Friday, July 10, 2009

Touch Me I'm Sikh

Religion has rather depressingly proved to be a contentious issue in this year's presidential election, and for all the wrong reasons. Candidates' wives have been criticized for flagrantly displaying their leonine locks (RIP Farrah Fawcett). Possibly the reason these ladies don't wear headscarves is linked to the reason that their husbands don't have four wives apiece, but I wouldn't want to speculate too wildly on this.

Meanwhile, precious little has been said about repealing both the Draconian anti-pornography law and the repressive Sharia laws that have been enforced in some of Indonesia's autonomous provinces and which make religious minorities feel like second-class citizens in their own country. The fate of the much persecuted Armadiyah sect, now banned by presidential decree, was also inevitably not raised during the simply super presidential debates which otherwise succeeded admirably in whipping me up into a coma.

I thought I'd explore the arcane world of minority religion for myself this week and duly headed up to the busy pedestrianized shopping area of Pasar Baru. I strolled a few hundred meters round the back of the main shopping area until I reached Jakarta's very own Sikh Temple.

I remove my shoes and socks, as is the Sikh custom, washed my feet clean of worms and parasites and headed inside. In the entrance passage, I came across a photo of India's current and first ever Sikh Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, shaking hands with President SBY. I wonder what those two said to each other. Indonesia does in fact have a well-known Sikh politician, Mr HS Dillon, who has been a member of the government for many years and whose turban is easy to spot in newspaper pictures. Mr Dillon has also, commendably, been an outspoken critic of corruption in Indonesia.

Like Indonesia, India has had its share of religious conflagrations of course, despite the best attempts of Mr. Gandhi to unite it across nationalist lines. Mr. Nehru also famously strolled along the beach at Sanur in Bali many years ago with Mr. Sukarno and was so enchanted he described the place as, "The morning of the world". Similar reactions may not have been forthcoming if he had been just down the road in Legian circa 2009 but who knows?

Inside the temple, I came across a bearded, robed Indian sitting cross-legged playing some Raga style drones on his harmonium and chanting, a classic image of subcontinental mysticism. I introduced myself and found out that his name was Napinda Singh, a Sikh guru from the Punjab, the home of Sikhism. Napinda had only been in Jakarta a mere three months. He told me that there were between 200 and 300 Sikh families in town. There are a fair number of Indians: Sikh, Hindu and Muslim, in Jakarta in fact, although traditionally Medan has housed Indonesia's largest population of Indians.

My main Indonesian/Indian connection is as a disciple of Indian food. Being from the UK, I'm always trying to source the stuff out wherever I go. I've also tried feeding Indian food to Indonesians over the years with frankly mixed results. Indonesia is a country that contains many historical echoes of India however, small though the Indian Diaspora may be here. Indonesia's traditional culture, as well as its social stratifications, reflect Indian roots and even people's names are often a strange fusion of Arabic Islam and Hindu Indian Sanskrit (Fatimah Laxmi, Mohammed Aditya, etc).

Back at the temple, my new friend Napinda continued with a little more acid rock harmonium drone before lighting some incense sticks. I was beginning to feel like John Lennon in India circa 1966. “Oh wise one, I search the truth, are you really sure we should let Ringo sing Octopus's Garden?” I don't know if the NU's latest ludicrous fundamentalist edict banning Yoga was affecting our man. Frankly, he looked as if he'd feel more at home lying down on a few thousand nails.

Napinda was a gracious host however and tried to outline the central tenets of the Sikh faith to me through his broken English. He told me that Sikhs pray at 5am and 6am and then eat. The temple is open to anyone and even provides free tea and curry to those who turn up on a Sunday morning between 8am and 11am. That's an offer good enough to convert me for life.

He went on to sagely explain that the Sikh philosophy says that if you concentrate, think, meditate and study, then you can obtain knowledge of God, of real life and of love. This knowledge, he continued, cannot be obtained through idle gossip and chit chat. This seemed to me a worthy ideal to aspire to and I consequently didn't ask the good Mr. Napinda whether he had a Facebook account.

I bid my host farewell and headed back out into the dingy boulevards of Pasar Baru. It would be nice if Indonesia could truly live up to its motto of unity in diversity and put sectarian conflict side. If we know anything about God, which I'm not sure we do, but if we know anything about the chap, it's that he loves diversity, otherwise he wouldn't have created so many millions of wildly differing types of life on the planet.

Peace be upon you all, Shalome.