Sikh community’s worship and gatherings are open to all - Salish Current
March 4, 2024
Sikh community’s worship and gatherings are open to all

A scholar/teacher reads from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Great Revered Book Teacher) enthroned at the Sikh gurdwara (temple) Guru Nanak Parkash on Smith Road in Whatcom County. Anyone can read from the Holy Book, which is found in all three Sikh temples in the county. All three serve as places to worship, gather and eat. (Kamalla Kaur photo)

March 4, 2024
Sikh community’s worship and gatherings are open to all

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Sikhs first came from Punjab to Whatcom County in 1906 to work in lumber mills. There were about 200 of them and they were called “Hindoos” by the newspaper and locals. 

In 1907 a mob attacked Sikh workers and chased them out of Bellingham. The Arch of Healing and Reconciliation, located behind the Bellingham Public Library Central Branch and across the street from City Hall, stands in remembrance of this historic event. The arch also memorializes the eviction of the Chinese in the mid-1800s and the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. 

Sikhs did not return to Whatcom County until 1983, when farmer Mohinder Singh Sangra settled on land outside of Lynden. Sangha moved to Whatcom County to be closer to his brothers in Abbotsford, British Columbia.

“My first berry crop rotted on the ground because no one would buy and distribute my berries,” he recalled. “The next season, a kind American neighbor helped me sell my crop under his name.”

Since that rough start Sangha has become one of the largest berry growers in Whatcom County. Other Sikh farmers have settled here over the years, and Sikhs now produce about a third of all the frozen berries sold nationally.

Family and culture

“My reason for moving to Whatcom County was getting an engineering job, as I was a project engineer in Canada,” said Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu, who moved to the county in 1985.

“Currently, there is estimated to be over 5,000 people from India, mostly from Punjab, residing in Whatcom County,” he said. “This is tremendous growth from a few hundred in the mid-1990s. The large Indian population across the border in Canada is a big attraction for families to live closer to each other in two countries.” 

The Whatcom County Library System recently hired Harneet Kaur Sidhu to serve as a liaison to the Punjabi community.

“I am excited to take part in outreach to the Punjabi community, and assist with programs to bring them into the libraries,” she said. “I am also looking forward to educating people about our culture.” 

Rooted in social justice

The Sikh religion is in large part the center of the Punjabi community.

Meals for all are prepared in the langar community kitchen at the Gurdwara Singh Sabha on Telegraph Avenue in Bellingham. (Kamalla Kaur photo)

Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion, was born on April 15,1469, in the town of Rai Bhoi di Talvandi in present day Pakistan, near Lahore, India. The town was later renamed Nankana Sahib in his honor [Ed.: town name corrected March 6, 2024]. Born into a Hindu family, Nanak would become the founder of the Sikh religion, known as Sikhi. The word “Sikh” means student, and “Sikhi” means the path of the student. “Guru” means teacher. 

Sikhi is the fifth largest organized religion on Earth with around 30 million followers worldwide. Most, but not all, Sikhs are of Punjabi descent and live in the Punjab state in Northern India. 

In his lifetime, Guru Nanak traveled 17,400 miles on foot, as a troubadour and devotional teacher. He visited all parts of India, also journeying to Ceylon, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nepal and Tibet.

Guru Nanak taught, through his words and music, the equality of all, social justice, service to humanity, and tolerance and appreciation of all religions. He challenged the Indian caste system and fought for women’s rights. Guru Nanak believed that the whole cosmos is infinite and conscious, that the Creator and the Creation are one, and that people should practice devotion, honesty, compassion, humility and generosity. 

In his later years, Guru Nanak settled, with many of his followers, in Kartarpur, a village on the right bank of the Ravi River in the Punjab, now part of Pakistan. There he worked in the fields and participated in the humble activities of village life. 

After Guru Nanak died on Sept. 22, 1539, his teachings were carried on by nine teachers. In August 1604, Guru Arjan, the fifth Sikh teacher, finished compiling Sikh hymns into the Sikh scripture. In 1700, the 10th Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, added songs written by his father, Guru Tegh Bahadur, to the Sikh Holy Book. On Oct.  6, 1708, Guru Gobind Singh declared on the day before his death that, instead of having another human guru, Sikhs would regard the scripture, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Great Revered Book Teacher), as their guru.

Since then, the Sikh scripture has been the only Sikh guru/teacher and is enthroned in every gurdwara (Sikh temple) everywhere. It is a hymnal, with 1,430 pages, filled with devotional songs written by six of the historic Sikh gurus. It includes Guru Nanak’s writings. It also contains Muslim and Hindu hymns that promote the same teachings as Guru Nanak. Sikhs everywhere hold all people as equal and only bow to the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. 

Turbans, names and temples

The Sikh turban, known as the dastar or a dumalla, shows others that the wearers represent the Sikh teachings, that they are there to help people and do good deeds. Both women and men are encouraged to wear a turban. It is considered a crown. 

All Sikh women take the middle or last name “Kaur,” which means of noble birth, and Sikh men take the middle or last name “Singh,” which means lion. 

A Sikh place of worship is a gurdwara, meaning the threshold, or gate, of the guru/teacher, often called the home of the guru. 

On entering a gurdwara, one covers one’s head as a sign of respect, and removes their shoes. Shoes typically are never worn in Southeast or East Asian homes, to maintain cleanliness. 

All gurdwaras have a langar hall and a worship hall. The langar hall is the community kitchen, where everyone is welcome and served delicious vegetarian food. Sikhs feed many people every day. At Darbar Sahib (the Golden Temple) in Amritsar India, over 150,000 people are fed each day. Sikhs also take food and emergency supplies to parts of the world ravaged by war or natural disaster. 

The tradition of langar was started by Guru Nanak when he was 18. Nanak’s father was a businessman and Nanak was expected, by the Indian caste system, to follow in his father’s footsteps. One day Guru Nanak’s father gave him 20 coins to buy and sell items at the local market and return home having made a profit. On his way to the market, Nanak encountered a group of traveling holy men who were hungry. Nanak spent his coins on food, and he prepared a large meal for the travelers.

Guru Nanak later officially established the langar community kitchens to feed all people willing to break from the Indian caste system.

The Indian caste system is similar to segregation laws of the past requiring Blacks to use separate restaurants and bathrooms. In India, kitchens and bathrooms have been segregated between the four major castes for thousands of years. Langar breaks caste because all kinds of people cook together and sit together at the same level, receiving and eating food. 

Visitors to a gurdwara are not required to visit the worship hall, though are welcome to. The Sikh religion does not proselytize, and the delicious, nutritious food is served to guests of all kinds in langar halls. The food and labor to run langar kitchens come from volunteer labor and contributions.

“Sat Sri Akal! Truth is Eternal!” The Sikh scriptures are regarded as a holy book and guru (teacher). (Asia Samachar photo)

At the front of the worship hall of every gurdwara is the Palki Sahib, a throne where the Holy Book, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, is placed each morning. 

Although the Sikh Guruji (beloved Teacher) is a book, it is experienced as a living being. Just as one can come to recognize the poetry of Robert Frost or Maya Angelou and come to know them, one comes to recognize the different writers and the Sikh teachings they promote by reading the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. 

Sikhs bow to the Sri Guru Granth Sahib when they enter the worship hall. Sikh women take their place on the Holy Book’s right-hand side as a symbol of women’s equality and power. 

A Sikh worship service includes musicians (ragis) playing hymns from the scripture. There is usually a homily in Punjabi (though it can be in any language). The service ends with a community prayer, called the Ardas, and then a reading from the scripture. 

Unlike a synagogue, mosque, or church service, it is normal for people to freely move around the gurdwara, from the worship hall to the langar hall, at any time. 

There are Whatcom County Gurdwaras in Ferndale, Lynden and Bellingham that visitors can visit and share a meal on any Sunday between 10:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. 

Combatting hate crimes

The Chardi Kala Project was created in 2018 as a bridge between Whatcom County Sikhs and the greater community to combat hate crimes against Sikhs, and others, via education. 

“Chardi Kala” means to keep spirits uplifted, especially in tough times, by being ethical and doing the right thing. 

The Chardi Kala Project delivers food to the hungry from local langar kitchens, does school and university presentations about Sikhs and Sikhi, hosts club and class field trips to gurdwaras, and puts on interfaith events. The Chardi Kala Project also collaborated with Connect Ferndale and Better Together Lynden in creating ONE Whatcom!, which brings our ethnically diverse communities and allies together to get to know each other. 

The Chardi Kala Project and Pace Atelier Art Studio will host The Children’s Art Festival and Gurdwara Open House at the Singh Sabha Gurdwara, 591 Telegraph Road in Bellingham, on Saturday, March 23, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This is a joyful and free opportunity for adults and children to make art together while visiting a Sikh gurdwara and enjoying delicious Indian food and pizza.

— By Kamalla Kaur

Read more: “With hard-earned acceptance, Sikh community flourishes on both sides of border” (Salish Current, June 23, 2023)

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