'Passage from India': Suburban Sikhs find their children leading them back to their roots

  • A man washes himself in the waters that surround the sacred site of the Golden Temple in India's northern region of Amritsar. Although not mandatory, the action of washing oneself is common practice while visiting the site.

    A man washes himself in the waters that surround the sacred site of the Golden Temple in India's northern region of Amritsar. Although not mandatory, the action of washing oneself is common practice while visiting the site. M. Scott Mahaskey / Daily Herald, 2003

By Rukmini Callimachi
Updated 3/11/2017 9:51 PM

Editor's note: This story is republished from a 2003 series, "Passage from India," by former Daily Herald reporter Rukmini Callimachi. She traveled to the country with M. Scott Mahaskey, a former photographer for the newspaper.

AMRITSAR, Punjab -- Ipninder Singh was 4 years old when his mother quietly took him to a beauty salon, cut his long hair and folded his baby turban inside a drawer in their apartment in Glendale Heights.


Singh's father, Jasbir, had cut his own hair two years earlier, in 1983, six months after the Sikh family immigrated to the suburbs from Punjab, the Sikhs' home state in India.

"I really don't want to remember that day. It was as if I had lost a part of my body," said Jasbir Singh, 48.

In the Sikh tradition, which began 500 years ago, men wrap their long hair in turbans. They do not cut their beards, letting the hair cascade down their chests. They carry ceremonial swords.

But as Jasbir Singh discovered, the look makes potential employers uncomfortable. He had brought his family here from Punjab, one of the most prosperous states in India, and was living in a cramped rental, looking for work as a computer programmer.

"If you walk in wearing a turban, you stand out," he said. "They grill you twice as hard -- so you have to be three times better to get the job."

by signing up you agree to our terms of service

Sikhs, just 2 percent of India's population of 1 billion, always have been a minority, a footnote to the country's predominately Hindu composition.

In the suburbs, where about 2,500 Sikh families have migrated, they now are a minority within a minority -- according to the 2001 census there are about 125,000 Indian immigrants in the Chicago area.

While most Sikhs reside within 30 miles of the Palatine gurdwara, their place of worship, they don't settle in the same neighborhoods -- so when the turbaned, sword-carrying men pump gas or stand at the sidelines of a youth soccer game, they stand out.

But that is the point, said anthropologist and Sikh scholar Cynthia Keppley Mahmood of the University of Notre Dame. Their distinctive dress, she said, was born of the culture -- which came of age in the 17th century in the period of greatest religious persecution in India.


It was the time of the Mughal Empire, a kingdom of Muslims who imposed their religion along with their rule, executing Sikhs who refused to convert.

"Many Sikhs had been tempted to pass as Hindus or Muslims," said Mahmood. The dress was codified in 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, the last of 10 Sikh masters. "Their teacher purposely gave them these outward symbols to force them to stand up for their principles."

In the Palatine gurdwara, a painting dripping with red pigment leaves no room for argument. Its subject is a man with a flowing beard and a turban -- Taru Singh, killed in 1745, one of hundreds of Sikh martyrs.

He has just been scalped, his face and chest awash in acrylic blood.

"Rather than cut my hair," he is famous for having told the Muslim emperor trying to convert him, "I would rather have my head cut off."

But despite a past filled with bloody resistance, many Sikhs coming to the Chicago suburbs in the early 1980s tried to conform. They cut their hair, folded their turbans and left their swords at home.

The resurgence of the faith and the end to American conformity would start, in many instances, with their children.

Looking different

It began with name-calling. In third grade, he was called a Hindu, and it wasn't meant as a compliment.

"I'm not a Hindu, I'm a Sikh," Ipninder Singh, now 21, would tell his classmates at G. Stanley Hall School in Glendale Heights. "I was being teased for something I wasn't. But the problem was I wasn't even sure what I was."

The Sikh faith was founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak, first of the 10 Sikh masters, as a rejection of the ingrained caste system of Hinduism and the ritualism of Islam.

To underscore the caste-less state, Sikh men take the ritual surname Singh, meaning "lion." Women, regardless of their marital status, use the last name Kaur, or "princess," in order to denote both their stature and their equality.

The cornerstone of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest of the Sikh shrines, was laid by a Muslim saint, while the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh bible, is interwoven with teachings from both Hinduism and Islam.

But theirs is a separate identity -- immortalized in legends of gruesome martyrdom.

As a child, Ipninder Singh adored cartoons, especially G.I. Joe and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But at age 8, a different cartoon also caught his imagination -- the turbaned saints and martyrs of the Amar Chitra Katha comic books. Published in Bombay, Amar Chitra Katha is the Marvel Comics of India, the difference being that the action heroes are lifted from religious history.

The story of the martyrdom of the 8- and 9-year-old sons of Guru Gobind Singh, who were walled alive behind bricks when they refused to convert to Islam in 1704, stuck with Ipninder. The boys, he remembers thinking, were his age.

"If they can go to their death for their faith, then why can't I make the same commitment?" he asked himself.

On Sundays, the family went to the Palatine gurdwara and ate with other Sikhs. His father Jasbir, embarrassed to appear without religious attire, tied a turban around his head even though it was obvious his hair was short and his beard shorn.

He couldn't look at the painting of Taru Singh.

"It was like a slap in the face," he says now. "Look at what our forefathers have done for us. We can't even do that? Here, we have no price to pay, while there they paid the price in heads."

Inside the gurdwara, it was easy to be Sikh. But outside it still was a different world.

"On our way home," Ipninder recalled, "if Mom needed to stop at White Hen, my dad would make me go in and get the milk, because he didn't want to get out of the car with a turban on."

Ipninder Singh went to India over winter break that year. Inside a gurdwara, he saw a picture of Guru Gobind Singh, the master who had given Sikhs the symbols of the faith. His white beard flowed like a waterfall over his chest.

"When am I going to do this?" Ipninder Singh asked himself. He phoned his father and said, "Dad, I'm coming home, and I'm going to grow my hair."

Washed in blood

In winter, under a roof of stars, the faithful in Punjab begin washing the marble inside their holiest shrine, first with water, then with milk.

It is the men who scrub the wet stone, which becomes so cold it stings their feet.

Women, who are not allowed to clean the gilded interior of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, even though the religion teaches equality, wipe its outer staircase with the ends of their shawls. They kneel, placing their foreheads on the incandescent stone.

All through the night, the holy hymns of the Sikhs waft over the temple's walls.

It is as if the marble here is soaked in prayer.

Yet for three days in June of 1984, the Golden Temple was washed in blood.

Two years before, Sikh militants had barricaded themselves inside the temple and stockpiled weapons. In June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent forces to flush them out. They surrounded the temple on one of the holiest days of the Sikh calendar, the martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev, the fifth teacher.

For three days, the battle raged. When it ended, officials said more than 600 Sikhs and Indian security forces were dead. Mahmood, who has written extensively on "Operation Blue Star," as it was called, puts the deaths at 5,000.

Those inside had been listening to the sermon of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, considered a saint by many Sikhs and a terrorist by the Indian government. He and his followers demanded greater autonomy for Punjab and the return of lands that had been partitioned in 1947 into the neighboring state of Haryana.

Sikhs are divided in their allegiance to Bhindranwale, who died in Operation Blue Star and whose picture hangs in the Palatine gurdwara. But none can forgive the Indian government for attacking the temple.

"It's like attacking the Vatican on Christmas," Mahmood said. "There were literally thousands of people inside."

Four months later, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

That unleashed one of the worst riots in India's history. At least 2,000 Sikhs in Delhi and throughout the Punjab were killed -- many dragged from their houses, doused in kerosene and set afire.

Over the next decade, Sikh nationalists waged guerrilla war for an independent homeland they called Khalistan -- a fight that ultimately failed and left 1,748 Indian security forces dead, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. Punjab reportedly lost more than 10,000 civilians, according to Amnesty International.

Sikhs, said University of Northern Iowa historian Louis Fenech, refer to this period as the third ghalugara, or holocaust. Ghalugaras are periods of great martyrdom, when Sikhs have stood up for their faith at great risk.

In Lake Zurich in 1984, Amrit Kaur Dhillon, then 25, watched the news flickering on CNN.

Daily, she tried to call her family in Amritsar, especially her younger brother, Apar.

By her own admission, she was not yet a devout Sikh. But, like all who had grown up in the vicinity of the Golden Temple, she knew its sacred geography well. It was a space she had traveled as a little girl, holding on to her grandmother's hand.

They came for Amrit Kaur's brother, Apar Singh, in the middle of the night.

It was 1991, seven years after Indira Gandhi's assassination, but the movement for Khalistan raged on. In the eyes of the Indian military, every Sikh was a potential terrorist. Indian police routinely detained and tortured Sikh youths as a counter-insurgency measure, said an Amnesty International report.

There never was any explanation offered for Apar Singh's arrest. He and his family say he was not part of the Khalistan conflict and he wore his hair cut short.

"They put electrical wires under his toenails," said Amrit Kaur, 42, who now lives in Palatine. "That was the welcoming ceremony."

Now 40, Apar Singh still lives on the outskirts of Amritsar. In a blue room he stares up at a portrait of Guru Arjun Dev, who laid the foundation of the Golden Temple.

Guru Arjun Dev is best known for being the first Sikh martyr. At the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir he was made to sit on a sheet of red hot iron. Boiling water was poured over him. One legend says he died walking into a river, softly repeating the name of God.

But when Apar Singh was tortured, he said there was no room for thought and none for prayer. He fell unconscious; when he awoke, it began again.

They spread his legs apart until his groin bled.

"They tied his arms behind his back -- and pulled him up," Amrit Kaur said. "It split his shoulder blades apart."

She stared at the silk flowers lining her windowsill to keep her composure.

"It was time for me to think about who I was," Kaur said.

Many in the Sikh community here decided it was time to think. The troubles created a sudden sense of solidarity and a reaffirmation of a faith many had taken for granted.

"That was the turning point for all of us," said activist Kulmeet Singh, 35, of Clarendon Hills, who directs the Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy group. "Even though I have never cut my hair in my life, I like to say I didn't really have long hair until 1984. That's when I realized what it meant."

'Proud to be Sikh'

By the time Ipninder Singh enrolled at Ellis Middle School in Elgin, he was wearing a small bun covered by a patka, a cloth used by Sikh boys to cover their hair before graduating to the full turban.

He faced trouble weekly, sometimes daily. At recess, he wasn't included in play. He was kicked and kneed. Once he was punched outright. "I'm not a Hindu, I'm a Sikh. It's a different religion," he learned to say.

One teacher advised him to "leave his religion at home." Instead, he bought a "Proud to be Sikh" T-shirt from the gurdwara and walked defiantly through the school's halls. When another boy pulled off his patka and his hair came unraveled, he wasn't able to tie it back up. His mother came to school and silently retied it.

On a school bus, one of the most humiliating encounters occurred when another boy grabbed his coiled hair and shook the bun until it came undone.

He kept most of this from his parents. But some details slipped out.

"If my son can do it -- why can't I?" Jasbir Singh remembers thinking.

On his way to an interview at McDonald's corporate offices, Jasbir tied the turban as he would when he was going to the gurdwara.

"Come what may," he told himself. "Come what may."

He was hired.

Warrior princesses

It had been on Harvind Kaur's mind for some time.

A signboard in the Palatine gurdwara states the three objectives of the Sikh faith -- first, to preach the oneness of God. Second, to abolish caste.

But it is the third which has caught the imagination of young Sikh women: "To preach the equality of man and woman."

In the Sikh tradition, men are the soldier-saints and women are the warrior princesses.

Harvind Kaur, a 32-year-old television producer from Bensenville, had never so much as trimmed her hair -- which, like most Sikhs, she regards as the "guru's gift." Like men, Sikh women are not allowed to cut their hair, but nowhere in the Sikh scripture does it say they are required to wear the turban, said Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, a professor at Colby College who wrote a book about Sikh scriptures.

As Harvind Kaur was growing up, her mother taught her the gurbani, the Sikh religious poems. She also grew up steeped in a tradition that featured heroines like Mai Bhago, who in the 17th century taunted a group of Sikh soldiers for having deserted their guru in battle, then led them back to the battlefield herself.

In wall calendars, Mai Bhago rides a black steed and brandishes a silver sword. She also wears a golden turban.

For years it bothered Harvind Kaur that Sikh men alone bore the burden of the faith in their dress. In 1996, she went to her sister's house in Wisconsin for what she called a "trial run." In that refuge she tied the turban.

"If we're going to say that we're equal in all respects, then part of that means taking on the other challenges," she said.

After a few days of getting used to her new look, Harvind Kaur turned to her young niece and asked what she thought. "You kind of look like a boy," the girl told her.

"It confirmed everything I was doing," said Harvind. Strengthened, she went back to Chicago, where she was producing "Educate," a weekly program on issues in education for Channel 20, a PBS affiliate.

At first, she went about writing the shows in such a way as to limit her on-air appearances -- until her boss took notice. "Harvind, our viewers need to see you," her manager said.

"It was a real affirmation. Here was my boss, the general manager of a TV station. She was accepting me, even though I was wearing a turban," Kaur said.

There now are nearly 30 women at the Palatine gurdwara who wear the turban. Most made that decision as young women in the 1990s.

Eleven-year-old Manmeet Kaur of Bartlett already has decided. She is all warrior-princess on the outside. "No it doesn't bother me," she said of the black turban she wears to Nature Ridge School every day, where she is the only Sikh girl.

As far back as the 1400s, Guru Nanak defined God as both male and female and advocated the full participation of women in all aspects of the faith.

Despite that teaching, in modern India, Punjab has one of the highest rates of female infanticide and the ratio of girls to boys is falling, according to India's 2001 census. In the inner sanctum of the Golden Temple, women are not allowed to chant the holy scriptures, clean the floor, or help carry the holy book as it makes its grand entrance early each morning.

This is the growing divide between the second generation of Sikhs here and Sikhs in India, where the power of orthodoxy is non-negotiable and where traditional roles have slowly seeped back into daily life, said Colby College's Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh.

In 1998, Harvind Kaur and a group of young Sikhs from the Palatine gurdwara traveled to a Sikh village where they worked in a school. They also observed the practice of segregated gurdwaras and came home to talk about it, an act that itself was brimming with rebellion.

"Ask any Indian and they'll not say anything -- they're hiding their shame," said Harvind Kaur. "I'm a Sikh, but I'm also an American -- and I believe in facing the problem head on and saying, 'This is wrong.' It doesn't weaken the faith to say that. I know my religion is strong and true.'"

The future

For Sikhs in the suburbs, it's a lonely battlefield.

"I feel people staring at me -- but it's an old feeling now," said Ipninder Singh. Outside his dorm room at Benedictine University in Lisle, he usually is the only man in sight with a turban and flowing beard.

In corporate offices and suburban schools, it's the same. "For most of the day, once I step out of my house, I'm the only Sikh," said Kulmeet Singh.

But the self-consciousness, he said, is blended with a sense of pride.

"There's a certain strength that comes from it -- I am wearing the symbols of my people's sovereignty," he said.

Since Sept. 11, Sikhs often are mistaken for Muslims and sometimes taunted with slurs of "Osama." They are asked to remove their turbans at airport security check-ins.

"I was asked to take it off," said Kulmeet Singh, recalling an incident at O'Hare Airport. He told the screener, "That would be like me asking you to take your pants off."

The Sikh Coalition has worked to educate federal screeners about Sikh dress.

On the other hand, acceptance is growing in some places. In 1990, Sikhs in the Royal Mounted Canadian Police won the right to wear turbans instead of the uniform flat-brimmed hats.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich's main fund-raiser in the Indian community was newspaper owner Rajinder Bedi, a turbaned Sikh.

"Rod promised me that if he won he would make everyone in Illinois know what a Sikh is," said Bedi, who has stood on stages next to the governor at high-profile events -- a gesture, said Bedi, that might seem insignificant, but does a lot to help Sikhs gain acceptance.

But the greatest gain may be in the flowering of the Sikh community. The Palatine gurdwara will finish a $2 million expansion project this fall and there are gurdwaras in Chicago and Island Lake.

In the Chicago area, there are Sikh cultural societies, the weekly Punjab Times and Fulkari TV, a Punjabi-language television channel.

Every summer, Sikh bridegrooms ride white horses through the side streets of Palatine to the gates of the gurdwara. There, in a re-creation of an age-old Punjabi wedding custom, the turbaned bridegroom descends and greets his bride's family.

At one wedding last year, the bride, a picture-perfect Punjabi beauty, wore a red veil. But the bridegroom's mother and sister both wore turbans.

As the two groups met at the gurdwara's gate, the old world met the new.

To Ipninder Singh, it is a modern analogy that helps him make sense of what his ancestors taught.

"To be a policeman, you have to have a uniform on the outside," he said. "But you also have to have a code of ethics on the inside."

"It's the same with being a Sikh. You have an outward identity, which has to line up with an internal commitment."

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.