Faith the Sikh Way

Posted on March 1, 2013


A semi-annual event highlights Bangkok’s Neeldhari community.

Within the depths of Rama II, Soi 33, a little-known and peaceful moo baan, Maharaja Garden City (MGC), was lit with the chehel-pehel of Desis, all gathered to commemorate the birthday of their religious leader, Sant Satnam Singh-ji Maharaj, and for the semi-annual Mahaan Kirtan Darbar.

The MGC is a gated community built by the Neeldhari Sikhs of Thailand, otherwise known as the blue-turban Sikhs. The complex features exquisite mansions, apartments, a gym, a library, a swimming pool, their very own prayer hall, and even a vegetarian Japanese restaurant at their doorstep. On a regular day, the streets are filled with children riding bicycles and neighbours exchanging pleasantries.

But from February 1st to 3rd, the moo baan was decorated with lights and colourful banners, while loud speakers buzzed with religious hymns. The much awaited event welcomed thousands of devotees from near and far, streaming in for a glimpse of the Maharaj himself, along with hours of soulful kirtan (songs of praise), inter-community mingling, and lots of food.

The samarthan, meaning gathering in Thai, was hosted at the main event hall on the second floor. Starting on time at 7pm, the entire hall—divided into a section for men and a section for women—was filled with people. An elevated, flower-laden deck held the Guru Granth Sahib. Right beside it sat the Maharaj, dressed in white with a royal blue turban and a matching kamar kassa (cloth belt) holding a silver kirpan (knife). The embellished stage was also shared by ragis (kirtan singers) who were flown in from India just for the occasion. The kirtan darbar was also attended by religious teachers from India, especially from the Akal Takht, the supreme Sikh authority based in India, as well as from Patna Sahib, the historical centre of Sikhism.

The event that took months of planning was organised by the MGC committee and also offered guests valet services, resting places, and even sewadars—volunteers, wearing bright yellow sashes—to provide information and assist the elderly.

The programme went on until the wee hours of the morning, and the crowd shuffled all through the evening between the event hall and the driveway, which was converted into an open-air dining area, with tables and an endless array of vegetarian delicacies.

Apart from the devotees, the event also drew in others from the Indian and Thai communities. Dr. Srichampa, a professor at Mahidol University’s Centre for Bharat Studies, was also a guest. A researcher in Asia’s cultural heritage, she felt that being a part of  an event like this would be helpful in teaching her students, 80 percent of whom are Thai. Educated in Indian culture and a frequent visitor to India, she said, “People in the past have had a negative understanding of India, so through this programme, we try to educate them. It’s our duty.”

Another guest, non-Neeldhari Sikh Deedar Singh, has been coming to such kirtans for many years. He said that contrary to the perception that many mainstream Sikhs have, he sees no difference between the two communities. “We have the same Guru Granth Sahib. In fact, my own daughter has married a Neeldhari and become a vegetarian.”

The event also featured media correspondents from Chardikla Time TV, a channel from India that features religious content. Head of production, Gurdeep Sehra, along with his crew from Delhi, arrived a few days ago just to cover the event, which was being broadcast live.

The kirtan darbar takes place twice a year—February and September—and brings in not only Sikhs from around the region but also the world over. Nitu, a housewife from London, came all the way just to attend the event. While she says this is nothing compared to the event in Pipli—the Neeldhari headquarters in India—she wouldn’t have missed it, because Maharaj was in attendance. Another lady seated beside her stressed that she, along with 26 others, came in two buses from Ipoh in Malaysia. Mina, freelance journalist and Neeldhari member from Malaysia, said it was an opportunity to reconnect with her spiritual roots.

It was the Sikh spiritual leader, Guru Amar Das, who started the tradition of the kirtan darbar in the mid- 1500s, where people from all over India would get an opportunity to expand their practice and faith in the religion. Now, centuries on, the event, which is usually held in India, has spread to Bangkok. The Maharaj, who travels extensively, given the nature of his Pope-like status, always makes it in time to be a part of the events and also spend time at his home in MGC. At the event, he is not only approachable but also remembers people by their names and family history. His popularity extends beyond borders, and even the vast Sindhi community based in China attended the samarthan held in Shanghai last December.

The community in Bangkok, as NS Narula, describes, was built to give Sikhs, especially Neeldharis, a place to call home. He added, “Our functions are held here so that all communities can come and do sewa together.” The MGC currently houses 35 Sikh families and over 150 people, many of whom are from Malaysia and Singapore but live here part-time. Prior to moving to MGC, many of the families resided at the Chi Cha Country Club, a residential community nearby with other Indians and Thais. The idea to build a Neeldhari specific community arose when the families decided that they wanted to build their own prayer hall that would be easier to access. Since many of them are working, it is hard to go to the Pahurat and Asoke gurdwara. Now the MGC not only gives local Sikhs a place to worship but also the children a way to stay connected to their roots.

Narula, a businessman at his own trading company, added that kids as young as nine are taught to read and write in Punjabi, play musical instruments, and lessons from scripture. The teaching sessions, free of charge, take place after school and are open to all Sikhs and other Indians. Jasvinder Sachdev, head of finance at Ascot International School, added that the kids perform kirtan every Saturday and Sunday. This way they grow up with faith and an understanding of Sikh history. Narula said, “The advantage of living in a complex like this is that we get a chance to train our young. Because we live in one community, our children are able to learn and practise.”

The Neeldharis are often misunderstood, with people thinking of their strict vegetarianism as being ultra-orthodox. A notice board at the entrance of the MGC clearly states that no meat, alcohol, tobacco, or other intoxicants are allowed within the premises. Narin Narula, also a trader at his family business, said, “We are pure vegetarians because our Guru Granth Sahib says so. It is mentioned in the passages. The scripture, which was previously written in Sanksrit, was translated into Punjabi language, so [we] could understand and follow it.” He further said, “In doing that, we are not trying to segregate ourselves from others. One of the misconceptions that people have of us is that we are not actual Sikhs as they are. There is only one kind of Sikh, one that follows the teachings of the scriptures.”

Narula added, “The only difference could be that we are more conservative in our interpretation of the scriptures. The reason we wear blue is because our Guru Gobind Singh-ji told us to wear the colour. Had he said green, then we would be wearing green.”

Mr. Bajaj, a retired businessman, said, “The supreme body of Sikhism is the Akal Takht in Amritsar. They issue the Rehat Maryada (code of ethics) that all Sikhs are supposed to follow. We follow that strictly and do not impose on others.”

In regards to marriage and customs, Neeldharis are similar to all Sikhs. They are also free to marry non- Neeldharis. And when Tajinder, a non-Neeldhari from Singapore, decided to become vegetarian, her family was worried they would have a tough time to find a suitable partner for her. She eventually did marry another non-Neeldhari, but her husband became a vegetarian soon after, and her father-in-law also followed suit.

Although there is no official conversion ceremony to become a Neeldhari, she says, “When the old Maharajji was around, I was told to go take a full bath from head to toe and return to be blessed with a prayer.” One would think that becoming a vegetarian overnight may have been difficult, but for Tajinder, who was already preparing herself, it was nothing overwhelming.

Although the Neeldharis have successfully created a haven in Thailand, they still have strong ties with their roots in India. The gurdwara in Pipli provides an ashram for the destitute, a daily langar to feed thousands, and also a free eye hospital. The MGC, too, isn’t far behind in community service. NS Narula recounts themany initiatives. “We give donations to the temples here. During the floods of 2011, we participated with the army relief effort in providing food for all the victims, even supplying the police station here with water. We also provided shelter for some of the Sikh families who were affected by the flood. Along with Thai-Sikh patronage, we build schools in the provinces for the Thai people who cannot afford education. We also give transportation to the elderly who live in Tha Phra to come here for their daily prayers.”

For all its lavishness, the kirtan darbar is just one aspect of community life. Their togetherness persists after the function is over, in their daily lives, on the streets of MGC.

[For original PDF, please click Faith the Sikh Way]

Featured in Masala magazine, Februray 2013

Posted in: People