Virginia Real magazine
The real  Virginia, old and new
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The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

A Sikh in Cavalier Country

by Clarke Crutchfield

 

In January, Charlottesville’s City Council elected Satyendra Singh Huja as the city’s mayor. It’s no big deal for Charlottesville, where he’s been around for more than 30 years as city planner. But once again, Virginians are blazing a trail. Huja is believed to be the only Sikh mayor in the United States.

   You could call it another chapter in the American adventure, but then again, Sikhs, like Virginians, are no stranger to adventure – or to being slightly ahead of their time. Sikhs may seem foreign and strange to some Americans, but in fact, Virginia style and Sikh traditions are not at all incompatible. In many ways, they are the same.

        There are an estimated 1.5 million Sikhs in the United States, though it’s hard to say how many live in Virginia. They are followers of a religion founded 500 years ago in the Punjab region of India and what’s now Pakistan. They’re earned a reputation in history for being fierce in the defense of their faith yet tolerant of the rights of other religions.
       Patwant Singh’s brief history, “The Sikhs,” reads like an adventure novel, from the founding of the faith in the 15th century by Guru Nanak, to the establishment of an empire and war with larger powers. Singh’s account of Sikh valor in wars and resistance to oppression  calls to mind the passage from “Hamlet” in which Polonius gives this advice to his son: “Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.” When crossed, the Sikhs surely took this to heart, and who could blame them?

   Like Virginians, they rebelled against British rule, and while they could not entirely throw off the imperial yoke in the 19th century, they set the British back on their heels in two epic battles in which only treachery kept them from victory. Even so, like Virginia and the other new American states, they forced the British to come to terms.

    Sikhs retain a suspicion of arbitrary authority that Thomas Jefferson would have praised. They are suspicious by nature of central government, and they are instinctive democrats. Sikhs are opponents of India’s caste system and of class distinctions of any sort. Like Virginians, they tend to make excellent soldiers, and their martial exploits are legendary. They are outstanding farmers and led the way in India’s Green Revolution. Women have equal rights with men; helping the poor is a cherished obligation, and poverty is met with sympathy and lavish aid rather than contempt.

       At least one key trait, however, sets Sikhs apart. Male Sikhs wear their turbans as a badge of honor, a visible proclamation of pride in their faith. From another standpoint, turbans may well give Sikhs an edge over other Virginians. According to the author, diplomat, humorist and contrarian Khushwant Singh, “One great advantage of wearing a turban in a hot climate is that it keeps the head cool and protects the vulnerable rear of the scalp. No Sikh is known to have died of sunstroke.”

   A principled and practical people, the Sikhs. And you know what? They fit right in around these parts.

   Clarke Crutchfield is a writer in Fluvanna County near Charlottesville.

 

 

 




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