Preparing for the Parade of Piety

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By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: June 19, 2015

AT THE Hospital Hill home of Gurpal Singh Dhindsa and Balwinderjit Kaur (in the pic above), the preparation for the annual Sikh parade begins early and is visible on the front and back yard of the home. A few months before the parade, Dhindsa and Balwinderjit Kaur plant abundant mustard leaves in their garden which finally make their way into the community kitchen at the Sikh Temple on Fifth Ave.
Along with these freshly plucked leaves go spinach, tomatoes, green chillies and cilantro, most of it grown organically in their garden. Nearly 1,000 people will eat at the temple on the Sikh parade and volunteers like the Dhindas are among those who will work all week long, and in his case for months, so no one comes to the temple goes unfed on June 20. Both Gurpal and Balwinderjit say they love growing fresh vegetables in their garden, but as the Sikh parade draws near they tend to the plants with religious fervor and faithful devotion.
The fridge has been stocked with as many as 12 buckets of mustard leaves and Balwinderjit will now spend hours at the Sikh temple with other men and women to prepare food. When the first Sikh parade was organized 10 years ago, the attendance was slim but now over 1,000 people turn up from all over the Lower Mainland to attend the parade and commemorate the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev Ji, fifth of the 10 Sikh gurus and the first Sikh martyr to give up his life for his faith.
Guru Arjan Dev’s life and death changed the course of Sikh history. A prolific poet and a social reformer, Guru Arjan Dev laid the foundation of the Golden Temple in Amritsar and was also the first one to declare that Sikhs must give one-tenth of their earnings to charity. His greatest contribution to the Sikh faith was to compile the holy book of the Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib, an eclectic mix of spiritual and religious teaching that traversed religions and creeds. The Guru included compositions from both Hindu and Muslim saints into the Holy book. His growing influence on people  angered the Muslim emperor Jahangir. Even Muslims had started adhereing to the message of peace and love spread by the Guru. Jahangir felt threatened by this. Jahangir decided to get the Guru killed when rebel prince Khusrau also began visiting the Guru. Unlike many Muslim royals, Khusrau used to respect Sikh and Hindu religions. 
In 1606, he ordered that the Guru be tortured to death. A searing image in Sikh iconography, he was made to sit on a burning hot sheet while hot sand was poured over his body. He died after five days of brutal and unrelenting torture. Squamish Sikhs like Gurpal Singh Dhindsa grew up listening to these stories. For him, doing community service is living the Guru’s word of giving back to the community. While his wife works in the kitchen, Gurpal will do whatever is asked of him, from mopping the floors to cleaning the kitchen to cutting the vegetables to cleaning the grounds after the parade. Even though he has taken a few days off work, he is really exhausted by the end of the parade and is yet excited about the next one.

“I’m physically tired but mentally I’m quite excited and feel a sense of calm and happiness while working at the Sikh parade. To serve the community in the name of the Guru is the best possible service that anyone can do and I’m no exception,” he says.
For local volunteers like Santok Sangha and Gurbachan Tatla, the Sikh parade serves another important purpose: It helps connects children to their religious roots. The parade will be an occasion to remind the children of Sikh history and to imbibe the teachings of mutual religious respect the Guru lost his life teaching. Tatla runs the Aikam Electric Company and provides free sound service for the Sikh parade. The entire family takes a day off for the event, he says, and contributes in one way or the other to make the Sikh parade successful.
“I’ve been helping with the sound system for two years and my mind is really happy and content when I’m doing this for the Sikh parade. It’s community service for my faith I look forward to doing for several years to come,” he says.
Sangha works at the Squamish General Hospital and has been involved with the parade ever since it started in 2005. Earlier tasked with making pakoras out in the park, she will now make food in the kitchen with the help of other local families. She will work day and night along with others to prepare food for as many as 500 people, but her piety would ensure she isn’t tired at the end of it all.  “I get solace and peace of mind doing community service during the Sikh parade because this is work I do in the name of my Guru,” she says.
Her sentiment is shared by the Squamish Sikh Society president Makhan Singh Sanghera who has anchored the parade for a decade with help from local families. Like Dhindsa, Sanghera too gets to work a few months before the parade, coordinating volunteers, meeting city officials, arranging paper work, and sending out personal invites to community groups in town and Lower Mainland. But Sanghera isn’t complaining.
“We have come a long way from when we started the first Sikh parade. There is much more community involvement in the parade and I know that a lot of people look forward to this event in Squamish,” he says.
When Sanghera first moved to Squamish in late 70s to work in the Weldood mill, there were just a few Sikh families living in town. He remembers how local families had to go to Vancouver Sikh temple for cultural and religious gatherings. His sisters were married in the New Westminster Sikh temple but as the Sikh community grew there was a need felt for a place to worship in town. Initially, smaller events were organized in the homes of those who had the holy book and were familiar with the nuances of religious and cultural ceremonies. As the town grew and Whistler developed as a resort destination, more Sikh families started to move to Squamish, driving the need for a Sikh temple. The Sikh temple was built in 1983 with generous donations from local and Lower Mainland communities. About 10 years ago, Sanghera and others introduced the idea of a Sikh parade to commemorate Guru Arjan Dev’s supreme sacrifice and received enough support from council of the day and community groups to make it a reality. Over the years what started as a small community gathering slowly morphed into a major parade that has now become a tourist attraction bringing in thousands of people from all over the Lower Mainland. Sanghera says he personally knows people who came to visit the town because of the parade and ended up settling down here. He says the parade allows the Sikh community to recall the sacrifice made by the great Gurus but also breaks down cultural barriers in a multicultural setting as it introduces the Sikh faith to those who may not be aware of its teachings or tenets.
“I always get queries by people about the Sikh parade and it warms my heart that we live in a community that is so accepting and appreciative of what we do for the Sikh parade,” he says.