Sikhism in Greece

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A JAIB Singh removes his shoes and socks and joins dozens of other Indian Sikhs inside a small rented groundfloor apartment in the centre of this sleepy town. The Sikh temple is along a narrow alleyway, barely visible to a passerby on the street.

One by one, worshipers bow on hands and knees before the Guru Granth Sahib - the holy book of the Sikhs. Those who do not wear turbans cover their heads as a sign of respect. One man in an yellow turban symbolically dusts the takht ­ a raised stand for the revered book.

The temple was opened three years ago to meet the needs of a growing Indian Sikh community in the small Peloponnesian town of Kranidi and nearby Porto Heli, Ermioni and the island of Poros. It serves as a prayer hall, a community centre and public kitchen. But it is only temporary.

The 1,000-strong Sikh community is gearing up to break new ground on what will become Greece's first Sikh place of worship, called a gurdwara. Singh, who has been in Greece 11 years, is heading the ambitious project. He says plans for "our own temple" have been in the works for several years. The first construction trucks could trundle in as early as next year.

The existing place of worship and another makeshift gurdwara in the nearby town of Galata will remain open until the new one is ready.

Temple plans build relations

The makeshift Sikh temple in Kranidi

"Sikhs from all over the country, including Greeks, donated money for the purchase of the land," Singh tells the Athens News, rolling out the architectural blueprints for a large two-storey gurdwara. It will be built atop a grassy hill on the outskirts of Kranidi on a 4,000-square-metre plot purchased last July.

The site is literally in the middle of nowhere. Local landowners are widely in favour of the planned temple. One neighbour will open a small grocery once the gurdwara is ready.

"It cost about six million drachmas (17,600 euros) to purchase the land and make all the necessary papers," says Singh. "The owner gave us a very generous price because we told him what we wanted to build... The gurdwara will be ready in two or three years. It will be open for everyone."

The word gurdwara is from Sanskrit guru, meaning "teacher", and dwara meaning "door". It is where the Guru dwells. Singh says the Kranidi temple will be named Sarbat Da Pala, which means "for the good of the whole world" in Punjabi.

Sikhs around the country are now eagerly awaiting the new gurdwara. Three hundred signed a formal request for the creation of the temple at the Kranidi town hall in April, as government officials had required. several came from as far away as Marathon, eastern Attica.

The signatures were sent to the ministry of education and religious affairs, which issued a special permit for the creation of the temple in June 2002. City planning officials also gave the go-ahead.

Donations continue to come in from Sikhs across the country. Many have expressed their interest to volunteer their labour and craftsmanship expertise. The construction of the gurdwara is expected to cost nearly 200,000 euros.

"Everyone has been extremely supportive," says Singh. "We have close contacts with many Sikhs in many parts of the country. At first many were distrustful because we only had an idea. But now that the papers are finalised and we are proceeding towards construction, more and more people are starting to believe in this project and are keen to help us... Friends and relatives from as far as Canada and Germany and Belgium also made contributions. Local Greeks also donated funds - a total of 3,000 euros."

Kranidi Mayor Dimitris Kamitzis supports the temple plans. "We have quite a large number of Indian Sikhs here and in the neighbouring towns," he tells the Athens News. "Their plans to build their church here is natural. They are very decent people. They invite us to their celebrations and it seems to me that they love their religion and it unites them... They live and work here and they are a part of our town. We have no right to deny them their right to religion."

The planned gurdwara will also operate a free kitchen and dining hall. Singh says that any person, regardless of religious beliefs, will be allowed free meals in the refectory. The new building will also have several small apartments and washrooms for those in need of shelter. One apartment will be home to the priest.

But Kranidi's Sikh priest is in trouble with the law, according to Manjeet Lidher, a member of the local community. He says the 32-year-old, who worked at a construction site, was arrested by police for driving a motorbike without a helmet. He is also at risk of deportation because his name was put on the Europe-wide so-called list of undesirables five years ago when he was caught in Germany without a residence permit.

"Those who wear turbans cannot wear helmets," says Lidher. "But some police officers just don't understand... We have hired a lawyer to help the priest because he is a very good man."

Sikhs and Sikhism

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in Punjab in the 15th century by Guru Nanak. It is now the world's fifth-largest religion. There are more than 20 million Sikhs worldwide. It is also the youngest of the world's religions.

Guru Nanak stood against India's caste system. His message was ek ong kar (we are all one). His followers were called Sikhs (seekers of truth).

According to Singh, Sikhs believe in only one God whom they honour by "living moral lives through hard and honest work" and to share what one has with others. Traditional Sikh men wear folded turbans and do not cut their hair or beards.

"But here in Greece some of us, like myself, cut our hair," he says. "Others do not wear the turban... These are some things we do because we are far from home."