Wednesday, April 16, 2014



Last week was a pretty fun one, and it culminated on Sunday, when I got to experience the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi. Sikhism is a religion originally from the Indian state of Punjab, but its followers can be found all over the world, including Malaysia. Sikhism is a very comprehensive and interesting religion, and some of the main facets of the religion are the 5 articles of faith a Sikh man is supposed to wear or keep with him at all times. Because these 5 articles of faith all start with the sound of the letter “k," they are commonly known as the 5 Ks. The first two articles are the Kesh, uncut hair, and the Kangha, a small wooden comb. The Kesh symbolizes the perfection of God’s creation and that there is no need to tamper with this perfection. The Kangha signifies the need to be clean and tidy at all times. The next K is the Kara, a bracelet made of iron or steel. The Kara serves as a constant reminder to Sikhs that they are committed to God's will and must act righteously and honestly. The Kacchera, a piece of undergarment, reminds Sikhs of the need to control their negative impulses, while the Kirpan, a short dagger, represents a Sikh’s duty to protect those who are unfairly persecuted or oppressed. Vaisakhi’s religious significance comes from the 5 Ks, as it was on Vaisakhi day in 1699 that Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh guru, created the Khalsa, the order of just and brave Sikhs who always donned the 5 Ks.

Since the inception of the Khalsa, Vaisakhi has become one of the most important Sikh festivals. Ever year on the day of Vaisakhi, parades and processions take place in India, Canada, Malaysia, the U.S., and many other nations with significant Sikh populations. However, I had never seen a Vaisakhi celebration or even been to a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, before Sunday. So, while I was still in Malaysia, I wanted to participate in a Sikh celebration, visit a gurdwara, and learn more about the Sikh people and its history. Due to the kind offer of one of my friends, I was able to accompany him to a large procession starting in a town outside of Ipoh. Leading the parade were five Sikh men who were part of the Khalsa and a chariot that devotees had decorated earlier in the day. Inside the chariot were priests and devotees leading the chanting of prayers and the Guru Granth Sahib, the main Sikh holy book. For the next 2 hours, we followed the chariot along with hundreds of devotees as it led us to the gurdwara in another town. The journey was actually quite interesting and fun, as I got to learn a lot about Sikhism and the importance of Vaisakhi through talking with nearby devotees.

The procession was led by 5 members of the Khalsa

The start of the procession

The beautifully adorned chariot

The large procession followed the chariot for nearly 2 hours!

After the trip, we arrived at the gurdwara and entered the centrally located prayer hall. I’ve seen the inside of temples, churches, mosques, and other houses of worship in the last few years, but the interior of the gurdwara was certainly unique. In many ways, it looked like a combination of several different types of places of worship. Inside the prayer hall was a carpeted floor on which people sat and a red rug that led to a sort of shrine. Behind this shrine sat two prayer leaders who recited verses and chants from Sikh religious texts. As the chariot came into the gurdwara, the Guru Granth Sahib was unloaded and brought into the gurdwara. The Guru Granth Sahib is quite interesting, as it is considered not only the central text of Sikhism but also the 11th guru of Sikhism. Therefore, it is revered and treated as if it were a human guru. After the book was placed in a separate shrine in the temple, all of the devotees in the temple gathered around the shrine and followed the prayers led by priests and the members of the Khalsa. When the prayers were over, the devotees moved to the dining hall, where chapathis and other offerings were served.

The stately exterior of the gurdwara

The prayer hall

The shrine in the prayer hall

The 5 members of the Khalsa accompanying the Guru Granth Sahib to the shrine

The prayers led by the priests and the members of the Khalsa

Celebrating Vaisakhi was definitely a really fun event. I learned so much about Punjabi culture and the importance of Vaisakhi. Before Sunday, I really did not know much about Punjabi lifestyle and celebration, but by the end of the festival, I had experienced a day in the life of a Sikh. Moreover, the generosity of the Sikh people truly amazed me; several benevolent devotees drove by in their lorries and trucks to give water and other drinks to anyone along the road during the procession. Even individuals not participating in the procession were given as much water as they could carry!

I’m so glad I got to tag along with my friend to observe the festivities for Vaisakhi. It’s great to learn about a culture in History or through reading, but it’s more enjoyable and enlightening to learn more interactively. The great part about Malaysian festivals and religious houses is that most of them are open to interested viewers and people who want to learn more about a certain group of people and their faith and culture. As I have participated in and experienced so many Malaysian religious celebrations directly, I have picked up so much about different religions groups and their beliefs, customs, backgrounds, and languages. Sunday was a great day culturally for me, and I hope to learn more about Malaysian Sikhs and their lifestyles before I return to the U.S.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

MH370: An International Tragedy

I'm sure most of my readers, especially those in Malaysia, have heard of the MH370 incident, which has been discussed and remembered via radio, television, billboards, newspapers, posters, conversation, and all other forms of communication in Malaysia. For those who are not familiar with the disaster, on March 8, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur on its journey to Beijing; however, soon after its departure, communication with the airplane was lost, and by the time the waking hours of the morning came around, the disappearance of the plane had been disclosed to the public. Since that day, a coalition of countries has searched for the missing plane in various parts of the oceans and seas surrounding Malaysia. On March 24, based on satellite information and other forms of data, the government of Malaysia and Malaysian Airlines concluded that MH370 went down in the Indian Ocean, west of Perth, with no survivors. The international team has since turned to the Indian Ocean to find the plane and investigate its crash.

As a calamity of this magnitude was both unprecedented and unexpected, the loss of MH370 was an immense blow to the friends and families of those within the plane. Days and weeks of mourning went on as millions worldwide grieved at the situation at hand and their inability to do anything about it. In Malaysia, daily reports and the release of new evidence and information did little to soothe the hearts and minds of those affected, and relatives and companions of those lost were forced to go about their daily lives unsure of their loved ones' fates. The state of the country was melancholy and unfortunate. When Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak sadly announced that the government had gathered that MH370 had gone down in the Indian Ocean and that none of the individuals on board the aircraft had survived, all those who had been agonizingly waiting for an official answer had their hearts broken as they listened to the all too possible explanation for the disappearance of their close relatives and friends.

It has now been a full month since the plane's disappearance. 30 days. It's hard to register that it's been so long since the incident. Although I am not personally connected to anyone on the plane, I do feel sorrow and grieve for the passengers and crew of MH370. I've tried to empathize with the families of the victims and understand their suffering and loss, and I've started to see just how tough they are. To face a death in the family is extremely difficult, but to go through that process without knowing for sure what happened to the victim is an immense hardship. However, these poor individuals are not alone; radio stations, television networks, Internet websites, and the rest of the Malaysian media have stepped up and helped the families cope with their losses. Listening to Hitz FM's poignant songs and prayers of remembrance for the victims of MH370 and reading the sincere and heart-warming comments left for families and friends of the passengers and crew on websites, newspapers, and posters of remembrance have genuinely changed my perception of tragedy and loss. Seeing the citizens of my wonderful host country have to go through such a traumatic and terrible event is saddening, but their ability to bond and get through this event together is truly inspiring.

A remembrance poster in Johor Bahru with thousands of messages and prayers written on it

For all those families and friends affected by the MH370 disaster, I want to let you know that you are in my thoughts and prayers. I hope that your memories of your loved ones stay strong and that you also remain strong. As in the past few weeks, let us, the people around you, help you cope with the tragedy in your lives. If you stay strong and remember the positive memories of your family members or friends, you will get through this.

The catastrophe of MH370 will not be forgotten. It cannot and should not be forgotten. People will remember March 8 as a day of mourning and remembrance. No matter what happens, we the citizens of the entire world should not forget this date, as this accident does not pertain to only Malaysia or other countries whose citizens were on the plane; it is relevant to each and every one of us, as we are all human beings. Just as we keep in the annals of our memories the dates of other tragedies, we should always be able to look back upon this date and commemorate the lives of those on board MH370 because as long as we have them in our memories, they will never be completely gone.