Sikh Festival, Seeking Insight

My family loves anything Indian

To me, India evokes spicy curries, elephant motifs, and artisan beauty in teak, brass, and porcelain. Yes, mission magazines depict another reality: Indian poverty, rampant disease, and violence. We do what we can to help, but our family still tends to see this exotic land through the eyes of an exceptionally adventurous child. My husband Eden’s favorite childhood memories took place during the years when his father served as a mission doctor in Burma and India. My children particularly love their dad’s stories, adventures involving leopards, monkeys, mongooses. . . And there was the time he threw rocks at a cobra. He chased it over the wall separating the mission compound from that of their Brahmin neighbor ensuring the safety of their home. Or so it seemed until Indian workers warned the little five-year-old that the cobra would remember him. Many a night after that dire disclosure found little Eden huddling in nightmarish terror with bed covers pulled over his head, expecting the cobra to track him down while he slept.

While in India, Eden acquired a sister born in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to a Burmese mother who died in childbirth. Eventually her father, a British military officer, decided he could no longer care for the motherless three-year-old and brought her the mission hospital. Dr. Eden Smith, Sr. took her home without hesitation, introducing her to his wife as “your new daughter.” Without batting an eye, Mom Smith took her into her arms with “Well, hello. What is your name?” And Vikki became an integral part of the family. Since finding my “new” brothers and hearing their adoption stories, I have found myself listening to stories of Vikki’s early memories of India with increased insight, fascination and admiration. But, I digress . . .

When Vikki moved to the Yuba City area a few years ago, she noticed the large population from Punjab, India. Even better, she heard that they served Indian food, free to all comers, at an annual festival every November. We normally try to avoid large crowds, but when she invited us to join her this past weekend, unlimited Indian food plus a chance to spend a day with Vikki assured our affirmative answer.

Yuba City, Nagar Kirtan, 2019

The Sikh women were dressed quite glamorously in their blousy silk pants, tunics, and flowing head scarves but not a Hindu sari in sight.
The bazar area overflowed with all manner of items for sale, especially eye catching were the rainbow rows of gilded and jeweled fabrics and pre-made outfits for women.

Eden said the sun beating down on our backs felt just like India to him–and so did the dense crowds. About a half-million Punjabi Indians in America practice the Sikh religion—and honestly, it felt as if they were all there, milling about, waiting in the food lines, or packed around the tables. This event in Yuba City is the largest Sikh festival outside of India with people coming from all over the United States and Canada and from as far away as Australia.

We heard estimates of 120,000 people, a greater number than usual this year on the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. We waited in long lines for bathrooms, shuttle buses from parking areas to the grounds, and then waited some more in a confusing crisscrossed maze of lines leading into the various food pavilions. But how could we complain when the waiting gave us many opportunities to learn from our hosts? We noticed men wearing Sikh turbans in many colors, and discovered that each color makes a statement—the commonly worn white ones symbolize wisdom and peace. Our pale faces and western attire made its own statement, to our advantage I think. Sikhs everywhere welcomed us warmly. The food servers were exceptionally friendly, dishing up delicious curries, naan flatbread, spicy fried paneer cheese, samosas, jalabies—and curry spiced French fries. A lavish feast prepared with love by hundreds of volunteers.

Who are Sikhs?

It was interesting to learn more of Sikh history and faith. Sikhism began in Punjab, an ethnically separate part of India with its own language. In brief, Sikhs left the Hindu worship of many gods in the 15th century, embracing belief in one god and the unity of all humanity, created by that one God to be one people. I could only say Amen when they explained their three core beliefs:

  • Pray    Keep connected to the Divine with every breath.
  • Work  Earn our living honestly and share our earnings with others.
  • Serve   View the interactions of daily life as opportunities to serve.

High Security

Police cars present on the periphery of the grounds and sharpshooters on every corner of the rooftops added the only dark note to the festival. White supremacy and the rising number of hate crimes in our country intensify the danger of large ethnic gatherings like this, but our hosts pointed out that this is only part of a wave of nationalism sweeping the world. One man told me how grateful his family is to live in the United States. The Indian government under the current prime minister, Narendra Modi not only tolerates Hindu violence against minorities but encourages it. “Sikhs attempting to celebrate like this in India now might be killed,” the man told me sadly. “Modi is like Hitler.” Here they are free to worship openly. There is risk, but they send invitations welcoming the community at large every year. It is part of who they are.

Biblical Festivals

When a Fresno woman spoke of the joy of attending this festival, I thought of the Old Testament feast days. With her face aglow, the woman described the sense of community her family experiences year after year, and I suddenly pictured the tribes of Israel traveling to their annual feasts. The law required all who were able to stop work to attend, not one, but three annual holidays. I can imagine the excitement as families left their homes, joining together with other families for the journey, amassing greater and greater crowds, as they neared the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem. Their trip might take days rather than a couple of hours like ours, but joy came at the end of the journey: a lavish feast with no one left out. As one people, serving one God, the people of Israel celebrated their history. They rededicated their lives to the covenant and bonded as a community. Those ancient biblical convocations must have felt much like this Sikh gathering—just as crowded, just as festive, and just as meaningful to the people.

 

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