Bangladesh’s 500-year-old Sikh community

The history of Sikhism in Bangladesh dates back to the 15th century. Yet this vibrant community has remained relatively obscure

March 25, 2022, 11:30 a.m.

Last modification: March 25, 2022, 1:09 PM

I entered the Gurdwara Nanak Shahi in the University of Dhaka area in search of Taposh Lal Chowdhury, the director of the management committee of the Gurdwara in Bangladesh. A few minutes later, a young man came up to me and introduced himself.

Seeing a puzzled face, Taposh smiled and said, “Yes, I don’t wear a pagri or a kurta, I don’t have long hair or a beard and yet I’m a Sikh.”

I have to admit his remark left me a bit embarrassed because I was actually expecting what we see on screen – a man dressed in typical pagri-kurta with a long beard and steel bracelets at hand.

But I soon learned that the Sikh religion has two paths, also known as Panth – Udasi and Akali. Udasi disciples do not wear the 5 ‘ka’s: Kanga (a wooden comb), Kara (iron/steel bracelet), Kirpan (steel sword), Kaccha (cotton undergarment) and Kesh (uncut hair) , unlike the Akali disciples.

Taposh is a follower of the Udasi way like most members of the Sikh community in Bangladesh.

Photo: Noor-A-Alam

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Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Perhaps the most intriguing fact about Taposh is that he also belongs to the Hindu faith (or Sanatan), which means he celebrates Durga Puja and other Hindu rituals while following Sikhism.

“Sikhism rejects the idea of ​​claiming that any particular religion has a monopoly on absolute truth or the one God. The fundamental belief includes faith in the one Creator and the equality of all mankind, the struggle for justice for the benefit and prosperity of all, and honesty conduct and livelihood.

“And the doors are open to people of all religions and beliefs,” Taposh explained as his cheerful tone deepened, ever so slightly, tinged with emotion.

Ten gurus and a holy book

Sikhism is one of the youngest religions in the world which is a fusion of Sufi and Bhakti schools of thought. Sikh in Punjabi means learner or disciple and those who have 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 – then it was developed by 10 gurus over 250 years from the end of the 15th century to 1708.

Guru Govind Singh was the last guru of Sikhism; he also designated the Shri Guru Granth Sahib – the holy book of Sikhism – as the ultimate Sikh guru in 1708. It was Guru Arjun, the fifth guru, who began 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 an ancient form of North Indian rhythmic classical music.

Bangladeshi gurdwaras are maintained by the Kar Sewa Sarhali Sahib – a charity organization based in Punjab. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

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Bangladeshi gurdwaras are maintained by the Kar Sewa Sarhali Sahib – a charity organization based in Punjab.  Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Bangladeshi gurdwaras are maintained by the Kar Sewa Sarhali Sahib – a charity organization based in Punjab. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Shri Guru Granth Sahib is a collection of 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 by 13 sant poets of the Hindu Bhakti movement (saints) and two Muslim saint poets.

But the book cannot be printed or published randomly. “If your community decides to have a Gurdwara or wants to have a Guru Granth, you will need to apply to the Gurdwara of Amritsar, India.

They will communicate with you and consider whether you have the right management environment or capacity to handle it. If they’re happy, they’ll send a copy to your community,” Taposh said.

Every gurdwara in Sikhism must have a copy of the holy book. In the holy place, the book is read, in parts, twice a day; once in the morning and then in the evening. And on special occasions, langar (the common meal shared by all who come to the gurdwara) or feast days, the book is read all day in its entirety.

But Granthi – qualified/specialized readers of the holy book – have to come to this country on a three-month visa. And then with several visas, the permit increases by a maximum of one year.

The holy book is written in the Gurmukhi language in which Granthis is trained. Not everyone can read the book. And here in Bangladesh, most of the trained granthis come from India.

The start of a 500-year-old community in Bangladesh

Guru Nanak Dev was born into a high caste Bhraman family in 1469.

According to legend, during the ‘Poita’ or ceremony of wearing the sacred thread, Nanak asked his parents for the only true sacred thread which will never wear out and which will remain forever engraved in his heart.

However, when he witnessed discrimination and exploitation all around him, he began to wonder, if God created all people, then who created this caste system? Why so much pain? It was then that he decided to leave his community and seek the one true religion.

The doors of Sikhism are open to people of all religions and beliefs. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

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The doors of Sikhism are open to people of all religions and beliefs.  Photo: Noor-A-Alam

The doors of Sikhism are open to people of all religions and beliefs. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

He left his home, his ancestral identity and began to travel the world. At the beginning of the 15th century (around the year 1504), he arrived in East Bangla and it was during his visit here that he stopped at Dhaka, Sylhet and Mymensingh where he dug wells for the local people. And in these places, ashrams or gurdwaras were established over the next 500 years.

The Gurdwara Nanak Shahi in the University district of Dhaka 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 1971 liberation war because a number of gurdwaras were demolished during those times. Tensions were high.

In one such act of destruction in 1971, the Sangat Tola Gurdwara in Old Dhaka, the grandfather of Paresh Lal Begi, the former director of the Gurdwara Management Committee of Bangladesh, was set on fire and burned.

Such hateful incidents frightened many Sikh followers and many even converted to Hinduism at the time. This is another underlying reason why the Sikh population has declined over time.

Langar is the common meal shared by all who come to the gurdwara. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

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Langar is the common meal shared by all who come to the gurdwara.  Photo: Noor-A-Alam

Langar is the common meal shared by all who come to the gurdwara. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

There were 18 historic Gurdwaras in Bangladesh, but only five remain. These gurdwaras are maintained by the Kar Sewa Sarhali Sahib – a Punjab-based charity that provides services and other social welfare works (or Sewa) in gurdwaras in many different countries.

According to Taposh Lal Chowdhury, currently there are only 15-20 Bangladeshi Sikh families residing in the country.

“Around 18,000 to 20,000 people live in Dhaka, Sylhet, Mymensingh and Chattogram. But the majority of this population has arrived for a temporary period, mainly for business, jobs and also who are assistants in various Indian High Commissions .

“And then there’s also a group of people who are Indian but came to this country and settled down,” Taposh explained.

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