I am not a religious person myself but I have to admit that religions really fascinate me and I am always looking to know more about them all.
Traveling in Malaysia, a very multi-ethnic and multicultural country with different faiths, has been a great opportunity for me to increase my personal knowledge about a variety of religions by asking questions to locals, by visiting different religious places and by taking part to some of their everyday life activities.
We were in Melaka when somebody asked us if we wanted to go to a Gurdwara (the Sikh meeting place for worship) and take part to their communal meal and, not knowing anything about Sikhism, I was very surprised that we could join their dinner even if we didn’t share the same belief.
My inner curiosity kicked in, I thought that I couldn’t refuse such an invitation – these kind of experiences don’t happen everyday (at least not to me) – so I enthusiastically accepted.
I learnt that when visiting a Gurdwara there are some basic rules to follow to make sure the visit is as much respectful as possible and not to offend anybody.
Watch out for what you are wearing
You should dress properly with comfy and not tight clothes so that you can sit on the floor comfortably without showing any part of your body to anybody else.
So girls no shorts or miniskirts are allowed, and guys not showing your naked muscled chests please! Got it?
Covering your head is a must!
Both men and women have to wear a scarf or a large knotted cloth (mainly for men) on their heads. Be aware – baseball caps or hats are not allowed.
If you don’t have anything suitable to cover your head with you, don’t panic, there are usually baskets with scarves available to be borrowed by whoever might need one. Sikh people really think of everything to make sure everybody can welcomely access the Gurdwara.
Shoes off and wash your feet and hands
Before entering make sure you use the outside fountains to wash your feet and hands, it is mandatory. Don’t cheat, even if you just had a shower, do as you’re told.
Be respectful when entering the prayer hall
It’s in this room that the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy book) is stored. After bowing and leaving a donation in front of the altar (it’s not a must, but we felt we wanted to contribute for the food we were going to have later), I soon noticed that people were sitting crossed-legs, men to one side and women to the other side of the room. They were all facing the Guru Granth Sahib without pointing their feet and, even when they stood up, they never gave their back to it.
There was some traditional praying music in the background that enhanced the peaceful atmosphere and increased the feeling of isolation from the chaotic city life outside.
To my surprise nobody stared at us even if we had the inevitable foreigner look, everybody kept praying like if we weren’t there.
Only a lady approached us to tell us about the ritual of the Kara Parshald, which is a food with a sweet taste offered and given as a gift in cupped hands (it must be eaten with the right hand and do not refuse it or throw it away). The lady kindly said that if we wanted to we could take it, so we did.
Take part in the Langar
This was such an unbelievable experience that literally opened my eyes to a very different level of kindness.
The Langar is a vegetarian meal cooked by volunteers and offered for free to every visitor without any distinctions of race, religion, gender or age.
The volunteers filled our plates with very generous portions of delicious food and, on top of that, they walked between the tables to offer extra treats (like extra chapati, fresh fruits, Indian sweets and even ice cream).
We learnt that the philosophy behind the Langar is both to provide training to the volunteers to serve people and to try to dismiss the discriminations between high and low or rich and poor.
After the meal we joined the washing up and helped out, we thought it was the minimum we could do to return the magnanimousness people showed us that evening, plus it was a great way to move a bit after the tasty and big meal just had.
I never felt as welcomed as that evening and, strangely enough, I didn’t fell out of place even if we were the only non-Sikh people there.
I left the Gurdwara with a smile on my face, happy to have learnt something about a world completely unknown to me and with a very precious lesson on generosity.