Saran Singh Sidhu
A passion for history and a lifelong connection with gurdwaras led Saran Singh Sidhu to write a book on the subject.
He started this monumental task in the year 2000, and four years later, his efforts have been realised with the publication of Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore: An Illustrated History 1873-2003, a comprehensive, 520-page hardcover book.
“I realised that there was no historical record chronicling the past 130 years of Sikh gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore. I spent more than three years travelling around the country visiting gurdwaras, taking photographs, and interviewing people in my attempt to document the history of gurdwaras,” he says in an interview at his home in Bangsar Baru, Kuala Lumpur.
In writing the book, Saran Singh, 59, visited all 119 gurdwaras in Malaysia and seven in Singapore. Part of the book’s attraction lies in its over 700 photographs including rare black and white prints from the early 20th century.
In writing his book Sikh Gurdwaras in Malaysia and Singapore: An Illustrated History 1873-2003, Saran Singh Sidhu visited all 119 gurdwaras in Malaysia and seven in Singapore.
Many of the photographs have never been published before. They have been discovered through the author’s diligence and the helpfulness of many Sikhs across the world who contributed family photographs.
A talented amateur photographer, Saran took many of the pictures in the book. “My only regret is that some of the old gurdwara buildings’ photographs either do not exist or could not be traced. This is rather sad as photographs by themselves say a thousand words.”
In the book, gurdwaras are arranged according to state. Not surprisingly, Perak, where most of the early Sikhs settled, has the most number of gurdwaras, 42, followed by Selangor with 22 and Kuala Lumpur with 13. One Malaysian state has no gurdwara – Terengganu, although Kelantan has three.
Saran does not forget the contributions of the present and past governments in support of Sikh gurdwaras. Many state governments allotted land as temple reserves and also gave financial aid in the construction of several gurdwaras.
The book also includes stirring biographies of four Sikh saints: Baba Gopal Singh Ji from Perak, Sant Baba Jewala Singh Ji also from Perak, Sant Baba Sohan Singh Ji from Malacca and Saint Soldier Bhai Maharaj Singh Ji from Singapore. Bhai Maharaj was 125 years old when he passed away and there is a memorial in his honour located at Gurdwara Sahib Silat Road in Singapore.
Saran’s book is a comprehensive, well researched, and in-depth account of Sikh gurdwaras. Non-Sikh history lovers will also be able to appreciate it as he has given a glossary at the end of the book of common Sikh words and expressions.
There is also a succinct summary of the Sikh religion as well as the significance of the gurdwara. Also explained are the Sikh flag, emblem, holy book, ceremonies and practices including Guru Ka Langgar (free vegetarian food served to all).
Especially interesting is the account of the establishment of the Wadda Gurdwara Sahib Penang, originally known as the Diamond Jubilee Sikh Temple. It celebrated its 100th anniversary three years ago and was built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, hence its name.
Another notable gurdwara that is written about at length is Gurdwara Sahib Tatt Khalsa in Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur, which is believed to have the largest prayer hall in South-East Asia.
Other significant gurdwaras with interesting histories include the oldest gurdwara that still maintains its original structure, Gurdwara Sahib Police Jalan Parlimen, Kuala Lumpur, which was built in 1890.
Asked why he had chosen to put Gurdwara Sabib Labuan in Sabah on the cover of his book, Saran simply says that it is “the most beautiful gurdwara in Malaysia”. The gurdwara cost RM1.5mil to build and was officially opened in the year 2000.
It is apt that the Sikh Naujawan Sabha Malaysia is the publisher of the book. This national Sikh youth organisation was set up in 1967 with the aim of maintaining Sikh culture and heritage among the younger generation and Saran is a life member.
Some descriptions in the book are rather brief but this is through no fault of the author’s. “It was unfortunate that early written records, documents or secretary’s minutes for many of the gurdwaras were not available, resulting in a brief write-up for some of the gurdwaras,” he explains.
Writing the book has given Saran a great sense of satisfaction. “My dream (of doing) a service for the Sikh community has been accomplished with the publication of this book,” he says.