This is about little known pools of peace


Quick Links

1995, 1996, 1997

1998, 1999, 2000

2001, 2002, 2003

2004, 2005, 2006

2007, 2008, 2009

2010, 2011

Category: Trinidad Society 08 Nov 09

On an overcast Sunday morning, sitting cross-legged on the large, cool, carpeted floor, chatting with half-a-dozen followers in the only Sikh temple in the Caribbean, I was reminded there were little-known pools of peace (never mind having the second-highest murder rate in the world) in Trinidad, sanctuaries for new and old immigrants. Six women and men, between them born in India, Trinidad and Uganda, their heads covered in deference to a raised unadorned altar, sitting in a semicircle, were recounting the story of Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, gearing up for his birthday celebrations being held today in Tunapuna. They expect some 300 Sikhs and friends to partake in a Sikh service, which is so ethereal and poetic that to call it chanting would be prosaic. Musicians, with their harmoniums, accompany low, sweet voices of the singers which relay the lyrical sacred texts of the Sikh holy book, the Granth Sahib. 

Nanak, I learn, was a Hindu born in 1469 (near Lahore, capital of the Punjab which straddles the Indian Pakistan border), was the founder of the faith starting with a dramatic claim which, if heeded, could have spared the millions of lives lost during partition: “there is no Hindu; there is no Muslim.” He became first of the nine Sikh gurus mentioned in the Granth Sahib, each of whom added to the scriptures. Later, Mahatma Gandhi increased its ripple by calling for the eldest boy of every Hindu household to join Sikhism. Thus was Sikhism born. A simple faith, created to break the barriers between religions, banish the caste system, it flourished across Punjab. Dr Harinder Pal Singh Missan, a physics lecturer at UWI, is among the latest arrivals to the community. “Guru Nanak was a reformist, and didn’t see the need for rituals, pilgrimages, fasts, or sacred threads."

Guru Nanak believed that if your mind and soul is pure, you are close to God. “Sikhism is based on the tenets of humility, absence of lust, honesty, sharing with the needy, (our Lungar, common kitchen is testimony to that) equality (which is what the turban symbolises) and simplicity. Its only religious symbols are those of Kesh—uncut hair, Kangha a comb, Kacha, representing chastity, Kara which denotes strength, and Kirpan a sword for self-defence. The elegant Jasbir, seated opposite me who came to Trinidad from Uganda in 1977 with her architect husband, Jaspal, was saying: “As Sikhs, we felt isolated in some ways and didn’t know there was a community here until some doctors from India told us of a Gurdwara temple in Tunapuna. It was a small wooden room. There were about ten of us in all. And we met once a month.”

The tiny community goes back further, and is also a story of a sense of loss of language and renewal of identity through a growing community. Trinidad-born Sat Kaur Karam Singh is now a grandmother. Her father was a Sikh who came here as a businessman in the 1920s and married a Trinidadian. “His name was Karam Singh.” she says “As a devout Sikh, he did the chanting of the Granth Sahib, our holy book. The biggest regret I have is that I did not learn to speak in Punjabi.” Today she may not speak Punjabi, but feels cosseted by the growing Sikh community, who rallied about her after her husband’s death, by the young Sikh men who treat her as a mother, and ensure she never goes home alone in the dark. Sat Kaur’s daughter, Vitra Bahadursingh Parg, adds : “I was five when my grandfather died. I remember the old wooden building which Hardit Singh, the owner of Turban brands, built on this spot. I found solace there.

“I loved the simplicity. We chant, without rituals, repeating the name of God. We cleaned it and cherished it to keep it alive and from falling apart. We never felt the need to convert to Presbyterianism or Catholicism. “When I went to Delhi, it was very emotional for me, knowing my grandfather came from India, but I had no links with them. I wish I could have met that part of me.” The small wooden building is gone. In its place is a miniature of the famed Sikh Golden Temple at Amritsar, with traditional arches and ledges, and a gold dome set directly above the inner sanctuary. A spike on the dome indicates the ascent of the spirit to God and the lotus at its base signifies that goodness and beauty can thrive even in a harsh environment.

The small group around me convince me that this temple is the product of fortuities, divine intervention, and a leap of faith, built as it was to hold 300 people, even when the congregation was as small as 30. Architect Jaspal Bhogal tells me the new building was the brain child of Mr Dev Duggal, who also came here in the early 70s. “I designed it in 2002. We had no money. One of our Sindhi friends donated over $350,000. That prompted everyone to donate.” His wife Jasbir adds: “Every time Jaspal told our community “there isn’t the money to go on to the next phase, it would come from somewhere, other islands, a benefactor in London, someone.” Jaspal continues: “We overcame so many hurdles, town and country planning; somebody contributed the carpeting, another the roof, anther, tiles.

And thus Trinidad continues to absorb continents. Prof Chanan Singh from UWI says: “When I came in 2006 from England, I wasn’t sure about moving. The moment I saw the Gurdwara I said ‘yes.’ I felt my community, and family was here. I never expected that in a place called Trinidad.” We fall silent as a Sikh couple visiting from Canada walked in, bow deeply before the altar and officiated by Mr Duggal pray for the health of an ailing family member. Afterwards, the group closes in, finds commonalities, chats animatedly. In this tableau of community, amidst white walls and crimson velvet curtains, I am stirred anew at the yet undiscovered pools of peace, and the immense sense of possibility in these our new world islands. 


horizontal rule



All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur