Singing turn by turn under the blue and gold canopy inside Guru Nanak temple, Houston Sikhs recently celebrated the birthday of Guru Gobind Singh—tenth of the eleven Sikh gurus.
Beginning Friday, Jan. 21, worshipers sang for three straight days and nights in one unbroken reading of the 1430-page Granth Sahib, the sacred text that Guru Gobind Sign named as his successor and the final guru of the Sikh faith.
“Oh it’s poetry—it’s just pure poetry,” said Balihar Vinning, who joined the reading.
Written between 1469 and 1708, Vinning said reading the Granth Sahib takes some practice. Like a poem or a song, he said each passage has its own rhythm to learn.
Seated cross-legged on the gurdwara floor, those who are listening to the passages often add to their rhythm through a call and response.
“Wahegrew,” a Punjabi term meaning God or “wonderful teacher,” is a word the congregation repeats throughout the reading. Visit any Sikh gurdwara from Vancouver to Amristar, India and Vinning said you are likely to hear people reciting wahegrew.
“It gives you peace of mind,” he said. “You connect yourself to God through that meditation.”
There are about 25 million Sikhs worldwide, making it the fifth largest faith in the world. In Houston, Vinning said the congregation has fallen from a peak of around 200 people to about 70 today.
Many young people in the community aren’t so eager to work in the sawmills, said Vinning, who has been with what is now Houston Forest Products since 1984.
Vinning said his daughter is now a teacher in Surrey while one son is a corrections officer and the other an economics major working for HSBC.
While Houston’s Sikh community is smaller than it was, it remains connected by tradition and in some new ways as well.
Guru Nanak has its own Apple iPad, for example, loaded with Sikh apps that translate and explain passages of the Granth Sahib.
“These have come a long way in the last five years,” said Vinning, smiling as he easily traced his finger over a digital version of the Granth Sahib and highlighted a single passage.
There on screen was the Punjabi script, a speaking guide, and an English translation of the first line in the Granth Sahib.
And tradition, too, keeps the congregation at Guru Nanak together.
Speaking after the 48-hour reading, Karamjit Bhatti explained why it is that services at a Sikh gurdwara are always followed by Langar—a free vegetarian meal that is cooked and served to anyone who visits the gurdwara.
Langar was started by Guru Nanak, Bhatti said, the first Sikh guru and namesake of the Houston temple.
When his father gave him something like $20 to start up his own business, Bhatti said that Guru Nanak chose to spend the money on feeding the poor instead.
“After that, his dad asked him, ‘What kind of business is that? How will we get a profit?'” said Bhatti.
Bhatti said the young guru answered his father by saying that sharing food freely “is a business that will last forever.”
“That $20 is still not finished yet,” he said, laughing.