Sikhs seeking new life in Hawkes Bay

From Voices, 3:31 pm on 1 February 2016

It's shoes off at the door and chunni or long scarf covering over my head and then I'm greeted immediately upon entering the Sikh Temple or Gurdwara in Hastings. I'm warmly welcomed by what feels like everyone in the community.

Sat Sri Akal!

Sat Sri Akal echoes among us all along with a brief bow and hands in held together in prayer as the appropriate Sikh salutation. Sat Sri Akal in Punjabi essentially translated means; "Truth, Great, and Timeless being or God."

I'm told that Indians have been living in New Zealand over 100 years. Recently the sikh population has grown to almost 20,000 largely based in Auckland, but around 1500 Sikhs now live in the Hawkes Bay, mostly in Hastings.

The Gurdwara is festive but over flowing with people because this community has grown exponentially since the temple was first built in 1999.

My contact in the community is Baljit Singh, (good friend of Pawandeep Singh from the Indian Snacks, Sweets and Restaurant in Hastings, featured in an earlier Voices programme).

I’m following Baljit Singh into a side room that serves as their library as he introduces me to some of the committee; Jaag Jevon Singh, Mohinder Singh, Sukvinder Singh and Gurmuk Singh. Their community is celebrating the last day of a three day non-stop recitation from their Holy Book, or sacred scriptures called the Guru Granth Sahib.  

Sikhism is one of the youngest major world religions, a monotheistic faith that originated in the Punjab region of Northern India in the 15th century. Beliefs are articulated in their sacred scriptures. There are about 25 million followers around the globe. It's arguably one of the most egalitarian of faiths as Sikh’s believe in one creator, unity, equality and social justice for all.

Listening to recitations

Listening to recitations Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Ask any Sikh and they will tell you that feminism has had a firm platform with their faith for over 500 years, way before the Suffragettes.

Baljit Singh tells me that he and his family first arrived in New Zealand in 1989. Hastings has been home since then. At the time the Sikh community was tiny, maybe 30 or 40 people, no more than three or four families. Overcoming language and cultural barriers was vital and they were keen to integrate with the wider public.

The other committee members sing Baljit Singh's praises; he was instrumental in setting up their temple or Gurdwara which is now brimming over with the old and the young and with so much colour and life it's almost overwhelming.

My visit has coincided with the last day of a three day festival called Sri Akhand Paath Sahib celebrating the birthday of one of their 10 Gurus. I'm told that Sikhs celebrate each of their Guru's birthdays with recitations from their or Holy Book and that these recitations are non-stop until the final page of the Holy Book has been faithfully shared with the community.

I ask how many pages make up the Guru Granth Sahib. The initial response of 1431 is incorrect. There's much laughter as Gurmuk Singh googles the correct number on his smart phone.

It turns out that the Guru Granth Sahib is 1430 pages long, so many members of the community will take turns reciting. The readers can be male or female and shifts take place every two hours over the course of the three day festival. "Thank goodness for smart phones." say the other committee members, the community won't be looking for that missing page.

Seeking new life in Hawkes Bay

Seeking new life in Hawkes Bay Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

For Sikhs the Guru Granth Sahib is considered a kind of living spiritual entity which is why it's housed appropriately and accorded so much respect. The Guru Granth Sahib will be attended by members of the community literate in the language of the scriptures.

Jag Jiwan Singh tells me that his name literally means "Life and words - or words of life." He explains that the community are always keen to welcome members of the public through their doors but its not about prosyletising. They just want the wider public to understand their faith and their community. He reminds me that during 9/11 the Sikh community around the world were unfairly targeted. The temple in Hastings was also defaced at the time.

Is a recognised day of rest or prayer for Sikhs? Jag Jiwan points out that Sikhs are known as "sons and daughters of the soil". Punjab is largely agricultural and many Sikhs families are farmers, used to working the land as needed and work is weather driven in Punjab. Prayers will take place as an integral part daily life.

If you're baptized as Sikh then you'll follow the five sacred "K's' and you'll be pure vegetarian - Jag Jiwan Singh, Hastings Sikh Community

The committee explain the five sacred "K's" to me. These are the articles of faith that Sikh men are encouraged to follow and wear as signs of spiritual devotion. They are: Kirpan (sacred ornamental dagger), Kangha (wooden comb), Kara (metal bracelet), Kesh (uncut hair) and kachera (cotton undergarment).

Sikh boy wears the five Ks

Sikh boy wears the five Ks Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Men will wear turbans or dastar and women are encouraged to wear the head scarf or chunni, especially when attending the Gurdwara.

I note that one clean shaven committee member is sporting a very short and fashionable haircut under his head covering. Integration sometimes means adopting other fashions or laws in regions outside of Punjab.

Laws in this country used to inhibit items like turbans or kirpan in certain situations (such as air travel or visits to parliament). Today there are happy compromises; diversity has been recognised in organisations like the NZ Police where Sikhs can sport beards and wear turbans and hair can always grows back.

I follow Baljit Singh through the Gurdwara. Community members of all ages are happy to chat. I encounter a group of children playing together just outside the prayer room. The woman looking after them is one of their "aunties". All adults in the community are caregivers in this sense, they become aunties and uncles mandated with the role of caring for Sikh children.

One seven year old tells me she loves her primary school. She gives a 'shout-out" to all of her teachers and the school Principal. A boy shows me his immaculate traditional Sikh outfit in royal blue and white. He bears a tiny sacred kirpan in a sash around his waist.

Langar, shared community lunch

Langar, shared community lunch Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Fourteen-year-old Rytasha Kaur tells me that although she was born in Punjab she has grown up in Hastings. She's not so familiar with her faith as her family are not regular visitors to the Gurdwara but she's really enjoyed re-discovering her cultural and spiritual heritage.

Rytasha says her favourite aspect of Sikhism is the prevalent and generous community spirit. She loves the fact that no-matter your faith, gender or walk of life, any member of the public will be greeted and welcomed and if it's langar they will also be fed for free.

Langar or community lunch is about to take place and all are welcome to partake. The humanitarian philosophy behind the Sikh langar is that no one should ever go hungry.

Baljit Singh leads me through the kitchens where men and women are preparing various vegetarian dishes - in an effort to meet many dietary restrictions during langar the dishes will be "kosher" too.

After participating in a very satisfying and spicy meal it's time for my departure but not without a last word from the committee on plans for the future. Baljit Singh tells me that they've bought some land on the outskirts of Hastings. The community are busy with fundraising efforts and hope to open the new Gurdwara towards the end of this year.

Sikh children wait outside the prayer area

Sikh children wait outside the prayer area Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

With their egalitarian and humanitarian philosophy to feed all, a new temple will be a must. It's clear they are in need of a new premises, their langar has to be staggered in groups because of the huge increase in their numbers.

It's easy to see why Hawkes Bay has been an obvious choice for the Sikh community as a destination.

From Punjab to Hastings, Sikhs are attracted by the warm climate, the agricultural environment and the fact that many of their family members have made this place home already, seeking their new way of life in the Bay.