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Originally published October 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 25, 2005 at 7:56 AM

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Demystifying the Sikh culture

In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, Parminder Singh remembers how somebody yelled "Go home! " to him at a gas station, and that security...

Seattle Times staff reporter

In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, Parminder Singh remembers how somebody yelled "Go home!" to him at a gas station, and that security guards at an airport asked him to remove his turban — something deeply offensive to his Sikh faith.

A Sikh motel owner in SeaTac was beaten with a metal cane. There were reports of Sikh cabdrivers being attacked and yelled at, of Sikh schoolchildren harassed for wearing turbans. "The association in the United States is that as soon as they see someone with a turban, the association is made with Osama bin Laden," said Singh, a Bellevue resident who serves on the board of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. "That's the farthest thing from what the Sikh community is about."

But few people in America knew what Sikhism is about, Singh and other local Sikh community leaders realized, and so began an effort to educate the larger community about the world's fifth-largest religion, a monotheistic faith that originated in India more than 500 years ago and claims up to half a million followers in the U.S.

Local Sikhs have been speaking at public schools and to community groups, and this week debuted their latest effort: an exhibit at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, tracing the century-old history of Sikhs in the Pacific Northwest.

Facts about Sikhism


Size

World's fifth-largest religion with about 23 million adherents; national and state estimates vary, from about 80,000 to 500,000 followers in U.S. and from 15,000 to 50,000 in Washington. Locally, most Sikhs live in Renton and Kent with concentrations also in Seattle, Bellevue, Marysville, Bellingham and Spokane.

Structure

Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak, born in 1469 in the Punjab region of India and believed by followers to be divinely inspired. Nine gurus — or spiritual guides — followed him. There is no hierarchy and no institutional priesthood, but scholars in India occasionally give guidance on religious questions. There are also spiritual teachers who travel from congregation to congregation.

Holy book

Called the Guru Granth Sahib and also referred to as the Adi Granth, it is a compilation of hymns written by the 10 gurus and is considered their living embodiment. It also includes verses written by Hindu and Muslim teachers.

Core beliefs and practices

Sikhs believe in one creator, God, that God can be found within each person, and that God's will can be discerned through meditation and mantras. Sikhs are expected to say five prayers daily and to meditate. They have no weekly holy day, though they may meet weekly for services in someone's home, a rented hall or a gurudwara — a house of worship. Sikhs emphasize community and are taught to live honestly and truthfully and to share what they earn with the larger community.

Wearing of turbans

and other symbols of faith

Sikhs do not cut their hair, believing that hair in a natural state is in harmony with God's will. Men are expected to wear turbans, considered a symbol of dedication, self-respect and piety and worn out of love and obedience to the faith's founders. Women have the option of wearing a head covering. Sikhs also often wear a comb in their hair and a steel wrist bangle.

Taking of the names

Singh and Kaur

The last of the 10 gurus required that Sikh men take Singh, meaning lion, as part of their name, and that women take the name Kaur, meaning lioness or princess. It was a way of signifying the equality and community of all Sikhs.

Source: www.sikhcoalition.org; www.beliefnet.com; www.adherents.com; www.sikhwomen.com; World Sikh Council — America Region; World Christian Encyclopedia; "How to Be a Perfect Stranger," edited by Stuart M. Matlins and Arthur J. Magida; "World Religions" by John Bowker; "A New Handbook of Living Religions," edited by John R. Hinnells; Jasmit Singh

Sept. 11 brought home "the realization that you can exist in the community, yet nobody recognizes you for who you are," said Jasmit Singh, director of education for the local Sikh Coalition, which partnered with Wing Luke on the exhibit. "You have to be socially and politically active in the community you live in to make sure people understand who you are."

That's important, they say, not only to prevent discrimination and harassment, but also because the number of Sikhs here is growing rapidly.

"There's a huge integration that needs to take place," said Parminder Singh.

Estimates on the number of Sikhs in Washington state range from 15,000 to 50,000.

Sikh immigrants from the Punjab region of India first arrived in this region in the late 1800s. Many Sikhs were employed by the British Army and arrived in Vancouver, B.C., with British troops. They eventually migrated down the West Coast, working as farmers, lumberjacks and on railroads.

From the early 1900s to the 1940s, the number of Sikhs in the U.S. declined from about 5,000 to 2,000, because of a combination of more restrictive immigration laws and Sikhs deciding to return to India to help in the fight for independence from Britain.

Some families displaced by the 1947 partition of Punjab into Indian and Pakistani territories decided to come to America, aided by immigration laws that became less restrictive after World War II.

In the next two decades, most Sikh immigrants to the U.S. were professionals, such as engineers and doctors. By the end of the 1960s, there were about 55,000 Sikhs in the U.S.

The 1980s and '90s saw a wave of immigrants, many from rural areas, fleeing political instability in India, where there were violent power struggles between the Indian government and those seeking an independent Sikh state.

Since the 1990s, the community here has grown fast because Sikhs from other parts of the country are attracted to the large community already here, and to be close to the even larger Sikh community in British Columbia, said Avtar Singh, president of the Gurudwara Singh Sabha of Washington in Renton. They also came because it was possible to buy a taxi, restaurant or gas station here at a reasonable rate.

Singh remembers when he moved to the area in 1992 and only 150 people would gather for Sunday services at the local gurudwara — Sikh house of worship.

Now, about 2,000 people gather for the weekend service at the Renton gurudwara — the area's largest. There are also gurudwaras in Kent, Marysville and Lynden, Whatcom County, and others are being planned in Olympia and Tacoma.

"Every week, I see another new family in the temple," Avtar Singh said.

Sorena Kaur, a Seattle optometrist, remembers growing up here in the 1970s, when there were so few Sikhs that weekend services were held at family homes, and when she was often the only Sikh child at school.

Now, Kaur's two young sons have something she longed for back then — Sikh playmates. "It makes it easier if they have friends who are going through things [such as wearing turbans] with them."

But, she says, "my underlying worry as a mother is: Are they going to be free to be who they are in this post-9/11 society?"

That's why Kaur helped with the Wing Luke exhibit, and, in the last few years, has been giving talks to administrators, teachers and students in the Kent School District.

She answers questions about who Sikhs are, why they wear turbans, what they believe in, "so we're not a big mystery. I kind of demystify it for them."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com.

Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

IF YOU GO

"Sikh Community: Over 100 Years in the Pacific Northwest"

Where: Wing Luke Asian Museum, 407 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle

When: Exhibit runs through April 16, 2006

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors and students, $2 for those under 12, free for children under 5.

More information: 206-623-5124 or

www.wingluke.org

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