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Temple home from home for Korea’s Sikhs

Down a small back street in a run-down suburb in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, is an inauspicious, two-story red brick building. If there were no sign on the outside, it could be mistaken for a school, a factory or even a low-security prison.

It is actually the Gurudwara Singh Sabha ― the beating heart of South Korea’s Sikh community.

As the country’s only Sikh temple, it is a place where South Korea’s 500 or so Sikhs gather, and is even home to some lay members.

For Manjit Singh, 35, a businessman from Punjab who has lived in Korea 10 years, attending is a matter of course. 

Baba-ji Gurprit Singh chants at the Gurudwara Singh Sabha in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province. (Dave Hazzan)
Baba-ji Gurprit Singh chants at the Gurudwara Singh Sabha in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province. (Dave Hazzan)

“I believe in God. If I were Hindu I would go to a Hindu temple, if I were Muslim I would go to the Masjid, if Christian I would go to church.”

But since Singh is a Sikh, he does not attend any of those.

“I come here,” he says.

Sikhism, founded in the Punjab region of South Asia in the 15th century, is followed by about 20 million people around the world. Its core beliefs are contained in the Guru Granth Sahib ― not a book, but a “living guru,” whose pages are read from daily by the Babas, the men who preach the religion.

On the ground floor, groups of Indian men sit together to talk. There are no chairs ― everyone sits on the lush carpet as equals.

The walls are donned with portraits of the 10 gurus, paintings from Sikh history and a TV playing a live feed from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the capital of Sikhism. In the kitchen, a group of men make lunch for everyone.

On the second floor, the Baba-ji chants. Baba-ji Gurprit Singh, 61, has been the religious leader here for eight years. He doesn’t leave the site much, and he says no Koreans have commented on his turban, his long, white, wispy beard, or his Indian clothes. He came over from Punjab because the community asked him to, and this is his only job. He rarely speaks to Koreans, and only eats in the temple.

Every morning he begins chanting at 4:30 a.m. His voice is played through speakers throughout the temple, but softly, so people can speak over it. Around 7 a.m. he finishes. He begins again around 5:30 p.m., and chants for another two hours. On Sundays, he chants straight through the morning until 1:15 p.m., stopping only to clear his throat.

All Sunday morning, worshipers visit him. They climb the stairs slowly, their feet bare and their heads covered, usually in the orange handkerchiefs the temple provides. They approach the Baba-ji silently and clasp their hands together. They kneel before him on a rug, and bend their foreheads to the floor. Then they rise and circle the Baba-ji, praying at his sides and behind him. They exit using another staircase.

The atmosphere in the temple is cheerful but subdued. Outside, it is more boisterous as friends greet each other.

Every Sunday, student Lakhwinder Singh makes the three hour trip from Gonjiam, Gangwon Province, to Pocheon.

Singh, 29, has no Indian friends in Gonjiam, only classmates and two or three other friends. “But here I have many friends.”

Rupinder Kaur, 35, runs a grocery and an import-export business with her husband, Ajay Singh, 42. She is one of the few women at the gurudwara, but she insists that in Sikhism, “women are the same as men.” She says the lack of women is because it’s mostly single men who come to Korea.

Kaur brings her two sons, Gurjot, 10, and Arshjot, 7, every Sunday, where they run, play and get into trouble with the other Sikh children.

“This is the only day they can get together with other children of our community,” Kaur says.

Kaur’s husband sits on the five-person committee that runs the temple, which is wholly run by donations, he said.

Kaur insisted that all religions and nationalities were welcome at the gurudwara.

“It is free for all religion people, they can come here at any time,” she says.

Some of the Indians at the temple have been successful in Korea. Others have not, and the community tries to help the best they can. They help people find work, deal with passport issues, file for unpaid wages, and so on. Most crucially, the temple provides food and shelter.

Key among Sikh belief is community service. Every Sikh temple has a “langar,” a kitchen that serves free food to anyone who wants it, Sikh or otherwise, and temples often double as homeless shelters.

“People who can’t get a job, they can come and live here as long as they wish to,” Kaur says. All meals are free, and provided they abide by the temple’s rules, they will not be evicted. “Baba-ji helps them contact the people who are legal here, and those people who have legal jobs will contact Baba-ji and help.”

Eungav Singh, 48 and Surinder Singh, 36, are both in Korea trying to live their Korean dreams. Eungav has had more luck ― within a couple months, he had a job at a factory. He says it isn’t difficult, just “fast.”

Surinder, on the other hand, regrets having come to Korea. He says he hasn’t found a job in the nine months he’s been here.

Both Eungav and Surinder live at the temple. Both miss India very much, but are happy the winter is over. Recently, there were eight people living in the temple, but the number fluctuates.

Akash Chodda, 30, is an engineer with nine years’ experience in Korea. He is a Hindu, but he comes every Sunday to the Sikh temple, to pray and be with friends.

“Even though I am Hindu, I come here to pray,” Chodda says. “In the Sikh community, it’s OK. Whatever you want, it’s done freely. We are open-minded.”

The only Hindu temple in Korea is across the street.

Chodda says the interaction with the Korean community is minimal, even though he and many other Punjabis speak fluent Korean.

“We do have interaction (with the Korean community) but the thing is they are not interested in the Sikh community,” Chodda says. But the foreign population, including the number of Sikhs, is “increasing every day. It will maybe double or triple in the next five years. Koreans before were a close-minded community, with their language and culture, but they are opening slowly.”

However, he notes with some bitterness that there is still no anti-discrimination law in Korea.

Vivek Singh, 24, a student who comes up every day from Jamsil, wears a full turban and beard, unlike most of the other Sikhs at the temple. He says he has no problems in Korea, but he misses his family in India.

“(The temple) means a lot of things for me,” Singh says. “This is just like family.”

By Dave Hazzan

Dave Hazzan is a Canadian teacher and writer in Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province. He has published extensively in Korea and is an avid traveler. ― Ed.