‘Dysfunctional’ gurdwaras a bit rough on the ears

In the 1950s, most towns of Malaysia had gurdwaras that were serving well the needs of the community, observes BALDEV SINGH DHALIWAL. He shares his thoughts in response to Dr Karminder Singh Dhillon's article 'Are our Gurdwaras dysfunctional? An Assessment.'

Baldev Singh Dhaliwal | Opinion | 20 Jan 2016 | Asia Samachar |


Dr Karminder Singh Dhillon quite rightly has set some lofty ideals for a Gurdwara, which may be used as a yardstick to assess the performance of one’s own Gurdwara. Not many will disagree that most Gurdwaras are likely to fall far short of those ideals.

His assessment, again in step with those ideals, follows a well-trodden path of what should be happening at our Gurdwaras, but does not. That assessment, I believe to be generally true, irrespective of the country we live in, but the reasons might be different owing to the circumstances and the history of Sikh settlement in those countries and the origin of the Gurdwaras in their localities.

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. 

I believe there won’t be much disagreement in the Panthic minded people that Gurdwaras ought to be the hubs of Sikhi and the Sikh Way of Life, and Centres for learning.

The word “dysfunctional” to me, though, is a bit rough on the ears. Just like the question of who is a Sikh? A person says he is a Sikh but the other says he is not. Who is to say! If one says that a particular Gurdwara was “dysfunctional”, the management including most of the community will more than likely not accept that, but may accept that more could be done. May even successfully justify their difficulties!

As pointed out by the writer, there is a great deal wrong and to be desired in our parcharaks, gyanis and such like who impart knowledge to the sangats. And not without reason quite frequently are used as whipping boys. But can we really put the cause of all our ills, including the diminishing Gurdwara sangats, on their shoulders? Should we not be looking a bit deeper? Is it possible that they could be the result of our ills rather than the cause? We are after all living in free countries with intelligent and well educated sangats. [Including parents, who I believe are the first in line with primary responsibility for their youth. To me parents are the first educators followed by the community.]

True that good management should provide good leadership, but then the management is elected (or selected) from the sangat by the sangat. I am not suggesting that matters are so simple but certainly that we should give some credit (or otherwise) to the sangat/ the community. To me making the Parcharaks as the primary target might be a bit too simplistic. The priorities of the community (including of the parents) should, I believe, also be under scrutiny.

I was a social/community worker for our local multicultural farming community in South Australia for about 15 odd years. With the nature of the hard work and with the use of chemicals used on the farms, my colleagues and I knew the farmers concern for their health and precautions ought to be their priority and primary consideration, but was not. Government funded information seminars, talks, workshops, check-ups etc. were organised specifically for the diverse cultural groups, but their attendance and interest used to be rather lacking. They of course had other priorities, not their health!

In the 1950s in most towns of Malaysia, foundations for Gurdwaras along the lines that Dr Karminder Singh has suggested were already there. The forefathers had built very practical Gurdwaras. In name they were Gurdwaras but in practice were more as Sikh Community Centres; Gurdwara hall, living quarters even for visitors/ travellers, kitchen area and open ground as padang (playground) on the premises. Travellers and some others in need often found refuge at the place.

SEE ALSO: Giani Rann Singh – the Passing of an Era 

Educated and professional Sikhs in the community provided the lead in establishing Punjabi schools and got government approval and grants for Punjabi teachers. By the 1950s the Gurdwaras had dedicated Granthis/Gyanis and Punjabi teachers (or the Gyani also as the teacher) very often funded by the government. On the premises was often a well-stocked Punjabi library.

Well established Punjabi Newspapers were already in existence. Sikh students almost compulsorily had to attend the Punjabi classes. The place used to be a drop in place for many including the youth. All, including the youth, participated in the diverse activities at the place including at the Gurdwara functions. The older youth mentored the younger. Home grown dedicated parcharaks traversed the country (I believe their centre was in Singapore). Regular well organised residential samelans/seminars were arranged for the gyanis, granthis, and teachers etc. by dedicated professionals. The name of Headmaster Gurbachan Singh (then of Kuala Lipis) stands out very prominently.

Yes, I would say the Sikh community of the country was certainly geared for model Gurdwaras we dream of today, but did not! The youth of that period who will be grand-parents of today, may be able to contribute towards the discussion!

The above are in way of sharing some thoughts towards the topic based on observations and experience.

Dr Karminder Singh has put a great deal of food for thought on our plates. Part Three “Are our Gurdwaras Dysfunctional: The Root Causes.” is still to come. It should be of interest to the Sikh community and parbhandaks alike.



Baldev Singh Dhaliwal JP-Ret’d British Telecom engineer settled in Australia since 1986, and involved with community cohesion, Sikh welfare and advancement. He received the South Australia Governor’s Multicultural Award for 2011. This article first appeared in the Gurmat Learning Zone, an internet-based Sikh discussion group.


[ASIA SAMACHAR is an online newspaper for Sikhs in Southeast Asia and surrounding countries. We have a Facebook page, do give it a LIKE. Follow us on Twitter. Visit our website: www.asiasamachar.com]


Are our Gurdwaras Dysfunctional? The Assessment.(Asia Samachar, 9 Jan 2015)

Roles and functions of a gurdwara (Asia Samachar, 11 Dec 2015)

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)

Sikh Nishan Sahib demystified (Asia Samachar, 2 Oct 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)

Giani Rann Singh – the Passing of an Era (Asia Samachar, 26 Jan 2015)