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the brampton diaries

Prasad, a sweet, doughy pudding, is distributed to wedding guests at the Dasmesh Darbar gurdwara.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

This is part of a series on how the diverse and growing city of Brampton, Ont., provides lessons for Canada's future.

The wedding crasher doesn't fit the stereotype. He's an elderly Sikh man with a long white beard, powder-blue turban, casual clothes and dollar-store rubber flip-flops on his feet. He pedals his bike up to the entrance of the Dasmesh Darbar gurdwara in northeast Brampton, a gleaming white structure with striking minarets, parks it, and follows in the real wedding guests who are dressed in expensive silk shalwar kameez dripping with sequins and gold-thread embroidery.

The man, like many other non-guests here today (myself included), probably doesn't intend to be a wedding crasher. Until this sunny Sunday morning, I'd never before stepped into a gurdwara. My host at the Dasmesh Darbar, Gurratan Singh, is part of the Sikh Activist Network, a group committed to changing media stereotypes of Sikhs and promoting spirituality through the arts (he's also the younger brother of Bramalea Gore Malton MPP Jagmeet Singh). He explains that all gurdwaras are open 24 hours a day and seven days a week, so even if a wedding with hundreds of guests is taking place, you still have freedom to go pray, meditate or have a meal whenever you like. Want to sit in to watch the bride's arrival? Feel free.

In the Divine Hall, before the wedding ceremony begins, hundreds of guests walk to the front of the room, where a volunteer places a spoonful of prasad in their cupped hands. It's a sweet, doughy pudding that is traditionally prepared at the gurdwara as an offering to God. It is then distributed to all members of the congregation who are in the hall – including crashers like me. For the most part, guests in this hall are dressed to the nines, but in other parts of the gurdwara, it's just a regular Sunday.

Next door to the wedding is another hall where a large extended family has organized their own service. They're sitting on the floor – men on the right and women on the left – all covering their heads.

A man dressed in trousers, a white shirt with light blue checks and a mustard-yellow turban sits on a wooden platform in that hall facing everyone else. He's chanting religious prose. Mr. Singh tells me he isn't a priest, but simply a scholar who has studied the scripture at hand. In theory, anyone who wants to participate can take the stand. It's a religious open mic, in a sense. "There's no hierarchy," Mr. Singh says.

When I had dinner with Harjot Matharu the previous week (she's the wife of Rick Matharu, whom I wrote about in my last Brampton dispatch), I told her I wanted to visit a gurdwara and had been reaching out to a few of the ones in Brampton directly.

"Oh, you don't want to go with a [gurdwara] executive and get the PR tour," she told me. "You have to go with a member of the congregation." A few days later, she set me up with Mr. Singh, who has a religious studies degree, and who Ms. Matharu thought would be able to answer all my questions.

After I refer to the gurdwara as a "Sikh temple" three times that morning, Mr. Singh politely corrects me. He tells me that they're much more than places of worship.

There's a library in the works at this one. Some gurdwaras host career days or regular martial arts classes for kids. At another that Mr. Singh attends in Malton, there's a gym. (He doesn't attend just one gurdwara. Unlike in other religions, there's no sense of being a permanent member of a congregation in Sikhism, though many Sikhs attend the same gurdwara regularly out of habit or convenience).

With only six public libraries in Brampton and some subdivisions built without a nearby community centre, gurdwaras are all-round community hubs.

Sandeep Agrawal, a professor at Ryerson University's school of urban and regional planning, has studied the multi-faceted role of places of worship in Canadian communities. In an article published in Plan Canada in 2008 in which he studied the larger roles of a Brampton gurdwara and Hindu temple, Dr. Agrawal wrote, "In the wake of government cutbacks and to meet the special social, educational, recreational and cultural needs, the trend is to add other uses and services to places of worship." He argued governments should recognize these facilities as "legitimate community service providers."

But Mr. Singh takes issue with the fact that, as he sees it, the city has come to rely on gurdwaras for providing these services in certain neighbourhoods rather than stepping up to do so itself.

Other religious spaces such as churches or mosques have also served as community centres, Michael Nijhawan, an associate professor of sociology at York University, points out.

But Dr. Nijhawan, who has extensively studied Sikh populations, mentions that one of the first gurdwaras in Canada, located in Vancouver, "for a long time served as a community place for other South Asians (including Muslims, Hindus and others) as well."

The fact that they're open to anyone reflects what he calls a "radical openness."

Gurdwaras have also become hotspots for political affairs, and they're a natural campaigning spot for candidates in Brampton during elections.

While this rather opulent gurdwara was built after much community fundraising, some of the smaller ones in the city are just buildings purchased by a few families who decided they needed a nearby place to pray and congregate.

"Gurdwaras are being created very organically. You see, wherever the community is, gurdwaras are being created," Mr. Singh says. This one, north of The Gore and Ebenezer roads, is bordered by a plaza occupied by many South Asian businesses. It sits smack in the middle of several residential developments.

Juxtaposed against the luxe outfits worn by today's wedding party, a South Asian woman sits at the bottom of the front steps leading into the gurdwara, panhandling. It's a jarring sight in a new suburban environment. In this community, the gurdwara can be a magnet for those who are hard up.

Every gurdwara has a free soup kitchen – the langar hall – that turns out vegetarian meals throughout the day. But there's no class divide here. I watch people queue up for lunch – a mix of vegetable sabzi, dhal, chapathis and rice pudding – and some are wedding guests, others seem to have just come in from outside, others still have come down from kirtan (hymn singing) on the second floor. They all get the same simple meals.

They all sit on the floor, on long strips of red carpet, to eat. It was a scene I don't think I'd ever witnessed before: All divisions of class, gender and age that govern so many parts of daily life melted away here, at least for the lunch hour.