Gurdwara Nanak Shahi at the Dhaka University area was like a weekend cafeteria for us. We used to go there on Fridays right before lunch, at around 12 PM. We went inside through a blue-white gate, and all we had to do was cover our heads with a stole and wash our feet before entering the langar hall.
Even after six years, I can still recall the smell of that vegetarian thali with Chola (chickpeas), soybean kofta, spinach and rice.
The heavenly white structure, green lawn in the front, and the Granth Sahib Paath (the reading of the holy book) in the evening; everything added to the tranquility of the place. And we never bothered to ask why there was a Gurdwara in Bangladesh, how many Sikhs live here, or why the Hindi speaking Granthis (readers of the Granth Sahib or the holy book) told us to greet the holy book every time we entered the prayer hall.
However, all that changed as I returned to that place once more. I got to know about the Gurdwara and the Sikh community of Bangladesh. There, I met Taposh Lal Chowdhury, the manager of the Gurdwara management committee of Bangladesh, who took me through the lanes of Sikh history and the 500 year old place of worship.
A 500-year-old place of worship
Gurdwara, literally means the doorway to Guru. According to Taposh, it was at the beginning of the 16th century when Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder of Sikhism, visited Dhaka. The Gurdwara Nanak Shahi stands on Nilkhet road in his memory.
While the area had always been demarcated through various temporary and permanent structures, the current structure was originally built by Bhai Natha in 1830. Surprisingly the structure has similarities with the design of the tomb of Nawab Shaista Khan's granddaughter, Iran Dhukhat alias Pori Bibi in Lalbagh fort.
Bhai Natha also took the initiative of digging a well before the Gurdwara was built, and modifications were made to it by Mahant Prem Dass in 1833. Although it is all dried up now, that well still stands in front of the prayer hall because the well is a major symbol for Sikhs and Gurdwaras, explained Taposh.
"Wherever Guru Nanak stayed, he dug a well for the local people. That is why you will find a well in every Gurdwara."
During Pakistan rule, this Gurdwara was ravaged and filled with dirt and squalor. Intruders broke into the temple and looted its antique furniture, musical instruments, banisters, precious stones and other valuable articles.
In January 1972, a Sikh delegation headed by General Jagjit Singh Arora invited Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman to visit the Gurdwara. Some essential reforms were made during that period.
In 1988-89 the building was renovated and the outside veranda, along with the langar, was constructed. The work was carried out under the able guidance of Sardar Herbeant Singh.
The research centre and the guest house were later built in 2006/07.
Now the Gurdwara premise consists of a darbar /prayer hall, research centre, office, langar hall, and guest house.
Once there were 18 historical Gurdwaras in Bangladesh, but now only five remain. Three are in Dhaka, one is in Chattogram, and one in Mymensingh. The Bangladesh Gurdwara Management Committee runs the affairs of these Gurdwaras with support from Kar Sewa Sarhali Sahib – a Punjab based charity organisation that provides services and runs other social welfare initiatives (or Sewa) at Gurdwaras in various countries.
The main features of the Gurdwara
The characteristics of a Sikh Gurdwara has similarities to Mughal architecture, particularly the domes and the columns with lotus motif.
The basic design of the Gurdwara in Dhaka comprises a rectangular or square hall, which is covered with a big dome. The dome is ridged and has blue detailing on it. The white structure has blue detailing and Khanda (the Sikh symbol) is painted all around the dome.
The rectangular room is the main prayer hall called the 'Divan Sahib'. It has entrances on four sides. This is to symbolise that the place is open to every person of any faith, caste, sex, nationality, etc. The Sangatt or the worshippers gather here and sit on the floor to worship Waheguru (God).
Right in the middle of the hall, there is a decorated platform called the Darbar Sahib. Darbar Sahib literally means the Royal Court, where Sri Guru Granth Sahib is kept on a raised throne, or Takht, in a prominent central position. There, the holy book is continuously fanned with a feathered whisk called the 'Chaur Sahib'.
The presence of this holy book is what makes the Sikh prayer hall a 'Gurdwara'.
Taposh explained, "Every Gurdwara must have a copy of the holy book, which will be sent from Amritsar. You need to have the proper environment and resting place for it.
The holy book is read in parts twice every day; once in the morning and once in the evening. However, on special occasions, such as the langar (the communal meal shared by all who come to the Gurdwara), the book is read all day long in its entirety.
Inside the Darbar Sahib, there is a special room for the Granth Sahib. After the completion of the day's recitals and prayers, the holy book is placed there to rest. This room is called the Sach Khand. Inside this air-conditioned room, you will find a small bed for the Granth Sahib to take rest.
"Guru Govind Singh was the last guru of Sikhism. Before his death, he designated the Shri Guru Granth Sahib – their holy book – as the ultimate guru in 1708. We consider this book as our present guru and treat it as a person," said Taposh.
Inside the Dhaka University Gurdwara prayer hall, a pair of wooden sandals have also been preserved in a glass box at one corner of the Darbar Sahib. It is believed to have belonged to Guru Teg Bahadur Singh, the ninth of ten Gurus of Sikh religion.
The langar (community kitchen) is another special practice in Sikhism. A langar is the community kitchen of a Gurdwara, where meals are served free of charge to all who come to visit, regardless of religion, caste, gender, economic status, or ethnicity.
People sit on the floor and eat together. The kitchen is maintained and serviced by Sikh community volunteers. The meals served at langar are always vegetarian.
According to Taposh, every Friday an average of 300 people are served here with food.
All Gurdwaras also raise a yellow flag – with the Khanda symbols of two curved swords, a double-edged dagger, and a disc – known as Nishan Sahib. The flag symbolises the union of temporal and spiritual life and the bravery of the Sikhs.
At the front there is a lawn with a little water reservoir or sarovar. In the middle of the sarover, a metal structure is placed which says 'Ek Onkar'. Ek onkar means there is only one God or one creator. It is a central tenet of Sikh religious philosophy.
As you pass the main prayer hall, at the right there is a washing area to wash your feet before you enter the prayer hall.
A lack of respect
The Gurdwara is open for everyone, but it has two layers of locked gates at the entrance. "Most of the people don't know how to respect this holy place. For example, they will enter with their shoes on, or keep their head uncovered," explained Taposh. "We want to keep everything open, but then people often disrespect our holy space."