April 29, 2008 By CAROLYN OOI
ARE Punjabis and Bengalis the same people? They share very few similarities but many Malaysians mistakenly think they are the same.
A street poll by The Star found that very few Malaysians could differentiate between Punjabis and Bengalis.
Cleaner Rohani Zain, 48, said she thought that Punjabis and Bengalis are the same people and call them ‘Singh’ or Bengali if the person wore a turban.
Wireman Khor Hock Kim, 40, thought that Bengalis wore turbans while Punjabis were Indians who did not wear the headgear.
“Maybe Bengalis are bigger and taller physcially and has got a distinctive facial feature such as high noses,” he said with uncertainty.
His colleague, James Ooi, 29, said that as a child, he learnt from school friends that those with turbans were Bengalis.
“I am not sure of the difference between the two. So, I call my friends ‘Singh’ because it is in their name and I don’t want to sound rude.
Waiter Johari Abdul Rahman, 28, said some people told him that women with a ‘Kaur’ in their names were Punjabis while men with a ‘Singh’ in their names were Bengalis.
“Honestly, I do not know and just call them by their names,” he said.
Research analyst S. Malarvilli, 29, who has a Bengali aunt, said Punjabis were from Punjab while the Bengalis were from Bengal in India and Bangladesh.
“Their culture and language are different,” she said confidently.
Married to a local Punjabi for 17 years, Austrian Eva Feuchtinger, 46, said Punjabis feel offended when they were mistaken as Bengalis.
“Sometimes my husband would explain the differences to his friends,” she added.
Retired Universiti Sains Malaysia administrator Pal Singh, 62, said some people would still be unable to differentiate between a Punjabi and a Bengali even after they were told the differences.
“The only way (to correct the confusion) would be through education,” he suggested.
Wadda Gurdwara Sahib Association president Sarjit Singh Naura said trying to identify a Punjabi or a Bengali through physical attributes was like trying to identify a Malaysian from Perak and a Malaysian from Malacca.
He said 90% of the Sikhs in Malaysia originated from Punjab but there were also Sikhs from Bengal who wore turbans.
Retired teacher Malkiat Singh Lopo, 66, a Prai Gurdwara committee member, said aside from different geographical origins, Punjabis and Bengalis were very different.
“Punjabis speaks Punjabi and are generally taller with bigger frame and slightly fairer than Bengalis.
“Most Punjabis in Malaysia are Sikhs and could be differentiated from the five Kakars which are their uncut hair (kesh), a comb called kanga worn in their hair, a kirpan (a traditional Sikh sword) which they carry, the iron bracelet (kara) worn on their wrists and the traditional Sikh drawers (kacha) which they wear,” he said.
He said the Bengali and Punjabi language and scripts were different but have some similarities because of their Sanskrit origin.
Malkiat Singh, who has researched Malaysian Sikh history and written a historical novel on the Punjabi pioneers in Malaysia called The Enchanting Prison, said the traditional dresses of the two groups were also different.
“Both Punjabi and Bengali men wear the kurta, a free flowing long sleeves shirt falling near the knees, but Punjabi men wear them with drawstring long pants called pajama, a trouser which was fitting at the legs
“Bengali Hindu men wear the kurta with the dhoti, a rectangular unstitched cloth wrapped around the waist and the legs and knotted at the waist while their Muslim counterpart wear the lungi which is like a sarong,” he said.
Malkiat Singh said Punjabi women wore kurti and salwar, commonly known as a Punjabi suit, with dupatta (a scarf) over their heads while Bengali women wore sarees.
“The Bengali Hindu women wear a bindi, a dot on their forehead, and a sindhoor, a red vermilion powder rubbed on the hair above the fore-head,” he said.
“Punjabi Hindus, Punjabi Muslims and Punjabi Christians do not have a ‘Singh’ or ‘Kaur’ in their names and do not practice the five Kakars.
“There are Punjabis who are Sikhs but cut their hair and shave their beards. Still a Punjabi can identify another while it would be difficult for other races to tell a Bengali from a Punjabi,” he said.
He said one way to avoid confusion was to ask if a person was a Punjabi or a Bengali.