Kids Corner


Postcards From The Road:
Gurpurab in Chennai, Tamil Nadu





I find myself in the old Madras -- now Chennai -- in South India for kirtan 'haazri' and dialogue with Sikh youth.

It happens to be the Gurpurab of the Sixth Master, Guru Hargobind Sahib.

Most impressive is the fact that langar here is of 'misiaa(n) rotian' and onion salad/achaar, mainly in memory of Baba Buddha.

The 'saakhi' (story) for those who do not know, goes that Mata Ganga, wife of the Fifth Master, Guru Arjan, went to the great sage, Baba Buddha ji, with a delicious multi-course gourmet meal to get him to pray on her behalf for the boon of a son.

She was quite rudely turned away by Baba Buddha with some choice words like - "Kee bhajerraa(n) pai gayiyaa(n) Guru de mehelaa(n) nu?" [My venerable father was very amusing with his words when describing the colourful episodes from Gur-itihas. Translation: "What galloping emergencies have afflicted the Court of the Guru!")

When Guru Sahib himself was told of the incident and the manner in which Mata ji had gone on her mission, according to my father, he laughed and asked what food was taken to Baba Buddha and how. When told that it was the tastiest of dishes and that too, taken with much pomp and ceremony, he chided Mata ji and told her to cook simple rotiaa(n) with her own hands with love and humility, and them herself in utter humility.

She did as recommended and this time around went alone, bare-footed, with the simple rotiaa(n), achaar and onions, all balanced in a clean potli (bundle) on her head, peasant-like.

She was received by Baba ji with great affection and he started eating the rotiaa(n) and achaar. As he crushed an onion between the palms of his hands -- in the way of the farmer, as he tackles his mid-day lunch thus in the fields -- he conferred a blessing on Mata ji, declaring that she would indeed bear a son, but one who would crush the enemies of man like the onion he had just decimated.

Hargobind -- later to be anointed Guru -- was born to Mata Ganga ji and Guru Arjan. The rest, as they say, is history.

I asked a youngster about six years of age, a beautiful red patka adorning his head, why the gurdwara was serving such simple rotiaa(n) with onions. He explained that it was to celebrate Baba Buddha’s  smashing an onion with his fist. Close enough. I explained the rest to him but I think the onion smashing alone had a better ring for him!

We do need to celebrate our din-dehaarray (high holidays) with something signifying the occasion to remind the history and significance behind these dates.

So, we have:

1    Gatka and nagar kirtan and amrit sanchar at Vasakhi -- the most auspicious day in the Sikh calendar, marking the birth of the Khalsa and the Sikh 'quom'.

2    Some change in our lives or some improvement in our gurdwaras to become more environment friendly to mark Guru Har Rai's Gurpurab in mid-March.

3    Free ice cold water and soft drinks in the streets for Guru Arjan’s Shaheedi Gurpurab; also commemorating the 1984 invasion of the Harmandar Sahib and the genocide that followed.

4   This addition of 'misian rotian and onions' at Guru Hargobind’s Gurpurab celebrations in early July to also remember Baba Buddha and Mata Ganga.

5   Guru Tegh Bahadar's Shaheedi in November should be commemorated with an Inter-faith Day because Guru Sahib died so that people of other faiths (in this case, Hindus) could practise their religion freely. He was truly our greatest example of 'manas ki jaat sabhai ek ...'

6   We need something special for Guru Nanak’s Gurpurab in November; this is another significant day in the Sikh calendar.

7    For the joint Shaheedi Gurpurab of all the Four Sahibzadey, all gurdwaras must have turban-tying competitions with prizes for children and youth and parallel competitions for our young girls.

8    For Guru Gobind Singh's Gurpurab in early January we should have sports and games and athletic competitions.

9    For Guru HarKrishan’s Gurpurab, we should give blood in commemoration for his seva during the plague in Delhi and succumbing to it himself.

So, the Chennai sangat has got it right with misiaan rotiaan, achaar and onions.

Towards the end of this langar, they sneaked in sweetened rice laced with dates and nuts plus one slice of barfi each - to commemorate Guru Sahib’s Gurpurab.


Langar should indeed be simple and made with great love, humility and with naam simran by sevadars.

July 8, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Mankanwal Singh (New York City, USA), July 09, 2014, 1:24 PM.

Dya Singh ji - Great ideas to remember the gurupurabs by. On an unrelated topic, I've always been very curious about diaspora Sikh communities in far flung places like South India or East India. When I lived in India, everyone south of Mumbai was a 'Madrasi' (Madras is the old name for Chennai). To me mentally, a horizontal line from Mumbai in the west to the east coast of India, was the 'Mason Dixon Line', without the slavery context, that differentiated North India from the South. In 2012, I went to Chennai, my first visit to south India. I was on a business trip and did not sight-see much. But in my three days in Chennai, I saw maybe five Sikhs and all of them at the airport (including three security personnel). Interestingly, at the Delhi airport, on my way to Chennai, I met a Punjabi Sikh from Chennai who was married to a Tamil woman. His experiences were eye opening. My own experience of speaking in Hindi was equally eye opening. As a colleague and I stood in line at the company cafeteria, we started speaking in Hindi. This turned more heads in our direction than if we had walked into a Klan rally. Some more interesting tidbits - I was also told the labor for the construction boom in Chennai was coming from the Hindi belt. The opposition to Hindi in south India in general but in Tamil Nadu in particular unifies all societal fault lines of caste, religion, class, etc. While south Indians consider Sikhs as north Indians, they do not lump us with the Hindi belt. While Hyderabad (in the southern Indian state of Telengana) has a centuries old Telegu speaking Sikh community, there is no such community of Sikhs in Tamil Nadu or Kerala. While the Sikh population in Bangalore and Hyderabad has increased many fold in the last 15 years, thanks to the IT boom, it has not increased to the same extent in Chennai.

2: Gurpal Singh Bhuller (Chester, Virginia, USA), July 09, 2014, 9:43 PM.

I think Dya Singh has made a great point of making the gurdwaras more relevant - particularly for the children who do not understand the language. Performing activities is something that comes to them naturally, and is more "fun". I have a suggestion with regard to point # 6 in his write-up above. For several years now, for Guru Nanak's Birthday in November (which is around Thanksgiving here), we have encouraged the sangat to collect food cans and other foodstuffs to donate to the local Food Bank to help feed the poor. The gurdwara is the collecting station and we provide the bags. This reminds us of the saakhi of Guru Nanak feeding the sadhus when he was young, and his teaching of Wund Chhakna.

3: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), July 10, 2014, 3:21 AM.

I too had a postcard dropped directly from the aircraft while flying over Kuala Lumpur. I had to resort to less exotic e-mail to wish him well on his latest surprise foray to Chennai, etc. This time to celebrate the 'Agamam' of Guru Hargobind with a befitting fare of misiaan rotian and uncut onion/achaar fed to Baba Buddha ji. Dya ji, now awaiting a report on your side visit to Pondicherry and a possible a trip to Cochin for ayurvedic treatment for your aching limbs. Don't let them reach for your throat, though.

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Gurpurab in Chennai, Tamil Nadu "

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