Sikhs In Singapore

A special exhibition on Sikhs in Singapore will be held from March 27 till Sept 30 at the Indian Heritage Centre

There’s a “club” for Indian women in Singapore where the minimum age for membership is 65 years. Anyone who has not reached the cut-off age for Senior Citizenship is ineligible to join Sunehri Saheliyan (Golden Girlfriends). This group of senior ladies even has a 100-year old member, and they are the ones keeping alive the traditional crafts of the Sikhs and Punjabis.

This sisterhood of craftswomen run by the Sikh Welfare Council (SIWEC) specifically for senior women in the Sikh community, will have their work presented by the Indian Heritage Board (IHB) in its newest special exhibition, Sikhs in Singapore – A Story Untold, from Saturday, 27 March to 30 September 2021.

The objective of this Eldercare Program is to encourage active ageing, volunteerism and improve their quality of life. One of the initiatives undertaken by Sunehri Saheliyan (SS) is to have the senior women conduct workshops for traditional crafts of the Sikh and Punjabi community which has proven to be immensely popular and is helping to revive these crafts.


(Pakkhi (Punjabi: hand fan) made by Amar Kaur – Image credits to Bihara Singh)

At a recent media preview, India Se Media met some of the talented craftswomen who were showcasing their skills. Some were weaving traditional “manji” – cot for sitting on – with colourful ropes on wooden frames and some were making embroidered “Pakkhi” (little wind) hand-held fans while some like Madam Ajit Kaur were weaving elegant and pretty “nalle”, decorative draw-strings for salwars, lehngas, petticoats and curidars. These are all part of a bride’s trousseau.

Eighty one-year old Madam Ajit who has three sons, came to Singapore from Sangrur in Punjab, along with her husband after getting married at the age of 18. She learnt her skills in India as it was a tradition for girls to make most of their own trousseau.

“I used to make a lot of these things – Nalle and Manji – when I was in India. I learnt as a small chid of 10 or 12 as I didn’t go to school. Most of us girls in the villages never went to school,” offers her friend Balbir Kaur 82 who says she is from Ludhiana Zilla. She, too, came to Singapore after marriage along with her husband, a security guard. The couple have no children, so Sunehri Saheliyan is an important part of her social life.

(Image credit: IHC)

These women are at the forefront of not only reviving but also keeping these dying traditional skills alive in Singapore says Charanjit Kaur who heads this women’s group which meets at the Central Sikh Temple. “The ladies come here at least once a week to meet and work so anyone can come and learn from them if they wish.” Unfortunately, none of the women seem to have taught their offspring these crafts.

Perhaps, because they associate it with their own circumstances as unlettered village girls, they feel these skill are not necessary for educated girls. As 74-year old Baljit Kaur mother of three girls says tellingly: “I didn’t teach my girls because they’re educated. What’s the use of learning all this? My girls are a doing well – one is a manager of a hospital in the UK and one is a lawyer.” Little does she realise the irony of how she and her uneducated sisters in Sunehri Saheliyan are keeping this village craft alive in a foreign land.

The exhibition is IHC’s second community co-created exhibition, and showcases the heritage and culture of the Sikh community in Singapore and will offer insights into this small but prominent Singapore Indian community, from their history and culture, to their evolution and place in modern Singapore. The tangible and intangible aspects of their identity will be shared through artefacts, photographs, and the stories and voices of the community, and the exhibition will also offer glimpses of the community’s root culture and events that led to their diasporic movement to Southeast Asia.


(Image credit: IHC)

The Sikh community’s long history in Singapore can be traced back to the late 19th century, with their arrival here from the Punjab region in India, via the port of Calcutta, to join the Sikh Police Contingent under the British colonial administration at the time. The community firmly established itself here over the years, and its members have long been recognised for their societal contributions as soldiers, policemen, volunteers, athletes and more.

These identities only scratch the surface of a deep, rich history and culture, which will be expounded and celebrated in the exhibition. This is the Indian Heritage Centre’s (IHC) first-ever exhibition dedicated to Sikh heritage.

(Sikh members of the Straits Settlements Police Force at the Sikh Temple in Silat Road – Image credits to National Museum Singapore)

The exhibition invites visitors to gain a deeper understanding of this small but prominent Singapore Indian community by telling its lesser- known stories in three parts: Roots, which explores the origins of Singapore’s Sikh community, from its beginnings at the crossroads of civilisations in the Punjab to the birth of the Sikh faith; Settlement, which presents the narratives of Sikh migrants in Singapore, revealing the story of the nascent original community and some of its prominent members; and Contemporary Perspectives, which offers glimpses into the experiences of contemporary Sikhs, highlighting the ever-evolving Singaporean Sikh identity and the community’s contributions to the nation.

(Photograph of a bhangra performance organised by Seva Singh Gandharab at the National Day Parade – Image credits to Seva Singh Gandharab)

Maria Bhavani Dass, General Manager of IHC said, “The Indian Heritage Centre is indeed honoured to present this special exhibition – Sikhs in Singapore – A Story Untold. We are very thankful to Sikh organisations and the community for working closely with us to curate this exhibition that unveils the heritage, culture, arts and personal stories of a strong and resilient community. In times of great need and change, a community’s shared heritage is key, as it acts as an anchor and provides points of reflection. We hope their stories inspire our visitors as much as they inspired us to co-create this special exhibition that presents many artefacts, photographs, stories, films and special programmes that are lined up for all.”

(A painting of the court of Ranjit Singh – Image credits to Manraj S Sekhon)


Shobha Tsering Bhalla

Shobha Tsering Bhalla is the Editor-in-Chief at India Se.