What most people think about Sikhs is two things, maximum,” Upinder Singh remarked one recent morning. ”Turbans and yellow cabs.” The well-informed might add to the mix the name of DJ Talvin Singh. But that’s it. Guru Nanak? Not a chance. The Golden Temple at Amristsar? The five sacred Ks of Sikhism? Fuhgeddaboudit.
In a city that has more foreign-born residents than at any time since 1930 (one in three), the rush to assimilate is often a matter of defensive strategy. ”I got tired of being called doorknob head,” Singh says, explaining how he came to depart from Sikh religious tradition, abandoning his turban and getting a buzz cut. ”I might grow it back later,” says the 21-year-old Singh. ”For now, it looks better. And I get in less fights this way.”
It’s a brilliantly sunny Times Square Saturday. The intersection of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street is thronged with thousands of people, turbaned and otherwise, almost all of them called Singh. The name, which translates as ”lion” and also as ”disciple,” was conferred on Sikh men by one of their 10 beloved gurus–actually, the very gurus whose pictures you’ll often spot on the dashboard of a yellow cab. Today’s occasion is the 11th Annual Sikh Day Parade, a 20-odd–block procession of the usual streamered floats and marching bands–including two from local Catholic high schools–along with Sikh karate schools and some gnarly-looking martial arts experts whirling and slashing the air with actual swords.
”What’s up with that?” a bystander asks aloud, as four teenagers with heavily swathed heads fly into what appears to be a Ginsu-knife rampage along Broadway’s center line.
”No big deal,” replies Maneet Singh, a phlebotomist from Richmond Hill, Queens. ”They’re just showing off. You know, Sikhs are martial people. We’re warriors. We’ve got a lot of bloodshed and martyrs in our past, and our prophet, Guru Gobind Singh, said that dying a coward is the greatest sin of all. So it’s important to stay tough. We’re baptized with the sword. That’s why we all carry one.”
For the most part, the sword tends to be key-chain sized. It’s one of the five Ks of Sikhism as set down in the 1699 Khalsa Panth by Guru Gobind Singh. The others are kesh, or uncut hair, regarded as a symbol of saintliness; kanga, the comb, carried to tend the hair; kachha, special breeches resembling boxer shorts, symbolizing chastity; and kara, a steel bracelet that indicates fealty to the guru.
The kirpan is the sword of brotherhood and allegiance to a sect founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak Devji, in opposition to both Muslim fanaticism and the crazed plurality of the Hindu pantheon (Sikhs worship one god). In a sense, Sikhism is a kind of subcontinental Lutheranism, with a bloodier history and better clothes. Its tenets refute the punitive restrictions of caste and also institutionalize the feeding of the poor.
Officially there are about 55,000 Sikhs living in the five boroughs. This modest figure hardly seems to account for the huge weekly turnout at the Richmond Hill gurdwara, or temple–much less the number of turbans you’ll spot on any given weekday in midtown traffic. ”I don’t know why, but even in India a lot of Sikhs work in transportation,” says Gurpreet Singh, a former cabbie who now owns a fleet of limousines.
”Likely, I think it’s more than 10,000 coming to our gurdwara alone,” says Malhi Singh Joginder, education chairman of the Richmond Hill temple, a former Methodist-Episcopal church in a formerly Irish-Italian section of Queens. Nowadays the neighborhood of immaculate single-family houses is overwhelmingly Indian. On any given afternoon, you can find a half-dozen Sikh devotees cooking in the temple’s basement kitchen, whose stained-glass windows include one quoting the prophet Isaiah: ”If ye will be willing and obedient ye shall eat of the food of the land.” Sikhs go the Hebrew prophet one better with their policy of langar, or free food, serving scores of free meals of chapatis, dal, sweets, and cookies daily, without stipulation.
”It’s a very deep religion,” explains Maninder Kaur, a 21-year-old nursing student at Kingsborough College. ”Parents want girls to wear salwar kameez, that tunic and pants thing. We don’t necessarily want to dress that way all the time.” Why not? Too dowdy. Kaur herself is wearing a white bandanna and a nose ring, and has black-lined eyes. ”Sometimes it’s hard to keep the old ways,” she explains. ”Guys have to cut their hair because people pull their turbans or their hair or whatever. Who cares how you dress? If your beliefs are strong, nothing’s going to matter if you change your clothes.”
Successful immigration, after all, is about market- fueled fusion. The great democratic ideals may work well on paper, but there’s nothing quite like a cell phone to tempt a 15th-century culture toward the 21st. Saturday’s scene on Broadway tended to force a wedding of the ancient and modern. A float carrying the Sikh holy book, the Granth Sahib, moved toward Madison Square in stately procession, with one priest reading scripture while another used a silver-handled whisk to brush at imaginary flies. Behind them rolled a disco flatbed where DJ ”I AM THE PARTY” Ladla Laddie pumped Sikh pop star Dahler Mendi’s ’96 Indian dance hit, ”Bolo Ta Ra Ra Ra.”