More than six centuries ago, a religion known as Sikhism appeared on the Indian subcontinent in the Punjab region. Sikhism encourages and teaches faith, meditation, unity, and equality of all people as well as strives for social justice and public benefit. A Sikh is a person who has no doubts about his beliefs in a single universal being. While the term itself has mainly religious meaning, the majority of followers have strong ethnical ties and relationships. In this paper, I will discuss how Sikhism persevered and developed until the modern days. It will also focus on fundamental questions about Gurdwaras’ role in Sikh tradition in a diaspora setting and general architectural and symbolical aspects.
Historically, Sikhs originated in the greater Punjab area but over the past centuries, large groups of them have spread worldwide. Since Sikh people were a part of an Indian province for hundreds of years, they are still perceived as a nation by many. A big crowd unified by the common history, culture, or language and living on a particular territory fits the definition of a nation. There are twenty seven million of Sikh followers in the world that maintain and spread their ideas, traditions, and movement. Nowadays, the majority of Sikhs live in India, but there are a lot of their developed communities in various countries worldwide such as United Kingdom, the United States, Thailand, Canada, and others.
Like most modern religions and groups, Sikhs have a place of gathering to praise and worship their gods and enjoy other social and community activities. Holy sanctuary in Sikhism is called Gurdwara and is translated as “a door to the Guru”. A distinct feature of these places of worship is that people of any faith, gender, age, or sexuality are welcome to the service anytime. Being a part of Sikh community brings a lot of benefits to the individuals as well as groups of people. The followers can take part in many spiritual and physical activities such as lectures, praying, dancing, cooking, cleaning, and others. In the past, Sikhs built sophisticated infrastructures around Gurdwaras to be closer to each other. Nowadays, Gurdwaras are adapted to current community needs and can offer additional community services like libraries and schools to teach children a traditional Gurmukhi language that the Sikh scriptures use. It is common to see different events, stores, and charities organized by Sikhs to benefit the broader community and spread the knowledge about their faith. Fundamental traditions of forming tight spiritual bonds and a sense of community belonging continue to support Sikhism and their way of worshiping that extends to food preparation and eating. Despite the destination and time, they continue to follow the same guidelines and principles of unity and spirituality.
It is obvious how Sikhs respect traditions building their sanctuaries. After centuries of forming their communities and migrating, millions of Sikhs have scattered all around the world creating significant diasporas in many developed countries. Unlike most religions that offer simple gathering and worshiping, Sikhism and Gurdwaras provide people with a chance to learn and help fellow followers or even make a difference in a community. At the same time, Gurdwaras’ attendees benefit from a variety of voluntary activities physically, mentally, and spiritually, which not only helps them to develop and grow personally and spiritually but also serves as a second home for the Sikhs. In any diaspora, it is critical for people to connect with others to maintain integrity and distinctiveness. Gathering in one place due to the common faith is essential to the majority of modern religions; however, Gurdwaras play a bigger role for Sikhs than that. It provides them with a sense of unity and family, helps them connect with ethnical roots, learn their beginnings and history, as well as be a part of a dedicated and friendly community. Sikhism never practiced converting people from other religions; therefore, it stayed a comparatively consistent and homogenous group. However, any person of a different faith interested in the movement and its ideas is free to attend a place of worship and learn more about the movement, its ideology, beliefs, traditions, and people. In contrast to other churches and establishments, Gurdwaras welcome everyone looking for a spiritual guidance, interested in learning about Sikhism, and just wanting to be a part of a community and do good deeds for themselves and others. Finally, Gurdwaras around the world allow the Sikhs to maintain and respect traditions and faith regardless of the location and time of day.
Another essential aspect is Gurdwaras’ architectural design and the fact that they have no set standards, guidelines, or limitations. A required installation of Granth Sahib and a long pennant flag on the highest peak of the building makes Gurdwaras the places of worship for the Sikhs. Nowadays, many Gurdwaras are built using a mixed pattern of Sikh and Indo-Persian architecture. A regular modern Gurdwara consists of square halls, entrances on each side, and a sanctum in the middle. A few basic symbols and features that identify a Gurdwara are the Guru, the Sikh holy book, and Nishan (an orange flag with a Khalsa emblem). Pangat is a community kitchen, and Sangat is a concentration of Holy energy and spirits. Another component is Golak – a financial system that monitors expenditures, receives gifts and donations, and manages the account for the Guru. These five elements serve critical roles in managing and running Gurdwaras. Additionally, these places can have complimentary constructions and rooms. It is not strange for a Gurdwara to have multiple floors to accommodate large quantities of people at once. Recently, the demand for sizable places to fulfill the needs of bigger gatherings helped create a new style. Modern and well ventilated main halls with the sanctum in one end became popular designs. A prominent model for the top is the ribbed lotus with an ornament in addition to other exterior modifications and decorations.
Even though Gurdwaras have no standard design and layout, there are a few typical things distinguishing them from other religious constructions. A creative ornament in traditional Sikh patterns around the building highlights it right when you see it. Upon entering the sacred place, people have to take their shoes off and leave them in a designated place to proceed to the main hall. In the center or towards the end of the hall, you can find an inner sanctum area where all the spiritual and guidance activities take place. In some Gurdwaras, sanctum is located on the second floor depending on the architectural design and functionality of the building. A kitchen is another important part of a Gurdwara. Pangat serves various vegetarian foods to all the attendees and allows volunteers to help the community. Before entering the kitchen, you have to wash your hands and, in some instances, your feet to start helping and cooking. While a group of volunteers works on preparing a meal, the rest of the people attend a spiritual lecture in the main hall. Most modern Gurdwaras have special equipment, such as speakers, to ensure the class’ message is delivered to everyone in the building. People who cannot be present in the main hall for the lecture can hear it anywhere in the building; this allows them to take part in other activities such as preparing foods. Lecturing, singing, eating, and other activities take place in the main hall where everyone gets situated comfortably on the floor.
A traditional day in a Gurdwara consists of all the fundamental activities as well as guest-welcoming ceremony, where new members receive gifts and a chance to be introduced to everyone, and others. Traditional symbols accompany these activities at all times. For example, newly inducted members can get various items, such as a book about the faith, a rose necklace as a welcome gift and a symbol of longevity, various booklets, and other things for free. One of the most important activities in any Gurdwara is their feast ceremony. Before the volunteers start serving the food, all people have to sit down on the floor in a unique pattern based on the design of the main hall. Next, all the dishes are served to the attendees and people start eating and socializing with others around them. Additional constructions are usually built around the Gurdwaras’ territory including specialized stores that offer a huge variety of products, such as spiritual and educational books, incenses and oils, clothes, food, drinks, symbols, and souvenirs, as well as many other things.
The greatest function of these meetings and Gurdwaras is to provide Sikhs with a worship place to gather. Gurdwaras are also used as community centers, schools, guest houses, areas for different community and charity events, and sometimes even as hospitals or clinics. I had a chance to visit one of these places in the past. I had a great time then and gained a lot of experience as well as new insight on things. I strongly suggest visiting one of these places just to better understand the movement and what it stands for if you ever get a chance. You will have a remarkable time and make a lot of interesting connections.
In conclusion, it is easy to understand why Sikhism is the ninth largest spiritual movement in the world even though it is one of the youngest amongst the major global religions. The reason is the community and the ideology that these people follow. Sikhs are kind, opened, and ready to help, share, and accept you. Sometimes, they are even eager to resolve personal issues and conflicts, both spiritual and real life ones. If you like exotic modern architecture or want to participate in social activities, a Gurdwara is a place for you. Talking with new people, learning spiritual ways of the movement, and eating tasty healthy food are just a few great beneficial activities people participate in when attending a Gurdwara. You can follow the Sikhism way all around the world in various and unique places of worship regardless of where and who you are.