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Faithful to Roots and Rites : The County's 1,000 Sikhs Seek to Fit In Without Sacrificing Their Identity

December 04, 1987|MARK I. PINSKY | Times Staff Writer

The regular worship service is about as universal as possible in the ethnically diverse religious community of Orange County: Scripture readings, hymn singing, communion service, memorials to those martyred in the faith, prayers for the well-being of co-religionists half a world away.

Those who gather at the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in Buena Park come to listen to Scripture verses chanted from the Guru Granth Sahib, pray and sing in ancient and modern Punjabi, share a sweet flour paste called parshad , list early leaders of the faith persecuted by Mogul, Afghan and Hindu rulers, and, in sermons and social gatherings, express concern about the fate of friends and family members in India.

Despite the similarity of rituals, there are striking differences among the worshipers who each Wednesday and Sunday sit cross-legged in the carpeted sanctuary. The men, all bearded and wearing turbans, sit on one side of the room. The women, all with long hair, are on the other side of the room. Men and women wear a single steel bangle, called a kara , on their right wrist, and the men have a small, sheathed scimitar, called a kirpan , tucked into their clothing.

Above a raised altar is a square red canopy, suspended from the ceiling. As the 90-minute service progresses, different individuals take a seat behind the altar, slowly waving a snow-white, horse-hair whisk. Both the canopy and whisk, called a chawr , are signs of respect for the holy book and were instituted 250 years ago by Guru Gobind Singh, a founder of Sikhism whose birthday is celebrated this year on Dec. 26, in defiance of a Mogul ruler of India.

The singing is accompanied by a harmonium and a drum. Flowers and paper money are strewn in front of the altar.

Appearances notwithstanding, the Sikhs who gather for the services--part of a growing Orange County community now estimated at more than 1,000--are well along the path of cultural integration. Before the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple was established three years ago, the building was a Korean Christian church.

The first modern wave of Sikh migration to Orange County began around 1965, according to Harbans Singh Sraon, president of the temple, when U.S. immigration quotas favoring Western Europeans were changed. Many of the first immigrants were Indian- and British-educated professionals--scientists, doctors and engineers. In the 1970s and '80s, younger family members arrived to join them from trouble spots around the world, including East Africa, Iran and Fiji, as well as from their native Punjab. A good number of the more recent arrivals have gone into small businesses, including gas stations, convenience stores and import firms.

Although many have come to the United States from places of persecution, most say they have come primarily for economic reasons and are anxious to fit in with other immigrant groups that have preceded them.

"That's why the Irish came here, why the Poles came here," said Amarjit Singh, a Yorba Linda businessman who emigrated from Iran.

Integration, however, does not mean assimilation, leaders of the Sikh community emphasize.

"Cultures are created by God," said Sraon, 46, an Irvine research scientist who is also a director of the World Sikh Organization. "They should be preserved."

Like other groups that have migrated here in the last 25 years, Orange County Sikhs--the word means disciples-- are wrestling with the dilemma of wanting to be accepted by their neighbors while trying to retain an ascetic culture that in some ways sets them apart in an affluent, secular society. They are also anxious to demonstrate to their neighbors that, despite what reports from India may suggest, they are peaceful, hard-working, law-abiding citizens.

In part to bring that point home, a backyard fund-raiser was held last year for Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) in the city of Orange, where more than 100 affluent Sikhs from throughout Southern California raised $15,000 for Cranston's reelection bid.

Most visibly, Sikhs are distinguished by the fact that the men and women do not cut their hair. Beards, in most cases, are tucked under the chin and men's hair is wound by a comb, called a kangha , and bound by a turban. Sikhs use neither alcohol nor tobacco, and are frequently vegetarians. All Sikh men use the word Singh, which means lion, as part of their names; women use Kaur, which means princess.

(Perhaps the best known Punjabi in the United States--Daddy Warbucks' towering sidekick in the Little Orphan Annie comic strip--was not a Sikh, since he was clean shaven and carried a sword without a sheath.)

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