A Catholic in Little India
My experiences in a Sikh gurdwara
BY ALEXANDRA FLAMINI
Southall reminded me of Belfast. A layer of grime seemed to have descended over the London suburb. A gray train station met gray damp streets that met gray buildings under a hazy gray sky. Home to the largest Sikh community outside India, Southall had earned the nickname Little India.
The people looked tired and subdued. Shop owners silently watched as people walked by. The older members of the community cast their eyes upon us, skeptical of the 11 pale American students as we walked down the street with cameras and notepads in hand.
The elder men had beards and wore turbans. The young men didn’t appear as orthodox as the older generations. Beardless and youthful in their dress, they wore sandals and sweatpants rather than turbans. The women were draped in colorful Indian fabrics with gold trimmings. Their long, dark brown hair was often braided down their backs. Some women covered their heads with scarves that complemented their bright saris.
The Gurdwara, or Sikh temple, poked above the low buildings, its golden domed glistening through the haze. Opened in 2003, it is the largest Gurdwara outside India. Its outside is made of smooth tan stone. Inside are beamed ceilings, carved wooden doorways and Indian-inspired accents.
Across the street from the Gurdwara, a faded pink sign on a blue plywood gate read “One Church, One Lord. Jesus Christ. Worship Him Here.” This is what I’d expected to see in England, an Anglican country. It was a reminder of what Christianity used to mean to a country whose religious geography is changing.
The Sikh community welcomes visitors of any religion who are willing to cover their head and remove their shoes. Men and women split to their respective shoe storage areas—two rooms filled with cubbyholes.
Women covered their heads with a scarf. Mine was as sooty gray as the city. Nonetheless, I felt that I stood out among the orange-colored men’s turbans. I couldn’t tell if I looked more ’50s Audrey Hepburn on the back of a Vespa scooter or more like a Middle Eastern woman staring out of a photo in The New York Times.
As my classmates and I walked to the sinks to wash our hands before entering the sanctuary, it hit me—the pungent smell of feet. Yes, feet do smell, but we were in a public space, and the smell was socially OK. I experienced a bit of culture shock until the thick, putrid smell that hung in my nose started to dissipate.
We climbed the stairs to the Darbar Sahib—the vast, echoing prayer hall with a domed ceiling. Long rectangles of white muslin covered the floor. An indigo-colored carpet led to a large canopy sheltering the Sikh holy text, or Guru Granth Sahib. It lay on a raised platform, or manji sahib. The canopy, gold and blue and rose, stood in front of a modern stained-glass window— a symbol of respect to the scriptures.
Beneath the canopy, a frail old woman waved a giant white-feather fan. In days gone by, the fan had kept flies away from the holy text as Sikhs prayed. Today, anyone can volunteer for this job.
Practicing Sikhs approached their Holy Scriptures, deposited an offering in a shiny metal trough called a golak, kneeled and bowed, touching head to floor. They then sat cross-legged on the white muslin. Men and women are supposed to sit on different sides of the prayer hall, but some still worship together.
Meanwhile, three men played music and chanted from the holy book. The music floated throughout the temple, amplified by speakers.
As my classmates and I left the Daba Sahib, two women offered us a sweet, doughy ball called karah parshad. The Sikh form of Holy Communion, karah parshad is an important part of Sikh hospitality. We cupped our hands to receive it and then made sure we ate it all. To refuse to take it or throw any away would be disrespectful.
Back in the lobby, we went to the dining hall, called a Pangat. Large Sikh temples prepare and serve free vegetarian meals up to 24 hours a day. The smallest of temples may serve meals only a few times a week. Because the food contains no meat, everyone can eat it.
Pangats embrace the idea of equality by welcoming people of any religion, ethnicity, caste, gender or age. Volunteers prepare and serve the food. Sikhs regard volunteerism, or seva, as a religious duty.
We grabbed metallic silver trays and a spoon and walked up to the cafeteria-style counter. Three male volunteers with ladles were stationed there. None spoke English.
I found the men hard to communicate with. Even when I pointed to what I wanted to eat, I felt as though they didn’t understand. I started to worry that pointing was rude in Sikh culture. I stopped and let them serve me the different dishes. Language barriers are difficult. I felt rude and wanted to apologize, but I couldn’t.
I sampled a little bit of everything—a soupy lentil dish, thick yellow curry, half an apple and a piece of flatbread. A bowl of chili peppers soaking in chili oil was set out to spice the dishes, although the curry was quite hot. Mugs of water and citrus soda marked the end of the line.
Mug and tray in hand, I sat on a rug on the floor. Not expecting much out of a free meal, I ate some of the best Indian food I’ve ever tasted. The curry was fragrant and peppery, balanced by the milder lentils. I mopped up with the flatbread and finished with the juicy apple.
Such a welcoming religious community was very foreign to me, coming from a Catholic background. Catholics don’t offer Holy Communion to non-Catholics. The priest often scolds parishioners for not being Catholic enough. It takes a long time to become officially Catholic, including weekly religion classes and various rites of passage. In the Sikh community, if you wake up and want to practice Sikhism, you are welcomed on day one.
Walking into the Sikh Gurdwara was like walking into another world, one I didn’t know existed. I was deeply moved by this welcoming religious community. Religion has always seemed a reason to fight or a way to divide people who are alike in other ways. To witness a religion rooted in equality for all gives me faith that other religions may become more open and welcoming to everyone, not just to those who believe the same. The Sikh religion inspired me to hope for a day when peace, not conflict, is rooted in religion.