The largest gathering of Indians outside India filled Yuba City on Sunday with the tastes, smells, sounds and colors of Punjab for the 37th annual Sikh Parade Festival.
Celebrants clad in blue, purple, green, red, magenta, white, yellow and saffron turbans and salwar kameez – traditional flowing gowns – lit up the streets.
They included descendants of the first Sikh pioneers who came here 110 years ago from Punjab, “land of five waters,” where their ancestors farmed for some 4,000 years. Their stories can be found at Pioneering Punjabis, pioneeringpunjabis.ucdavis.edu, a new digital archive created by the University of California at Davis Library and UC Davis historian and lecturer Nicole Ranganath.
“Sikhs have played a critical role in California’s agriculture, economy and culture of innovation, and even though they may look different and wear turbans, they are the most civic-minded, engaged Americans I have ever met,” she said.
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Sikhs from as far as Australia visited Yuba City on Sunday to honor the teachings of Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak (1469-1539), who taught that men and women, rich and poor and people of all races and faiths are equal under God. White-skinned Sikhs from New Mexico joined the parade and enjoyed meals with their brown-skinned brothers and sisters, along with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, African Americans, Latinos and other Asian Americans.
“The magic of this day is to be nice to all people and never look down on any faith,” said Dr. Jasbir Kang, a local historian who emigrated to Yuba City in 1986 and founded the Becoming American Museum. “I learned compassion and forgiveness from my Christian friends and self-discipline from my Muslim friends.”
The 4 1/2 -mile parade route was lined with people offering savory Indian delicacies and drinks to passers-by. The annual event is a good place to make new friends or even find a spouse, Kang said, adding: “My brother-in-law saw his wife for the first time here.”
Dr. Paramjit Everest, 62, and his wife, Surinder, greeted a procession of friends as they followed the lead float, a giant gilded wagon playing Sikh devotional hymns and carrying the Guru Granth Sahib, or Sikh scripture, down Terra Buena Road from the Sikh gurdwara, or temple.
“My heart is so full of joy, having watched this community grow from the time there was no temple,” said Everest, whose late father, Hari Singh Everest, was a prolific writer and champion of human rights fluent in five languages and helped build Yuba City’s first Sikh temple in 1969.
“There were only 500 people in the first parade and there’s over 100,000,” Everest observed. They passed Sikhs raising money for the Red Cross and other worthy causes in keeping with the Sikh devotion to Seva, or “selfless service” to the needy.
The procession passed the home of parade co-founder Mehar Singh Tumber, whose widow, Surjit Kaur Tumber, still lives on Tharp Road. For the first parade, Surjit Tumber recalled, the family poured sodas and cooked food in their garage for the procession.
Even when Tumber’s health began to fail and he could no longer walk, “he powered up the whole day of the parade, saying everyone who stops here is a blessing,” recalled his daughter, Raji Tumber, before her family set up a table with beverages and free bags.
Tumber’s devotion to community service produced a ripple effect that has fed more than 100,000 homeless in the area every year “and expanded the humanitarian effort and blessing to many others,” added his daughter Pamela Singh.
Tumber and Everest appear in the archive, along with the Tuly Singh Johl, who fled British rule and came to Yuba City – now home to 15,000 Sikhs – in 1906 with four friends to help build the Southern Pacific Railroad.
One day, when they sought shade under a tree, a white farmer asked if they wanted to work on his farm. Johl became foreman, and he opened the doors for thousands of Sikh farmers, including Didar Singh Bains, who heard “that in America money grows on trees.” He came to Yuba City and proved it, becoming the largest peach farmer in California.