Who are Sikhs? A community of individuals from Punjab, India, that practise the religion of Sikhism. Sikhism is the fifth-largest organised religion, and one of the youngest religions in the world.
How are they relevant to us? Sikhs belong to one of the minority religious groups in Singapore, who came here a long time ago and are an integral part of Singapore’s rich history. They have a story that has been buried deep in the history books, but never shared. But from 27 March to 30 September 2021, you can learn their story at the Indian Heritage Centre in a special exhibition.
As a Sikh myself, it gives me great pride to share this with you. Sikhs have gone down in history for their strength and resilience, but I’ve realised how little their history has been made known to Singaporeans.
We study all sorts of cultures and communities of people with unique identities in school during Social Studies, History, maybe even Geography lessons. But the story about Sikhs in Singapore has not been as widely told as others. Hence, you could imagine how my eyes had opened, and how my heart swelled with pride at this exhibition when I learned so much more about my community’s settlement in Singapore, than I ever did in History classes.
The exhibition in question is the one at the Indian Heritage Centre (IHC), called ‘Sikhs in Singapore – A Story Untold’. With more than 450 artefacts on display, the highest number of artefacts for any special exhibition at IHC, this exhibition has been divided into three parts to fully enrich you about who and what the Sikh community stands for.
The exhibition takes the form of a three-part journey – the journey of the Sikhs from their point of origin in Punjab, then their migration to Singapore, and finally their lives in Singapore.
It starts with the first part – Roots. It explores and delves deep into the origins of the Sikh community and culture – from their Geographical origins in Punjab, to the Sikh faith and beliefs. The second part is about Settlement, which presents the narratives of the Sikhs who migrated to Singapore and their process of migration. The final piece is about Contemporary Perspectives, which offers a peek into the Sikhs’ experiences as new habitants of Singapore and as 21st-century members of Singapore society.
Over 450 artefacts were sourced from more than 50 local and international private and institutional collections, sourced from 17 Sikh organisations in Singapore and Singapore’s National Collection. These historic archives each have a little story engraved into them, each depicting a story about someone who belonged to the history of Singapore.
The three-part-journey begins with the first part, ‘Roots’, which showcases a lot about the Sikh faith. Sikhs devote themselves unto the teachings of their ten Gurus and the eternal Guru, the holy book Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji.
Artworks and artefacts have been showcased to exhibit more about the community’s beliefs and culture. One such painting is a Tanjore-style painting of the Ten Sikh Gurus. This singular artwork shares so much about Sikhs’ beliefs and what their faith encompasses. It is a South-Indian style painting, which only goes to show the rich cultural exchange in the Punjab region of India. More artefacts about their identity and their culture are found in this segment of the exhibition.
Then, you enter the second part, ‘Settlement’, which exhibits more about the migration process of the Sikhs. When the British began to reign the Sikh empire, they employed Sikhs as soldiers in India, and ultimately began deploying them in other British colonies, including Singapore.
It is documented to be in 1881, that the first men from Punjab arrived in Singapore. They had strict recruitment requirements, like only Khalsa Sikhs under the age of 25, with a minimum height of 1.68 metres, and minimum chest measurements of 84cm. Those in the military even partook in World War I and World War II, and fought for Singapore as part of the Indian Troops.
However, young Sikh men unable to meet these strict requirement guidelines took up watchmen or security guards’ jobs. They were called ‘The Sikh Jaga’, in which ‘jaga’ means ‘guard’ in Malay.
It was interesting to see so many documentations preserved against the change of times – some yellowing and slightly crumbled, to prove their authenticity. A Pair of Sikh Jaga Figures, formerly from the grave of Madam Yap Woo Neo at the Bukit Brown Cemetery, is another artefact, made of stone, that depicts the life of the Sikh Jaga.
But wait! We’ve been talking so much about the male Sikhs who migrated, but what about the females; their wives? Well, the curator of the exhibition, Ms Malvika Agarwal, shared how she really wanted to relay the narrative of the Sikh females and curated a whole section showing their lives.
After their husbands had settled down in Singapore, the women were able to make their way here too. While household chores took up most of their day, they indulged in the stitching of clothing, pillowcases, bedsheets and other traditional handicrafts. Many of their masterpieces have been on display at the exhibition, and their beauty will leave you mesmerised.
The final part of the exhibition is that of ‘Contemporary Perspectives’. This part shows the assimilation of Sikhs into the Singaporean lifestyle. Today, they are a part of our society, and their tight-knit community has been a symbol of resilience over the course of so many years.
Beyond just artefacts, the curatorial team wanted to truly bring out what it means to be a Sikh in Singapore today. In a magnificent photographic installation, ‘Through the Lens’, local artist-photographer Afiq Omar reimagines the Sikh identity in our cosmopolitan city. He comes up with 50 photographs of young Sikh adults juxtaposed against iconic Singapore landscapes. Sikhs are a part of our multicultural identity as Singaporeans, and the installation is a real eye-opener when you see the colours they bring to their community.
In this part, you can also indulge in a trilogy of films, titled ‘Being Sikh’ that explores Singapore Sikh Heritage. This production was produced by award-winning talents – filmmaker Upneet Kaur Nagpal and writer Balli Kaur Jaswal. They wanted this series to highlight the nuances of the heritage of Sikhs in Singapore pertaining to the role of women, tradition, and faith. Each film will tug at your heartstrings and give you a little insight into what encompasses and builds this community.
The amazing exhibition is bound to give you a glimpse into another community in Singapore that has been around for a long time, but one we may not be very aware of.
So, head on down to visit this exhibition for free at the Indian Heritage Centre and learn more about a civilisation of people that has been quietly living in our midst for more than a century. If you are a Sikh yourself, I strongly urge you to head down there as well, to learn more about how our preceding generations have lived in our country, and how they have been an integral part of Singapore’s history.
For more information on the exhibition, you can visit IHC’s website and their Facebook page.
In a time of cultural reawakening, let’s get to know every community that lives among us, and appreciate their background and identity. Such is the responsibility we share as inhabitants of a multicultural society.
Now you too, can unravel the tale about this community that no one speaks of, for their untold story has now been shared at the Indian Heritage Centre. All you have to do is go to the heart of Little India and hear it yourself.
Visuals courtesy of Indian Heritage Centre.