India’s Great Diversity Lives in Toronto

Dreaming Greatly in the Man-Stifled Town*

A friend of mine who had long lived in Asia and spoke three Asian languages said that when he first arrived in India he was so overwhelmed by the jostling, ceaselessly flowing crowds, the noise of everything from traffic, airplanes, flutes, and shouts in a dozen languages, the smells ranging from spices to sewage, that he fled to his hotel room and would not go out for a couple days. This sense of panic at the teeming, kaleidoscopic whirl of color and movement is not uncommon.

India is not like China or the United States or France or even Russia; instead, it is like the sum of all the nations of Europe from Albania to Ireland, Lisbon to St. Petersburg, Scotland to Sicily. There are 14 official languages (including English), and two great language families, the Indo-Aryan north (Hindi, Gujurati, etc., all related to English) and the Dravidian south (Tamil, Telugu and so on). India is the last major part of the world where people still dress differently than Europeans. It is the home of great religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. And this dizzying diversity has been transplanted to thriving neighborhoods in Toronto.

At 269 Pape Ave. is a modest Sikh Temple owned by the Shiromani Sikh Society, while in Brampton there is the dazzling Gurdwara Dasmesh Darbar, and the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a Hindu Temple, north of Finch Ave., is an exotic apparition visible from Highway 427.


Many years ago I was invited to the Pape Ave Gurdwara by a Sikh co-worker for a langar, a vegetarian meal offered freely in the spirit of friendship and hospitality. Langar Hall.

The only requirement was that I wear some kind of head covering (a cap in this case) and take off my shoes. The atmosphere was a wonderful feeling of being in a community where everyone is equal regardless of caste, religion, race, ethnicity or income. Volunteers cook the food, serve it and wash up the stacks of brass trays. I had seen a documentary about a langar (dining hall) in the Punjab at a huge gurdwara. A small army of volunteers worked like bees in a hive to serve everyone and clean up afterwards, the brass trays making a mighty nonstop clatter as they were piled up and immersed in sudsy water.

On the day we visited the gleaming Gurdwara Danesh Darbar a wedding was in progress. The bride and groom were sitting cross-legged before a dais on which was the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, which with characteristic Sikh tolerance, contains Moslem and Hindu passages in addition to the writings of the religion’s founding gurus. The book is reverently placed on a kind of throne, behind which sits, cross-legged, a granthi, not a priest but a person, male or female, who is very knowledgeable about the texts and can read them for the congregation. He occasionally swished a large fly-whisk across the book as a sign of respect.
Gurdwara Dasmesh Darbar

Gurdwara comes from the by-now familiar gurú ‘teacher’ and dwāra ‘door’ (in fact it is the English word door, since the languages of North India and English come from the same proto-language many millennia ago on the steppes of Russia).

Sikh men are the most conspicuous Indian group in Toronto because of their traditional turbans, that cover hair that they must never cut. Whether by design or by the fortunes of living in the war-torn 15th century in the Punjab, between two major religions, Islam to the north and Hinduism everywhere else, Sikhism arose with peace and conciliation at its core. The Punjab (< pañča āp ‘five rivers’) is a very fertile, rich province that has been split between Pakistan and India. open doorIt is the home of the Sikh religion, which is tolerant of other religions, egalitarian (rejecting, as does Buddhism, the caste system), and strives to establish a community of peace. The Sikhs have suffered massacres at the hands of both Moslems and Hindus.

For the first half of the 19th century the Sikhs established an empire in North India, before being defeated by the British, who nonetheless greatly admired Sikh military tactics and discipline. As a result, Sikhs were recruited into the British army and police forces all over the Empire. One day I was in Chinatown waiting at a photography store for my passport picture to be developed (before the digital age), and in walks a tall man in a turban speaking to the clerk in fluent Cantonese. I had seen Sikh policemen when I lived in Hong Kong over the years and I asked him if he were from that former colony. He said yes, and his sons, now married to Chinese women, had their own children and spoke both Punjabi and Cantonese. Like all proud grandfathers he showed me their pictures, while the clerk was still in shock.

In Toronto where many Sikhs have immigrated, they have gone into the transportation industry – airport limousines and trucking of all sorts, 18-wheelers to dump trucks, many because they were not able to find employment in the fields for which they had been trained in India, an all-too-common reality for new immigrants.

Spooning spiceA great many of the Indian restaurants in Toronto offer what is essentially Punjabi cusine, which tends to be high in calories and rich in ghee (clarified butter) because it was meant to feed farm workers. I used to ask my Punjabi students if they had any good recipes, but soon found out that it was their mothers and grandmothers who were the repositories of culinary lore. These young women, all in science, were studying long hours and had little time to absorb a repertoire of dishes, with one exception: young women are expected to learn by rote how to make one elaborate Punjabi meal, as a demonstration that they would be good wives. They only have to do this once, sort of like a Bar Mitzvah in which young men learn enough Hebrew to get through a reading, and according to what one rabbi told me, are never seen again at the synagogue.

The difficulty with Indian cooking in general is that it is labour-intensive. There is so much chopping of vegetables and grinding of spices – many, many spices – that preparation is time-consuming. In a traditional Indian family with aunts and grandmothers and cousins to help, the labour can be distributed, but for a modern Indo-Canadian family with both husband and wife working it is easier to buy ready-made meals or eat Western food.

Punjabi dishes are among the most familiar of Indian food: tandoori chicken, naan, pakoras, samosas and dal (lentils). The fragrant basmati rice is native to the Punjab.

The celebrated Toronto movie industry also includes Punjabi representation. Whether it was John Gotti or Bugsy Siegel or the Irish gangs of Boston and the Chinese Tongs and Vietnamese and Russian gangsters, every ethnic group has had its share of organized crime. But I was astonished to see the Canadian film Beeba Boys (2015), by the Punjabi-Canadian director Deepa Mehta, who is famous for the beautiful trilogy Fire (1996), Earth (1998) and Water (2005). The most recent movie title is ironic, because in Punjabi beeba means ‘good’. This film is about the violent rivalry between criminal Punjabi gangs in Vancouver. The plot is complex and takes many twists and turns. The feel of the movie is tragic and I was sad at the waste of all this youthful energy and talent.

Romany, or Gypsies

One group of Indians is invisible – the Romany. From linguistic analysis it can determined that the Romany originated in Central India and then migrated to Northwest India (Kashmir, Punjab). The Romany vocabulary is like the strata of an archeological excavation: words picked up here and there on their migrations to Europe mark their route. For example, the Welsh Romany have many Turkish words in their language, and they are also the only group to preserve the ancient Indian drama, for which India ranks with Greece in range and quality. The first five numbers in Romany are very close to those in Sanskrit, and English ‘pal’ comes from Romany ph(r)al from Sanskrit bhrātar- ‘brother’. Romany still live in India, but the ones here in Toronto come from the Balkans, the Czech Republic and Hungary, most refugees from discrimination.

Elephant at Jain temple, Toronto.Jain

The word Jain comes from Sanskrit jina ‘conqueror’, in this case victorious over attachment to material possessions and passions such as greed and hatred. Jainism is a few centuries older than Buddhism and shares a great deal with both it and Hinduism. Jainism sees the spiritual constituent of humans as perfect, eternal and independent, but suffering from entrapment in the material body and material world. Because of our misdeeds, ignorance and attachments this suffering lasts through many reincarnations until the soul is released from ever inhabiting a material body again and lives in a realm of bliss and knowledge.

The Jain religion is rather austere: in one sect, the Digambara (‘sky clad’), monks (but not nuns) are completely naked and do not even own a begging bowl. When Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister of India she attended the celebration at the Jain shrine of Bahubali where she had a meeting with the Jain leader, who was naked. Probably not too many world leaders could have been as blasé. The other sect, the Svetambara are clad in white.

Jains are vegetarian, reject violence and dogmatism, and engage in meditation. Strictly speaking, the Jains do not believe in God or gods, but only in venerating (admiring, respecting) those souls who have achieved release from the material world.

Recently we visited a just-built temple in Brampton (7875 Mayfield Rd.), and unlike other Jain temples in Toronto, which are in converted buildings, it follows traditional Indian architecture. In front of the temple is a tall column called the manastambha ‘pillar of honour’, which causes devotees to jettison their greed and pride before passing through the main doors.
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Gyan Chand Jain and wife KachanWe were fortunate to meet Gyan Chand Jain, a wealthy developer in the GTA, and his wife, Kachan, who purchased the land for the temple complex in 2001 and spent several years struggling with three levels of government to obtain the necessary permissions to build the temple. The couple’s vision is to expand the complex to include housing for elderly Jains, a hospital and a school, where Hindi and Gujarati would be taught in addition to the official provincial curriculum. The current difficulties include waiting for the city of Brampton to extend the sewer system to their property (which is located in a farming area) and attracting more Jains to this remote northeastern corner of the GTA.

At the moment some finishing touches are being added to the roof of the temple, and in the parking lot are the model of an elephant with a golden howdah (Milton’s “elephants endorsed with towers”), and a few golden cupolas.

This temple follows the digambara sect, but everyone is welcome. After ceremonies on Sundays a free vegetarian meal, prepared by professional cooks, is offered. It is prohibited to wear shoes in the temple or to bring in anything made from an animal skin, for example a leather belt or handbag.Jain_Prateek_Chihna.svg

Many Westerners will be alarmed at seeing the swastika as a symbol of Jainism, and seeing it displayed on Buddhist and Hindu temples. The word is from Sanskrit su-asti- ‘well-being’, but the symbol has its origins in deep prehistory. Most unfortunately, the symbol was adopted by the Nazis in 1935 and has been infamous in Europe and the Americas ever since. More importantly, in the palm in the official Jain symbol is the Sanskrit word ahimsa ‘non-violence’. At the base is the phrase parasparopagraho jīvānām ‘mutual assistance of living beings’, a main Jain precept of the interdependence of all creatures and the environment, a concept very much in tune with the modern environmental movement.

There are about 6000 Jains in the GTA (2011 census). By comparison 2% of Toronto’s population are Buddhist; 3% Sikh; 6% Hindu. The municipalities in Peel Region, have respectively high South Asian populations: Brampton 57.8%; Mississauga 40.5%; Caledon 35% (view source.)interior

Visitors will be impressed immediately by the silence and by the relative austerity of the interior of the temple. It reminded me of the simplicity of Shaker meeting houses.


BAPS exteriorA wondrous surprise is the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, visible from Highway 427. Tens of thousands of motorists and commuters must pass this magnificent structure every day, and I marvel that people can keep their eyes on the road. This Hindu temple is the most beautiful gift the Indian community has bestowed upon Greater Toronto. It is well worth a visit.BAPS_Toronto_exterior

There are two buildings: a havali (pronounced huva-LEE), an originally Arabic word for a mansion (now seen in news footage of the Istanbul airport or havalimanı), but here a prayer hall. You may see an immediate resemblance to the intricately carved balconies of the temples and buildings in Kathmandu. The detail in the wood carving is mesmerizing. One could examine the wood surfaces for hours and still miss some tiny figure of a god, animal or plant.
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The same intensity of design can be seen in the stonework at Borobudur in Java. It is a miracle that the skills required to produce this glimpse of infinity have managed to survive the Industrial Age. These carvings, which account for almost all of the exposed surfaces in the temple, were made in India, then shipped here in special protective containers.

The stone portion of the temple complex is equally stunning. The numbers alone are breathtaking: 24,000 hand-carved stones; 2,638 tonnes of Turkish limestone; 2,260 tonnes of Carrara marble; and1,484 tonnes of Indian pink sandstone.

The temple was dedicated on July 22nd, 2007, after a very efficient construction period of only eighteen months, with the help of 400 volunteers and 1800 craftsmen brought in from India.
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The experience of being in the temple is moving. First, there is the silence, then the eye takes in the richness of the carving with its gods and characters from the long Hindu tradition (the founding texts, the Rig-Veda, date to about 1200 B.C.) When various soft, coloured lights caress the stone pillars and ceiling the effect is one of otherworldliness and profound tranquility.

The heart of the temple is the five shrines (murti) with sacred images of gods and sages. For example, here below are Sītā (‘furrow’ in Sanskrit, a goddess of agriculture and fertility) and  her consort Rāma, hero of the Rāmayāna epic, and beneath them, Hanuman, the monkey-god who with his magical weapons helps Rāma defeat a terrifying demon who has abducted Sītā.
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And beside that trio are Shiva (‘kindly’), the god in charge of maintaining and, one day, of destroying the Universe, recognizable by his trident and the half-moon on his head, and on the right his wife Parvati (‘mountain’), and below is their son, the very popular elephant-god, Ganesha (‘Lord of the Troop’), who is also the embodiment of the sacred syllable “Om” and the remover of obstacles.

The temple also includes a museum specialized in the history of Indo-Canadians.

A particularly opportune time to visit the temple is during Diwali, the Festival of Light, symbolizing the victory of knowledge over ignorance. This year, 2016, Diwali falls on Sunday, October 30th.  The other great Hindu festival is Holi, or Holika, celebrating the victory over the demon of the same name. It is held near the vernal equinox and is a day on which, in India, people who venture out wear only old clothes because they will soon be spattered with colored powder of every hue from head to toe.

In stark contrast to the lavish and ornate BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is the minimalist Hindu Sabha Temple in Brampton. IMG_0757The building materials are concrete, steel, glass block and Plexiglas. It has the same exotic strangeness of other Hindu temples or gurdwaras that are in such stark contrast to their surrounding neighbourhoods of mundane suburban housing developments and even more drab industrial zones. Yet, upon closer inspection the Hindu Sabha Temple takes on a rather dreary modernist look. The modern, geometrical interpretation of classical Indian temples is not a complete success: the quality of construction is not first class (compared, say, to the very modern Aga Khan Museum and mosque), and is showing signs of decay, although it was only inaugurated in 1995. To the upper right of the main altar an LED banner marches past in red letters with announcements about events in the temple.Hindu shrine
On the altar itself, the several traditional statues of gods and goddesses are from moment to moment bathed in neon light, first blue, then red and so on. It is an interesting attempt to marry modern materials and design with traditional architecture, but as with attempts to mimic traditional Chinese styles in modern materials the total effect is disappointing, even a bit tacky.

Sikh men at storefront crI used to regularly visit the Little India at Coxwell and Gerrard in the East End, because I bought CDs of Indian pop songs there for a branch of the Toronto Public Library. On this latest foray in the summer of 2016, it seemed to me that very little had changed. In many parts of Toronto, a steady gentrification has been transforming inner city neighborhoods, but somehow Little India has been passed by. The buildings and the stores and their goods are all relatively shoddy, especially when you see, for example, the exquisite saris people bring back from India.
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If you Google “Indian shopping areas” you will discover that the beautiful clothes and furniture and other goods are available at stores that have no physical address: they are stores on the Internet. In earlier decades new immigrants had to depend on intermediaries to help them transition into this alien city. It was necessary to deal with merchants who spoke the immigrants’ languages and understood their cuisine and clothing. This dependence could be confining and exploitative. But now immigrants who come to Toronto are often better educated, more global in their outlook, and international in their tastes. Often their knowledge of English is better. Also, with the Internet it is possible to bypass these intermediaries and buy what is needed and even have it delivered to your door. Furthermore, after a few generations there is a good supply of knowledgeable friends and family who can help newcomers get settled. The majority of the Indian population, as have the Chinese, have moved to the suburbs, to Brampton for the former and to Markham for the latter. Therefore, there are no longer the concentrations of population to keep ethnic shopping areas alive in the city.

Gerrard St interior staircase.

Geographers who specialize in ethnic neighborhoods have discovered a decline in their numbers and size. At both Coxwell and Gerrard and at Islington and Albion, these Little Indias have the air of businesses that are outmoded and irrelevant, generally rundown areas lacking in vitality. Even the phenomenon of Brampton, where 57.8% of the population is of Indian ancestry, it will likely be difficult to maintain this concentration in the future. The younger generation is very mobile and many may well marry non-Indians. This has been the fate of most ethnic neighborhoods in the last century and into 21st century, whether they be Italian, Ukrainian, Greek or Chinese. It would seem it is only a matter of time before such places disappear through assimilation.

On my visits to India and in my interactions with Indian university students I can attest to a population that is brimming with energy and intelligence. Indian culture includes many treasures, not just the temples and gurdwaras, but also yoga, Buddhism and Hinduism, mediation, Zen (with its roots in the Yogācāra school of Buddhism in the 4th century A.D.) and along with the concept of zero, our numerals, which are mistakenly called Arabic numbers. Some considerable portion of Aesop’s fables likely have their origin in the Buddhist Jatakas (birth stories of the Buddha) and in the Pañcatantra (a collection of animal fables). A rising pride and self-confidence among Indians in North America is evident in pop culture. In the film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), Kumar (‘prince’), played by Kal Penn, is proud of his Indian heritage, and from time to time asks, “Are you desi?”, a term meaning of Indian descent (from Sanskrit deśa- ‘country, land’). A number of Indian actors, several via Britain (Ben Kingsley, born Krishna Bhanji, and Naomi Scott [Indian mother]), and M. Night Shyamalan (director and actor), are active in Hollywood. (See an exhaustive list here.) In Canada, in addition to Deepa Mehta, mentioned previously, we have two world-class authors of Indian descent, Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance), and Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), who was born in Sri Lanka.

India has enriched Toronto’s culinary experience, even though there is only a limited corner of this vast cuisine in the city. But then without travelling for a few months in India, those not of that background can only experience tantalizing hints of that vast cultural universe in our city.

*From Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Song of the Dead inspired by his time in India.

– Robert Fisher
Photos by Silvana De Bona, Robert Fisher and courtesy the temples and Wikipedia Commons 

This article can be found in WHAT’S HERE in the section The City.

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Beautiful article. Thanks for writing it 🙂
Todu!!!, Southeast Asia


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