Sikh in Solano

Saturday • August 30, 2003

Faith Finds a Home

New Sikh generation sinks roots in Solano
By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

Tod Rasmussen /
The Reporter

Sikh leaders Kuldip S. Grewal (left), Bill Hoth, (top right) and Iqbal Randhawa (middle right) carefully change the wrapping on their temple’s standard.

It was 1998 when a small band of Sikh-Americans raised their flag above a house of worship in rural Fairfield for the first time.

It signaled a victory that followed a two-year battle with local government and area farmers for the right to build their temple.

Today, only a dilapidated barn stands as a reminder that the property was once fallow farmland. The site has been transformed and now boasts a community center for Sikhs, whose population has at least doubled in Solano County during the past year, with an estimated 700 families living in the area.

The facility includes a house of worship, community kitchen, recreation facilities and landscaping with lush lawns and flowering shrubs. A building expansion is under way.

Fairfield resident Bhupinder Sandhu, an engineer and member of the Punjabi American Cultural Association, was involved in the process. He describes the temple as sort of a retreat that allows Sikhs from all over to interact with each other.

“It unifies us as a community, and brings everybody together in worship,” Sandhu, 51, said.

Sikhs spend a great deal of time with their children at the temple developing their sense of community, Sandhu said. In fact, his 16-year old son was involved in building the temple.

“As a result of that, our kids are doing a lot of good things, and hopefully, staying away from the bad element” he said. “The way I see it, if you spend time with the kids, this is the best investment you can make. You can produce a good citizen, not just Sikhs.”

Most of Solano County Sikhs hail from Punjab, a state in northwest India.

Sikhism was founded there more than 500 years ago, and the religion has grown to be ranked as the world’s fifth largest after Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism.

Today, The Reporter embarks on a three-day package of stories examining the culture, faith, history and family structure of the local Sikh community.

Here you will find an in-depth look at the Sikh religion, its historical roots and its faithful followers in Solano County.

On Sunday, you’ll meet two families – one brand new to America, the other well-established and both hanging on to their traditional values. In the Business section, you’ll also meet a local businessman and his wife who have realized their American dream and now own three successful businesses. And in Horizons we compare and contrast the changing role of Sikh women and teens.

On Monday, you’ll read about the formation of the Punjabi American Cultural Association and its plan to host a community gathering aimed at educating the public about who they are and preserving their culture for future generations.

On Wednesday, you’ll learn about the religious practice of “langar,” in which a huge meal is offered to the congregation and the public.

As Dr. Gurpreet Dhugga said, local Sikhs see it as their responsibility to educate fellow Solano County residents about their unique culture, faith, traditions and commitment to the community. During the past three months, they have opened their doors, ceremonies and lives to The Reporter, so we may share a fascinating peek into what it means to be “Sikh in Solano.”

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Temple is heart of community

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

The Sikh temple in rural Fairfield stands sentinel as an example of the determination of Solano County Sikhs – and the Sikhs before them who staked a claim to life in America.

But it’s more than their religion, said Bruce La Brack, professor of anthropology and international studies at the University of the Pacific, Stockton.

It’s the spirit of a people, he said.

“It’s not a Sunday thing for them,” La Brack said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know any other group who have started in such inauspicious beginnings, and done as well as economically, socially and politically as the Sikhs have done.”

La Brack will present a history of the immigration of Sikhs from Punjab, India, at the Punjabi Heritage Festival Sept. 6 at the Fairfield Center for Creative Arts.

La Brack, an authority on the immigration of South Asians, documented more than 100 years of the immigration of South Asians, including Sikhs, in his paper, “Early South Asian, (India) Immigrants in California,” with special reference to the Sikhs.

“I think on one level, it’s probably one of the most extraordinary immigration histories in the U.S., and probably the least known,” La Brack said.

La Brack wrote that every South Asian’s heritage includes the history of pioneer Punjabis who began arriving in California a century ago.

“Those hardy sojourners made America their home against great odds and a quiet grace,” he wrote.

According to La Brack, Sikhs today number about 500,000 in the United States, a demographic profile that provides a stark contrast with the first half of the 20th century, when it seemed unlikely that they would thrive so far from home under economic and political challenges.

For the first 50 years, Sikhs and other South Asian immigrants were severely restricted in their choices of occupation, marriage partners, freedom to travel abroad, land-ownership, and mainstream political participation, but they reacted with remarkable endeavor and ingenuity, he wrote.

“If you were a betting person, you would have been very hard-pressed to find anyone who would bet that it was possible that Sikhs were going to survive,” he said, particularly in the in the 1930s and 1940s.

There were never more than about 7,000 Sikhs in the United States at any one time, and by the mid-1940s and early ’50s, there were only about 1,500, he said.

“So as a small number goes, I don’t think you could get much smaller,” La Brack said. “Of course all that has changed – completely.”

“To examine the legal history of Sikhs in America before 1968 is an uncomfortable exercise for Americans who would like to naively believe that their government did not systematically practice legal discrimination and exclusion based upon race and national origin,” La Brack wrote.

From the beginning, the darker complexion of Sikhs, their distinctive turbans, non-Christian faiths, food preferences and cultural traditions marked them as strangers and foreigners.

Sikh-Americans today have dealt with discrimination related to 9/11, and recently because of the war in Iraq, they have said.

“I think that in general, the Sikhs are still the victims of some backlash because they have head gear,” La Brack said. “Not very many Americans can tell the difference between a Sikh, an Afghanistani, an Iraqi or an Eskimo.

“As a consequence, they sometimes are targeted simply because they are different. It’s a fear of difference. It’s also a fear of the unknown,” he said.

With changes in immigration laws and the political climate in both India and America, Sikh migration escalated in the last half of the century, with the new immigrants an important and integral component of American society – a complete reversal of the circumstances prevalent in the early phases of South Asian life in America.

“Now they are in 60 countries worldwide,” La Brack said. “This is an extraordinarily resilient community.”

La Brack became interested in Sikhism in 1969 when he visited India as a post-graduate language fellow of the American Institute of Indian Studies.

“My landlord was a Sikh, one of my teachers was a Sikh, every taxi cab driver was a Sikh, and I got to know a lot of Sikhs in Delhi,” La Brack said. He’s also looked at Sikh communities in England and East Africa, the United States as well as Canada, he said.

“I have great respect for the Sikhs. They are very hard working, they have very strong family values, they believe in the value of saving and of investing,” La Brack said. “And I don’t know any other group that has been less of a burden on the society than the Sikhs have been.”

Sikh-Americans are going to continue to adapt, be successful in business, and further integrate themselves into American society, he said.

“I also think they will maintain their distinctive traditions. In my opinion, that’s what makes America great, you can do that,” La Brack said. “We founded America on the principal of freedom of religion, and the Sikhs are practicing Sikhism.”

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Temple of Tranquility

Sikhs find place to celebrate their faith in rural Fairfield

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

The double doors of the Sikh temple in Fairfield swing open on a Sunday morning to reveal scores of worshipers who have come from all across Solano County.

There are families, children, even babies. And yet, the peace is startling.

Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in rural Fairfield has a congregation of several hundred, but its worship services on Wednesdays and Sundays can draw many more from across the Bay Area.

Worshipers remove their shoes and cover their heads as a sign of respect. Sikh men and women entering the temple first bow to their hands and knees before their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, a 1,430-page tome that contains the sacred writings of historical religious sages, Guru Nanak and four of his nine successive Gurus.

It rests on embroidered, intricately beaded silk. Two antique swords sheathed in royal blue velvet with steel handles are placed at dueling angles in front of the book.

It sits on a throne-like structure called the palki sahib, imported from India.

The Sikhs touch their foreheads to the floor, stand and place token offerings upon the throne.

Sikh women and their tiny children sit on one side of the court, like rows of exotic flowers in outfits of brilliantly colored silk and like fabrics traditional from their native Punjab, India.

There are no hard, wooden pews in the court, but soft, blue carpeting.

Sitting on the floor is the most optimum form of meditation, common in eastern cultures, said Manjit Purewal, secretary of the temple committee.

“Every eastern culture sits on the floor. The Hindus, Buddists, Muslims or Sikhs,” Purewal said. “Sitting on a chair is not a meditation posture.”

There is little solemnity in a Sikh service, but more an atmosphere of enchantment, beginning with the first hymns and ending with the final prayer, the ardas and the blessing of “prashad” – a dough made of wheat, sugar and oil offered to congregants.

“Gianis” play musical instruments – a tabla, or drums, and the harmonium, a wind instrument.

“Music plays a great part in Sikh theology,” Purewal explained. “The hymns are all spiritual, they are all in the praise of God.”

Purewal’s job as secretary of the temple committee is to give verbal translations of the script from the archaic language of the early Gurus to Punjabi.

“I am quoting it and keeping that flow going so people sitting here don’t feel lost,” Purewal said.

The hymns come directly from the Guru Granth and teach everything a man needs to know about earthly life, said Parmjit Singh, an orthodox Sikh. “We believe that heaven is with the Guru’s love.”

The ultimate goal of Sikhism is to become one with the Guru and God, but getting there depends on how one lives, Singh said.

Sikhism, and many other religions or customs dictate the wearing of a turban, but that doesn’t mean purity, Singh said.

“Anyone can wear the turban …” he said.

The primary practices in Sikhism include intensive prayer and recitation of the name of God, hard work, a focus on charity and the fight against injustice.

“Work hard – honestly – to make money, share your happiness with the world, with the needy,” Singh said. “And third, recite the name – remember God.”

Sikhism also rejects all distinctions of caste, creed, race or sex.

The Guru Granth contains four principles in defining and achieving what is true, along with its benefits and virtues, Singh said.

It also contains lessons on what it calls the five vices – lust, anger, greed, worldly attachment and pride – and describes how they bring about problems in life, Singh said.

Sakandar Dhawal, 58, a Cordelia resident, explains that all hope comes from the Guru.

“The Guru helped me when I started my business, studied, or worked hard,” Dhawal said. “I pray to God, but it’s not enough. We come here to get peace of mind, to feel blissful, and to have our wishes fulfilled.”

Savitri Hasrajani, is a Hindu who visits the temple every Sunday.

“It’s very peaceful,” she said. “You come here, you feel you’re in heaven.”

Her sister, Kamla Bidichandani is ill, and both find solace in the temple. Hasrajani, 66, insists that her sister accompany her.

“I have a strong feeling we should go. This place is lucky,” Hasrajani said. “I have so much belief in the power of the prayer. This is our strength. Sometimes, my hair stands when they sing. It touches my heart, it goes so deep.”

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Flourishing religion dates back 500 years

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

Sikhism is an East Indian
religion that began 500 years ago in Punjab, India, and today flourishes with 20,000
followers throughout the world, including a growing congregation in Solano County.

The fundamental belief is that any wishes, any dreams, any prayer will be fulfilled if you love God – and only one God.

Inside their temples, Sikhs keep their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, a 1,430-page tome that contains the sacred writings of Guru Nanak Dev and four of his nine successive Gurus, as well as historical religious sages who lived during a span of five centuries.

“Guru” means master, and “granth” means wisdom, explained Vacaville resident Parmjit Singh, 48, a lecturer at the El Sobrante temple, or gurdwara.

“They (the authors) were chosen from different parts of Asia, and different religions, from different castes, from different spheres of life,” Singh said. “The only criteria of that was they would love one god and work for humanity.”

The writing of the Guru Granth began with Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion. He collected the writings of a Muslim poet from the 11th century.

“He collected hymns of Farid and Kabir, who lived in the 11th century,” Singh said. “It was completed in the 1604. It’s all in poetry. Any questions you ask, the answer is there, any question about life, how to live a good life.”

Guru Nanak said he saw God and was filled with a divine light that inspired the writings. He passed on that guiding light and collection of writings to the second, third, fourth and fifth Gurus, who completed, edited and installed the holy book at Amritsar, Punjab, the home of the Sikh’s sacred Golden Temple, explained Singh.

“God is one, God is fearless and without hate, and he does not come in the cycle of death and birth,” Singh said. “He’s neither female nor male, he cannot be seen from human eyes. With eyes of faith, you can see him, with eyes of love, you can see.”

At the Fairfield temple, two antique swords sheathed in royal blue velvet with steel handles are placed at dueling angles in front of the book. The sword is a symbol of wisdom that merges with a Sikh’s identity as a saint and a soldier, said Singh, an orthodox Sikh-American and authority on the Sikh religion.

The placement of the swords is symbolic of the swords used in the Sikhs’ past religious clashes against enemies of humanity, at the same time symbolic of the separation of truth from untruth, Singh said.

Sikhs believe that those who do not follow the teachings of the Guru will go to another life, maybe millions of times, until they reach the level of spirituality set forth in the Guru Granth, he explained.

Each life is a rare chance to become one with God, and realize God in this life, he said. “Otherwise, if you slip, you will go through the cycle again.”

The only way to achieve purity is through what is know as the “Khalsa” baptism, a ceremony initiating a Sikh into a life where they are expected to live up to the teachings of the Guru, Singh said.

There are many Sikhs who have not been baptized because being Khalsa can be difficult for some, Singh said.

A Sikh who has been baptized in the Khalsa brotherhood must adhere to the five articles of the Sikh faith:
• Kesh, or the wearing of unshorn hair, a symbol of spirituality;
• Kangha, or comb, carried to symbolize cleanliness
• Kara, a steel bracelet worn on the right arm as a reminder of restraint, defense and remembrance of God at all times;
• Kaccha, or the wearing of undergarments as a symbol moral character and insurance of briskness of movement when in battle.
• Kirpan, or the wearing of the ceremonial sword, a emblem of power, dignity and instrument of offense and defense.

The “Khalsa” baptism was founded by Guru Gobind Singh, who died in 1708. He was the last of the 10 gurus, deciding that there would be no Guru succeeding him and the Guru Granth would become the “living” Guru.

He also ruled that all Sikh men take the middle or last name of Singh, which means lion in Punjabi, and all Sikh women take the name Kaur, which means princess.

“One of the ultimate (aims) of Khalsa is to merge with God, with the blessings of the Guru,” explained Parmjit Singh.

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Leap to a New Life

Hard work pays off for family

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

It was a leap of faith – to the other side of the globe.

When Balraj Singh left the fertile farmlands of his native Punjab, India, nearly five years ago, he left behind a family with a kiss and promise that he would one day provide them a life in a land they could only imagine – America.

So to step on the shores of the free world and fail was inconceivable.

That was in 1998. After working seven days a week, often 16 hours a day at different jobs, Balraj was reunited Sept. 28, 2002, with his wife, Satinder Kaur, and four sons.

“I felt (it was) a new life for me, to see my sons and wife,” Balraj said from his Vacaville home. “I have like, a new birth.”

A reserved man, Balraj, 48, struggles to check the pride he feels when he looks at his four handsome, healthy sons: Taranbir, 18; Manpreet, 17; Randeep, 14 and the Jaspreet, 12.

“I am very happy,” he said. “I have my family, and I have week- ends. When we have time, I spend time with my sons – especially. It’s a wonderful life.”

Since they arrived, the family has traveled to Lake Tahoe, Santa Cruz and Marine World. The boys are thrilled by America’s huge buildings and stores, four- to six-lane freeways filled with cars and the cleanliness of their new country. They are eager to play soccer, basketball and baseball, said Jaspreet.

He is not 12, he said, but “twelve and a half.” He likes basketball and one of his favorite places is Andrews Park.

“It’s beautiful,” he said.

The transition has been more difficult for Taranbir.

In 1998, he and his father shared a strong bond. But when his father left he was 13, on the bridge between childhood and manhood.

When asked about his father’s departure, tears dotted his long, black eyelashes.

“I missed him,” he whispered. “I love my father.”

* * *

Such are the sacrifices that have been made by Sikh families who have been emigrating to America from Punjab for more than a century.

Most Punjabis are Sikhs, a monotheistic religion originating in India about 500 years ago.

U.S. Census figures do not indicate the number of Sikhs in the country today, but estimates run at 500,000. In Solano County, the Sikh community has nearly doubled in the past year to an estimated 700 families.

Balraj, a farmer and bus driver, lived in a village near Chandigarh but was dissillusioned by limited opportunities in his homeland.

One’s occupation is essentially limited to farming in Punjab, which is known as the foodbasket of India.

“I saw a sign here, ‘Farmers feed America.’ Punjab feeds India,” he said.

Balraj doesn’t miss farming, but there are customs of his former homeland he hopes to instill in his children, with the hopes they will pass them on to the next generation.

* * *

None of Balraj’s sons have ever cut their hair. Unshorn hair is considered holy in their faith.

Every Sunday, their hair is washed, braided and neatly wrapped in the patka or turban used for young men. They change it daily and wear colors that match their outfits.

Taranbir is the only son who has considered cutting his hair.

“Some kids stare, and ask ‘are you Muslim?’ ” Taranbir explained.

Pondering the issue, he glanced furtively at his father.

Balraj sighed, acknowledging that Taranbir is waiting for his father’s permission to cut his hair.

Balraj reluctantly gave up his turban and cut his hair when he arrived in America because he felt it would be easier for him to find a job, and as a matter of convenience. It takes at least 15 minutes to wrap a turban.

He has reasoned that he has coached his children on how to handle teasing or curiosity at school.

“A few guys, they tease them, but they wish to know what is here, under the turban,” he points to the top of his head. “I told them that if somebody teased them in the schools, they talk to the teacher, not fight them.”

But it’s not that easy, according to outspoken Jaspreet, who described what his older brother endures.

“Every time kids touch his hair, he says ‘don’t touch my hair, it’s my religion,'” he said. It’s a situation that angers Jaspreet, and Tarbanbir admits it makes him feel bad.

“I cut my hair so I cannot tell them strictly not to,” Balraj said. “They are in an independent country; they are in a free country. But, I like them Sikh. There are some difficulties outside, but life is difficult.”

* * *

The Singh family’s northeast Vacaville home is sparsely furnished. There’s no SUV in the driveway, gourmet cuisine on the table, memberships to a spa, nor even a computer.

But a guest stepping through the front door will find order, grace and an abundance of love – the elements of family life that Sikhs strive to achieve.

The family seems to make do with Balraj’s income as the owner/operator of a big-rig, and a secondary income earned by Satinder at a local restaurant.

A typical meal at the home consists of chicken curry, a pumpkin-vegetable dish and tortillas made fresh daily by Satinder.

The Singh boys don’t ask for anything special, and have not yet developed a taste for McDonald’s. When Balraj gives his sons money, they save it, he said.

Four pair of blue thong shoes are lined up evenly outside a patio door, because the family does not wear shoes inside the spotlessly clean home.

Outside, in the minuscule patio area, every inch of soil is blooming with giant sunflowers, marigolds, azaleas, tomatoes, onions, okra and jalapeno peppers, carefully attended by the family.

“I bought the seeds, and they planted them,” Balraj said.

For the Singh family, home, hearth and a reminder of beauty of Punjab is enough.

* * *

Balraj has worked daily with all of his sons on the ins and outs of living in their new country, but particularly with Taranbir, because he’s the oldest and he has struggled with the transition to America.

“When I came here, I did not feel difficulty because my father helped me all the time,” Taranbir said.

He already has his driver’s license, and drives the family car when they worship at the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in rural Fairfield, or to buy groceries.

“I go to the bank and deposit the check. I pay the electricity bill, phone bills and car payment,” Taranbir said.

By tradition, Taranbir is the man of the house when his father is working. It took a gentle persistence to initiate Taranbir into that role, Balraj said, such as handling the maintenance at the home when Balraj is at work.

“You have to, that’s your job,” he told Taranbir.

Balraj understands Taranbir’s reticence. He was there at one time, himself.

“When I came here, I faced these difficulties. I could not go straight to the bank or to pay bills. I needed help,” he said.

Taranbir has his own bank account, so he can learn to manage money. He will also work part time in a convenience store owned by a friend to immerse himself in English, Balraj said.

“The store has more opportunities to learn language,” Balraj noted, remembering his own stint at a convenience store. “The customers come, you learn how to speak, how to deal with them, how to behave. I got everything from the store. I had no English. I got all English from the stores – from the customers,” he said.

* * *

Each member of the Singh family has a dream.

Satinder’s is to learn English from her husband and sons. Balraj hopes to one day expand his trucking business. But for now, there are other priorities.

“Now, I can spend time with my family,” he said. “It’s a small business, but I’m satisfied.”

The Singh children are aware of the limitless possibilities life in America offers them.

Taranbir’s eyes light up when he remembers a recent visit to the University of California, Davis, campus. He wants to be a businessman, he said.

Manpreet wants to be an engineer. Randeep wants to be a doctor. Jaspreet, a scientist.

“I like inventions and I like research,” Jaspreet said.

Balraj smiles, somewhat suprised at his son’s lofty dreams.

He said he will encourage them to be anything they want to be in a country where anything is possible.

But most of all, he wants his sons to be Sikhs.

“I encourage them to be good men for a better future,” he said.

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Education is a top priority

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

Learning about the American lifestyle from nurturing Sikh parents is one thing. But entering a crowded public school system without mom or dad can be a scary prospect.

Not for Taranbir and Manpreet Singh, newly emigrated from Punjab, India.

Both teens excelled socially and academically in the Vacaville Unified School District’s summer English Language Development class at Will C. Wood High School, said teacher Scott Benlevi.

That’s not unusual at all for Sikh children, Benlevi said. When Taranbir, 18, and Manpreet, 17, (called Manny by his classmates) entered Benlevi’s class, he knew he was in for a rewarding experience.

“Any chance I get to work with Sikh children, I know I’m going to have fun,” Benlevi said. “I find that most of the times, they have been very well motivated and eager to learn, a wonderful addition to the classroom mix, and a good example for the others.”

Even though the Singh brothers have been in the country for less than a year, they will enter Vacaville High School on Tuesday at level three of the four levels of the English Language Development curriculum.

“Both Manny and Taranbir are comfortable with the acquisition of the language so far,” Benlevi said.

Taranbir and Manpreet are the only Indian children in a class with seven Spanish-speaking students. So they are learning Spanish as well as English, and are ahead of some of their Spanish-speaking peers, he said.

“They spend a lot of time studying,” Benlevi said. “These are motivated young people. They have a future ahead of them, and they know it. And it’s all because of the home. I feel that if we started to examine child rearing in Sikh homes, we would have a key to some of our own problems.”

A Sikh child is still somewhat of a rarity in the California public school system, and they do well for a number of reasons, Benlevi said.

He credits the Singh boys’ success to the wonderful educational system in India, and their father, Balraj Singh.

“The father does exceptionally well,” Benlevi said. “They have a resource at home. The primary teacher for all children are their parents. Your parents are your first teacher. In my opinion, it’s the background for their success.”

Their success is evident in their report cards. Their parents, Balraj Singh and Satinder Kaur are quick to produce the boys’ first report cards from Vacaville schools.

“They’re doing wonderful,” said Balraj.

All of the classes the children took in India were in English, he said. But in a country that speaks Punjabi, that wasn’t enough. And since he had moved to America in 1998, he was worried how the boys’ education would fare without him.

“Their mom, she cannot read, she cannot speak English. I’m here, she’s there. So who will teach the kids? They needed special coaching, special guidance,” he said.

But once in Vacaville, both Taranbir and Manpreet excelled in 10th-grade at Vacaville High School.

In Taranbir’s May 2003 report card, he earned straight A’s in U.S. history, P.E., math, life science and his English language development class. Manpreet’s report card was also straight A’s, with “doing excellent work,” as the teacher’s comment.

“I’m proud,” Balraj said. “They’re new in America and they have all subjects A.”

The boys’ brother Randeep did well as an eighth-grader at Willis Jepson Middle School. He said he’s looking forward to his freshman year at Vacaville High School, where he wants to play basketball.

Their youngest brother, Jaspreet, who will enter Willis Jepson on Tuesday, is perhaps the most outgoing and eager to learn.

“He attempts, whether it’s wrong or right,” Balraj said.

Sikh students tend to take education seriously and thrive in their new environments, Benlevi said. They know they have the work of education to do, an integral part of their success-oriented culture.

“Taranbir agreed with me immediately that in India, if you don’t speak English, you don’t go anywhere,” he said. “There is a cultural element here that helps. They advance quickly.

“Taranbir and his brother have already transferred the grammatical concepts, (from Punjabi to English)” he said. “For them, it’s just a matter of oral practice.”

Both boys have adapted well socially, and mingle well with the other students, he said.

“They don’t just isolate themselves, they get out there. I see a lot of positive social interaction,” he said.

Obviously, their turbans or patkas are noticeable, but nothing unpleasant has happened in Benlevi’s class.

“There is curiosity, but nothing rude or nasty,” he said.

Benlevi is confident that the boys could defend themselves if they found themselves in awkward situations. This summer, he witnessed Manpreet stand up for himself when another boy kept annoying him.

“He was forceful. He can defend himself. That’s tough inner strength,” he said.

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Sikh families stick close together

They share homes, lives

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

Charan Kaur Atwal is 89 years old, virtually bed ridden and requires around-the-clock care.

She is simply old, and suffers from dementia. While she cannot well articulate her feelings, one can guess she is comforted by the knowledge that she will live her final years at home, with her family by her side.

Her husband of 65 years, Jarnail Atwal, 82, and their daughter-in-law, Jatinder Atwal, both care for Charan – cheerfully. Jatinder quit her job to attend to the needs of her mother-in-law, taking on a daily routine of cooking special foods, bathing and dressing her, and combing her hair.

That’s not unusual in Sikh families, said Gurpreet Dhugga, a Sikh-American and physician at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fairfield. Sikhs faced with the failing health of their elderly do not pack them off into convalescent hospitals, he said.

By their culture, Sikhs are notably family oriented, with parents sacrificing their own desires for the betterment of their children’s lives and futures.

“Kids see and realize their parents’ contributions as they grow older and they want and are expected to pay back by taking good care of their elderly,” Dhugga said.

The children then become their role models, and the cycle goes on, Dhugga said.

It is common to see three generations of Sikhs living under the same roof, as well. Sikh families are not just two parents and their children, but include grandparents who emigrate from India to be with their families.

“Even though they have their own house, own social circle, own friends back in India, they will leave everything just to be with their children and grandchildren,” Dhugga said.

Until recently, four generations of Atwals lived in the Atwal family home in an upscale Fairfield neighborhood owned by Jarnail’s son, Pawittar Atwal, 58. Pawittar’s son, Gurpreet, 32, along with his wife and baby daughter, recently moved out because they bought their own home. A second son, Ravinder, 28, works in Fremont and the Atwal home is his home base.

Pawittar’s parents, Jarnail and Charan, moved into the home of their son about 10 years ago.

“We were alone,” Jarnail said simply. “They could not look after us in India, so they look after us here.”

Pawittar said that at one point his mother became seriously ill and was hospitalized in intensive care. A physician urged the family to move his mother into a convalescent home.

“She asked me not to send her there,” Pawittar said. “She wanted to stay home.”

He said it is painful see his mother suffer, “But what can we do? It’s only that we have to take care of her, that’s all. It’s better that she’s at home.”

Grandparents’ contributions to the Sikh home are both a convenience and a complement to the family structure in many ways, Dhugga said. The grandparents often care for their grandchildren so both parents can work.

“Usually grandparents are more interested in their grandchildren than their own children,” he said. “I’ve seen the families where the grandparents are there, then kids are much more well behaved.”

From the very beginning, the children are taught to respect the elderly, and behave in front of others, especially not interrupting if somebody is speaking, he said.

He sees fewer psychological problems with Sikh children than mainstream American children, and credits the Sikh family structure.

“I won’t say there is none, but relatively less because of their family support, social support, or spiritual inclinations. They tend to take solace in their religious beliefs,” he said.

Sikh children, for example, tend to do more activities with their parents.

“Their lifestyle revolves around their kids, their vacations are usually not to exotic places, but to Disneyland, Marine World, and on weekends, Sikh temple,” he said. “They don’t leave kids to go on vacation to Hawaii.”

The social support within the Sikh family is strong. Whenever there is a problem – financial, marital, any problem, – Sikhs rally to help themselves rather than seek outside help.

“Everybody will go out of their way to help you,” he said. “Mostly, I think it’s good. The negative thing is sometimes you lose your privacy.”

Jarnail Atwal is in excellent health, light on his feet and robust in his laugh – clearly enjoying his twilight years. He talks about his religion, his philosophies, politics, his past as an international hockey player and the years he fought for the British Army during World War II.

And, his grandchildren listen, he said.

“History is very important,” Jarnail said.

When the Sikh grandfather lives in the home, he remains an authority figure in some sense, Dhugga said.

“They could still be the leader at the home, the guiding light,” he said. “They could provide the guidance, they could suggest things, but the decision-making still goes to the breadwinner, or the income-producing couple, because they have more idea of how things work in America.”

In the Atwal home, Jarnail and his son share in major decisions, they both agreed.

Jarnail is content because his children are successful, as well as his grandchildren, who work in the professions of accounting, computer science and business administration. He said he approves of his family acclimating into the American culture.

“I’m happy to be with the whole family,” Jarnail said. “They are all healthy and well settled.”

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Designing woman

All choices were hers to make, says Sikh architect

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

Sonia Kaur Dhami’s life is by design – her own.

At 34, Dhami is an architect who owns a business that designs Sikh temples – gurdwaras – throughout the world.

Also a wife and mother, Dhami challenges the stereotype of a subservient Eastern woman whose life is defined by marriage and children.

“I have had the freedom to choose what I wanted to do with my life,” Dhami said. “I have independently made the choices that I wanted to.”

Dhami’s home is in Punjab, India, but she uses the American Canyon home of her brother-in-law, Harjinder Dhami, as her American base. She recently visited the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple in rural Fairfield, to present samples of the work done by her company, By Design – Art & Architecture.

For centuries, females in India were relegated to arranged marriages and lives without education. But today, women are free to choose homemaking or careers – or both – said Dhami.

“My personal choice was encouraged my parents and respected by my in-laws and my husband,” Dhami said.

Dhami doesn’t condemn the tradition of arranged marriages, but insists that Sikh women with dreams can reach for them, as she did.

“Both as a wife and daughter-in-law, I have faced no stereotype expectations on which I could blame any of my failures,” she said.

But her life is not easy. With laptop computer and cellphone, Dhami travels nearly daily, and juggles her career, her 12-year marriage to Devinder and the care of their 10-month-old son, Daleep.

When they faced difficult choices in their marriage, it was Devinder – not Sonia – who made the concessions. A pilot for the Indian Air Force, he made a career change.

“Generally, the perception is that the woman comes home to the needs of her own family, and if there is a choice, they have to give up (their career),” Dhami said. “In my case, it is my husband that has taken the decision to make the change … so we could have a better family life.”

Dhami was born into a Sikh military family. Her extended family were farmers in Punjab. Her mother earned a post-graduate degree, and her father is a college graduate and retired colonel.

“The overall environment I grew up in was very broad-minded. I personally faced no discrimination for being a girl,” Dhami said. “On the contrary, I feel I had more opportunities come my way compared to my brother.”

Dhami’s advantages included being able to study in Roman Catholic convent schools, where she learned English.

However, she does not describe her background as privileged.

“I don’t belong to a rich, rich family,” she said. “My parents’ background is from a village, with small land holdings. My father moved out of the village, joined the army and made his life whatever he is today.”

She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree and later, a master’s degree. Her brother has a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

She met her husband 15 years ago when he was then a fighter pilot.

“Our marriage was not arranged by our parents, but our own choice,” Dhami said. “Though incidentally, we were both from the same community.”

Dhami always had an interest in architecture. Her first job was landscaping. Next she started incorporating pieces of art in gardens and offices.

“I didn’t just start off with a big bang, but slowly down the line, things started getting better and better.”

Dhami’s first trip away from India was three years ago to visit the gurdwaras in America, Canada and the United Kingdom. There, she interacted with Sikhs in those countries.

She and her partner specialize in designing Sikh temples, including the interiors and landscaping.

“Our approach is to make art an inherent part of the design,” she said. “We also design and fabricate sculptures, murals, oil paintings and articles of the Sikh faith.”

An example is a palki sahib, a sort of throne where the Sikh holy book rests. For the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurudwara on Southall-London, they designed and fabricated two palki sahibs in gold and silver, as well as the marble inlay work, brass and chrome railings, chandoa and chanini sahibs. They also designed stained glass panels.

They are presently working on the San Jose Gurdawra project and the Sikh National Center in Houston.

In India, Dhami did a landscape design for Sri Anandpur Sahib-Punjab, which depicted Sikh history with life-size sculptures and murals. The project was exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Dhami said she is trying to encourage the builders of Sikh gurdwaras to pay more attention to their beautification.

“That’s what we are trying to do, is get them to focus on this aspect, because that becomes a very visible point for the general American community also, and not just Sikhs themselves.”

According to statistics, Sikhs are one of the highest-earning groups in America, she said, adding “If they can build million-dollar homes, they could certainly pay attention to their community places.”

At the rural Fairfield gurdwara, she will be involved in an outdoor sculpture composition derived from Sikh history.

“It is basically a place of worship primarily, but what they are also trying is to make it like a place for the younger generation to know about the roots back from where their parents came,” she said.

Dhami said her travels around the globe have brought her into contact with Sikhs at all levels of society.

“From the millionaires to the…top businessmen to academicians, factory workers, small business owners and homemakers,” she said. “Some have changed with the times while some are still rooted in the times when they left India. But this change is relative.”

If a Sikh-American woman who cannot yet speak English chooses to work a menial job, that is her choice, Dhami said.

“She is in a country where she has the liberty to make her decisions. The system will support her. All I wish to say is no one person can be a representative of a community.”

And whether the marriage is arranged or not, there is always work to be done, she maintained.

“Any marriage, whether it is arranged or it is a love marriage, there is an adjustment element that has to be inherent in the marriage if it’s going to succeed,” Dhami said. “Nobody is made perfectly for you.”

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Following custom

Sikh women weigh rules of love and marriage

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

Like Cinderella, a traditional Sikh woman knows that someday her prince will come – with a little help from her parents.

Romance, love and marriage – the conventional order of things in America – is often reversed in Sikh culture where, for generations, marriages have been arranged by parents.

Such was the case of Narinder Bains, 45, of Vallejo. She was 24, a college graduate living in Punjab, India, when her parents arranged her marriage to Harinder Singh Bains.

He was working in America, but traveled to India to fetch his lovely bride. When they returned to America, she brought along her traditional red wedding gown and jewelry.

Bains spoke softly during a worship session at the rural Fairfield temple, saying she was happy with her 21-year marriage and had no regrets. She said both she and her husband trusted their parents’ judgment more than their own.

“It is kind of a forced love,” Bains acknowledged. “But after you get married you get attached. Parents are always good judges.”

Bains maintained that parents who arrange marriages between their children are simply trying to ensure that their children have successful lives.

“They always try to find a beautiful match so we should live a happy life,” she said.

Arranged or assisted marriages are common in many cultures worldwide. And until 1961, women in India were considered unmarriageable unless their parents provided a dowry. That system was outlawed by the Indian government, but East Indians say it is still common.

“Our family doesn’t believe in the dowry system, his or mine,” said Bains, adjusting a silk scarf that is the same soft pink as her Punjabi suit, a knee-length silk gown worn with matching pants.

Wearing the traditional suits in shades of cinnammon and royal blue, two sisters-in-law joined Bains on the floor of the temple during the worship. Both have successful arranged marriages, they said.

“In our parents’ time, it was different,” noted Mohindervir Mahill, 51, of Vallejo.”It was common at that time.”

Bains was not allowed to date – by custom – even though she was a grown woman in college. That didn’t bother her. When Harvinder came into her life, he visited her family. They had an opportunity to get to know each other, at least on some level. Bains says she found her proposed husband good-looking and acceptable. She was not forced into the marriage.

“They gave us the choice,” said Bains. “But in my belief, the parents are always right.”

But as much as Bains respects the system, she and her husband do not plan to arrange marriages for their sons, 16 and 20.

“No, the time is different,” said Bains. “People are encouraged to marry in their own community. But it’s up to them, you know. They listen to me, but the culture here is totally different.”

By community, Bains means within the Sikh religion. If either of her sons decides to marry outside of their religion, she would accept it, with reservations, she said. She would look for certain attributes in a prospective daughter-in-law before passing judgment, such as respect for elders, strong family values and a good personality.

“We always tell them to value our own culture,” she added.

The belief that parents know best is fiercely defended by Jasmine Bhullar, 13, of Fairfield, an American-born Sikh.

Pausing in the breezeway at the temple one Sunday morning, Jasmine said she even embraces restrictions that forbid dating before one completes college and turns 21.

“That’s out of the question,” Jasmine said. “Why do you need to date? Education comes first, and when the time is right, then you can look for somebody. And sometimes, the parents arrange the marriage.”

Jasmine was wearing the traditional Punjabi suit in lavender. Her friend, 14-year-old Manvir Binning of Vallejo, wore a suit as well, but topped it with a jeans jacket.

Manvir agreed that education was a priority, but was less certain about the traditional stands on dating and marriage. She doesn’t really mind not being able to date, but some do, and hide their relationships, she confided.

“But you can’t,” interjected Jasmine. “That’s just the way we’re taught to think. We don’t think it’s strict. That’s our way of thinking.”

“Some people do it,” Manvir said, “But you have to listen to your parents.”

Manvir said her older sister, 21, wants to be a nurse and establish her career before marrying. But her parents are encouraging her to marry now.

“She said not yet, in a few years,” Manvir said, adding that they are pressuring her “a little bit.”

But Jasmine said that’s ultimately the parents’ decision.

“If they decided, I would listen to them. I would be respectful to my parents,” she said.

If there is a choice of spouse, it should be a Sikh, both said.

“Some parents, they let you choose the Indian guy you want, after education,” Manvir said.

“Some parents let their child marry a white person,” Jasmine said. “But it’s very rare.”

It is better to share the same religion, Jasmine explained.

“There’s really no choice,” she said. “You marry the person who has the same religion as you. We’re Sikh.”

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Taking care of business

Sikh family finds success in local grocery, liquor market

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

Tony Hans never expected it to be easy.

Twelve years ago, he arrived in America from India, with his wife, Balwinder Kaur, their two small children and $500.

He also held a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chandighar, but he cheerfully took his first job in a Bakersfield convenience store.

Now at 39, he owns three thriving grocery and liquor store businesses that are worth more than $1 million.

Was he ever afraid of failure?

“Never,” he pronounced with a gentle and unwavering smile. God creates success, Hans said confidently. God and hard work – in that order.

And that’s how the practicing Sikh prioritizes his life.

At his first convenience store job, Hans worked seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day before moving his family to Vallejo. There, he worked 16 hours a day at two jobs – one at a liquor store, the other at a gas station.

In 1994, his chance came. John’s Liquors, a long-established store on East Monte Vista in Vacaville, was for sale. Hans took his savings – $40,000 – and bought the business.

For the next nine months, he and his wife worked side by side until Hans bought Sky Parkway Market in Sacramento.

His wife handled the Vacaville store, while Hans headed the Sacramento venture.

Every day, he would leave Vacaville before dawn, open the Sacramento store at 7 a.m. and close it at 10 p.m. Then he’d pick up Balwinder at 11 p.m.

The couple’s work day was typically 16 hours.

“Then, we would start over in the morning,” Hans said.

His third investment was more risky – the purchase of a Fairfield grocery store with no liquor license.

“If the liquor license was not approved, I would be stuck,” Hans said.

But the license came through, and Liquor Tree is now one of the family’s three businesses, which employ a total of six workers.

For his next venture, he plans to buy a motel, he said.

After 11 years of hard work, Hans and his wife of 18 years can finally go home at a reasonable hour. But they have no intention of retiring.

“It’s good to keep busy every day, especially around people,” Hans said. “If you work, then everything will go smoothly.”

It’s a lesson he plans to pass on to his children – Ricky, 16 and Sukhpreet “Simmi,” 14, both students at Will C. Wood High School – but not by forcing them to work at the family’s store.

“It’s their choice,” he said. “I will never insist they come and work here.”

Hans sees himself as a counselor to his children, eager to support them in whatever path they choose. Ricky is interested in the computer field, and Simmi wants to be a lawyer.

“If I feel something is wrong, I will tell them, but if they don’t want to listen to me, that’s their life,” Hans said.

Hans’ drive and work ethic are typical of immigrants from his native Punjab, India, where a five-day work week would be considered a luxury.

While many of those who come from India have four-year degrees, they are often forced – because of the language barrier – to take jobs working long hours in convenience stores, gas stations, or driving taxi cabs.

That willingness to work any job is just one reason Hans prefers to hire Punjabis. He points to Jaspal Madan, his clerk at John’s Liquors in Vacaville, who he calls reliable and trustworthy.

“If we have some problems, if I have to go somewhere, I can call him and he will be here within a half an hour,” Hans said.

Madan, 29, has lived in America for four years and has worked for Hans about a year and a half. Like Hans, he holds a four-year degree but labors over the English language.

Hans knows that Madan may eventually sock away enough money to move on to his own business venture.

“One day, God will give you the gift,” he told him. “One day, if you work hard.”

Although the stores have been successful, Hans and his staffers have experienced a few problems with racism, especially after 9/11. Although there were no incidents in the Vacaville store, they had some trouble in Fairfield. And the recent war in Iraq has brought a resurgence of hateful remarks.

“I’ve been told, ‘Saddam Hussein, you go back.’ Or, ‘You Arabians, go back,”‘ he said.

Simmi said it’s all about looks.

“They see that you are Indian, so they automatically think you are of that race,” she said.

But the family shrugs and laughs – especially when they talk about a customer who tried to strike a deal at the Fairfield store, Hans said.

The customer said that if granted a bargain, he would fly an Iraqi flag on his car – just for Hans.

“An Iraqi flag on his car – he would do that to please me,” Hans laughed.

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Sharing a Heritage

Cultural association strives to educate public

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

Every day, Sikh-American Gurpreet Dhugga wears his sky blue turban to his job as a physician at Kaiser Permenente Medical Center in Fairfield.

But in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as fear gripped the nation, local Sikhs found themselves being mistaken for extremist Muslims.

Dhugga, 36, decided to explain about the significance of his turban to his staff and colleagues.

“The response was so positive and enthusiastic, I felt that we should do it on a larger scale,” said Dhugga, a native of Punjab, India, who now lives in Green Valley.

Eleven other Sikh-American professionals and businessmen who worship at the rural Fairfield Guru Nanak Sikh Temple agreed and formed the Punjabi American Cultural Association. The initial goal was to educate the public in order to counter the backlash Sikhs endured following 9/11.

“We have such a rich heritage and culture, and we feel very proud of who we are. We need to tell people about it, and we want to remove any misunderstandings,” Dhugga said. The images of turbaned terrorists on television screens in American homes created the misunderstanding and fostered hate crimes against Sikhs, Dhugga said, noting that no major hate crimes occurred in Solano County.

But one Sikh was murdered in Arizona, and people working in convenience stores and out in the public had a very tough time doing their jobs, he said.

“It’s was our responsibility to educate people about ourselves,” Dhugga said. “We have to act proactively to avoid any further misunderstandings. If we keep up with our efforts, we will be able to be a part of mainstream America when the people look at the person, not the appearance.”

Nearly two years later, the association has worked tirelessly to achieve that mission – to educate mainstream America about Punjabi culture and Sikhism, and educate young Sikhs about their heritage, Dhugga said.

“We keep growing, and I think if we are able to achieve our objectives, Solano County could be a very ideal place for Sikhs to live in,” he said. “We know it’s not going to be easy, and needs continuous efforts for years and years.”

While the association does not claim to be a religious organization, the Sikh religion has a profound effect on the Punjabi culture, Dhugga said.

Punjab – which means land of five rivers – is a state in northwest India, bordered by Pakistan on the west and Jammu and Kashmir on the north. Punjabis have been emigrating to America and California for more than 100 years. Today, there are an estimated 500,000 living in the United States, and at least 700 families in Solano County. Most Punjabis practice Sikhism, a monotheistic religion originating 500 years ago in India.

Dhugga said Punjabis can be found in every part of India and the world, and “they are always successful” people.

“Wherever they go, the Punjabi people, with their nature – of accepting new challenges and overcoming them – has helped them to go anywhere and be successful.”

The group’s first effort to connect with mainstream American was to host “A Cultural Evening” on the anniversary of Sept. 11 that was dedicated to 9/11 victims. It was a successful event and helped them reach their objectives, Dhugga said.

This year, they are hosting a “Punjabi Heritage Festival” on Sept. 6 at the Fairfield Center for Creative Arts with a similar aim.

Meanwhile, the association has donated books on Sikhism and the Punjabi culture to the Fairfield Public Library, and plan on donating the same to all libraries. On the event of the Sikh Vaisakhi celebration, they donated nearly 3,000 pounds of food to the Solano County Food Bank.

“We organized the food drive to show our tradition of helping needy people. It was just a way of expressing our beliefs and values, and we are planning to continue it as a yearly event,” Dhugga said.

The ultimate goal of the association is to pave the way for Sikhs to enjoy the freedom of American culture, while at the same time keeping their identity, Dhugga said.

“I’m American, but I am very proud of my heritage and my rich culture,” Dhugga said. “I feel like I have the freedom to pursue my beliefs and my values, to teach my kids about the history of Punjabis and Sikh people, and still live a life as an American.

“This is our country now, but we need to keep our roots intact,” he said.

For more information about the Punjabi American Cultural Association, visit their Web site at

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Celebration highlights Sikh customs

By Barbara Smith/Reporter Staff

A celebration of the music, dance and history of northwestern India will be presented at the “Punjabi Heritage Festival” 5 p.m. Saturday in Fairfield.

Hosted by the Punjabi American Cultural Association, this is the second annual event the group has held dedicated to the victims and heroes of 9/11. At the same time, the event will celebrate the diversity of the nation. The festival is free, and will be held at the Fairfield Center for Creative Arts, 1035 Texas St.

The Punjabi American Cultural Association is a group of Sikh-Americans who formed to both educate the community about their people and celebrate the culture of Punjab, a state in northwest India that means the “land of five rivers,” said Dr. Gurpreet Dhugga, spokesman from the association.

At least 700 families living in Solano County today are from Punjab, a largely agricultural area with traditions such as the Giddha – a ladies dance – and Bhangra dances that will take the stage Saturday.

Bhangra is a folk dance that started with the celebration of the harvesting season and the fruits of their hard labor in the old times, Dhugga said.

“It is very colorful, very upbeat and an enthusiastic dance,” he said.

Also featured will be authentic east Indian cuisine, which is complimentary by tradition.

“Hospitality is a major part of our tradition, we love to entertain people,” Dhugga said. “You can go anywhere in the world, to a Sikh temple, and you will get food, even in the middle of the night.”

Also featured will be Bruce La Brack, professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, who will offer a presentation on the immigration of Punjabis to the American shores; state Sen. Mike Machado, D-Solano; professional Punjabi singer Janice Miller; a performance by the Christian Life Center, Fairfield chorus; and historical exhibits.

Preserving the history and traditions of Punjab is paramount to Sikhs in America, said Bhupinder Sandhu, a second generation Sikh-American and member of the association.

Sandhu, 51, for 10 years taught the Punjabi dialect to his American-born children, and other youngsters to keep the language alive so that they could communicate with their relatives.

“It’s a natural tendency to hold on to your way of life,” Sandhu said.

“We want to make sure they are proud of their country, but at the same time, we want them proud of their ancestry.”

Sandhu said he’s not worried the culture of Punjab eventually being lost, but there is a transition under way. Sandhu’s grandchildren will be fourth-generation Sikhs in America.

“I’ve met people from many countries. My impression is that everybody is the same. They have the same needs, the same feelings. There is no difference,” he said. “We can learn so much about other people, but the first thing we should learn about is our roots,” Sandhu said.

Dhugga and the association are hoping that area school teachers will attend the event.

“We feel that if the teachers are aware of Sikhs and Punjabis, then it will be easier for them to teach the other children who have a lot of questions about children with different appearances,” he said.

Admission is free, but seating capacity is limited. For more information, call 428-7662, or visit the Punjabi American Cultural Association Web site at

Barbara Smith can be reached at


Dining the Sikh Way

Traditional temple meal features Indian-style vegetarian dishes

By Karen Nolan/Reporter Staff

Six o’clock on a Sunday morning, and the kitchen attached to the Guru Nanuk Sikh Temple in rural Fairfield has been teeming with activity for two hours already.

A tub full of eggplant is waiting to be sliced. Peeled potatoes sit covered in water. On two nearby tables, 500 handmade and now frozen samosas – triangle-shaped pastries filled today with boiled potatoes, peas, cilantro and jalepnos – are thawing.

An industrial-sized cooking pot filled with spinach, mustard greens, broccoli and cabbage – freshly purchased at a farmer’s market and finely chopped the night before – simmers on a stove.

At another burner, Gurmeet K. Chanda employs a wooden paddle almost as tall as she is to stir an equally large pot filled with milk and rice that will become this afternoon’s dessert.

And eight people are waiting for a pair of grills to heat up so they can begin the assembly-line process of making roti, a traditional flatbread that Sikhs in Solano County call “tortillas.”

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about all of this hubbub is that it is so very ordinary within the Sikh community.

Every Sunday – and often on other days as well – a Sikh family assumes the duty of feeding breakfast and lunch to the hundreds of people who come to worship at the Rockville Road temple.

Feeding worshipers at the temple, or gurdwara, is a tradition that dates back more than 500 years, to the founding of the Sikh religion by Guru Nanak Dev in India, according to “The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions,” edited by John Bowker.

Part outreach and part convenience, the community kitchen, known as a “langar,” served both the poor and those who traveled great distances to attend services.

As a religion that preached equality in a culture accustomed to castes, the ability to have people of all backgrounds work together to prepare food and then sit and eat as one proved a very real way of putting faith into practice.

As Sikhs have spread out across the globe, they have had to make minor adaptations to the langar custom, but the heart of the tradition remains intact.

The men and women who prepare the food, for instance, still keep their heads covered while working in the kitchen. Only vegetarian food is prepared, so as not to exclude anyone whose dietary practices may forbid meat.

And, while appetizers and breakfast foods can be eaten at any time, dishes prepared for the main feast cannot be tasted – even by the cooks – until they have been blessed in the temple.

Even the bread-making process hearkens to the community’s roots in India.

The recipe is simple, according to Sarjeet Nagra of Vallejo, who attended a special Saturday night langar – the word now refers to both the kitchen and the meal itself – put on by a family praying for an ailing relative.

Mix flour and water to form a dough and “at the end, add a teaspoon of oil so it doesn’t stick,” Nagra says. Pat out the dough and roll it into either a circle or square. Cook it on a griddle or grill and top it with butter or ghee. “It’s the recipe I give everybody at work.”

The flour Nagra uses is not typical American white flour, but a special blend of wheat and malted barley. Available in Indian groceries, its label clearly states it is for roti.

As with all directions handed down by demonstration rather than recipe cards, Nagra’s instructions to do not fully account for the nuances of roti-making.

“This is how we learned,” Kamaljeet Singh Dhanda of Vallejo says as she watches her 16-year-old daughter add another cream-colored circle of dough to a grill, where more than a dozen flatbreads in various stages of doneness are cooking.

Constant motion is among the tricks to perfect roti, and Singh Dhanda deftly wields a spatula to flip roti after roti until they are deep golden in color and splotched with dark brown circles, signifying the air bubbles that have formed in the unleavened dough.

From the grill, the rotis go to Singh Dhanda’s 15-year-old daughter, who runs a stick of butter over the tops and wraps them, in batches of 25, in foil. To keep them warm for dinner, the foil packets are placed in a pair of insulated and cloth-lined coolers.

Grilling roti keeps Singh Dhanda’s hands and eyes busy, but gives her time to talk about her life. Like a number of Sikhs at the Fairfield temple, she was born in Fiji and grew up eating taro root rather than potatoes in traditional Indian recipes.

Since taro is available in local markets, it regularly crops up in dishes at the Fairfield temple. Singh Dhanda, however, switched to potatoes after marrying her India-born husband 18 years ago. The couple came to the Bay Area shortly after they married, and their three daughters were born here.

When the youngest child, now 10, reached school-age, Singh Dhanda enrolled in Napa Valley College and became a licensed vocational nurse. She works in a convalescent care home in Vallejo.

As Singh Dhanda talks and turns the roti, the assembly line at the table behind her stays in constant motion. Two and sometimes four people attack the mountain of dough, pinching off egg-sized chunks and expertly rolling them into balls. Another pair of workers takes rolling pins to the balls, flattening them into uniformly shaped circles about 1/4-inch thick. The entire process, which will produce some 500 rotis, will take 2 1/2 hours.

The sheer number of hands needed to make this many flatbreads puts roti production at center stage. But there are other preparations going on in other areas of the commercial kitchen.

Kamaljeet’s husband, Tara Singh Dhanda, is supervising the creation of a yogurt-based side dish. He dumps five 64-ounce cartons of fat-free yogurt into a 5-gallon bucket, then adds buttermilk until the container is nearly full.

Meanwhile, a couple of 14-ounce bags of “plain boondi” – tiny balls of dried graham flour, oil and salt, available in Indian markets – have been allowed to soak for about five minutes in warm water. The boondi is drained and, along with a coffee-grinder full of ground cumin seeds, added to the yogurt-buttermilk mixture, which has been transferred to a larger bowl.

Boondi adds a bit of texture to the soupy yogurt-buttermilk mixture, which itself provides a cool contrast to dishes spiced with jalapenos.

While Indian food can be fiery hot, dishes prepared for the langar are kept tame because not every Sikh enjoys spicy food.

For those who do, however, there will be what Tara Singh Dhanda calls “pickles.” To a large can of Achar Pachranga – mangoes, limes, chiles and other fruits or vegetables seasoned with fenugreek, fennel, coriander, turmeric, red chilies, cumin and negalb and packed in oil – he will add julienned carrots, rings of red onions and fresh jalapenos.

Nearly every langar meal also includes “sagg,” or cooked greens. While the Singh Dhanda family’s recipe calls for mustard leaves, broccoli, spinach and cabbage, a sagg prepared for Saturday’s langar included taro leaves, again reflecting the Fijian influence.

Food for each langar must be freshly prepared, and at one point Saturday night an industrial-sized pot of hot sagg could be seen simmering next to an equally large pan of cut greens that would become Sunday’s dish.

It’s a lot of food, but little goes to waste. Diners and hosts alike take home the leftovers. “We don’t believe in throwing away food,” says Nagra.

Once the main langar meal has been prepared, a scoop of each dish will be put in bowls that are covered and placed at the altar in the temple. After the food has been blessed, it will be returned to the kitchen and mixed back into the larger pots.

The “blessing food” can then be served in the dining hall, which itself reflects a changing culture: Half the area is spread with rugs and mats for those who keep the tradition of sitting on the floor. The other half contains simple tables and folding chairs for those who prefer to follow the American custom.

The main meal won’t be served until well past noon – a long time to go without nourishment, especially for those who have been cooking all morning. To stave off hunger, a breakfast of “appetizers” is made available to all.

There are the ubiquitous sweets, many of which are purchased from shops or restaurants, such as Stara Indian Cuisine in Vallejo. There is homemade chai, a loose-leaf tea simmered with milk and sugar and flavored with fennel seeds, cloves or cardamom.

And there are hot appetizers, including the samosas, deep fried to a golden brown, and freshly made pagoras: deep-fried, fritter-like balls of spinach and potatoes, spiced with ginger, garlic, green peppers, salt, cilantro and jalapenos and held together with a batter of buttermilk and graham flour.

Both are served with chutney or ketchup, which provide a sweet contrast to the mouthful of flavor imparted by the jalapenos.

While breakfast doesn’t officially start until 10 a.m., some worshipers begin arriving shortly after 9.

“It’s fine,” says Tara Singh Dhanda as he hastily sets up the serving bar. “That’s why we are here – to serve them. And sometimes we come early, too.”

* * *

Among the main langar dishes, vegetable curry is a favorite. It is also easy to prepare at home, albeit in smaller proportions, according to Sarjeet Nagra of Vallejo and Basant Sidhu of Vacaville.

Over a plate full of food at the Fairfield temple, they agreed on this recipe for Aloogobhi, a curry with potatoes and cauliflower.

(Potato and Cauliflower Curry)

2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 teaspoon mustard seed
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/2 onion
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
Fresh serrano or jalapeno chile, minced (amount according to taste, or omit altogether)
Curry spices: 1 teaspoon masala, 1 teaspoon tumeric
Salt, to taste
2 medium potatoes, cubed 1 head cauliflower

Heat the oil over medium high heat with the mustard seeds and cumin.

Add onion, garlic, ginger and chili pepper and sautee until the onion is translucent. Add the curry spices and mix well

Add the potatoes and cauliflower. Cover the pot and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are cooked through.

Serve with rice and roti.

Foods similar to those served at a langar will be available during the Punjabi Heritage Festival, which begins at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Fairfield Center for Creative Arts, 1035 Texas St. Admission is free, but seating is limited. Call 428-7662 or visit the Punjabi American Cultural Association’s Web site,

Barbara Smith can be reached at