I entered the Gurdwara Nanak Shahi at the Dhaka University area looking for Taposh Lal Chowdhury, the manager of the Gurdwara Management Committee in Bangladesh. Within a few minutes, a young man came walking towards me and introduced himself.
Seeing a puzzled face, Taposh smiled and said, "Yes, I do not wear a pagri and kurta, I do not have long hair or beard and yet I am a Sikh."
I must admit, his remark left me a bit embarrassed because I was, in fact, expecting what we see on screen – a typical pagri-kurta clad man with a long beard and steel bangles on hand.
But I learned quickly that the Sikh religion has two paths, also known as Panth – Udasi and Akali. The Udasi disciples do not wear the 5 'ka's: Kanga (a wooden comb), Kara (iron/steel bangle), Kirpan (steel sword), Kaccha (cotton underwear) and Kesh (uncut hair), while the Akali disciples do.
Taposh is a disciple of the Udasi path like most in the Bangladeshi Sikh community.
Perhaps the most intriguing fact about Taposh is that he belongs to Hindu (or Sanatan) faith too, meaning he celebrates Durga Puja and other Hindu rituals as well as follows Sikhism.
"Sikhism rejects the idea of claims that any particular religion has a monopoly on Absolute Truth or the one God. The core belief includes faith in the one creator and equality of all humankind, striving for justice for the benefit and prosperity of all, and honest conduct and livelihood.
"And the doors are open for people of every religion and belief," explained Taposh as his joyful tone deepened, ever so slightly, tinged with emotions.
Ten gurus and one holy book
Sikhism is one of the youngest religions of the world which is an amalgamation of the Sufi and Bhakti schools of thought. Sikh in Punjabi means learner or disciple and those who joined the Sikh community – or Panth – are people who seek spiritual guidance.
The religion was established by Guru Nanak Dev – who is known as the first guru – and then it was developed by 10 gurus over the course of 250 years, from the late 15th century to 1708.
Guru Govind Singh was the last guru of Sikhism; he also designated the Shri Guru Granth Sahib – the holy book in Sikhism – as the ultimate Sikh guru in 1708. It was Guru Arjun, the fifth guru, who first started compiling the holy book in the 17th century.
The text consists of 1,430 angs (pages) and 5,894 shabads (line compositions), which are poetically rendered and set to a rhythmic ancient north Indian classical form of music.
Shri Guru Granth Sahib is a collection of the verses from six Sikh gurus: Guru Nanak, Guru Angad, Guru Amar Das, Guru Ram Das, Guru Arjan and Guru Teg Bahadur. It also contains hymns and verses of 13 Hindu Bhakti movement sant poets (saints) and two Muslim saint poets.
But the book cannot be printed or published at random. "If your community decides to have a Gurdwara or wants to have a Guru Granth, you will have to apply for it to the Gurdwara in Amritsar, India.
They will communicate with you and examine if you have the proper environment or management capacity to take care of it. If satisfied, they will send your community a copy," said Taposh.
Every gurdwara of Sikhism has to have a copy of the holy book. In the holy place, the book is read, in parts, twice every day; once in the morning and then in the evening. And on special occasions, langar (the communal meal shared by all who come to the gurdwara) or feast days, the book is read all day long in its entirety.
But the Granthi – qualified/specialised readers of the holy book – have to come to this country with a three-month visa. And then with multiple visas, the permit increases for a maximum of a year.
The holy book is written in Gurmukhi language that Granthis are trained in. Not everyone can read the book. And here in Bangladesh, most of the trained granthis arrive from India.
The beginning of a 500-year-old community in Bangladesh
Guru Nanak Dev was born in a high caste Bhraman family in 1469.
Legends say, during the 'Poita' or the sacred thread wearing ceremony, Nanak asked his parents for the one true sacred thread that will never wear out, which will forever be engraved in his heart.
However, when he witnessed discrimination and exploitations all around him, he started to ask himself, if God created all people, then who created this caste system? Why is there so much pain? That is when he decided to leave his community and search for the one true religion.
He left his home, ancestral identity and started to roam the world. In the early 15th century (around the year 1504), he arrived in East Bangla and it was during his visit here that he stopped in Dhaka, Sylhet and Mymensingh where he dug wells for the local people. And in those places, ashrams or gurdwaras were established over the next 500 years.
The Gurdwara Nanak Shahi in the Dhaka University area is considered to be the oldest gurdwara in Bangladesh.
A community living mostly in silence
Taposh Lal Chowdhury said that many Sikhs left the country and migrated to India after the 1947 Partition and the 1971 Liberation War because a number of gurdwaras were demolished during those periods. Tensions ran high.
In one such act of destruction in 1971, the Sangat Tola Gurdwara in Old Dhaka, the grandfather of Paresh Lal Begi, the former manager of the Gurdwara Management Committee of Bangladesh was set on fire and burnt.
Such hateful incidents scared many Sikh followers and many even converted to Hinduism at the time. This is another underlying reason why the Sikh population decreased over time.
There were 18 historical Gurdwaras in Bangladesh but now only five are left. These gurdwaras are maintained by the Kar Sewa Sarhali Sahib – a Punjab based charity organisation that provides services and other social welfare works (or Sewa) at gurdwaras to many different countries.
So how many people follow Sikhism in Bangladesh?
According to Taposh Lal Chowdhury, currently, there are only 15-20 Bangladeshi Sikh families residing in the country.
"Nearly 18,000-20,000 people live in Dhaka, Sylhet, Mymensingh and Chattogram. But the majority of this population has arrived for a temporary period, mostly for business, jobs and also who are deputies to various Indian High Commission.
"And then there is also a group of people who are Indian but came to this country and settled," explained Taposh.
Singh Bir Singh belongs to the last group. Singh was a 22-year-old young man when he first came to Bangladesh from Punjab. In 2007, Kar Sewa Sarhali Sahib, sent him to Bangladesh as a Kirtan singer or kirtanya.
A kirtanya is someone who sings holy ragas in gurdwaras. The Sikh holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib Ji, is composed in and divided into a total of 60 ragas. The instruments with which the ragas or the verses are sung are called kirtans.
Now, after 15 years, Singh is well-settled in Chattogram, with a Bangali wife named Kakon Das, a 10-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. Singh now performs Kirtan and also reads the holy book in gurdwaras. His wife Kakon Das works as a school teacher.
But does he not miss his homeland? To which Singh said, "Who doesn't miss his/her home? My wife also missed her home, dal-bhat, speaking in Bangla when she was in Punjab with me and my family. Then for her, I decided to settle in Bangladesh ''.
Singh and Kakon got an apartment from the Kar Sewa Sarhali Sahib at the Punjabi lane, near the Pahartali Gurdwara in Chattogram.
"But now, after 14 years, Gurpreet [what he calls his wife] likes Punjabi food. We eat Sarson da saag [mustard leaves], makki di roti [corn flatbread] and lassi made from butter and milk," said Singh, smiling. His happiness was evident.
Their children also speak in Hindi and Bangla, they like lassi and their son is also doing well in his school, where no one teases him anymore.
"I have never faced any teasing or anything because of my Sikh identity here in Bangladesh. It feels good to be here except for the visa complications," added Singh.
No recognition in national records
Taposh has 'Hindu' written in his national identity records although he wants to be recognised as a Sikh. But there is no option for it.
"Some mention Hindu while some other write Muslim as their religious identity. It was only three years ago when we got the chance of mentioning Sikh as our religion while applying for passports," said Taposh.
Singh still possesses an Indian passport and he has not taken Bangladeshi nationality yet. So every year, he has to renew his stay here. It is comparatively easier for him as his wife is Bangladeshi by birth.
But the Granthis always suffer from visa problems. "They have a three-month visa which is very problematic for us. We have applied multiple times for a longer visa opportunity for the Granthis, but still met no solutions," Taposh informed me.