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Everyone Loves a Parade ... Parbhaat Pheri, Jaloos, Nagar Kirtan



A good friend who is a very dedicated Sikh was telling me about their gurdwara, somewhere in Middle America.

Gurdwaras exist for many reasons, but the major one is to preserve and transmit our inimitable heritage and traditions. There is also no question that religion and culture are interminably intertwined and intermixed.

This gurdwara, like many others here in North America, tried to recapture and reproduce some of our rich and timeless traditions. It started what in Punjab would be termed a "Parbhaat Pheri", and then grew in modern times into, first, a "Jaloos" - a parade or assembly - and then into a "Nagar Kirtan."

In Sikh parlance, "Parbhaat" is dawn and "Pheri" stands for a round trip. Also "Kirtan" refers to singing of the liturgy and the word "Nagar" stands for town or locale.

What Sikhs at that gurdwara had done was to collect in the early morning of a Sikh holy day and organize what they termed a Nagar Kirtan. Except that there were few Sikhs in the area, and the non-Sikhs might have looked askance at the practice. So, instead of going into the town while singing hymns, these Sikhs walked around their own empty gurdwara building half a dozen times.

And when I heard about this, naturally, I wondered.

The antecedents of Nagar Kirtan are in the Parbhaat Pheri. In India, wherever a sizeable population of Sikhs exists, it is not uncommon to find that on the days immediately preceding Sikh high holidays, usually before daybreak, early in the morning, Sikh men, women and children would assemble at a gurdwara, and then start on a leisurely tour through the area, while singing or chanting hymns from the Guru Granth.

When such an assemblage of Sikhs singing hymns (Prabhat Pheri) approached a Sikh home, the group might stop awhile and serenade the family with the singing of gurbani. The residents would come out to listen and thank the sangat, even offering them or their gurdwara some modest gifts, and certainly a cup of tea and snacks. The whole trek might take an hour or two, depending on the size of the community.

Often the communities were mixed - of Sikhs and non-Sikhs. Like all good neighbours, even the non-Sikhs joined in and enjoyed the Sikh Parbhat Pheri.

In my growing up years, many times I woke up to the sound of music and gurbani from a Parbhat Pheri.. On cold winter mornings, it is far superior to the rude awakening that comes with an alarm clock.

There is a magic in the practice.

Over the years of living away from Sikhs, Punjab, Punjabis and India, I pushed the memory to the back of the mind, and there it remained in hibernation.

But I must have missed it, particularly when I lived where I heard no Punjabi spoken and met no Sikhs. I must have wanted to recapture the spirit because quite unthinkingly of the connection, several years ago, I joined a group of my neighbours doing the exact same routine.

One critical exception: they were all Christians, singing carols around Christmas time. And I enjoyed it immensely.

I am sure the practice of carolling lives in small town America, but it has almost disappeared from the big Apple; the only way now is to listen to it on the tube.

In New York this year, as I was listening with half an ear to some carols on television, in a strange time warp my mind jumped to conflate the Parbhat Pheri of my childhood with the carolling that I saw and did years ago in Oregon.

The two are kissing cousins. But what I could not reconcile was the idea of singing hymns while walking around an empty building when anyone and everyone from within was outside singing.

I would imagine the purpose of both is to bring the community of believers together in a joyous commemoration and celebration by the believers of a faith, and to attempt the building of bridges of understanding with others in the neighborhood.

In circumambulating an empty building, however, we seem to have remembered the mechanics of a ritual - nostalgia - without recapturing any of its meaning.

Parbhat Pheris still exist in India but from them has evolved a larger more organized celebratory procession that in India goes by the name of Nagar Kirtan.

Many of the larger cities in America are now dotted with Sikh Parades that most likely emerged out of Nagar Kirtans but serve a somewhat different purpose.

I recently attended the 30th Annual Sikh Parade in Yuba City, California.

There was a sea of turbans in all shades of the rainbow. Estimates speak of 50,000 or as many as 75,000 people marching in the parade. This acquires special meaning for me when I recall that when I came to New York in 1960 there were perhaps no more 3 or 4 recognizable Sikhs in the whole city, and in Oregon where I went to graduate school, I was the only Sikh in town.

At the Yuba City Parade helicopters showered flower petals. The entire route (a couple of miles) was closed to all traffic. There must have been over 60 floats. Live television coverage was extensive but local, and reporters from as far as New York and British Columbia were there.

Vendors had come from all corners of U.S.A. and Canada to set up a small town - an open market of stalls. There wasn't anything remotely Sikh, Punjabi or Indian that one could not find in this veritable flea market. There was tons of free food and a mind boggling variety of it, all along the parade route.

An unending number of volunteers kept the route clean of all debris and garbage. It was like being in Punjab - just a lot cleaner and better organized.

Such parades on the streets of North America are important to us. They tell our neighbours that we are here; that this land is now our home too, as it is theirs.

Now, the question is: what do we want to say about ourselves and our place in this society that has opened its doors to us?

We have a long and checkered history in North America. We know that Sikhs have been integral to this continent and this nation for well over a hundred years. This is a significant chunk in a country that traces its modern history to just over 200 years.

Yet, it took us almost half that time to win some basics - the right to vote, to compete for jobs and acquire land. Even today, a hundred years later, many issues remain, such as incidents of mistaken identity, our right to serve as Sikhs in the armed services, etc. At stake is an equal place for us at the table of this multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious society.

There are now third and fourth-generation Sikhs in California and British Columbia who proudly look to their Punjabi Sikh heritage, even though many of them remain only remotely connected to Sikh practices.

Many of their non-Sikh neighbours were at the parade. But we had no literature adequate enough to appeal to them or inform them properly about us. Of the over 60 floats that comprised the parade, most if not all, bar one, said very little that a non-Sikh could look at and be informed. Most floats presented replicas - some excellent, others not so great - of the Harmandar (Golden Temple), the premier gurdwara of the Sikhs.

They did not have a theme or a message; nor did they engage the viewer.

The sole exception that I noticed was a float constructed by young college students that highlighted the events of 1984, in which several thousand innocent Sikhs were slaughtered with the connivance of the Indian government and now, 25 years and 10 Inquiry Commissions later, justice still languishes.

Whether one agrees with the content or takes some exception to it, the point is that there was a message that both Sikhs and non-Sikhs could have a conversation about.

The early Sikh settlers over 100 years ago made Yuba City and surrounding areas their home. Their progeny lives there even now. They fought valiantly for their rights - inequality in a land that sanctioned inequality. And now they have carved an honoured place in this society. Our American Sikh presence starts from there.

My thoughts went to our colourful century-old history here and I thought two to five floats could be developed that serially retold our narrative in this country. Let us not miss the intensity of the struggle to right the injustices around us. Progress came in small incremental steps; it was not linear.

Let us recreate the America of the early 1900's and what it was to be a Sikh in this country at that time. Let us show how the relaxation of immigration laws at the fag end of Lyndon Johnson's presidency impacted our community. How we built our gurdwaras and institutions? Let's highlight our success stories in almost all aspects of American life - business, entrepreneurship, science and technology, academia, sports, even politics.

We need to tell where we started, where we are now and where we are headed. Events post 9/11 reinforce what we already know - there are some matters that still remain for us to explore and fix so that we have an equal place in this great society. This is our history here and we need our neighbours alongside us in our journey and our narrative.

Why not then turn our parades and Nagar Kirtans into teaching moments for our neighbours and for us both? A few appropriate floats would do the trick.

Now, that would make a difference.

It would teach our young Sikhs who are unconnected to the history that they carry as well as our non-Sikh neighbours about who we are, what we are and why we are the way we are.

Such floats could become vignettes of history that travel across the country to other Sikh and non-Sikh parades as well.

Don't mistake me: Nostalgia is good; it is psychologically comforting and necessary, even essential. But let's not limit our stepping out parades to only recapture the sights, sounds and smells of Punjab.

I assure you that at the Yuba City Parade the fun and food were absolutely unforgettable. Sikhs sure know how to throw a party.

November 30, 2009

Conversation about this article

1: T. Sher Singh (Guelph, Ontario, Canada), November 30, 2009, 1:33 PM.

I recall the parbhaat pheris from my childhood, growing up in Patna, Bihar, India. They were amrit velaa events and followed a different route every morning, starting at the same gurdwara but culminating at a different household, which would have pre-arranged for everybody to have tea and breakfast langar. A lot of fun was had by all, especially the kids, even though much of it happened before sunrise. These were organized for approximately two weeks before a Gurparab, and served an additional purpose: the route each time would be carved out to touch a number of Sikh households on the way ... the group stopped outside every such home for a few minutes and regaled the neighbourhood with shabads and kirtan. It created an incredible feeling of community, which was invaluable to us who lived far away from Punjab and were very much a minority. The closest thing I can think of, in terms of the sounds associated with the experience, is the Jewish Klezmer band. But even more so, the traditions around Christmas carolling which still prevail in small communities around where I live now in Canada, has eerie similarlities. The spirit and atmosphere, the joie de vivre and the camaraderie are identical. Finally, I know that parbhaat pheris are still going strong back in Punjab and in some scattered communities in the diaspora.

2: Hari Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 30, 2009, 4:48 PM.

There are two parades held in the Greater Toronto area during the Vaisakhi celebrations. The crowds that turn out are simply unprecedented ... the last few years have seen 80,000 + in downtown Toronto alone. However, once past the initial euphoria, it is sad to see the poor quality of the floats. The organizers should make it a point to attend some of the mainstrean Canadian and American parades, and maybe even hire some of the skilled talent that creates their floats. Our floats should be better, if anything! The current state of affairs is inexcusable. We are four months away from the next Vaisakhi. Guys! NOW is the time to start getting your act together.

3: Tejwant Singh (Nevada, U.S.A.), November 30, 2009, 9:58 PM.

Inder ji, in the fear of indulging into me-ism, allow me to gather some courage and express myself regarding your thought provoking essay. It seems that you have been reading my mind about the Nagar Kirtans outside India. In Ferozepore, my hometown, a parbhaat pheri took place the day of the beginning of the Akhand Paatth for the Gurpurab, which would then be celebrated on the third day following. The jaloos always took place on the second day. In other words, it was always three days of celebrations, which was fantastic because my family used to participate actively during all of those three days. These were part of my life from a very young age till the age of 16 when I left India for London. The nagar kirtan in Los Angeles which takes place every Vaisakhi is celebrated jointly by all the gurdwaras, including the 3HO gurdwara, at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The nagar kirtan starts and ends there after going through some streets. Coincidentally, the timing and the location is that the Staples Center - the home of the Los Angeles Lakers - is also situated in the same complex and during the Sunday when the nagar kirtan is held, there is also a Lakers game being played next door. The interesting thing about this is because it is the end of the basketball season, so all games become very important. Due to this, the opportunity for a bigger and better exposure about Sikhi is there waiting to be availed. Some years ago, I attended the nagar kirtan for the first time. Yes, there were floats but none with a message for the non-Sikh community. There was no TV or press coverage, nor were there any press releases about the event during the week. In other words, it seemed more like a get-together of the Sikh community for themselves. All were walking very quietly and anxiously waiting for the end of the nagar kirtan so that they could have refreshments back at the Convention Center. I thought it was a total waste of a great opportunity where the organizers missed the mark more than the Jamaican bob sled team in the 1988 Winter Olympics held in Calgary, Canada. The team at least got the attention and was admired for trying, whereas we failed to draw any attention towards the goodness of this beautiful way of life. A lot can be shared with the non-Sikh communities of this country before and during the nagar kirtans, and their effects can last long after the event is over, but provided it is done properly. Nagar kirtans can become part and parcel of Americana, like the singing of Christmas carols, for example, if they are done in a pro-active manner. Sikhi demands it from us.

4: M.K. Khalsa (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), December 01, 2009, 4:09 AM.

Yes! I fully agree with the desire to "... turn our parades and Nagar Kirtans into teaching moments for our neighbours and for us both"! But, as you've pointed out, "... we had no literature adequate enough to appeal to them or inform them properly about us". Fear of littering our precious literature could be the reason.

5: K. Singh (Boston, MA, U.S.A.), December 01, 2009, 10:22 AM.

I think the opportunity to educate/ create awareness about Sikhi is great at these events, but it is not only at these platforms that we need to use to talk about Sikhi. We all can and should do it all year round, when we are on the street, at the shopping mall, the grocery store, the train to work ... etc., etc. Organizations such as SALDEF, Sikh Coalition and United Sikhs have created simple and wonderful pamphlets and education points to explain Sikhi to the non-Sikh world. We can use and take advanatage of them; in fact, they encourage us to do so!

6: Ravinder Singh Taneja (Westerville, Ohio, U.S.A.), December 02, 2009, 9:50 PM.

The idea of turning Nagar Kirtans into teaching moments is excellent and one the I intend to raise with our local gurdwara committee.

7: Navraj Arora (London, United Kingdom), December 03, 2009, 12:51 PM.

Not everyone loves Nagar Kirtans. In Southhall, U.K., when a 'Nagar Kirtan' takes place, it creates a nightmare for road traffic. I have witnessed drivers cursing and venting their anger at being inconvenienced by road closures. Hardly endearing to the general public. The state of the roads and the footpaths after the 'Nagar Kirtan' is chaotic. Left-over food, oil,cans, bottles, are carelessly discarded all over the place. What is the point of all this? Do you really think that other communities will appreciate Sikhism after all this. There are better ways to promote our religion than cause traffic jams and litter the streets. [EDITOR: As for littering, the Sikh communities across North America are considered exemplary in how clean they leave the streets behind them. There is no excuse for leaving behind litter. They should be fined under local laws until they learn! Re your other point: Are you suggesting that all parades - including the Santa Claus parades, the Royal family's soirees, the Orange parades, etc. - should be banned as well, or just the Sikh parades?]

8: Navraj Arora (London, United Kingdom.), December 03, 2009, 1:43 PM.

I do not see the point of any parade, be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Sikh. On a slightly different note, I had the pleasure of attending a documentry screening of 'The Flying Sikhs' a week ago at the R.A.F. museum. The role of Sikh fighter pilots was highlighted in this documentry, which was made by a young Sikh. I felt immensly proud of the contribution made by our Sikh fighter pilots in World Wars I & II. And I am sure that there are countless more Sikhs who have made tremendous sacrifices and contributions in all fields during the past and present. That is what we should portray to the general public.

9: Dupinder Kaur Sidhu (New Jersey, U.S.A.), December 04, 2009, 8:41 AM.

Great article. Keyline is "Why not then turn our parades and Nagar Kirtans into teaching moments?". Reading other comments, we all agree that these parades are great opportunities to educate non-Sikhs about Sikhism and Punjab. I have been coming to the Vaisakhi Parade in New York City for a number of years. But every year, I walk away thinking this is great for Punjabis and Sikhs. But non-Sikhs will walk away knowing nothing more about us. There is no better opportunity than Broadway in New York City to raise awareness about Sikhi. The floats need be more creative and informational about our history, heritage, beliefs, etc.

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