Sikhs share faith and tradition with Shepparton

By Holly Tregenza

Sikhs wear turbans so that people in the street can identify them and ask for help if they need it.

And I had no idea.

That’s one of the first things I learned when I donned a colourful scarf, slipped off my sandals, and walked into the big, beautiful, golden-domed building on Doyles Rd, Shepparton.

You may have driven past Gurduara Sahib a dozen times before without stopping to wonder about the people inside. I certainly had.

Perhaps you’ve seen members of the Sikh community leaving from worship.

Or chased down a turban-clad man serving sweet, summery treats from the back of Shepparton’s favourite ice-cream truck.

But there is only so much you can know about another by observation alone — and we owe each other more than just a snap judgement.

And so on Wednesday, I was welcomed in — along with anyone else in the community who wanted to come — to learn, ask questions, and enjoy a meal at the temple.

It was part of the birthday celebrations from one of Sikhism's most important figures, Guru Nanak.

And when I say I was welcomed, I don’t mean ushered inside. Sikhism is steeped in hospitality.

Kamaldeep Singh, a man instrumental in running this open night, welcomed me with a firm and warm handshake at the door.

“Glad you could come,” he said.

And I really believed him.

There were about 30 guests as well as members of the Sikh congregation in the room, sitting at benches and on the floor in the lower room of the temple, where community meals — called Langar — take place.

From what I could tell, a lot of the visitors (you could spot them by the poorly secured head scarves and the way they were clearly not used to sitting on the floor) were either from Rotary, or from local congregations of different faiths.

Prayers at the Sikh Temple open evening in Shepparton.

One of the two women I sat down next to said she was part of the Interfaith Network, a remarkable organisation proactively breaking down communication barriers between people of different faiths across Shepparton.

I asked her what she knew about Sikhism and the Sikh community before this night.

“I don’t know much, they’re a bit mysterious. But they seem kind,” she said.

Another, a devout Christian, said it was all about respect.

“I’m curious, and when you’re invited to learn about the life of other people in your community, it’s important to take part in that.”

Jaspreet Singh with Bharpur Singh, 6, attending the Sikh Temple open evening in Shepparton.

We were welcomed by a presentation from two articulate, intelligent, and impressive young women, Roop Kaur and Riya Kaur.

They are not related; all men and all women have the same last names in Sikhism, Singh and Kaur, in the name of equality and a resolute rejection of the class system.

Roop and Riya spoke about the cornerstones of Sikhism. In its simplest form, they said, it was a religion governed by three key principles: There is one God alone to worship; you must earn an honest living; and you must share that honest living with others.

I mentioned Langar before, and it is perhaps the most beautiful way to understand how these three beliefs of Sikhism inform the faith.

Visitor Kerry Kelton. 

Anyone of any religion or social standing is welcome to come to a Gurduara anywhere in the world and they can expect a free meal and a place to sleep. That’s Langar.

No caveats, no opening hours.

“It doesn’t matter what you look like, just pop in,” one Sikh congregation member told me.

“Just take off your shoes, cover your head — and take off your socks, if they’re stinky!”

Reverend Chris Parnell, who is part of the Interfaith Network, listens closely at the Sikh Temple open evening.

After the presentation there are some questions from the audience: about clothing, about Christmas, about the traditions of the faith.

“Ask us anything,” Roop says. “We really can’t be offended!”

And it was true — there was never a condescending moment, never a rolled eye, never a huff of annoyance from any of the Sikh members towards an audience which at times could probably be considered pretty ignorant.

The next step to our education was the worship, before we headed back downstairs to enjoy a delicious, aromatic, vegetarian Langar sitting cross-legged next to one another.

Paramjit Singh. 

And the food is truly something to behold. Delicious, hearty, spicy food which has a coziness to it that only comes when food is made with grace and love.

There was even take-home containers readily delivered into visitors’ hands for lunch the next day.

With all that in mind, I was struck by a thought as I sat cross-legged, listening to the drums beat and the Sikh community raise their voices in the temple upstairs.

It was exactly like any other religious service I’ve ever taken part in.

Millan Moule, 10, from Shepparton attends the Sikh Temple open evening in Shepparton.

Sure, it was in a different language and the music was a little more traditional than that of a Christian service.

There was a bearded man waving what looked like a large feather at the front of the congregation, and people were bowing low as they came into the room.

The projector stopped at one point and someone at the sound desk obviously took the tried and tested method of turning the computer off and on again.

And the littlest Sikhs toddled around the worship space, blissfully unaware of the somber moment they were toddling through, dodging the small Matchbox cars strewn across the floor in a bid from parents to keep their babies still for more than a minute.

Aaron Singh, 20 months. 

One little boy made a number of spectacular escapes from his parents’ sphere of influence, with dad having to duck to the front more than once to stop him from clambering onto the front platform.

If you’ve ever been to a church service, you’ve seen these humble little moments play out in a hundred different ways. They’re the most holy of moments, but also the most human. For me, that was the most precious piece of education from the Sikh open night.

It’s a cliché, but until you can see yourself and your family mirrored in people around you, it doesn’t really hit home.

We’re just not really that different.

I consider myself open-minded, respectful and interested in other people and what they believe. But even with that in mind, I still learnt a heck of a lot by just sitting down and quietly observing for an hour or two.

Who knows, perhaps you can too.

A huge thank you to the Sikh community at Gurduara Sahib for welcoming us into your space.