A Bolt of Cloth and an Enduring Ritual

October 17, 2008

Author: Joseph Huff-Hannin

Source: SALDEF/The New York Times


On this Sunday afternoon, the nerve center of the Sikh house of worship in Richmond Hill, Queens, was its industrial-size kitchen, where men, women and children pounded mounds of dough to make roti. Immense vats of eggplant, potato, spinach and onion simmered on huge stainless steel burners, supervised by a small army of volunteer choppers, stirrers, servers and pot scrubbers.

The volunteers at the Gurdwara Baba Makhan Shah Lobana, a cream-colored building topped with dark-blue turrets at 101st Avenue and 114th Street, were assisting in a Sikh tradition dating back 500 years: the preparation of the daily communal meal called the Langar. The free meal would bring to the temple about 2,000 people, the largest crowd of the week.

“Making the bread is the best part,” said Gurmehar Singh, an 8-year-old who was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “I’m bringing Sikhi back,” a play on Justin Timberlake’s chart-topper “SexyBack.”

From the red-tiled kitchen to the vast dining area, conversations in Punjabi ricocheted from gossip about families to subjects like forthcoming trips to India and the large number of foreclosures in this working-class neighborhood of tidy homes near the Long Island border.

In recent months, though, conversations at the temple have focused increasingly on prejudice against the city’s estimated 50,000 Sikhs, largely because the dastaar, the signature bolt of cloth that Sikh men and some women wrap around their hair, suggests to some people that the wearers are Islamic radicals.

The number of attacks against Sikhs rose sharply after 9/11, and the issue of discrimination re-emerged last month, when Mayor Bloomberg ordered new regulations to combat bullying based on bias in the city schools.