By Himanshu Bhatt
ABOUT three weeks ago,
hundreds of Penangites and tourists attended a celebration within the historic premises of Fort
Cornwallis, the oldest existing man-made site in Penang, to commemorate the Sikh festival of
Photo Courtesy of
Lost to most people, however, was one particular cultural
significance of the site. It was here, soon after the British built the fort in 1786, that the
country’s first gurdwara or Sikh temple was housed, for Sikh paramilitary personnel stationed in
Today, the fort still stands but the temple is no longer there. It
made way when the government decided to give away a piece of veterinary land on Brick Kiln Road
(now Jalan Gurdwara) for the construction of a bigger temple in 1899, which still stands. The new
building was the largest Sikh temple in Southeast Asia at that time.
Like the little-known historic implication of Fort Cornwallis to the
Sikhs and the heritage of Penang, there are many other rich facts of the community’s legacy that
have become buried by the sands of time.
About two years ago, I chanced to meet historian Malkiat Singh Lopo,
to review his novel The Enchanting Prison. Set in Malaya during the early part of the 1900s, Lopo’s
work poignantly chronicles the early hardships, predicaments and successes of the Sikhs who, like
other communities, helped propel the nation into the modern industrialised land it is
The early Sikh community had in fact produced a string of prolific
writers. In one book, Maha Jang Europe (Great European War) 1914-1918AD, writer Havildar (Sgt) Nand
Singh vividly described the daring exploits of the Malay States Guides (MSG) in Aden when they
fought the Turkish forces.
The MSG, a body of local Indian troops which formed Malaya’s own
regiment, was based in Taiping. In 1873, the Orang Kaya Mantri of Larut, Dato’ Ngah Ibrahim, was
worried about rivalry between Ghee Hin and Hai San Chinese clans in the tin-mining region, and
wanted fighting men from Punjab to maintain law and order. He consulted Capt T. Speedy who formed
the 1st Battalion Perak Sikhs, which originally comprised 110 men of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.
This battalion became the MSG in 1896.
When the MSG was disbanded, the Singh Sabha, a registered local Sikh
society, convinced the British resident that the holy temple, the gurdwara, within the Taiping army
compound belonged to the Sikhs and not the military.
Once the resident was agreeable, the sabha performed an incredible
feat of dismantling the building and re-erecting it almost intact on the present site granted by
the government near the railway station. The building is today called the Gurdwara Sahib
Malaya was the first foreign country that people from Punjab in
India, where the majority of Sikhs live, migrated to. Most of these early migrants were needed by
the British colonial government.
While many belonged to the army and police, a steady stream of other
occupations also grew – milkmen, cattle farmers, guards, craftsmen and tailors.
The community has left many anecdotes of its legacy. For example, as
Sikh populations on the peninsula rose, a unique service established itself in railway towns like
Taiping, Kuala Kangsar, and Tanjung Malim where trains would stop for a while. It became a common
sight to see Sikh men with milk churns standing on the railway platforms, giving away free warm
milk to travellers.
But perhaps the most quaint imprint of the Sikhs lies today in George
Town’s magnificent Chinese clan temple of the Khoo Kongsi. As one ascends the steps of the temple,
it is difficult not to notice a pair of statues carved out of granite as if welcoming
The two figures of Sikh guards stand imposingly on the ornate
pavilion of the century-old complex. The sight of turbaned 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
“Sikhs were employed as reliable guards in the old days,” explains
researcher Yong Check Yoon who has done a detailed study of the complex.
“And so to post them permanently ‘guarding’ the temple, the Khoo
clansmen had two statues of the Sikh sentinels made to ‘guard’ the prayer pavilion.”
The two guards today form a small but fascinating cultural feature
among the many communities that have come together to make the great kaleidoscope of our
Himanshu is the Sun’s Penang bureau chief
Updated: 07 May 2009