People of the Five Rivers

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

As one ascends the steps of George Town's magnificent Chinese clan temple of the Khoo Kongsi, it is difficult not to notice a pair of huge images meticulously carved out of granite as if welcoming visitors in.

The two tall, life-sized figures of Sikh guards (above) stand imposingly on the ornate pavilion of the century-old complex, widely considered to be the grandest clan temple in the country.

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

The sight of turban-wearing Indians being featured prominently at the entrance of a Chinese Fuchien temple may seem jarring. But not so if one knew the legacy left by the great Sikhs of India in multicultural Penang.

"Sikhs were employed as reliable guards in the old days," explained researcher Yong Check Yoon who has done a detailed study of the complex.

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

"And so to post them permanently 'guarding' the temple, the Khoo clansmen had two life-sized statues of the Sikh sentinels made to 'guard' the prayer pavilion."

More than just being an aesthetic marvel, it was a testament to the deep, abiding confidence the Sikh people had established in Penang's historic polyglot migrant populace over the last two centuries.

Known as honest, hard working people, the Sikhs from the region of Punjab – literally, 'the land of five rivers' - have left an indelible imprint in Penang since being brought here by the British in the 19th century.

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

Some 400 years ago, Sikh culture evolved in India to mould its people into brave defenders of the weak, munificent protectors of the masses.

It was only natural that the spirit of faithfulness and unstinting gallantry made them consistently called upon by the royalty, the government as well as rich merchants to serve as guards and security officers. This trend ensued when the waves of Sikhs arrived in Malaysia.

"There was a spirit of adventure into new lands," said former journalist Gurdial Singh. "Many Sikhs were made guards for senior people like Malay sultans."

One famous regiment, Gurdial noted, was the Sikh Malay Guides, a brigade under the British based in Taiping. Later in the 19th century, many of the guides and other individuals were put in the local police force and various enforcement agencies.

Gurdial's father came from the village of Brahampura in Punjab in the early part of the 1900s, operating a sundry shop and other trades. Gurdial is a true-blooded modern Penangite, but maintains the traditions of his forefathers, including the wearing of the holy turban – an important symbol of the race.

"Many people who came from Punjab were also farmers. So when they arrived here, they worked and saved enough money to open businesses like cloth trading and operating tea-stalls."

"Some even kept cows in Bayan Lepas and delivered fresh milk to people all over Penang."

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

Today, Penang has at least 200 Sikh families on its island. Understandably, few still serve in the bold professional tradition their ancestors are renowned for. But many of Penang's Sikhs, who still speak ethnic Punjabi, have over the years merged into mainstream society, becoming influential figures at various levels of modern Penang.

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

And besides having a reputation in bravery and service, the Sikhs have coloured Penang's multi-hued racial ambiance with a variety of cultural riches.

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

The community prides in the heritage of its distinctive cuisine, its wondrous folk costumes and the absorbing traditional music.

Most Sikhs in Penang also look to their famous landmark - the temple along Gurdwara Road (formerly called Brick Kiln Road) - as a meeting place for their young and old. The temple premise with its spacious congregation hall is today a major centre of meeting for the community in Penang.

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

Here children are taught old customs such as that of the Gurmukhi – the holy Sikh script that is rarely written today.

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

When built in 1899, the building was the largest Sikh temple in South-east Asia. The earliest trustees were the Veterinary Surgeon of Penang, the Chief Police Officer and three prominent Sikh elders.

Interestingly, before this temple was built, a shrine was housed within Fort Cornwallis – the star-shaped garrison built on the island's north-eastern cape when the British first landed here - for the many Sikh paramilitary personnel in Penang.

The shrine made way when the government decided to give away a piece of veterinary land along Brick Kiln Road for the construction of a huge temple.

Today, the fort – the oldest existing man-made site in Penang – still stands at the same place, but the shrine is no longer there.

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

However, an annual celebration to commemorate the Sikh festive day of Vaisakhi is held within the premise of the historic fort, now a popular tourist site.

Every year, visitors to the celebration are treated to a vibrant exhibition of costumes, folk dances, artistry and music. Of course, there is the famous energetic bhangra – the great throbbing, virile dance from the land of the five rivers – reverberating across the air of the fort. 

Sikhs in Penang © Adrian Cheah

Today, like the rhythm of the bhangra, the spirit of Sikh culture throbs Penang's multi-hued society with its wonderful customs and traditions. A culture that draws on the spirit of its forefathers who boldly came here decades ago, to become the pride of pioneer Penangites from across the world.

Written by Himanshu Bhatt © All rights reserved
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated: 25 April 2019