By a strange coincidence, November/December 2012 is seeing a host of jubilee celebrations bunched up together. We saw the centenary celebrations of the Orthodox Syrian Christian church a few posts ago. A few days later, the Cochin gurdwara celebrated its silver jubilee.
A gurdwara is the place of worship of the Sikhs, a colorful community hailing from Punjab who practice the religion called Sikhism, which is one of the major religions that originated in India (the others being Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism). The Sikhs have a strong martial tradition and form the backbone of the Indian armed forces. The British found them to be the toughest fighters on the subcontinent (on par with the Gurkhas of Nepal). They are distinctive in appearance with their beards and turbans (see Natty Foursome). Indeed, with their turbans and beards, they do resemble the Taliban superficially, which has led to stray attacks on them in the United States since 9/11, but that is another story. I have only positive tidings to convey today, and will eschew anything remotely negative. Such was my frame of mind after my first ever visit to a gurdwara.
There is just one gurdwara in Kerala, and it’s located in Cochin. I decided to join the Kirtan Durbar, as it would be followed by lunch, and I was keen to sample authentic Punjabi fare. So on the appointed day, November 28, I set out for the gurdwara at about noon.
This banner just outside the gurdwara shows Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, with his hand raised in benediction:
This is the gurdwara entrance.
Below are a couple of banners inside the gurdwara. I like photographing banners and posters when I travel; apart from documenting the location, they can be informative sometimes in unexpected ways. There was another notice that prescribed two conditions for entry to the gurdwara: footwear should be removed, and the head should be covered. The first is standard practice for any place of worship in India except for churches with pews (usually, Anglican churches), but the second condition was more problematic. Luckily, I had a handkerchief, and a friendly Sikh fashioned an improvised head cover with it.
The footwear was deposited here. In churches, we would leave our footwear scattered on the steps outside. This is not without risk, as mix-ups occur and the footwear is even stolen sometimes. Not here. You hand over your footwear here and are given a token with a number on it. Neat!
And at last, I was inside! This is what I beheld.
The seating hall was spacious, and was packed with devotees. Men sat to the left and women to the right. A devotional song was being sung by musicians at the far end of the hall, so I lost no time in moving closer to them.
The girl finished her piece, and the man seated behind her took over.
After the song came a short interlude. Prizes were distributed to kids for what appeared to be scripture competitions.
The musical trio then continued their devotional songs, and the assembly sat quietly, listening in rapt silence.
A young Sikh boy walks past his seated elders. The young ones in the hall were remarkably well behaved. There was also an open, relaxed atmosphere that contrasted sharply with the regimented church drill I am used to. A boy wandering like this in church, for instance, would have been rounded up and told to stand or sit in his appointed place. But then I reminded myself that this was a Kirtan durbar, perhaps the rough equivalent of a carol service in church, when the ambiance is certainly more mellow and a refreshing change from the usual rather strained piety on display.
A view of the seated assembly from another angle.
And this I believe is where the holy book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, reposes. All through the kirtan singing, devotees lined up here to pay obeisance to the holy book.
One of the worshipers later explained to me the symbolism behind prostrating before the holy book. It is as though by touching the floor with his head, the devotee empties it of his own human wisdom and invites the divine wisdom of the holy book to take its place.
A front view of the assembly.
The holy book is treated like a living guru, which is why I think this priest fanned it from time to time.
I’m a sucker for plaques like this. Where else will you get this kind of information about the history of a place?
And at last, the Langar was announced! Everybody sat cross-legged on the floor to eat.
This quote from the Guru Grant Sahib caught my eye.
The organization of the langar is community driven. The entire operation was executed with effortless ease and clockwork precision. As far as I could see, the community members themselves did all the work — nothing was contracted out.
This is where you have to bring your plate and tumbler after the meal. The leftovers are dumped into a pail, the plate is washed in these big utensils, after which the ladies on the other side of the counter take over, washing the plate thoroughly with soap and water.
And after a short wait, I was on the floor, cross-legged, awaiting my turn to be served.
The meal consisted of rotis, poories, a cauliflower vegetable preparation, dal, a chana curry, fried rice, curd, and a banana. It was a delicious repast! I was so absorbed in my meal that I forgot to take a photograph of my loaded plate. What can I say? Sometimes life gets in the way of photography! The only negative part of the experience was that my legs got cramped from sitting in the cross-legged position, which I’m not used to. Next time, I will sit and eat like the man in jeans hogging the foreground above.
This is where the rotis and poories are made. One can imagine the stories being swapped and gossip being exchanged in this intimate space.
Another view of the cozy circle. The girl with the outstretched hand seems to be saying, “Gimme some, quick; the troops are hungry.”
As I’d mentioned earlier, this is where the used plates end up being washed. The dining hall is visible through the open window. The lady on the left has come for more plates to pile food onto. Yes, sir, the troops are hungry!
On the way out, almost as a counterpoint to the solemnity of the religious rites, I see this small boy giving free rein to his small-boyish instincts.
It won’t be many years before this young lady in the making will shudder delicately at the thought of dipping her toes into something so yucky — but, hey, who knows, maybe she’s giving free rein to her feminine instincts and is trying to paint her toenails red.
On the way out, I enjoyed the a delightful drink at the lassi stall manned by this grave young boy, who evidently took his responsibilities seriously.
On the way to the bus stop, I spotted this coffin, a timely reminder of how religion charges the ephemeral lives of believers with eternal significance. Does religion open a window of hope even in the face of death for us insignificant, drifting, clueless humans? The chiaroscuro on the floor seems to affirm so.
It was only after I had spent some time in the bus alone with my thoughts that I realized that the handkerchief was still tightly wrapped around my head. I took it off only after I reached home, in the hope that some of the spiritual essence of the gurdwara might waft from it into the house.
Update: More information on the Cochin gurdwara here: The Cochin Gurdwara