Nagar Kirtan parade extols peace

by Rebecca Rosen Lum
Contra Costa Times

Jun. 18–Floats festooned with flowers rolled through the streets of El Sobrante on Sunday as 8,000 Sikhs from the Bay Area and beyond celebrated an annual holiday that extols interfaith harmony.

The “spiritual peace march” began at the Sikh Center of the San Francisco Bay Area, where tour buses brought worshippers from Stockton, Sacramento, and Yuba City.

Nagar Kirtan has its roots in a traditional event commemorating the martyrdom of Sri Guru Arjan Dev Sahib Ji, who was tortured to death by India’s Mogul rulers 401 years ago.

The holy book Ji contains hymns sacred to religions and castes throughout India. The holiday’s name literally means the singing of spiritual songs.

The more than 500-year-old Sikh faith began in the Punjab region of India. Today, adherents number nearly 23 million worldwide. Estimates in the United States range from 190,000 to 440,000.

Sikhs hold that all religions serve God and share a vision of love and peace.

This is the second year the Sikh Center has made a community party of the holiday. The public ceremony serves to educate Americans, who have been known to confuse Sikhs with members of the Taliban.

“America has gone from a Christian country to the most diverse nation in the world,” said J.P. Singh, president of the temple, or gurdwara. “The education hasn’t kept up.”

Last year, Christian fundamentalists showed up to leaflet their disapproval of both the march and the faith.

This year, a center delegation invited the faithful of other denominations to join it at Sunday’s event in a show of harmony and mutual respect, Singh said.

“We got a very warm welcome from the Mormons,” Singh said. “They sent us a very warm e-mail.”

Methodists also extended their hands, he said.

Early Sunday, Sikh women in colorful shawls and men dressed in white sprayed the streets, then swept them clean to make way for the parade and its performers. Long ribbons of flowers swung from the main float, which carried the holy book.

A group of boys and girls from the Fremont gurdwara performed a precision Gatka martial arts routine that involved lots of leaping, spinning and split-second landings on deeply bent knees while tossing a lasso-style rope wheel from one to the other.

Members of the Fremont temple drove a gilt replica of the Golden Temple in Punjab. Some parade watchers clasped their hands or bowed slightly as the procession passed by.

Earlier in the day, Graciela Lechon of El Sobrante drove to the hilltop center to inquire about the festivities.

“The people were just so lovely and welcoming,” she said. “I thought, what a wonderful opportunity to bring our communities together.”

But as the procession moved downhill, a man inside a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall turned away. The congregation had refused to accept printed invitations to the event, Singh said.

Regardless of the reception, believers say the story of Sri Guru Arjan Dev Sahib Ji bears some likeness to other faiths.

“Arjun Dev Ji sacrificed for the nation,” said Baljeet Sidhu, who came to this country two years ago. “He was placed on burning fire. Hot sand was put on his head. He was so peaceful he never cried.”

Ishvinder Pajmaj and Jitinder Kaur of Hayward carried orange banners bearing the circular Sikh symbol.

“It means ‘God is one,'” Pajmaj said.

Posters on the floats spelled out Sikh virtues or quoted the Fifth Guru.

“No one is my enemy, nor is anyone a stranger to me,” read one.

Another listed prized social values: democracy, fortitude, freedom, liberty, status of women and egalitarianism.

Ten-year-old Harkiran Chahal’s family drove from Rockland for the festivities.

“It’s fun to look all around at all the different cities,” she said, waiting in line with her two brothers for an Indian lunch, which the center provided for free.

The event ended with a two-hour ceremony in the gurdwara.

“This is only the second year,” Singh said, panning the cheerful crowd. “It will grow.”

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