Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Visiting the Gurdwara

In Chandni Chowk, there's a prominent gurdwara: the Gurdwara Sis Ganj. It honors the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur, and was built on the location of his beheading. I had gone into the Sikh History Museum next to the gurdwara, and now stood in front of the building itself, wondering if I could go inside.

Theoretically gurdwaras are open to everyone, but I'm always a little nervous about crashing other peoples' services. However, this gurdwara had a large door labeled "Information for Visitors."

So that's where I went. Actually, I didn't quite go inside. I stuck my head through the door, in case this was one of the places where I was supposed to cover my head and remove my shoes, and tried to see what was going on.

In less than two seconds a cheerful, welcoming man had tied a saffron kerchief around my head.

"We cover our heads to show we are brave," he told me, smiling. Then he showed me where to put my shoes.

Once inside, I was introduced to another man who would turn out to be my tour guide. He took me into the main hall, which I expected, and we sat for a moment listening to the reading from the Guru Granth Sahib, but then he tapped me on the knee and I stood up and we were off on a whirlwind of exploration, into a network of hallways and rooms, kitchens and dormitories and balconies, and he was explaining to me exactly how the gurdwara worked.

On the way I was introduced to twenty-five-odd people; every time we passed someone my guide stopped and greeted them and introduced them to me, and there was smiling and hand-shaking all around.

The most interesting thing about the tour was that it was entirely in Hindi. My guide and I understood pretty quickly that neither of us spoke the other's language, and after a nod of apology to each other we decided that we would have to make do. I was able to understand the meaning of what he was telling me, if not the actual words. It was actually very fun to stand in front of a portrait or a giant chapati-making machine and talk back and forth with this man and then both start grinning as we realized we knew what the other was trying to say.

When the tour was over, I was returned to the visitors' room and given some pamphlets to take back with me. An English-speaking woman was found, who went over some of the details I didn't catch on my tour. She asked me if I had seen the Nishan Sahib. I said that I had.

"It's our symbol," she told me, "so that everyone who looks in this direction will know that there is a gurdwara here. It's like your cross in America. You put a cross in front of your churches, yes?"

"Yes," I said.

"And we put the Nishan Sahib at our gurdwaras. It's like the cross, but ours is much larger."

Wow. I thought. Did Christianity just get served?


Daniel said...

(1) Not all of us in America use the cross...

(2) I find it so interesting that the covering of the heads is to show braveness. In Judaism, it's to show deference to that being we call God...who, apparently, lives above us out in the solar system somewhere.

(3) Yay for inter-language communication! Woo!

Anonymous said...


AFAIK, Sikhs cover their heads in the Gurdwara for the same reason that other religions that mandate head-covering do - to show respect for the divine....that's a first that I've heard,. that it is to show bravery...