Roles and functions of a gurdwara

Are our Gurdwaras dysfunctional? DR KARMINDER SINGH DHILLON explores the topic in a three-part series. In part one, he examines the roles and functions of a gurdwara. Reades are encouraged to share their views/comments. The author says he will incorporate them into the remaining two parts.

| Karminder Singh Dhillon | Opinion | 9 Dec 2015 | Asia Samachar | 


There perhaps is no place on earth where a group of Sikhs reside but have not constructed a Gurdwara. From gold plated structures, sprawling marble-adorned complexes and modern architectural constructs to a variety of humble variants – our Gurdwarashave become the core institutions of the Sikh way of life.

But fair minded Sikhs would agree that constructing magnificent Gurdwaras and THEN ensuring they function in accordance with their intended roles are two starkly different things.

Thinking Sikhs would also agree that a Gurdwara has to do more than merely organizing Sunday diwans that constitute kirtan by professional ragis, akhand path readings by professional pathis, the occasional katha or sermonalso by a professional and conclude with the serving of langar.

As an institution a Gurdwara has to be more than a place for the conduct of Anand Karajs, Antim Ardas and other functions where the sangat has no role other than staggered, passive and casual attendance.

Put plainly, given the investments of money, time and our collective energies that we Sikhs have put into our Gurdwaras, do we get adequate Returns of Investments (ROI) in terms of spiritual, social, and gurmat measures?

This question becomes critical as our Gurdwaras begin to steadily empty out of Generation Y and Z Sikhs; as our youth become increasingly alienated from our Gurdwaras; and as our children begin to disconnect from Sikhi.

The question posed above can only be answered with a full appreciation of the intended roles and functions of our Gurdwaras.



Sikh scholar cum historian Kahn Singh Nabha has researched the subject with a view of discovering original and rightful functions of Gurdwaras, as intended by our Gurus. He lists the following seven functions.


1. Education Centre for Children & Youth

This function was grounded into the institution of our Gurdwara by the third Master, Guru Amardas ji. The aspiration was for the Gurdwara to provide both spiritual and secular education to our children and our young. To instil the importance of this function, the Guru performed this role personally.

The ROI question raised above would thus require us to ask the following questions. Are our Gurdwaras running regular kindergarten classes for our toddlers? What about Punjabi language classes for our youth? Do Gurdwaras run adequate classes to teach our youth how to read the nitnem banees?

What about instruction in computers, science and mathematics? What about teaching bani, music, kirtan, physical exercise, career guidance, public speaking, healthy eating, speed reading and other skills? The list is endless.

Also endless is the talent that exists amongst members of the sangat. We are a community of professionals. As such this function can be performed with the full involvement of our sangat and youth.

Have parbhandaks made attempts to involve the sangat and youth in such an endeavour? Getting the sangat and youth involved creates buy-in, generates a feeling of ownership of the Gurdwara, gets them all involved, and puts the process of alienation to a stop. Such involvement transforms the sangat from a passive and casual observer to an active participant.

Other relevant ROI questions include: Have Gurdwara funds been set aside for the provision of scholarships and other educational assistance such as books and school supplies to those who need such help?


2. Light House of Enlightenment for the Spiritual Seeker

This function requires a focus on Banee, the messages of our Gurus and their application in our daily lives. The ROI determination for this function would require us to ask the following questions.

Do our Gurdwaras have systematic and regular Guru Granth Sahib (GGS) reading classes for our sangat and youth? After all, Gurbani classes would be the next logical step for all those who wished to progress from the first function (Gurdwara as an education centre) as mentioned above.

Are there regular gubani study classes wherein members of the sangat are taught the meanings of banee and the messages of our Gurus? Do our Gurdwaras have gurbani study circles where members of the sangat come together to discuss gurbani and share their knowledge and experiences?

Do our Gurdwaras have well equipped libraries or resource centres for this purpose?

If a Sikh or non-Sikh wanted to obtain knowledge and enlightenment about Sikh spirituality, could he or she walk into our Gurdwaras as they function today and obtain assistance? Do our Gurdwaras have the people, the literature and other resources?


3. Clinic for the Sick and Elderly

This function was grounded into the institution of our Gurdwara by the fifth Master, Guru ArjunDev ji who ran a clinic for lepers at Taran Taran. The aspiration was for the Gurdwara to provide for physical health of the sangat alongside the spiritual well-being (function two above).

The aim was also to do something meaningful for humanity: treat people (Sikhs and others) who had no means to go elsewhere and were thus shunned by society.

Do our Gurdwaras have a designated clinic where the poor, sick and elderly can come and obtain medical care? Have Gurdwara parbhandaks made efforts to set such a clinic and then obtain advice and assistance to run it from the many physicians, pharmacies, nurses and dental experts that Sikh communities produce amply?

Given the millions that the bigger Gurdwaras have accumulated in their bank accounts, have their parbhandaks considered opening and running a community hospital as a better choice of serving humanity than embarking on ego generating acts of installing a dome of gold, silver or platinum on the structure of the Gurdwara?


4. Food Place / Kitchen for the Hungry

The key word here is HUNGRY. Have our Gurdwaras created a conducive and welcoming environment for human beings who have no food for themselves and their families, the homeless and shelter less, and those who will have to go hungry for another night?

This was the original intent of the institution of langgar as was philosophised in the event of sacha sauda by Guru Nanak and institutionalised by succeeding Gurus. Guru Nanak did not ask the sadhus of sacha sauda of their religion or nationality.

Do our Gurdwaras have in place a voluntary sewa-based activity that REACHES OUT to the hungry and the homeless? Guru Nanak did not wait for the hungry sadhus to come to him. He went out to seek them.

Or do our Gurdwaras act welcoming ONLY to us Sikhs – none of whom are HUNGRY in any sense of the word and all of whom have access to better meals in our homes.

Have our Gurdwaras corrupted the concept of langgar in denying it to those it was meant for? Have our Gurdwaras relegated the concept of langgar by treating it as just another meal for all those who got hungry while attending a Gurdwara function?

Have we downgraded the Gurdwara kitchen to a place to churn out varieties of “dishes” in accordance with our status and positions? And have we downgraded the langgar hall to just another “restaurant” where the affording classes sit in comfort to have these “dishes”?

Is it then a wonder that large quantities of langgar are either packed to be taken home by those who were well fed to begin with; or regularly wasted or washed down the drains in most Gurdwaras?


5. A Fortress for the Protection of Honour and Dignity of Women.

If a woman (Sikh or otherwise) were to be battered by family, or her honour and dignity in danger, or her life under threat – could she possibly walk into any of our hundreds of thousands of our modern Gurdwaras and expect to be protected, be provided shelter, or accorded social and legal support and assistance?

Do Gurdwaras have a policy on such an important matter and set aside adequate resources for it? Do parbhandaks even know that this is a primary function of the Gurdwara? Are they aware that Sikh communities are fast becoming ones with the highest incidences of domestic violence, soaring divorce rates and crippling family disputes?

Have parbhandaks enlisted the voluntary services of advocates and solicitors as well as family counsellors and psychologists from amongst their sangats to assist in this function? Have they set up funds to assist those women who may not have the financial resources to cover legal and court costs?

Are our Gurdwaras going to act as FORTRESSES (Bhai Khan Singh Nabha’s word) to protect these women who are in need of help? Or is the function of this fortress to ensure they are surely but firmly kept out?


6. A Transit Place for the Traveller

How many of our Gurdwaras have created a conducive and welcoming environment for travellers in need of free transit shelter – especially for the needy and those who are unable to afford even the cheapest of commercial accommodation. Have we set aside adequate resources in the form of rooms, washrooms etc.? Are we aware that such is a service to humanity and thus the function of a Gurdwara?

What about Guru-loving Sikhs who prefer to stay in a Gurdwara during their outstation trips so that they may be able to enjoy the evening or early morning kirtan sessions or even partake in some sewa? Do our Gurdwaras cater for such Sikhs?


7. A Means of Fortifying Brotherly bonds amongst Human Beings – Young and Old

Perhaps the reader has let out a sigh of relief at this point. Finally, we have a function that our Gurdwaras have indeed performed.

After all we do gather in large numbers in Gurdwaras, meet each other and ask of each other’s well-being. Consequently, this final function happens rather automatically as a result of our mingling around in the Gurdwara premises.

The key words however are “fortifying brotherly bonds” and “amongst the young and old”. Such things cannot happen automatically, but require intervention on three counts.

First, there can be no forming of bonds of any kind if the young do not come to Gurdwara in the first place. The reality of modern day Gurdwaras is that the youth are just not coming.

The ROI questions therefore are: have our Gurdwaras set up and EMPOWERED youth wings? Are youth adequately represented in the management of our Gurdwaras? Do we even know what they want from and within a Gurdwara?

Second, meaningless bonds can only form if the young and old actively engage in a host of activities jointly either in the Gurdwara or outside that are organised by the Gurdwara. Do Gurdwaras organise such activities? Do our youth have a say in this?

Third, “fortifying” is a lot more than us meeting a dozen other Sikhs and saying “sat sriakal” or asking “how are you ji”?

There is a purpose in our Gurus wanting this function to be performed at a Gurdwara and there is a purpose in choosing the words “young and old.”

Such fortification of bonds would allow the older generation to pass on their spiritual and sewa based experiences as well as knowledge to the younger generation. It would also allow for the younger generation to carry on this noble practise when their turn comes.

The ROI question here is: how many of our Gurdwara activities are geared towards such fortification? Do our parbhandaks adequately understand this concept and know what they have to do? Do our granthis, ragis, parcharaks and kathakars even speak the language of our youth? Can they relate to the issues and lives of our youngsters?



The Nishan Sahib is part of every Gurdwara. It is thus closely tied to the above 7 original and rightful functions, as intended by our Gurus.

The Nishan Sahib is, for all intents and purposes a sign board that stands tall and calls out for those who need spiritual guidance, protection, solace, education and want to fortify their bonds with humanity.

The Nishan is located high as a beacon of hope for any woman seeking to protect her honour, as a light house for a weary traveller seeking a place to rest, and as a welcome sign for a hungry/displaced/homeless person seeking a meal.

It is inviting them, in the name of the Guru to come to the Gurdwara and be served.

The ROI questions relating to the Nishan Sahib would be as follows. Have our Gurdwaras delivered what our “sign board” proclaims and broadcasts? Are we aware of at least the moral and spiritual penalties of putting up a sign promising the 8 functions above but have not strived to provide them?

Are we aware that the right way to respect the Nishan Sahib is not to wash it with milk and lassi, to methatek, to dress it up with a chola, or do its parkarima? But that meaningful respect would come when we ensure that our Gurdwaras deliver all the above 7 functions that our Nishan Sahib stands for?


Readers are welcome to make their own assessments for their own Gurdwaras based on the questions posed. You may want to pose additional questions. The author will provide his assessment in the second part. Email:


PART ONE: Roles and functions of a gurdwara

Part TWO: Are our Gurdwaras Dysfunctional? The Assessment.

Part THREE: Are our Gurdwaras Dysfunctional: The Root Causes. 


Karminder Singh Dhillon, PhD (Boston) writes on Gurbani and Gurmat issues in The Sikh Bulletin, USA. He also conducts Gurbani Katha in local Gurdwaras. He is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.


Lessons in building a gurdwara (Asia Samachar, 9 Dec 2015)

‘Gurdwara of learning’ coming to Shah Alam (Asia Samachar, 3 Dec 2015)

JAGIR: Without guidance, all gurdwaras would be on their own (Asia Samachar, 20 Nov 2015)

MGC passionately protects religious rights of Sikhs, others in Malaysia (Asia Samachar, 19 Nov 2015)

Potential tussle for MGC presidency, Jagir to serve last term (Asia Samachar, 16 Nov 2015)

Gurdwara design that listens to earth (Asia Samachar, 1 Oct 2015)

Engage youth on what matters to them – MGC seminar tells Sikh gurdwaras (Asia Samachar, 23 Aug 2015)

Creating deeper social connections (Asia Samachar, 13 July 2015)

New leadership for Muar gurdwara (Asia Samachar, 21 May 2015)

Major changes in Malacca gurdwara leadership  (Asia Samachar, 9 Mac 2015)

Rethinking gurdwara design (Asia Samachar, 21 Apr 2015)

Johor Bahru gurdwara requests return of land (Asia Samachar, 20 Apr 2015)


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  1. In addition to above seven functions, I would suggest another very important one, i.e. the ever-forgotton function of meditation in the morning. Believe it or not, a 15-minute meditation on the Gurmantra “waheguru” enables the aspirant to do wonders in personal and social life. The benefits of meditation (Simrin) cannot be counted.

  2. I don’t think our Gurdwaras fulfill these 7 functions. Had we just done functions 3 & 4 as our Gurus wanted us to do, the International Red Cross would have been known as the International Kesri Khanda.

    These 7 functions were meant for the Gurdwara to serve the human race. We have failed to serve even Sikhs. Yes, our Gurdwaras are dysfunctional.

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