Gurdwara Etiquette and Protocol
The conduct in a Gurdwara is similar in it's sanctity to places of worship in other world religions, there are certain observations which must be considered regardless of rank or status.
The information here is designed to assist a visitor to learn about the history of the gurdwara and the various activities in a gurdwara. It also provides information about the protocol followed in a gurdwara and a glossary of terms and traditions associated with a gurdwara.
Gurdwaras range from majestic buildings to small rooms in someone's home. Any place that has the Guru Granth Sahib installed and a sangat present may be considered a gurdwara. Gurdwaras are a dear part of a Sikh's life because they provide Sikhs with an opportunity to sit with other Sikh followers and promote spiritual growth.
Usually, a gurdwara has one or more caretakers who are proficient in reciting the Sikh scriptures. The caretaker is called a Granthi and is usually addressed as Bhai Sahib (brother). Any Sikh man or woman can be a Granthi.
1. Wear modest attire which is decent and appropriate. Some people wear traditional clothes however these are a personal choice and are not mandatory. Modesty in dress reveals a modesty and godliness of the heart. Those whose hearts are inclined toward themselves (consciously or sub-consciously) will dress in a manner designed to draw attention to themselves with little or no regard for the consequences to themselves or others.
2. Remove shoes before entering the congregation hall. This is a sign of respect to the sovereignty of the Guru Granth Sahib. Most gurdwaras have shoe racks.
3. Cover your head with a cloth at all times as a sign of respect to the Guru Granth Sahib (no caps or hats). Sikh's wear a Dastar (also known as Pagg or Pagri) or Dumalla which is a different style. The Dastar represents honour, self-respect, courage, spirituality and piety.
4. Bow humbly and touch your forehead to the ground out of respect for the Guru Granth Sahib. As you bow, place your offering respectfully before the Guru, it may be money, flowers, or a word of thanks. Any sincere expression of gratitude is equally acceptable to the Guru.
5. After bowing and offering, Sit on the floor with the 'Sangat' (the congregation) quietly without disturbing others. Sit comfortably and peacefully, the cross legged position is commonly used, but do not point your feet in the direction of the Guru Granth Sahib. Do not talk, gossip or chew gum.
6. Stand up during Ardas (prayer to God).
To join in the Ardas:
i. Stand straight with folded hands,
ii. Sing together "Tu Thaakur Tum Peh Ardas",
iii. After the Ardas, continue standing, and sing, "Aage-aa bha-ee Akal kee, Tabhee Chala-io Panth",
iv. The Ardas concludes with the Jakara. "Bole So Nihal... Sat Sri Akal!".
v. Then sit quietly. The person sitting behind the Guru Granth Sahib will read the Hukum, the Guru’s message or 'Order' to the Sangat.
Upon completion of the Hukum, Karah Parsad is distributed to the Sangat. (This is a sweet pudding made of flour, sugar and clarified butter that is offered as ceremonial food.) To receive Karah Prashad, cup your hands together as the sewadar (gurdwara volunteer) comes by.
7. Sit on the floor during langar (free food from from the common kitchen) and keep your head covered. Use of chairs and tables are not allowed, please maintain your personal standards and respect by refusing to follow any anti-Sikh practices.
Remember - No alcohol, tobacco, or smoking on the gurdwara premises.
Men and women are seated separately in many gurdwaras. However, this is not required religiously and many young families sit together.
Chronological Outline of a Typical Day at the Gurdwara
Prakash – A short ceremony performed when the Guru Granth Sahib is formally opened each day.
Nitnem – Daily prayers.
Kirtan – Hymns and religious sermons.
Ardas – Prayer to God: everyone stands facing the Guru Granth Sahib.
Hukam – The order of the day read from the Guru Granth Sahib.
Community announcements and discussion, if any.
Langar – Sharing a communal meal from the community kitchen.
Religious School - Sikh history or gurmukhi classes conducted for Sikh children in most gurdwaras.
Nitnem – Evening prayers.
Sukh Aasan – A ceremony to formally close the Guru Granth Sahib that signals the end of the services.
Places In A Gurdwara
The Sach Khand
Sach Khand actually refers to a level of spirituality, literally it means the realm of truth, but refers commonly to the holiest room within a Gurdwara. The Sachkhand in a Gurdwara is the room where the holy scriptures are housed during the night. At the end of the day, the Guru Granth Sahib is made to rest in the Sachkhand. Anyone entering the Sachkhand would have had a bath prior to entering the Sachkand - thereby insuring cleanliness. The head must always be covered in the Sachkhand and shoes obviously removed. The Sachkhand is normally situated in the highest point in the Gurdwara - most often it is a separate room within the Darbar.
The Darbar is the main hall in the Gurdwara, it is here that all ceremonies are performed. Shoes must be removed and the head covered. The behaviour inside the Darbar must reflect utmost respect.
Inside the Darbar, there is a stage or platform on which the Guru Granth Sahib is placed, it is covered by a sheet of cloth known as a Ramala. There is a canopy above the scriptures. There is normally another platform - placed lower than the Guru Granth Sahib. This is the main stage and all speeches, narration and kirtan is performed from here.
A person enters the Darbar and walk towards the Guru Granth Sahib. When the person is before the Guru, they should place any offerings before the Guru, these offerings might be of money, food or even a cloth (from which a Ramala would later be made), however the offering of a gift is not mandatory. Following that, the person would bow down before the Guru, their knees on the floor and their forehead on the ground. After that, they would sit on the floor.
One of the halls within a Gurdwara is the Langar Hall. This is the room where food is freely distributed, it will typically contain a common kitchen where the langar is prepared. Traditionally, Sikhs sit on the floor, however many Gurdwaras in the Western world have seats and tables arranged for the elderly or disabled. Use of chairs and tables are not traditionally allowed. Neither is the use of food prepared by caterer's or outside sources.
The Daily Functions
The daily function of a Gurdwara usually begins early in the morning, the exact time is not dictated, in some cases this might be 0200hrs, in others it might be 1000hrs. The Guru Granth Sahib would be brought down from the Sachkhand and a ceremony known as the Parkash is performed, this refers to the 'opening' of the holy scriptures.
Throughout the day, Gurbani might be read, there would normally be a sevadar in the darbar who serves the Karah Parshad to visitors. The Granthi would be available to read the Hukumnama - the Guru's command to the visitors.
In the evening, the Rehras Sahib is read aloud and this might typically be followed by kirtan and katha - the translation of shabads and historic/scriptural narration. The evening ends with a ceremony known as the Sukh Asan, during this, the Guru Granth Sahib is closed and laid to rest in the Sachkhand.
The Gurdwara Committee
Previously - in the subcontinent - the Gurdwaras were run in their entirety by the sangat, there was later recognised - the need for a group of individuals ultimately responsible for various functions relating to the running of the Gurdwara, e.g. treasury, admin. Hence the Gurdwara committees were formed, these are normally elected by the sangat. The existence of such a committee is purely as a function of administration and it does not warrant a superior right within the Gurdwara.
There are no priests. Usually, a gurdwara has one or more caretakers who are proficient in reciting the Sikh scriptures. The caretaker is called a Granthi and is usually addressed as Bhai Sahib (brother). Any Sikh man or woman can be a Granthi. The Granthi or memebers of the Sangat can perform the daily ceremonies inside the darbar. The Granthi is usually appointed by the Gurdwara's committee. His (or her) typical duties might include performing the two ceremonies of Parkash and Sukh Asan, reading the Hukumnama aloud to members of the sangat during the functions and at relative times in the day, performing kirtan and katha and reading certain banis to the sangat - such as the Rehras and morning Nitnem.
Sikhism encourages full equality between men, women, boys and girls. All are encouraged to be the best they can be and participate in the Sangat.
Terms and Traditions
Anand Karaj - The Sikh wedding ceremony.
Ardas - A Sikh prayer, addressed directly to God. Ardas is said on several occasions, such as after the completion of morning, evening or night prayers. It is also said at the beginning and/or end of an important event. It is always done while standing.
Chaur Sahib - A flowing wisk that is respectfully waved over the Guru Granth Sahib to indicate its sovereignty.
Darbar Sahib/ Diwan Hall - This is the main hall in the gurdwara in which the religious services are held, with the Guru Granth Sahib (see Guru Granth Sahib) placed at the front.
Giani - Someone learned in the Sikh religion.
Granthi - Granthi's prime duties include arranging daily services, reading, teaching and explaining the Sikh scripture (see Guru Granth Sahib). More generally, a Granthi is responsible for the care of the gurdwara (see Gurdwara), the Guru Granth Sahib, and also to teach and advise community members.
Gurbani - The contents of the Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji containing the revealed wisdom of the Sikh Gurus. Out of all known religions, the Sikh scripture is unique. The Sikh Gurus personally put their thoughts and words to paper and ink.
Gurdwara - A Sikh place of worship.
Gurmukhi - The script of the Guru Granth Sahib, which is also used in modern Punjabi.
Gurpurab - Sikh holiday commemorating the birth or death of a Sikh Guru.
Guru - Divinely inspired spiritual prophet-teacher. Refers to one of the ten founders of the Sikh faith, the Sikh scripture or God.
Guru Granth Sahib - The Sikh scripture, written mostly in the form of hymns and poetry, it includes the writings of six of the Sikh Gurus as well as the devotional writings of 36 other saints, both muslim and hindu. It is 1,430 pages long and is the embodiment of the spiritual knowledge and authority of all of the Gurus, and is treated with the utmost reverence by Sikhs.
Hukam/ Hukum/ Hukumnama - A daily reading taken at random from the Sikh scriptures considered by Sikhs as the "command of the Guru" for the day. A new Hukumnama is taken each day.
Katha - A religious sermon on Sikh theology, history, or discourse on hymn(s) from the Guru Granth Sahib, usually conducted by a Giani or Granthi.
Karah Parshad - A dish of sacred pudding prepared and served at all religious ceremonies conducted in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib. It is served after the reading of the hukam. By accepting the karah parshad, Sikhs symbolically accept the hukam as the sweet blessing of their Guru and agree to take it to heart.
Kirtan - Singing hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib, usually accompanied by instruments. The singing of Kirtan is a primary form of worship for Sikhs.
Langar - The devotional meal eaten by the congregation as part of the religious service. Langar is free and open to all, regardless of religious background, class, color or ethnicity. A central part of Sikh practice, its roots lie in the promotion of equality among all humanity, and the rejection of the hindu caste system, which forbade people of different castes (social and occupational standings) from eating together.
Matha Tekhna - Bowing down and touching the floor with one's forehead in front of the Guru Granth Sahib.
It is important to note that Sikhs do not bow before the actual book itself, as some type of idol. By bowing, Sikhs are submitting themselves to the scripture: the knowledge and true written words of the Gurus and other saints within. Sikhs may perform Matha Tekana as they enter the Darbar Sahib/ Diwan Hall. Sikhs generally place a donation in front of the scripture, which is used for the management of the gurdwara, but this is not mandatory.
Nitnem - Sikh daily prayers. Sikhs are required to pray three times a day, with the longest prayers early in the morning, shorter prayers in the evening, and the shortest prayer just before going to bed.
Palki - A canopy above the Sikh scripture, Guru Granth Sahib, to signify the respect of its authority. This practice is derived from the traditional treatment of kings in India.
Prakash - A short ceremony performed when the Guru Granth Sahib is formally opened each day.
Ragi - A musician who is trained in the singing of sacred Sikh hymns.
Sangat - Sikh congregation or community.
Sat Sri Akal - meaning "God is True and Timeless". This saying is often mistaken for the official Sikh greeting which is "Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh".
Shabad - A sacred Sikh hymn.
Tabla and Harmonium musical instruments, a set of small drums and a piano like instrument respectively, used to perform Kirtan. These are musical instruments used by Sikhs from the 19th Century.
Waheguru/ Vaheguru - The name for God most commonly used by Sikhs meaning "Wonderful Lord/ God/ Teacher". Sikhs use several names for God encompassing those used by other religions. Meditating on the name of God is paramount to Sikhs, and the name Waheguru is considered by Sikhs to be the culmination of all aspects of God.
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh - Literally meaning "The pure (Khalsa) belong to the wonderful Lord (Waheguru), Victory (Fateh) is the wonderful Lord's (Waheguru's)". This is the traditional Sikh greeting. It is said before the beginning of and at the conclusion of programs at the gurdwara like katha, announcements, and kirtan. Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Guru of the Sikhs, gave this greeting to Sikhs on the day he established the Sikh ceremony known as Amrit.
Note: Sikh's visit historic sites as a reminder of the Sikh Guru's, to learn their sakhis (stories), to learn their teachings and (most importantly) to be part of the sangat (community). Sikh do not perform pilgrimages or yatra's (a hindu ritual) to holy sites in the name of religion as other faiths do. There is no purification or salvation to be gained just by a physical visit.
ਜੈ ਕਾਰਣਿ ਤਟਿ ਤੀਰਥ ਜਾਹੀ ॥ ਰਤਨ ਪਦਾਰਥ ਘਟ ਹੀ ਮਾਹੀ ॥
Jai kāraṇ ṯat ṯirath jāhī. Raṯan paḏārath ghat hī māhī.
For the sake of it, you journey to sacred shrines and holy rivers; but this priceless jewel is within your own heart.
ਜਿਸ ਦੀ ਖਾਤਰ ਤੂੰ ਪਵਿੱਤ੍ਰ ਨਦੀਆਂ ਦੇ ਕਿਨਾਰਿਆਂ ਤੇ ਜਾਂਦਾ ਹੈਂ, ਉਹ ਅਮੋਲਕ ਜਵੇਹਰ ਤੇਰੇ ਮਨਾਂ ਵਿੱਚ ਹੀ ਹੈ।
~ Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Guru Nanak, Ang 152