Landmarking Home: Preserving a Sikh Temple

James Agee once wrote, “How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again.” As I flew into Sacramento International Airport, surrounded by fields of winter wheat and alfalfa, I couldn’t help but think of the passage. I was headed to my hometown of Yuba City, CA, to the 33-acre peach and walnut farm where I grew up. I had been away for a long time: undergraduate in the Bay area, a career in southern California, and now graduate school on the east coast, but home has never been far my thoughts. And as I landed, I couldn’t help but feel what Agee had so clearly captured. The fields, the faint scent of moist earth and the hot sun, the blue sky that spanned the horizon without a building to obscure it; it was all the same. But then again, it wasn’t. And neither the young man who left home or the home he left, were the same.

I was headed home to work with Professor Nicole Ranganath at the University of California at Davis who was putting together a digital archive concentrating on the experiences of a particular immigrant group to which I belong: the Punjabi-Sikhs of northern California. Punjabi-Sikhs are a religious and ethnic minority in India. There are two components to their identity. Sikhs are a religious group, monotheists, whose founder blended elements of Hinduism and Islam into a faith remarkable for its egalitarianism and humanity. Beyond their religious affiliation, there is also an association with the Indian state of Punjab. Punjabi is a regional dialect, and the cuisines and customs of Punjabi-Sikhs are distinct from other regional, linguistic, and religious groups on the subcontinent. Punjabi-Sikhs represented some of the first Indian immigrants to the western hemisphere, entering both Canada and the US from ports around the world starting in 1900.

Main Vestibule

I had initially come to assist Professor Ranganath with research on the connection between my family, who were some of these Punjabi-Sikh pioneers, and a political party known as the Ghadar Party. The Ghadar Party was made up of Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslim Indians, formed in Berkeley, CA in 1913.  Its sole purpose was the expulsion of the British Empire from India. It operated through the publication of a newspaper, The Ghadar, meaning revolt or rebellion. The party operated across the United States and Canada but had a special connection with Punjabi-Sikh immigrants of northern California. After Indian independence was achieved in 1947, many of these former Punjabi-Sikh Ghadars committed themselves to building Sikh Temples (Gurdwaras) for Sikh communities that had settled and grown in California. One of those temples was founded in 1969, in the community where I was born and raised. As my research moved from the Ghadar Party to the Sikh Temple, I was inspired by the structure itself and redefined the subject of my research. I would leverage my professional experience as a City Planner and Historic Preservationist to develop a state and national register landmark nomination for the Sikh Temple, Gurdwara in Yuba City, CA.

To achieve landmark status, a building needs to have maintained its integrity, meaning its original form and materials, its location, and its spatial relationships to its surrounding area. It also needs to meet one of four criteria. The building must be associated with a significant event, a significant person, be of distinctive architectural quality, or potentially yield important archeological data. The Sikh Temple, Gurdwara, Yuba City qualifies for landmark designation under two criteria. The first is its association with a significant event. That event is a religious procession known as the Nagar Kirtan. The Nagar Kirtan is a celebration honoring the consecration of the Sikh’s holy text, called the Guru Granth Sahib. In 1980, several thousand Sikhs from around the country and as far as Canada gathered to celebrate this occasion by parading the scriptures in a peaceful and reverent procession through the streets of my small town. 37 years later, the event draws tens of thousands of Punjabi-Sikhs from around the world and is covered by local, state, national, and international media. Although held annually, there were two years when the event intersected with globally significant political and social events.

In 1984, the parade was held the day after Indira Ghandi, Prime Minister of India, was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards. The assassination had been in retaliation for the Prime Minister’s orders to desecrate the Sikh’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, Punjab, India. Suddenly, a religious procession in a small town became the center for global issues including terrorism and religious persecution in India. The parade would become a forum for Sikh separatists looking to secede from India to speak, as well as for the many Sikhs who wished to remain part of India to respond. The dialogue would continue for decades.

 

Head Scarves

These silk and cotton scarves have been provided by the Temple for the use of those who enter the Prayer Hall. One must enter the Prayer Hall with their head covered.

 

In 2001, the worst terrorist attack in US History would lead to more violence against Sikhs as they were targeted by white Americans too ignorant to understand the difference between an Islamic extremist and a Punjabi-Sikh American. The Sikh Temple took a proactive approach and held informational seminars for the public about Sikhs, and their place in contemporary America.

The Temple meets a second criteria: architectural distinctiveness. Designed by a regionally significant architect, the Temple is a unique hybrid of traditional Mughal or Byzantine styles constructed with vernacular materials and building methods.

 

“But more importantly, the nomination will have an impact beyond the academic, affecting the material world and preserving and protecting a structure that contains a great deal of religious and social significance for not just Punjabi-Sikhs, but all immigrants who have struggled and labored to build a place for themselves in America.”

 

The amount of research required to prepare the state and National Register nomination was significant. I began by collecting building and parcel data on the Temple site, which led me to the Sutter County Assessor’s Office, the Sutter County Clerk, and Sutter County Planning Department. The parade was regulated by both the Sutter County Sheriff and the Yuba City Police Department. Primary sources on the parade were collected almost exclusively at the Yuba County Library and the Sutter County Library which had an extensive digitized collection of periodicals published in the area. Secondary sources were collected at two branches of the California State Library in Sacramento, CA, and information related to legal actions taken against Punjabi-Sikhs were collected from the Witkin State Legal Library. For all the records that I could obtain, more had been destroyed or had become otherwise unavailable.

The nomination developed into two parts. The first was the building history, a story that was concerned with the land where the Temple was built, when it was built, and its design and materiality. Also of importance were modifications to the structure and additions to the site over its life. The second part was the development of the historical context, the narrative which the structure is figuratively placed within to understand its significance. My research surrounds and contextualizes the physical building within larger historical trends, including immigration, discrimination, identity, education, social movements, and politics. The historic context extends back to the founding of Sikhism and relates those events to current events identifying the origin and evolution of Sikh religious, social and political activism. The period of significance related specifically to the structure, its form, construction, and operation spans a period of time from 1967 to today.

Langar Hall

Prayer Hall

Langar Hall (above) and the Prayer Hall (below) represent the simple yet profound interior program of the structure and exemplify the basic tenants of the religion, care of body and soul.

 

The nomination is currently pending, awaiting permission from the Temple’s Board of Directors to submit the nomination to the State Historic Preservation Office. Once the nomination is submitted, historians and architects at the SHPO will evaluate the submitted materials and analysis to determine if the structure meets the criteria for state designation. Once that determination is made, it will be a simple process of placing the nomination on the agenda of the SHPO Commission and declaring the building a state landmark formally by adopting a resolution. I hope to obtain permission to submit the document to the SHPO before the end of the year and hope to have it scheduled for a public hearing by mid-2018. If all goes well, it will achieve landmark status in the State of California thereafter. Once that process is complete, I will progress to the submission of an application to the National Register.

The product of the Summer Fellowship has been the discovery and compilation of an extraordinary amount of primary and secondary material concerning Punjabi-Sikhs and the Sikh Temple, Gurdwara in Yuba City, CA. But more importantly, the nomination will have an impact beyond the academic, affecting the material world and preserving and protecting a structure that contains a great deal of religious and social significance for not just Punjabi-Sikhs, but all immigrants who have struggled and labored to build a place for themselves in America. Lastly, the Fellowship has provided me personally with an opportunity to rediscover my own history, to identify my contemporary struggle with the historic struggles of my countryman and ancestors. And though we can never go home again, we can return with a humility and sincerity that will allow us to perhaps rediscover some of those things that are inevitably lost as we stray from those sacred places where we began.

 

 

Martyrdom

A series of depictions of Sikh battles and scenes of martyrdom are displayed in the Langar Hall. These graphic images are meant to capture the valiant struggles of the Sikh faithful persecuted by the Mughal Empire.