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Fowler celebration of Sikh founder’s birthday mostly somber as protests wrack Punjab

Sikh founder Guru Nanak's birthday commemorated in Fowler

The birth date of Sikh founder Guru Nanak was commemorated in Fowler Sunday with a 6-mile march from Gurdwara Gur Nanak Parkash to a city park in Fowler for lunch. The marchers then marched back to the start. (video: Eric Paul Zamora)
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The birth date of Sikh founder Guru Nanak was commemorated in Fowler Sunday with a 6-mile march from Gurdwara Gur Nanak Parkash to a city park in Fowler for lunch. The marchers then marched back to the start. (video: Eric Paul Zamora)

The mood was somber among hundreds of followers of Sikhism as they commemorated the birth of their religion’s founder Sunday in Fowler.

During the 15th century, Guru Nanak established what has become the world’s fifth-largest religion. More than 30,000 Sikhs live in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Nanak, born Nov. 6, was the first Sikh guru, or spiritual teacher. He promoted equality, diversity, compassion and tolerance in the Punjab region of northern India and eastern Pakistan. Those teachings became the core principles of Sikhism.

Usually a joyful celebration of Nanak’s life, the fifth annual Fowler parade coincided with protests in the Punjab state of India after torn-up copies of Guru Granth Sahib – Sikhism’s holy book – were found in different parts of the state. Police opened fire during a protest earlier this month in a northern Punjab village, killing two protesters and wounding dozens of others, according to the BBC.

In Fowler, many used the parade as a quasi-protest. Banners adorned semi-tractor trailers outfitted as parade floats, bearing photos of the two men killed this month. They referenced 1984, when thousands of Sikh civilians were killed after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards. Banners read “What has changed in last 31 years?” and “Sikhs in sorrow due to disrespect of Guru Granth Sahib Ji (holy scriptures) and cruelty on Sikhs in Punjab.”

The Sikh Council of Central California, which represents 13 gurdwaras (temples) throughout the Central Valley, passed a resolution Sunday condemning the police action against peaceful demonstrators in Punjab.

The parade started at Gurdwara Gur Nanak Parkash and made its way to Panzak Park near downtown Fowler where participants stopped for free food, chai and other refreshments before heading back to the gurdwara.

At the park, musicians played dhadi vaar, a style of Punjab folk ballads used to amp people up, like a pep rally before a football game. Then Sikh Council members and representatives of the gurdwaras spoke to the crowd in English and Punjabi about the violence in their homeland.

Sharnjit Purewal, secretary of the Sikh Council, urged people to talk to their local congressional representatives about the human rights violations in India.

“Make them aware of what’s going on so they can intervene,” he said.

Kulwinder Singh, 25, of Fowler approached Sunday’s parade as more of a way to show his respect for Guru Nanak. Singh said he gets sad when he thinks about what is happening in Punjab but is happy to know the guru’s teachings.

“If we don’t celebrate this it’s like disrespecting the guru,” he said. “We do this from our heart, but it’s not like the last years.”

Jagdeep Gill, 20, of Fresno said the recent violence is an insult to Sikhism but she would rather celebrate her religion’s success than be somber or sad.

“History will always repeat itself,” Gill said. “We’re stronger together. Not celebrating is like letting them win.”

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo

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