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USA Together in prayer

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    Jun 17, 2004
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    EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an occasional series exploring the broad and changing spectrum of faith in Western New York. Reporter Jay Tokasz focuses on how area religious groups practice their faith, and how the divine is present —or represented — in various forms of gathered worship.

    The beat of hand drums doesn’t quit.

    Bold and clear, it summons worshippers to enter the gurdwara. It slows and softens at other times, pulling the gathered into deeper contemplation.

    The rhythm accompanies the lush, exotic sound of a harmonium, and a singer chants verses in Punjabi from the Holy Granth, the revered book of Sikhism.

    Sikhs filter, heads wrapped, shoes off, into the service, stopping initially at the altar to prostrate before the Granth and deliver a weekly offering.

    For prayer and reflection, everyone—men and women—ends up seated on the wool-carpeted floor an expression of the equality among all peoples professed by the religion. “We are all busy in our everyday life, taking care of family and trying to teach kids,” says Mohan Saran of Grand Island, who takes a seat on the floor alongside about 100 other Sikhs on a recent Sunday morning. “This is a moment for me to reflect on my life.”

    The music, says Saran, “makes you more attuned to the message.”

    Sikhism began in the Punjab region of India (now Pakistan) in the 15th century as an outgrowth of Muslim and Hindu traditions. With about 25 million adherents, it is the fifth-largest religion in the world. And just as with Islam and Hinduism, the Sikh presence in Western New York has expanded from basically nothing into a small but well-established community with multiple generations of adherents.

    They begin gathering at 11 a. m. inside a former Niagara Falls banquet hall on 19th Street for worship, which consists primarily of spiritual hymns and culminates with a random reading from the Granth.

    Three classically trained musicians from India are visiting the temple and they play for more

    than an hour. At the altar, the “Granthi-one,” or caretaker, gently fans the 1,430-page book with a large whisk of yak’s hair in a display of respect for the collection of poetic hymns — believed to be the revealed truth of God.

    The poems were collected over more than a century from 10 Sikh gurus and wise people of other faiths.

    Like Christian mega-churches, the Sikhs have gone high-tech in at least one respect: They project hymns, translated into English, onto a large screen, allowing younger Sikhs who grew up in this country and don’t understand Punjabi to follow along.

    The lyrics are similar to what Christians and Jews find in Old Testament passages.

    “The clay is the same, but the Fashioner has fashioned it in various ways,” reads a line translated from Punjabi. “There is nothing wrong with the pot of clay. There is nothing wrong with the Potter.”

    Sikhs are renowned for their hospitality, and prior to worship, some templegoers enjoy a light breakfast meal of gently fried eggplant, a sweet cookie and chai tea in a dining room separated from the worship area by a hallway.

    A hallway sink allows everyone an opportunity to wash hands before entering the sanctuary, where clean hands are required for receiving the Kara Parshad, a thick, doughy pudding of flour, butter and sugar handed out toward the end of the service.

    A pair of children hand out napkins before the Granthi-one spoons a dollop of the sweet pudding into recipients’ cupped hands, a ritual similar to Christian communion. The Kara Parshad is considered a blessed food — to leave a sweet taste in one’s mouth after praising God. It’s also a reminder to Sikhs that all blessings come by God’s grace and everything received in life is sweet because it comes from God.

    Inside the gurdwara, men and women are required to cover their heads out of respect for the Granth.

    Many of the Sikh men enter wearing their distinctive turbans, which wrap hair that never gets cut—a Sikh custom dating back to the founder, Guru Nanak Dev, who instructed followers to keep their natural form as created by God.

    The custom no longer is universally maintained, which can be a point of contention in some gurdwaras.

    But in the Niagara Falls temple, it’s not an issue, and about half the men don’t wear turbans.

    “That’s your own personal choice. Only God is judge of that, not you, not me,” says Surjit Singh, an elder statesman in the local Sikh community.

    Men without a turban don a head scarf from a bin near the door and remove their shoes upon entering the gurdwara.

    At an elaborate altar decorated with brass planters and several lamps, the Granth sits under a silk cloth known as a romala through most of the service, until the Granthi-one rolls back the material and opens the book to a random page for reading.

    When not in use, the book gets stored away — much like Torah scrolls in synagogues — in a side room under special linens.

    A congregation prayer, during which the 10 Gurus and martyrs for the faith are remembered and God’s forgiveness is requested, is the apex of the Sunday service.

    “We are reminded of the sacrifices of those people,” says Saran. “We are the descendants of those people who stood; they had the courage of conviction to stand for this way of life.”

    The service concludes after about 90 minutes with the partaking of the Kara Parshad, but few Sikhs leave right away.

    Instead, most of them move into the dining room, where they sit on the floor together and share a meal of traditional Indian curry, unleavened bread and apples and onions.

    Visitors, too, are always offered food, notes Singh.


    “It will be simple fare, but you will be given a meal,” he says.

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