorable. The burden of past sins, the taint of karma, the weight of our past can be thrown off by delving deeper into Truth, by leading a pure and noble life and, above all, by earning the grace of God: Gur Prasad. Human life is an opportunity for man to rise to immortal heights, or alternatively, fall into the pit of disgrace. The scripture says, ‘The Guru’s word erases the blot of thousands of evil deeds of the past and the greatest sinner can become the greatest saint’
Man is given a will with which he can modify the inherited and acquired tendencies of his past, and determine his future conduct. This will of man, channelled through the Guru’s word, gets attuned to the Supreme Will, and acquires a force with which he can transcend his past and gain a new character altogether.
The ultimate source of everything is Akalpurakh, the Timeless, who is also within us. Nothing exists beyond Him, not even ‘evil’ can function independent of God. Thus there is no antithesis to God, no Satan. Man himself is responsible for his actions, whether good or evil. One sins as long as the ‘light’ within remains unmanifested. Regeneration comes when one begins to subject one’s tiny self to the highest Self, i.e. God, and one’s own will is gradually attuned to His Supreme Will, until one feels and moves just as He wishes one to feel, and moves in sync with Him.
The problem of good and evil is only the problem of union and dis-union with God. As long as man is conscious of this, he lives and moves in union with Him. But when he is led away by the overwhelming ‘sense of the self – his haumai (ego) – he breaks himself away from that Unity with Him and begins to flounder in moral isolation.
Although it is difficult for man to resist evil and do good with his own power, he could acquire a transcendental capacity for the purpose if he is primed with a divine personality possessing dynamic powers. This personality is to be the Guru’s; the teacher’s message, the Word of the scripture, Shabad.
The way of religion perceived for the Sikhs is not a set of views or doctrines but a way of life lived according to a definite model, based upon disciple-ship, or following a path shown by the preceptors and not just governed by a narrow framework of dos and don’ts, dictated by a clergy. The personality of the Guru is all along operative in his disciple, conducting his whole being and shaping his life. Without such a personality, there would be no cohesion or direction for the moral forces in a society. There would be no force to connect man with man and then with God. Everyone would exist in moral isolation, only for himself.
When such a devoted disciple (Sikh) merges his personality into a perfect Guru, he is ransformed into Khalsa, the perfect one. In this respect, Guru Gobind Singh is a role model for every Sikh. He himself describes such a perfect Sikh:
‘The Khalsa is my Image special
In the Khalsa ever resides my Spirit
The Khalsa is my Beloved and Venerable Master
The Khalsa is my Divine Protector
The Khalsa is an embodiment of the True and perfect Guru.’
This character was demonstrated by the Sikhs during the height of persecution and sufferings against formidable odds in the eighteenth century. The Gurus intensified their character and increased their power manifold by filling their personalities with his own, and the result was for history to take note.
The ten Gurus organised their disciples into sangats and infused their personality again into the Sikhs. This led to a remarkable development in the institution of ‘Guru-ship’, which eventually became the Guru Panth, thus bestowing divinity on the people.
The Sikh idea of religion was something more practical than merely mystic; it was to consist of the practice of Naam and sewa, To practise Naam means to practise the presence of God by keeping Him ever in our minds, by singing His praises, and dwelling on His excellence. This is to be done not only when in solitude but also in public, where worship of this Naam is more effective when organised in the form of congregational recitations or singing. Sewa, or service, should not only be liberal, but also efficient and economical. It should do the greatest good with the least possible means. Sikhism–or this way of life whose aim is to serve and uplift mankind–necessarily requires organisation of its followers as an essential condition for its success. Moreover, where religion consists of realising God mainly through service done within the world, where people have to constantly deal with fellow people to promote each other’s good, it is impossible to do so without institutionalisation.
Over the years, a new social order emerged, as also a method of administering it. The founder of this faith, Guru Nanak, had begun with two things in his religious work: the holy Word, Shabad, and the organised holy fellowship, sangat. The idea of sangat led to the establishment of local assemblies, headed by authorised representatives called massands. Every Sikh was supposed to be a member of such an organisation. The Guru was the central unifying personality, and in spite of changes in succession, the love between the Guru and the Sikh was intense. Homage paid to the Guru was made impersonal by creating a mystic unity between the Sikh and the Guru on the one hand, and the Guru and the Word enshrined in Sri Guru Granth Sahib on the other. The greatest respect began to be paid to the incorporated Word (Shabad), even with the Guru choosing for himself a seat lower than that of the scripture, The only form of worship allowed to be practised was the meditation on the Word and singing the praises of the Creator, as inscribed in the scriptures.
The Sikh assemblies also acquired great sanctity, owing to the belief that the spirit of the Guru lived and moved among them collectively, the whole body being called the panth. This panth follows the path shown by the way the Gurus lived their lives, as also the precepts laid down by them. In turn, it is regarded as an embodiment of the Guru – Guru Panth.
In 1699, Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, himself received baptism from the five Sikhs he had first initiated. The panth, the assembly and the Guru became one. After his demise, there was no living Guru for the Sikhs. The Shabad, in the presence of the sangat, became the Guru, the guiding light and in presence of Akalpurakh, the Timeless Being.
The panth thus was invested with the personality of the Guru, and the incorporated Word became Gyan Guru (knowledge). This panth, called the Khalsa, was to be the Guru in spirit, and was authorised to work with collective responsibility, with Guru Granth Sahib as its guiding spirit. They were directed to worship none but the Akalpurakh, The authority of the massands was terminated, and thus Sikhism became more of an ‘ethos’ than mere theology. Amrit, or a formal baptism, was made an integral part of this organisation. All those who wanted to serve humanity through Sikhism would join it earnestly as regular members and receive baptism. This entailed and ensured that all had the same creed, which would be well-defined and not confused or corrupted with the beliefs and practices of the prevailing religions. The Guru had ordained the Khalsa to be distinct from the contemporary prevailing main religions. Such a brotherhood of the committed, the Khalsa, was to embody in itself the highest ideal of manhood as exemplified by Guru Gobind Singh’s life. In this regeneration of man, the biases were terminated. This act symbolically destroyed karma, kula, dharama and jaat (deeds of the past, lineage, religion and caste).
In the ranks of the Khalsa all are equal, the lowest with the highest, in race as in creed, in political rights as in religious hopes. Women are to be baptised and to baptise others in the same way as men and enjoy the same rights.
Being a Khalsa also entails certain additional codes of discipline in the shape of baptismal oaths of conduct (rehat). The importance of these vows cannot be understated. Religion, as taught by the Gurus, is a force that not only ennobles individuals but also binds them together to work for the service of mankind. Discipline keeps up the spirit of the individual against relaxation in times of hardship, and maintains the individual’s steadfastness and loyalty to the cause.
The Sikh forms, or visible symbols, were appointed to serve as aids to the preservation of the life of the community, and anyone who likes to serve humanity through the Sikh way of life can adopt them. It is possible for a man to love God and cultivate his individual soul, which is the Sikh goal, without adopting this form. But, if he wants to work in a systematic way, not only for his own advancement, but for the welfare of all (sarbat da bhala) in the company of Sikhs, he must adopt this disciplinary form. This association is not with places or things but with an ever-living personality that is itself a symbol of the highest personality. As is God, so is the Guru, and as is the Guru, so must be his followers.
A baptised Sikh is thus enjoined to keep Five Articles of Faith as an inalienable part of his person. These are kesha (unshorn hair), a kanga (a small comb), a kirpan (sword), a kara (an iron bangle) on his right forearm, and he should wear kachha (underpants which are a longer version of boxers). All starting with the Gutmukhi letter kaka, phonetically ‘k’, hence called the kakaars, or the 5 Ks.
The Sikh is to keep his hair uncut, which has always been associated with the ideal man and saintliness. A comb is a simple necessity for keeping the hair clean and tidy, antithetical to the ascetic with matted hair.
An iron bangle on the right arm is a sign of sternness and constraint. A sword by a Sikh’s side, kirpan, also called bhagauti, represents the primal Divine energy. It is the protector of the oppressed and an emblem of power, dignity and man’s sovereignty. Moreover, combined in him is the saintliness of the rishis of old with the sternness and strength of a knight.
The kachha is a symbol of continence, restraint and tolerance, and ensures briskness of ovement at time of action, and comfort at times of rest. It is also symbolic of man’s evolution from a state of nakedness to being civilised by covering himself.
These baptismal forms, with the accompanying commitment of purity, love and service, have aided them in keeping themselves united and their ideals unsullied even in times of the greatest of trials.
Ceremonies, among Sikhs, whether in a temple or at home, whether for birth, marriage or death, consist of nothing but praying. Constant singing of hymns from scriptures creates a frame of mind and ambience.
The Sikh is enjoined to make these five elements of forms a part of his living. This also gives him an identity that stands for commitment to the precepts mentioned above, and also makes every Sikh a living, acting, committed and unabashed epitome of the way of life given to him by his Gurus.
The word ‘Guru’, a term often used in Indian religious tradition, has a special connotation in Sikh ethos. In Sikhism, the Guru is not an incarnate of God; he is not a prophet or messenger of God, in whom the light of God completely and visibly shines. He is not God and is not to be worshipped as God. The mysteries of God and His creation are known either to God or to the Guru. The true Guru is the true instrument of God’s Will (Hukam), and is commissioned by Him to reveal His Truth to humanity.
Guru is a Sanskrit word consisting of Gu = darkness, and ru = light. Accordingly, Guru is the true enlightener of the Soul, dispeller of ignorance and spiritual guide.
A Guru is vital to man’s spiritual progress, not as God Himself, but as one who shows the path and is an archetypal exemplar. It is through him that Divinity–Akalpurakh (the Timeless One)-instructs, and is capable of leading the believers to the highest state of spiritual enlightenment, which is experiencing the Divine presence. The Guru is a witness of God’s love for His creation. He is His Hukam (Will) made concrete. As a guide, the Guru is Revealer of the Divine Word and message. Guru is synonymous with the Word (Shabad), the Divine light within, the self-revelation. He is not to be confused with the human form. The real Guru is God, for He alone is the source of all Light.
Guru Nanak says that the true Guru must be such as to unite all men. He must not be above man’s capacity to emulate, as would be the case if he were a supernatural being. His humanity must be real and not feigned. He should be subject to the same laws as the ordinary human and should have attained his perfection through His Grace, which is also available to all ordinary men, and through perfect obedience to God’s Will. Thus, the Guru is the central concept and theme in Sikhism. The preceptors, the ten Sikh Gurus, demonstrated this with full intensity.
This feeling of incorporation with the Guru makes the Sikh strong beyond his ordinary capacity. The transformation comes not only through close association with the Guru, something to be found in many other religions as well, but in the unique manner in which the Sikh believes that he is subsumed in the Guru.
The Sikh Gurus are revered as spiritually enlightened human beings, not worshipped as incarnations of God. In the scriptures, they declare themselves to be champions (representatives) and bards of God. Guru Gobind Singh declares himself to be His slave, and prohibits his Sikhs from identifying him with God. Before his demise, the tenth Guru instructed the Khalsa to follow the Eternal Guru–Shabad, the Word – enshrined in Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
Throughout the development of Sikhism up to Guru Gobind Singh, the Guru had been assigned a place of predominance. Guru Nanak, in so many of his verses, highlights this point. As a matter of fact, in Guru Nanaks system, the Guru formed the pivot on which everything else hinged. The disciple was asked to walk on the path of the Guru, to remain ever-content in his Will and his Commands. But in these matters, as in everything else, the Guru was to point out the right path; he was to interpret the Will of God, and the commands of the Almighty were also to be issued through the medium of his ordinances. The Guru, therefore, was to be implicidy obeyed and his will was to be accepted.
The place of the Guru in Sikh faith and tradition is of great importance. That is why Guru Gobind Singh bestowed the pontifical office for all times to come on Sri Guru Granth Sahib and the panth (Khalsa Panth), representing the spiritual and the temporal aspects respectively. Since then, the Sikhs revere Sri Guru Granth Sahib and seek guidance from it on all crucial and not so-crucial moments in personal life. However, the reverence shown to the scripture is not to be identified with worship.
Sri Guru Granth Sahib is the ever-lasting guide and teacher. Among other things, its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the only scripture which was compiled, edited, signed and sealed by the preceptors themselves. The integrity of this scripture is unassailable, for the simple reason that copies of the original, signed by the Gurus, are available.
Guru Nanak in a discourse with Behlol, a Muslim seer, at Baghdad, during his travel to Mecca. The legend says that so charmed was Behlol by the Guru’s presence that even after he had left, Behlol sat at the same spot, saying he did not want the divine experience to be eclipsed. A Gurdwara near Baghdad Railway Station commemorated Guru Nanak’s visit, where Behlol met him. The painting by an unknown artist depicts the Guru in attire that could have been of a rabbai of the period, although the Indian wooden toe-knob sandals (kharawan) are distinct.
Guru Nanak at namaz at the mosque in his village. The folio from the eighteenth-century Janamsakhi depicts an episode from his early life. Guru Nanak is shown standing in the picture while others are bowing. When asked why he did not bow during the prayers like the others, he told the qazi that while his mouth was uttering the prayer, his mind was busy trading horses! Thus, the Guru exposed the hypocrisy of the priestly order by pointing out that the prayer should be from the heart.
Guru Nanak at the house of Bhai Lalo, a poor carpenter. The Guru chose to share this man’s bread, which had been earned as a result of hard work, while declining to join a feast hosted by Malik Bhago, a local chief. Bhai Lalo’s name is mentioned in the Guru’s compositions.
The spirit of the Guru is in the panth
Guru Granth Sahib is the ever-lasting guide
Issue I 2013
Gurdwara by the Gulf
The Guru Nanak Durbar in Dubai
17 January 2013 marked first anniversary of the Arab World’s first Gurdwara, the Guru Nanak Durbar in Dubai. The United Arab Emirates is an oasis as such where people of all religions enjoy the kind of freedom that reflects the wisdom and equinity of its rulers. Owing to the faith of UAE’s Sikh and Sindhi community and the generosity of the UAE’s Rulers, Dubai is now home to the most magnificent Gurdwara in the Middle East.
Ornate 24-carat gold canopies for the Guru Granth Sahib, Italian marble on the walls and floor, stunning chandeliers and a five-star kitchen : Dubai’s first gurdwara is a grand realisation of the aspirations of 50,000 Sikhs in the United Arab Emirates.
On entering the building, one is in awe of its sheer grandeur and the attention to detail. A sense of calm descends as strains of Tu Prabh Daata, an inspirational kirtan fill the air. NRI businessman Surender Singh Kandhari, the man behind the Gurdwara urges devotees to use the lift instead of taking the stairs to the main prayer hall.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, who donated a piece of land in the Jebel Ali area for the gurdwara about six years ago, wanted it to be ‘iconic’. The opulent building is worth every bit of the 65 million Dirhams spent on it – a large part of it contributed by Kandhari himself.
“We didn’t want to compromise on anything. It has the latest Italian marble and best lights. I told the contractor I want a 100-year guarantee for the building so that our future generations are able to utilise it,” he stated in an interview.
“I told the ruler (who wanted the world’s finest) ‘well, one can’t surpass the Golden Temple. But what we have is the most modern gurdwara in the world,” recalled Kandhari, chairman of the Al Dobowi Group that manufactures and distributes automotive batteries and tyres.
The dream of an iconic building was born 11 years ago with the growing need of a proper place of worship for the Gulf Sikhs, who until January 2012 had makeshift gurdwaras in various locations including the Bur Dubai. The ‘go ahead’ came through six years ago when the ruler of Dubai gave 25,400 sq feet of land to build the temple, said Kandhari.
On grand opening of the gurdwara on 17 January 2012, Surender Singh Kandhari compared Sheikh Mohammed, also vice president of the UAE, to Muslim saint Hazrat Mian Mir, who had in 1588 laid the foundation stone of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest shrine for Sikhs. Today, as many as 10,000 people visit the Dubai gurdwara, which has three floors of parking space, on Fridays.
“On Baisakhi day 2012, we served langar to around 40,000 people visiting the gurdwara,” Kandhari recalled, adding that several Pakistanis are amongst those also come regularly besides many Sindhis and Hindu Punjabis.
The state-of-the-art langar kitchen, which feeds devotees through the day every day, is worth a visit. It is complete with a dough-kneader, a chappati-maker and large dishwashers. And as with the entire Gurdwara, the kitchen too is spotless.
Apart from a large carpeted prayer hall, there are three smaller rooms for private functions, a meditation room, a library and the spacious ‘langar’ or common kitchen hall.
The Guru Nanak Darbar is, in a manner modelled on both the Golden Temple, the new gurdwara in Southall, London as also the Sikh Centre at Silat Road in Singapore. Interior designer Paul Bishop was sent to these locations “to get the feel”.
Importantly, to develop religious values among the next generation of NRIs, special three-hour sessions are held for children on Saturdays where they are taught Punjabi and kirtan. “There already are 55 children attending these classes. All four of my grandchildren, one of them just two years old, go there,” said Surender Singh.
“The women are keen on sending their children to learn kirtan. When you are out of India, your desire to connect to your roots becomes stronger,” he continued.
Having grown up in Andhra Pradesh and later studying in Chennai’s Loyola College, he admitted that he really learned about his language and religion only when he came to Dubai in 1976. Thus, he understands the need for children to know about their culture in a foreign land.
“They cannot learn without getting proper lessons. In Vijayawada, I had noone to teach me Punjabi. While in Loyola College in Madras, I used to go to church every Sunday. I started learning about Sikhism and Punjabi after coming to Dubai.”
Although the NRI businessman had to borrow funds from friends to complete the gurdwara, he calls the income generated thereafter as “unbelievable”. He already has plans to use the money. “I want to build a hospital for the poor. Healthcare is so expensive in Dubai… labourers living in camps nearby can’t afford the high medical costs.”
Surender Singh Kandhari said the gurdwara attracts visitors from across the world. “We have visitors from the UK, the US, France and Canada… they get surprised that in an Islamic country, we have perhaps the most modern gurdwara in the world”.
The traditional langar or free community kitchen at the Guru Nanak Darbar in Dubai feeds tens of thousands of visitors every week, with the Guru Nanak Darbar having emerged as a community and tourist centre. “No one who visits the gurdwara goes without partaking food,” said Kandhari, noting that the concept of langar stresses equality and teaches people to eat as a community.
The langar, open from 6am to 9pm every day, provides hot meals to all visitors, Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike. On weekdays, visitors help themselves from a buffet counter but on weekends they are served in traditional manner as they sit on the floor to eat together in a huge hall. The elderly and handicapped sit at dining tables.
The meal is nutritious and sumptuous and usually comprises salad, sabzi, dal, roti and rice. There’s a sweet dish too and tea for the asking – all produced in a 4,000 square foot state-of-the-art kitchen that has five separate stores, including a chiller and deep freezer.
As Kulwant Singh said, “ The catering and cleaning have been outsourced to Accuro, a Dubai- based specialist support service which has a dedicated professional team of chefs and cleaners working to the highest standards of hygiene.” The kitchen is well equipped to cater to large numbers of people: two automatic kneading machines that can knead up to 90 kg of flour in 10 minutes, an automatic roti machine than can make 1,200 rotis an hour, a dishwasher that can clean up to 1,000 plates and glasses an hour and so on. Over weekends, 1,500 kg of vegetables, 300 kg of lentils and 350 kg of rice are used to feed the large numbers. “We make 90kg of dal and sabzi in one hour,” said one of the chefs.
The sheer scale of the Gurdwara has visitors impressed. The main prayer hall, which can accommodate up to 3,000 people at a time, turns into a sea of visitors on weekends. They include both residents and tourists.
“We arrived from London this morning and the Gurunanak Darbar was the first destination on our sightseeing agenda,” said Dave Gill, a British tourist who was visiting with his wife. “It’s beautiful and blends in well with the rest of the landscape.”
“I have come from Mumbai and my father told me this is a must-visit. Now I can see why,” said visitor Neelu Chadha.
“I visit everyday and we are blessed to have such a place in Dubai,” said Charanjeet Banga, a resident of Dubai’s Discovery Gardens.
Inspiration behind the Guru Nanak Durbar
Men who achieve great success are not uncommon in business. But those who acquire everything the world can offer and pay little attention to earthly gains to seek the greater satisfaction of spiritual fulfilment are an uncommon breed. Perhaps they are the ones who ultimately realise their destiny.
Surender Singh Kandhari, founder and chairman of the Dubai-based Al Dobowi Group, is one such archetype individual. His unique 11–year spiritual quest to build a place of worship for his peoples has culminated in a contribution that will remain undiminished far beyond his lifetime.
Kandhari has created history by spearheading the UAE’s Sikh and Sindhi community’s efforts to build the Middle East’s first Gurdwara in Dubai, the Guru Nanak Darbar, in Jebel Ali. In an interview, Kandhari recalled how he had followed his family tradition of leading the community’s efforts to build Gurdwaras in places where there were none and how it was his destiny to serve God and the Sikh community.
It all started more than 58 years ago when Kandhari’s grandfather Atma Singh, who himself had helped build a Gurdwara in Vijaywada, in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, in 1956. He told his eight-year-old grandson Surender Singh Kandhari, that one day he too must help build a Gurdwara when he grew up.
“I was just eight-years-old at that time and it struck me as a bit odd that my grandfather should ask me to do something as huge as that,” he recollects. “Then strangely, when I was 12-years-old and studying at Hyderabad Public School, an itinerant palm reader told me that by the age of 45, I would become a priest. I promptly told him “no” as I wanted to run our three generation–old family business in automotive spare parts in India. I had no intention of giving it all up. However, that incident stuck in my mind and often made me think about what my grandfather said to me years ago,” recalls Surender, who was born in Vijayawada in 1948, the family having earlier migrated to India from Kandahar in Afghanistan.
Still, the demands of life soon occupied all of his thoughts and time, after he graduated with honours in Commerce from Loyola College, Chennai.
“Most of the people in the tyre and automotive parts business in those days used to be uneducated or poorly educated people. But my father wanted us to be different and he made sure that we got a good education so that we would be capable of taking the family business to the next level,” he explains.
“I share my father’s views on that and I too made sure my sons Jasjeev and Harjeev Singh, who will one day inherit my business, were educated at the best possible institutions in Europe and they also started their careers there. Jasjeev is a chartered accountant, and Harjeev’s background is in banking and private equity,” says Surender with natural pride.
In 1976, at the age of 26, Kandhari, along with his wife ‘Bubbles’, and their two young sons Jasjeev and Harjeev, came to the UAE to take the family business further, setting up a modest shop in Deira, Dubai.
Talking about his reasons for coming to the UAE and his first impressions, Surender recalls: “When I came to Dubai, I saw a wealth of opportunity in front of me. We had the ‘early bird’ advantage as there were very few automotive parts and tyre companies back then.
“Predictably as Dubai grew, our business grew. Massive construction projects meant that heavy equipment vehicles needed tyres to be brought into the Emirate to build roads and infrastructure. As the number of vehicles in the Emirate grew, our business expanded,” he reveals. Kandhari’s hard work, business acumen and reputation for honesty paid off handsomely and today the Al Dobowi Group has a multi-billion dirham business with offices in different locations in UAE, a tyre factory in the Jebel Ali Free Zone and offices in several countries across the world.
However, despite all the success and the substantial perks that come with significant achievement, Surender Singh, though being an avid sportsman and also Captain of the prestigious Emirates Golf Club in Dubai, always felt that there was something missing from his life.
“My family and I consider Dubai our home now, but there was always something missing from our lives because there was no Gurdwara in the UAE where we could go and worship and bond as a community.
“In the Sikh culture and religion, a Gurdwara is central to the community as that’s where we gather and hold our weddings, celebrate births and festivals, mourn deaths, meet each other, eat at the Langar and bond as a people to show our care and concern for another. The Langar is open from 6am to 9pm everyday, and provides vegetarian food to all visitors, Sikh and non-Sikh alike. Volunteers serve people sitting traditional style on the floor, except on busy weekends, when there is a buffet counter.”
“A Gurdwara is not just the house of God for us, it is the life force that ties the whole Sikh community together and our lives revolve around it. That was missing here,” Surender reminisces. He decided to do something about it and along with other prominent Sikhs in the UAE spearheaded the community’s efforts to build a Gurdwara in Dubai.
Recalling those days of struggle when they would petition the rulers of Dubai to grant them permission to open a Gurdwara, Kandhari says: “It was a long drawn-out process. We had to explain the concept of the Sikh religion and convince them that it was a basic need of the community.”
“It was hard to explain to the UAE officials the very idea of Sangat (community worship) and Langar. I had to translate excerpts from the Sikh holy book the Guru Granth Sahib, and read them out to the officials. I had to tell them that just like followers of Christ and in Islam, Sikhs believe in One supreme God, do not worship idols and that everyone is equal in the community.”
“After six long years of petitioning the rulers, who I must point out always gave us very patient hearing, we finally had cause to celebrate when His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and the Ruler of Dubai, very generously gave us permission not only to build the Gurdwara but he also gave us 25,000 square feet of land absolutely free near the Jebel Ali Hospital.”
“His only condition was that the Gurdwara should be ‘number’ one in the world in keeping with Dubai’s image of being the best at everything, with its superlative architecture. I assured His Highness that while I could not give him the ‘number one’ Gurdwara in the world, as that is the unique Golden Temple in Amritsar, but I could certainly ensure that it would be the best in the outside world and it would have the world marvelling,” narrated Surender Singh Kandhari.
Once the land was given, there was no stopping the 50,000 strong Sikh community and 40,000 Sindhi follows in the UAE from India and Pakistan.
The finest engineers, architects, interior designers and construction firms were commissioned and the work began in earnest on building what has since become an intrinsic part of the UAE’s landscape.
The internationally-reputed Dubai-based architect firm Holford Associates, which has built over 20 churches, four mosques and one temple, was entrusted with the task of designing the Guru Nanak Darbar.
The internationally-reputed Dubai-based architect firm Holford Associates, that has built over 20 churches, four mosques and one temple, was entrusted with the task of designing the Guru Nanak Darbar.
It took two years for Holford Associates and Paul Bishop Design Associates to give shape to the three storey masterpiece built over 125,000 square feet with a basement, a community kitchen and assembly halls.
In fact, so vital to the project was precision and detail, that Paul Bishop and designer Arafeh Bashir visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar often to study the frescoes and wall paintings of the Harmandar Sahib.
Five years and Dhs 65 million later, the most modern Gurdwara in the world was opened on 17 January 2012 with funds raised almost entirely from within the community in the UAE.
“Sikhs have very large hearts where the Gurdwara and community langar is concerned and donate very generously. This is an integral part of our faith as our Gurus believed in feeding the poor first before he preached his philosophy to them.”
To give you an example, every day truck loads of rice, pulses and vegetables are sent by our community members to feed everyone who comes to the Gurdwara. We never have to buy these food items,” says a gratified Surender, proud of the Sikh and Sindhi community’s commitment. Thanks to their generosity, the Guru Nanak Darbar is a much talked about community and tourist attraction that has a dedicated floor for community feasts and a huge hall for devotional kirtan.
The main prayer hall of the Guru Nanak Darbar with the 24 carat gold-plated Palki Sahib has a 7.2 metre high ceiling and an 18-metre glass topped dome roof, which can accommodate 3,000 people.
Mauve-coloured carpets, Murano glass chandeliers, Italian marble throughout the building and superb acoustics lend a distinct touch to the column-free main prayer hall. “People from any community and religion can visit a Gurdwara, so we have installed big screens that translate all the hymns and the readings from our holy book in three different languages – English, Hindi and Gurmukhi,” Surender Singh explained.
The function hall ca n accommodate up to 900 people and there are two basement level parking areas. There is a 54-metre water body, inspired by the Sarovar (pond) at the Golden Temple and a cascading water feature. There are two entrances to the building where devotees leave their shoes in purpose-built racks. State-of-the art washing areas and washrooms include special areas for the elderly and mothers to rest in.
As many as 5,000 people can be fed by the Gurdwara’s five star quality kitchens and up to 600 people can eat together squatting on the ground floor. “It’s a time honoured Sikh tradition that once you are at the Gurdwara, you should partake in the langar. So whoever comes to the Guru Nanak Durbar, no matter what religion or nationality they belong to, eats before leaving.”
“In fact, very recently we invited all the priests from the adjacent Churches to come and see the Gurdwara and participate in the Langar,” said Surender Singh.
Two chefs from India who specialise in Langar food were flown in from India and are now working at the Gurdwara.
The state-of-the-art kitchen has five separate stores, including a chiller and deep freezer, with the capacity to prepare 1,800 meals per hour and wash 1,200 plates and glasses an hour. It is equipped with two automatic kneading machines that can knead up to 90 kg of flour in 10 minutes, an automatic chapati machine than can make 1,200 chapatis an hour. Catering and cleaning has been outsourced to a specialist support service which has a dedicated professional team of chefs and cleaners who work hard to maintain the highest standards of hygiene.
The enthusiasm for the Guru Nanak Durbar has been overwhelming with up to 10,000 visitors, both Sikh and non-Sikhs alike, converging there during the weekends and an average of 500 visitors coming everyday. “It is increasingly becoming a unique part of the community in Dubai. I have often seen people from different nationalities come there just to meditate in the rooms that we have built for that purpose,” observes Surender. It’s not just a place for the community to meet and worship, it is also a tourist attraction with visitors to Dubai making a special effort to see the exquisite place of worship.
Surender Singh still cannot believe he has finally been able to accomplish the task his grandfather entrusted him with five decades ago. “It’s a dream come true. I still can’t believe that the Gurdwara is real. I feel like all of this is an illusion. I go there every morning and marvel at what we have achieved.”
“This is perhaps the most talked about Gurdwara in the world and the global Sikh community has graciously acknowledged my humble role in creating this legacy for the Sikh community in the Middle East. “It is the biggest achievement of my life, and it’s very humbling to be a part of this region’s history. Nothing can top this for me,” says Surender Singh Kandhari deep in thought, as he moves towards the Durbar Sahib to make his obeisance.
Reena Amos Dyes & Frank Raj
[From : The International Indian]
Issue III 2013
Universal Anthem for the World
From ‘Hymns of Guru Nanak’;
As translated by Khushwant Singh
The firmament is Thy salver
The sun and moon Thy lamps;
The galaxy of stars as pearls strewn.
A mountain of sandal is Thy joss-stick
Breezes that blow Thy fan;
All the woods and vegetation
All flowers that bloom
Take their colours from Thy light.
Thus we wave the salver of lamps
How beautiful is this ritual!
Thou art the destroyer of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
In Thy temple echo beats the drum unstruck by hands.
A thousand eyes hast Thou, yet no eye hast Thou.
A thousand shapes hast Thou, yet no shape hast Thou.
A thousand feet hast Thou, yet no foot hast Thou.
A thousand nostrils hast Thou, yet no nose hast Thou.
These are miracles that have bewitched my heart.
Thine is the light in every lamp.
Thine the radiance in all that is radiant.
The guru’s teaching illuminates our minds.
What pleases Him is the true worship of lamps.
As the honeybee seeks honey in flowers
My soul which is ever athirst,
Seeks Thy lotus feet
To slake its thirst for nectar.
Lord, show Thy mercy
Give Nanak the water he seeks.
He like the sarang cries for rain
Let him forever abide in Thy Name.
Gagan Mein Thaal Rav Chand Deepak Bane
It was once suggested to the Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore, that “you have written the national anthem for India . Can you write an universal anthem for the entire whole world?”
Tagore immediately replied, “this has already been written, not only for the world but for the entire universe: in the 16th Century by Guru Nanak,”. He was referring to the etherial Aarti (ceremony of light) voiced by Guru Nanak of which Tagore was so enamoured, that he translated this into Bengali.
Every evening at all Gurdwaras, after the recitation of Rehraas Sahib, one listens to a melodious rendition of the Aarti sung by the Raagis in Raga Dhanashri. This is a tremendously soothing experience, taking one directly into the spiritual realms of devotion through divine music.
As Guru Arjan Dev has written (page 393 of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji) Aarti kirtan sada anand, “singing God’s praises is His Aarti, bringing boundless bliss”
As the Janamsaakhis have it, in 1508 Guru Nanak Dev visited the temple of Jagannath at Puri in Orissa, which was very well known for its Aarti to Lord Krishna. In the evening, priests brought a platter of many lit lamps, flowers, incense and pearls and began the Aarti. Guru Nanak Sahib meanwhile spontaneously voiced the wonderful Aarti which is continuously being hummed by Nature, before the all pervading altar of God, Creator of the Universe :
Gagan mein thaal rav chand deepak baney,
tarika mandal janak moti,
dhoop maly-anlo pavan chavro kare saal banray phulant joti,
kaisi Aarti hoye bhav khandna – teri aarti.
(SSGSJ page 663)
The sky is the thaal of puja, in which sun and moon are the diyas
The stars in the constellations are the jewels
The wind, laden with sandal-wood fragrance, is the celestial fans
All the flowering fields, forests are the radiance
What wonderful worship this is,
Oh, destroyer of fear,
This is your Aarti!
The Aarti that is sung daily in Gurdwaras begins with that voiced by Guru Nanak Dev Ji. The second stanza, from Naam tero aarti majan muraare Hark e Naam bin jhoothey sagal pasaarey (SGGS page 695) (“O Lord, Thy name to me is the Aarti and holy ablutions. Everything else is false”), has been composed by Bhagat Ravi Das, who was a cobbler and was not allowed by Brahmins to enter Hindu temples.
The third stanza, Dhoop deep ghrit saaji arti vaar ne jaau kamalapati (‘May I be a sacrifice unto the Lord: that for me is the Aarti performed with lamps, ghee and incense’ (SGGS page 695) onwards, was composed by Sant Sain, a barber in the court of Raja Ram, the ruler of Rewa.
The fourth stanza was composed in the same vein by Sant Kabir, the Muslim julaha (weaver) as Sun sandha teri dev devaakar adhpat aad samaayi, (‘Brothers! That is how the Immaculate Lord’s Aarti is made: Let Divine essence be the oil, the Lord’s Name the wick and the enlightened self, the lamp. By lighting this lamp we invoke the Lord’ (SGGS page 350).
Thereafter, Gopal tera aarta jo jan tumhri bhagat karante tin ke kaaj sanvaarta, (‘O Gopala, accept your Aarti You grant the wishes of those who worship you !) (SGGS page 695) was composed by Bhagat Dhanna, a Jat farmer from Rajasthan.
The final verse was composed by Guru Gobind Singh Ji,
Ya te… maha mun devar ke tap mein sukh pave jag kare ik ved rarey. (‘The Lord is pleased by penance, prayers, rituals, recitation of scriptures, meditation music and dance of celestial beings and the melody of the Aarti. The cosmic worlds rejoice and chant the Divine Name onwards’).
That the celestial aarti which we recite daily has been composed by two Gurus, a cobbler, a barber, a weaver and a farmer makes clear, if clarity was ever in question, that Sikhism represents the equality of all human beings:
Awal Allah noor upaya
Kudrat ke sab bandey
Ek noor te sab jag upjaya
Kaun bhale ko mande.
‘First, God created Light;
Mother Nature created all human beings equal;
From that one Light the entire world came into being;
So how can we differentiate
which one is better ? ’
Jo tis bhave so Aarti hoye
(‘That which pleases Him is a true worship’)