Sikh Diwali in Union City
“Do you see that pole,” my friend asks as we approach a crowd gathered around a glowing bed of candles. “In the Punjab, you can see that pole for miles… travelers know it means food and shelter.” There’s one in front of all Sikh temples.
The candles illuminate a sea of faces, young and old, in flowing saris and neatly folded turbans. It is Diwali, and for the Sikh community in Union City, it is a time for prayer, reflection and of course food.
“You must come,” insists my friend, a native of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, his eyes glowing as he describes the festive atmosphere that attends the annual celebration.
Originally a Hindu festival marking the return of the Prince Rama from his banishment in the forest, Sikhs commemorate the release by the Mughal emperor of an imprisoned patriarch, who insisted that all the other inmates be freed along with him.
“Hindus come for the food,” my friend’s wife says, with pride or sarcasm it’s hard to say. And indeed there is plenty, enough to feed the throngs of people that continue to stream in from all directions. Lines ebb and flow, widening here and thinning out there, a pulsating river of light and fabric.
The sound of prayer echoes from within.
“No one wants to get on Laxmi’s bad side,” says my friend and guide, pointing out that during this time people come to pray to the Hindu goddess of fortune. Nearing the altar I place a dollar in the tray and then bow, touching my head to the floor. My son dips his fingers into a cup of sweet bean paste, wondering at the scene.
The aroma of spiced chickpeas and fried poori pulls at me like an unseen, irresistible force. We come to the communal eating area and file into line. “When I was young, I used to get really upset at those who tried to cut… see them there.” He points as a group of elderly women make their way toward the front.
We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore…
I wonder at the mix of old and new… at the coming together of a centuries-old faith, bearded and wise, with the childlike exuberance that is Silicon Valley, with its indoor skydiving and flood-lit soccer fields. Kids walk past, their accents clearly California, their faith rooted in the scene that envelops us.
It is community, the “We” that sustains and is sustained through sharing, through eating and praying together. “This is the heart of the temple,” my friend tells me, pointing to a room where volunteers are busy doling out an endless stream of food and water.
He introduces me to several friends, including a former journalist who took to radio after leaving Amritsar in the Punjab, and another who went from farming and driving trucks to sponsoring programs fostering the development of Sikh art and dance.
As we leave my friend tells me of another gathering in Yuba City, Ca., set to happen in a couple of weeks. He says it dwarfs today’s event, drawing people from Sikh communities around the state, a day-long event promising food, shelter and spiritual nourishment for all comers.