An enclave of faith
In Hillsborough, Sikhs come together to worship God and honor their guru.
By SHERRI DAY
Published March 18, 2007
THONOTOSASSA - After sunset, worshippers hold a service in honor of the guru.
They approach the altar with clasped hands, kneel deeply and bow. Some present money. Others whisper prayers.
Someone fans the guru while worshippers sit cross-legged on the floor and sing songs in the Indian language of Punjabi.
"The divine light is within everyone," they sing, accompanied by an accordion-like harmonium and pulsating tabla drums. "You are that light. By the guru's teaching, this divine light is revealed."
The guru, which sits covered beneath a colored vestment and elevated above the worshippers, is not human, though it has its own bedroom and wardrobe of fancy clothes.
The guru is a book of scripture.
But to Sikhs, it is alive, the word of God handed down by 10 human teachers, including Guru Nanak, who founded Sikhism in the 15th century.
"This is the very spiritual embodiment of all the gurus," said Mohan Singh, the granthi or high priest of the Sikh temple. "We consider it our living guru. There is a tradition that our guru is here."
At night, Singh lifts the book from the altar, swaddles it in white cloth and helps hoist it atop the head of a waiting man. Together, they begin the slow procession to its resting place, a small room where they gingerly place the scripture in bed, nestling it between three small pillows. They cover it with a colored cloth, and take care to turn out the light.
In the morning, Singh will greet the guru with songs and a nearly two-hour service. Clad in fresh vestments, the guru sits on the temple's altar all day, snug between pillows and ready to receive worshippers.
Sometimes, Singh's family joins him. Often, he does his duty alone.
A young religion
Singing scriptures from the guru and reading from its more than 1,400 pages of hymns is high worship for Sikhs, followers of one of India's youngest religions.
In India, people stream in and out of Sikh temples all day. But here, in the bay area, where Christianity and Judaism are dominant, only a handful of people gather weekly at the Tampa Gurdwara or temple to practice Sikhism, a monotheistic faith that has its roots in India and Pakistan. Numbers dwindle at the Morris Bridge Road temple during the week, with worshippers hampered by over-scheduled lives and congested roadways.
Singh's son, Dr. Raman Singh, uses the Internet to bridge the gap. He videotapes services and lectures and posts them on Google Video.
"We have been using technology to keep our community together," Dr. Singh said. "We are involved in this so we can pass on this heritage to the next generation."
Searching for identity
Dr. Gursagar Singh, a Clearwater veterinarian, comes to the gurdwara weekly and wears a turban every day. He also keeps his hair uncut, a religious mandate for devout Sikhs. Singh, 54, expects his children to do the same, a path with little friction during his nearly 20 years in Clearwater.
Then came Sept. 11, 2001.
After that, teenagers called him a terrorist as he shopped with his daughter at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Administrators at a Pinellas County private school refused to admit his children unless they cut their hair. Perplexed, Singh found another, more tolerant school.
Sikhs, Singh and others at the temple say, have a problem: Few people know who they are and what they believe.
"People misunderstand our identity," said Devinder Sethi, a Tampa business owner and manager of the gurdwara. "We are not Muslim. We are Sikh. I'm really proud of my religion."
Still Singh, like others, feels pressure to fit in. He wants his children to become sports stars and help break down barriers for Sikhs in the public square.
"I was trying to tell my kids, 'You need to become a golfer and a tennis player so everybody will see you on television so they can see that Sikhs are like us,'" Singh said. "I tried my hardest, but my kids have so much homework. I'm still pushing them."
Young men at the temple learn to perfect answering questions from curious classmates about their headdress.
"I've been teaching them and enlightening them about what Sikhism is all about," said Neal Singh, a 16-year-old sophomore at Palm Harbor University High School. "It's made me strong in my beliefs and my faith."
Still, the adults and children know the road to widespread understanding of their religion looms long. Most Americans can't even properly pronounce their religion's name. It rhymes with stick, not seek. And many Sikhs lack religious knowledge too.
"Everybody has forgotten," said the granthi Mohan Singh. "Not Sikhs in America. Sikhs in India also. People are going away from religion because materialism is the basic thing. We try (to impart) some scriptural guidance."
One God, one community
On Sundays, the crowds come. From Largo, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Zephyrhills, Tarpon Springs and Tampa. Services at the temple last for three hours.
On a recent Sunday morning, seven children settled onto a platform behind the musical instruments They took turns playing the instruments and reciting a portion of the morning prayer, a 38-stanza long scripture taken from the guru.
Sonia Sondhi, her head covered with an apricot scarf as a sign of modesty, stared straight ahead and began her recitation. She looked confident and strong, her voice rarely wavering.
"I was nervous," said Sonia, 11, sinking into her mother after she left the stage.
Anju Sondhi reassured her daughter. "You did good," she said, beaming with pride.
Her children enjoy coming to the temple.
"It's good for them," said Sondhi, who lives in Largo. "They know that they are different, but there are other kids who are like them."
Though lifelong learning is at the heart of Sikhism - the word Sikh means learner - the temple is also about community. Unlike many Christians and Muslims who believe their religion is the only true way, Sikhs don't encourage conversion. Instead, they invite people of all faiths to come and communion with them without fear, judgment or pressure.
"They believe in one God, so God is the same for everyone," said Sachiko Sidhu, a Buddhist from Englewood who comes to the temple with her Sikh husband. "When they pray, I pray in my Buddhist way."
In the Langar, or free kitchen, people of all socio-economic classes sit on the floor together and eat side by side.
At the Thonotosassa temple, families jockey to host the weekly after-worship meal. They consider it an honor and religious requirement to serve.
Fellowship ranks high too.
"People come here, and they get together and share society's problems," said Indu Singh, who lives in New Tampa. "It's like a home. It's like a family."
Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or firstname.lastname@example.orgAbout Sikhism
Origin: Founded in the 15th century by Guru Nanak, who at 30 was said to be called by God to preach and spread a new egalitarian faith. Nine spiritual teachers followed.
Central Tenets: Belief in one God, community service and hard work, rejection of the caste system. Reincarnation, with an ultimate goal of breaking the cycle.
Forbidden: Intoxicants, gambling, smoking, nose or ear piercings. Sikhs also denounce sexism, racism, magical rites, pilgrimages, astrology, yoga and fasting.
Size: About 24-million adherents worldwide, most in India. Five hundred thousand Sikhs live in the United States
In Bay Area: Religious leaders at the Tampa Gurdwara say 125 people attend services regularly.
For more information: Contact the Tampa Gurdwara, 15302 Morris Bridge Road, Thonotosassa, FL 33592, 813-986-6205 or www.tampagurdwara.org.
Sources: The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, The Best Guide to Eastern Philosophy and Religion.