Everyone welcome at Sikh celebration

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 2, 2013

By David Vitrano

LAPLACE – The Sikh religion is the fifth largest in the world, and in the local community it is well represented in spirit if not in numbers.
LaPlace residents Naunihal Singh Pannu and Rajender Pannu are one of only 15 Sikh families in the greater New Orleans area, and on Thursday, they began hosting a celebration of Bandi Chhor, which commemorates the sixth Sikh guru’s release from imprisonment by his Muslim captors.
The occasion is celebrated by the nonstop reading of the Sikh holy book, a feat that takes 48 hours to complete. Beginning at 11 a.m. Thursday, Sikh priests and others who are capable of reading the script in which the holy book is written read without interruption. Shifts are completed in a tag-team style, with the priest taking over literally finishing the preceding reader’s sentence.
“There cannot be a break,” said Rajender Pannu. “If someone starts coughing, someone else must take over.”
When the reading is done, scheduled for around 11 a.m. Saturday, the celebration will move inside, where everyone will sit on the floor and enjoy Sikh hymns of praise.
“Then we will enjoy a sumptuous vegetarian feast,” she said.
While the Sikh religion may not be familiar to many in this country, the image of the Sikh certainly is. The men wear turbans that hold their long uncut hair. Baptized Sikh men are also forbidden from cutting their beards and must carry a sword at all times — something that harkens back to the religion’s warrior beginnings.
But despite this robust and intimidating image, the Sikh religion preaches tolerance, acceptance and equality, perhaps because the religion itself is a kind of mix of religious influences in northwestern India during the 15th century. The Pannus stressed that this belief in equality extends to every member of society.
“Everyone is equal. There is no higher or lower,” said Naunihal Singh Pannu.
“Even if President Obama came here, he will sit with everyone else,” added his wife.
This belief also means that anyone, regardless of religion, is welcome to visit their home during the celebration, witness the reading of the holy book and eat the food that is always hot and ready during the 48-hour period.
There are a few stipulations, however. All visitors to the prayer room, located behind the Pannu’s main house, must cover their heads and remove their shoes. Visitors are also required to wash their hands before entering the room. These are meant to show both respect to the holy book and to cleanse the body of impurities.
Those who read from the book must bathe and put on fresh clothing before doing so.
Inside the prayer room, visitors will find the book housed in an elaborate dome-like canopy gilded in silver. The canopy itself was salvaged from the Sikh temple in New Orleans East after Hurricane Katrina.
The holy book, too, came from that temple, saved by the buoyancy of the platform on which it was resting. As the water rose, so did the platform and book with it. With the good fortune surrounding the holy book’s salvation from Katrina floodwaters, it is only fitting it is being used for Bandi Chhor.
“For us it is like Thanksgiving,” said Rajender Pannu, adding, “And asking his blessing for the future.”