Malaysian Gurdwara : Symbol of religious and racial tolerance
Penang, Maaylasia - The 'Wadda' Gurdwara Sahib that was built 105 years ago in Penang is a symbol of religious and racial tolerance. Believed to be the earliest Sikh temple in South-East Asia, the centre was, in the early 20th century, the main congregation area for people of Punjabi origin, regardless of their religious beliefs.
In the days of yore, Punjabis - including Hindus and practitioners of Sikhism - who were on trade missions to South-East Asia came to seek shelter at the centre.
The Gurdwara also attracted people of other races, and in the 1960s even foreign backpackers sought shelter there. However, the backpackers were reportedly barred from staying at the premises after they flouted temple rules.
Wadda Gurdwara Sahib Association president Harcharan Singh said Indian traders from Madras and Calcutta would stop over at the centre for refreshments.
"They also stopped by to replenish necessary supplies before continuing their journey to other, neighbouring countries," he said.
Harcharan said the centre that was a significant landmark for the Punjabi community used to be known as the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Sikh Temple.
"The temple was named after the British Queen because the land was granted to the community during Her Majesty's reign," he said, adding that the Straits Settlement Government in Penang had granted the 18,480 sq m plot.
Among the founding trustees appointed by the colonial government were William Henry MacArther, Edward Archibald Gardiner, Sunder Singh, Gurdit Singh and Bhola Singh, who were personnel from the Malay States Guides (MSG).
The centre was also known as the Penang Tapua Da Gurdwara (Malayan Territories Gurdwara) for many decades.
"It was the central meeting place for Indians from Siam, Sumatra, Borneo, Hong Kong and Shanghai," Harcharan said, adding that the port of Penang was then a major transit point for people travelling between India and other countries in the South-East Asian region.
"Travellers from these countries used to stay in the Gurdwara before continuing their journey," added Harcharan.
Even today, the Gurdwara is not merely a place of worship for the community but also a community centre for social and cultural activities.
"It serves as a shelter for the needy, too. We also provide food for those who are hungry, irrespective of their colour, creed or religion," he added.
It was a great honour to the Sikh community when Brick Kiln Road - the street in which the temple was located - was renamed Jalan Gurdwara.
"The Gurdwara is not only a historical site for the Sikh community, it is also an important landmark in the state," he said.
Colonel Walker of MSG laid the foundation stone of the temple on June 3, 1901. "The foundation stone is located at the corner of the building near the Nishan Sahib (flagpole)," Harcharan said, adding that construction of the building was completed within two years.
MSG members - comprising Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims - donated towards the building fund, he added.
The building was officially opened by the then Resident Councillor on April 13, 1903, he said. Although modern design and outlook dominate certain interior portions of the temple following subsequent reno-vation works, the original facade still remains.
Suaran Singh, the author of the Penang Wadda Gurdwara Sahib history book, said that the building used to be more beautiful, with a striking mixture of modern and Moorish architectural influences.
"The walls were beautifully carved with floral motifs," he said, addng that the designs were later flattened to accommodate modern tiles during subsequent renovation works. Suaran, however, stressed that the original facade was still evident.
"We have retained the original frames. Early 20th century designs and architecture are still evident," he said.
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