Turbans, communal meals, and faith: Getting to know Alhambra's Sikh community
A white supremacist shot and killed six people on August 5 at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. In 2010, community contributor Joe Soong visited Alhambra's branch of the Sikh community and learned about its members' distinct faith. In light of the tragic event, we are reposting his story.
As an Alhambra resident for more than 15 years, I thought I knew this mostly Asian and Hispanic city. But what I discovered is that within this majority-minority city, there is a minority that I had no idea existed.
If you’ve lived in Alhambra for any length of time, you’ve likely noticed — as I had —Indian men with turbans and beards and women in long, colorful dresses. Many own or work in several local businesses, such as the Indian Dollar market on Mission, the Punjab Market on Main, Subways, and 7-Elevens.
What I learned is most of them practice Sikhism, India’s newest religion. A monotheistic faith, its more than 25 million followers include the Indian prime minister and are known for their military prowess, and practices such as a prohibition on cutting their hair, promoting equal rights for women, and inviting anyone to share a communal meal.
The focal point for Alhambra’s Sikh community is a temple tucked away just east of the Mervyn’s parking lot. Also known as a gurdwara, it is a small, one-story, brick office building on South Chapel Avenue. From the street, it is easy to miss — I had for years.
Interested in learning more about the Sikh community in Alhambra, I pushed at the door one afternoon and knocked, but nobody answered. Only later would I discover that temple members and visitors enter through the rear driveway. At the back entrance, there is a tall, arched metal gate that reads “Sikh Temple Alhambra” which, on Sundays, is just viewable from behind the farmer’s market stands.
I came back to visit on a Sunday and attended a service in a large open room where worshipers sat cross-legged on the covered, padded floor, with some leaning against the walls for support. At first, I was concerned that my presence, as a Chinese-American man and the only obvious outsider, would seem intrusive, but members were welcoming. A few gently reminded me to remove my shoes and to cover my head with a scarf prior to entering the prayer room.
Although I did not understand the service, which was in the Punjabi language, some of the practices I observed during the service were similar to those in an Orthodox Jewish service I attended a number of years ago. Both have the men sitting separately from the women and both require the head to be covered, with a turban in the Sikh service, and with a yarmulke in the Jewish service. A turban, though, is more complicated to put on than a yarmulke. When a woman saw me awkwardly attempting to tie my headscarf, she took the time to help me, even though she was busy corralling her two young children.
Bhubinder Jit Singh, the temple’s religion teacher, told me the gurdwara had been around for longer than I had lived in Alhambra: 35 years. Singh, a bearded man wearing a turban with a white, loose shirt and pants, said the temple serves as a central gathering space for the roughly 200 Sikh in the area. Like Singh, all Sikh men share the middle or last name Singh, which means lion. Women take the name Kaur, or princess.
Tied up in a turban, Singh’s long hair is another example of a practice Sikhs share: They are commanded to not cut their hair. This is one of five ways, commonly known as the “5 K's,” in which baptized Sikhs demonstrate their commitment to God. Kesh is hair, including facial hair, that should be uncut so as not to alter God’s or nature’s intent. The other K's are Kara, a steel bracelet all practicing Sikhs wear to represent an unbreakable bond with God; Kangha, a wooden comb that acts as a reminder to keep a healthy mind and body; Kachera, an undergarment worn to symbolize modesty and self-control; and Kirpan, a small curved sword to represent readiness to defend the needy and weak.
After the service, I became one of the beneficiaries of the Sikh practice called langar or free food. It is an expression of charity, which is one of the Three Pillars that define the religion’s tenets. The others are meditation on God’s name and performing honest labor. During the weekends, members utilize the temple’s kitchen to prepare and serve an Indian vegetarian meal to all comers, regardless of faith. The food was similar to what is served in Indian restaurants and was quite tasty.
Members of the Sikh community said most Indian residents of Alhambra have some relationship to the gurdwara. The owner of the Indian market on Main Street, Amandeep Singh, attended Alhambra High School from 1997 to 1999, and moved to the city because his father came to work at the Sikh Temple.
Gurbachan Singh Bedi, a member of the temple and owner of the other Indian store in town on Mission Boulevard, moved to Alhambra 20 years ago after getting a job at a 7-Eleven. He went on to own the 7-Eleven, and, about seven years ago opened the Dollar store on Mission Road. When Indian residents demanded products, he added "+Indian Grocery" to the name and expanded his business to include specialties like rice, dal, and naan.* At Bedi and Singh’s shops, though, Indians are not the only customers shopping for the Indian products. In particular, both carry henna hair dyes, which they say attract a wide following among Chinese women. “Mostly our people, they do their own business,” said Bedi, who recently opened a restaurant in San Gabriel. “Like Chinese businessmen: They want to run their own business.”
But these days Bedi is concerned about the future of Alhambra’s tight-knit Sikh community. A few years ago Walnut opened its own, much larger, newer temple and many families have left for that facility. (Singh’s father now works there). Others are looking for better school districts, and with India’s economy much better than it was when Bedi arrived, fewer new immigrants are coming.
Bedi, though, has no plans on moving. The reasons he said he likes the city are the same reasons so many Alhambra residents do: it’s a “peaceful, low-crime” community to raise his four children. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Sikhs were often confused with Muslims. In Alhambra, police said they received concerned reports about residents with turbans. But Bedi and a couple other local Sikh residents said they never had any problems in Alhambra. “I’ve been in this community so long, everyone from the little kid to older people know me there,” he said. “I’ve watched kids grow up.”
*Since this story orginally ran on December 20, 2010 the Bedi's have sold their store in Alhambra, which is now a Burmese market. They opened a new larger restaurant and store in San Gabriel, Bhanu's Indian Grocery.