Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me an (Indian) Match

 

Elizabeth VanMetre

 

NEW DELHI – Gopal Suri didn’t plan to be a matchmaker or, as he calls himself, a marriage broker. For years he worked in the hotel business. But in 1992, after he found husbands for his five sisters, the career fell into his lap. It was something that he knew he could do and something that India needed.

Seventy-five  percent of of Indian marriages are arranged by families, according to a survey conducted by IPSOS.

 There was a time when “arranged marriages”  meant fathers going door-to-door in the family’s village looking for the right match. But today, with more Indians living in cities and more young people leaving home for school and employment, it is more complicated.

 

Suri does his best to retain a traditional, old-world style. The moment you sit down in his office  he offers you tea and food. He insists there is no discussion  before a cup of chai is shared,  a practice he observes with his clients as well. He is an older man with a bald shiny head. He constantly wears a big smile his face and never seems to stop laughing. Suri boasts that he had never had a marriage he had brokered fail, although there have been some broken engagements. It’s something he is very proud of. It is a sweet sentiment but one impossible to verify. He has arranged hundreds of matches.

 

The going rate for someone looking for help from Suri varies depending on services included and how much the family has to spend. While he doesn’t share his going rate, he he works families who make between 5 million to 50 million rupees (about $8,000 to $800,000 US dollars) annually . The Hindu Times estimates that the going rate for marriage brokers is between 15 thousand to 31 thousand rupees ($300 to $500 US dollars). This amount is constitutes a big chuck of a typical middle class Indians family’s annual salary.

 

Suri’s business, A to Z Matchmaking, is down a long strip mall hallway tucked inside a shopping arcade inside the Hyatt Regency in Delhi. The office is small and is separated into two different sections by an installed wall. One side sits a few chairs and a table. It’s a bit of a waiting area. On the other side is a desk with four chairs.. A TV sits on a table behind the desk. This is where the Gopal Suri, the founder of the agency, provides services to around 10 clients a day.

 

Suri specializes in helping middle and upper income Hindus and Sikh families find mates for their sons and daughters. With over one billion people in India, this is a daunting task. Suri says there are an abundance of families that he provides services for--so many that he doesn’t have time to take holidays or weekends off. He estimates that he sees about 10 clients a day, which leads to around 200 weddings a year.

 

It’s 6 p.m. on a recent spring day and his last family of the day arrives.

The family was  originally from Delhi but moved to Dubai when the father found work there in the hotel business.  The husband and wife seem friendly. Their son is going to look at profiles today with his parents to find his wife. The mother’s wedding ring spills off her ring finger onto her pinky and middle with large blinding diamonds. Each family member is decked out in designer clothing. The 24-year-old crosses his leg showcasing his Gucci shoes. He has a fresh haircut, average height. He smiles a lot and exudes a cool confidence.

 

This isn’t their first meeting with Suri. The parents have stopped by privately before. The family has filled out their preferences in an online form that states what they hope for in a wife for their son. “Women’s family usually want the financial security and they want educated people for their daughter,” Suri says. “Most males need a very good faced girl. They are about the looks.”

 

The son also shares his caste, Kshatriyas, and his religion, Hindu. He will not be shown any matches in a different caste or religion, even if they are a perfect in every other aspect. “Everyone wants to do their relationship in their religion only,” Suri says. “They won’t go apart from their religion. Social taboo is big here. No one has come to me so far that is an Indian Hindu and wants to get married to a Muslim or Christian.”

 

The way Suri sees it, if people wanted to get married to someone of a different religion they would be doing it without their parent’s approval and would be a “love marriage,” a term coined to identify couples who get married without it being arranged by their families.

 

“Love doesn’t see caste,” he explains. But he says love for most will come after themarriage and is not a priority when it comes to finding matches. While religion plays a large role in the matches clients will see, Suri says most people aren’t looking for the most religious of mates-- he says spirituality matters the most. He says you are born with your religion and it is “given to you by your parents.” Spirituality is something “that you know yourself and yourself only,” he adds.

 

Today the family, which asked not to be identified by name in this article, will begin looking at actual profiles of eligible women for the first time. Suri has some of his own picks lined up and assured the family they will be pleased. Each girl’s profile will be shown on the small TV screen behind Suri’s desk that’s connected to his laptop. The son doesn’t seem nervous, just a bit annoyed at his mother who is asking him to focus. And it begins.

 

The first photo posted on the screen is of a short woman with long hair and a round face. She looks young and the photos appear to be taken professionally.

 

As soon as the photo pops up he says, “no.”

 

“Really look at her. Can we see more pictures?” his mother says while his father glances up then goes back to scrolling on his cellphone.

“I don’t like her. Move on,” the son counters.

 

And the process moves on. After awhile he finally agrees to see a profile of one of the women. She is tall, possibly taller than he is. She wears heavy eye make-up and her first photo appears to be a selfie that reveals  a large portion of her collarbone. She looks long and lean. More skin is exposed in this photo than the other profiles.

 

He sits up straight in his chair and leans forward, taking more of an interest than with the other women. There’s a lot of information laid out about her like details of her family, including that her mother died. It also lists her personal likes and dislikes.

 

He says “yes.”

 

His mom seems unsure.

 

“Yes?” she asks. “She doesn’t have a mother. Lets pass.”

 

He looks frustrated and slumps back in his chair, crosses his arms and stares at the ceiling. They pass.

 

While keeping the tradition alive, Suri knows that this new method is far from traditional. He says that while the families have the final say, the children are getting a lot more say into their matches. That being said, parents are still very involved during the process, which he thinks is very important.

 

“In arranged marriages parents are always there,” he says. “They have seen the ups and downs of marriage. They have some experience on that kind of relationship. They are involved they will be supporting the couple.”

 

Dating websites like https://www.bharatmatrimony.com/ boast that they help thousands of people find partners a month. Suri does warn that even though they may be fast and less expensive, they have major drawbacks.

 

“Online dating profiles are not good,” he says. “Cheats are [on] there. They fill out a profile even though they are married. There is no authenticity. You are wasting your time. You are wasting your emotions.”

 

Suri double-checks every profile before he adds it to his database. He makes sure that they are single, they are telling the truth about their religion and caste and that their financials add up. He says he has lot of methods of doing this including checking in “with his sources.”

 

By the end of the appointment the mother seemed to remove herself from the process of find her son a wife, at least temporarily.  She walked to the makeshift room so her son could look at matches without getting frustrated by her. Eventually his father joins her.

The son has gone through all the matches.

After the appointment ends, Suri will contact  the families that have been chosen. If the female’s family is interested in meeting the match, he will arrange a meeting of the parents, then of their kids. If the arrangement is successful, there will be a wedding—and he usually receives a wedding invite in the mail.


Covering Religion: Still Moments and Moving Memories

The following presentation is a combination of photographs taken by Sylvia Kang and Ana Singh. The descriptions are taken from the daily dispatches compiled by the students during the eleven-day trip. 

Many scholars and believers argue that religion as a term and concept in India is a British construct. In some sense that disconnect persists today. Of the thousands of Indian universities, only a handful have religion departments.

This information would seem to suggest that religion is somehow absent from India or perhaps all-pervasive. We found that our western conception of religion could be found everywhere – from the Sikh symbols woven into the fabrics of cloths at the 1469 shop at Connaught Place to the remains of murti idols submerged in the waters of the Ganges. In India, religion could be felt in all domains of life.

Not only was religion embedded in all aspects of public life, but many religious sites had multiple layers of religious identity. While we read about unfolding religious conflict at the Ram temple in Ayodhya, we witnessed signs of peaceful syncretism at the Nizamuddin Dargah in New Delhi where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and atheists tied threads of wishes on the outer walls of the Sufi tombs.

As photographers, we attempted to capture how religion often served as silent yet visible guide in the daily lives of the people we were fortunate to meet with on this once in a life time trip.

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On route to Nizamuddin Auliya

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

DAY 1: NEW DELHI After settling into our rooms and grabbing a quick dinner, we started our religious exploration with a visit to one of India’s holiest Sufi shrines, Nizamuddin Auliya for an evening of sacred song, known as the qawwali. If we expected a narrow look at Islamic practice, we were surprised by how diverse the crowd and the ritual turned out to be. - Roda Griffin, M.S. '17

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We were joined by 29-year old Syed Bilal Nizami (center), a caretaker of the Sufi shrine. When we asked him how the qawwali has changed over the years, he said it has become more and more popular with people of all faiths. “When people pray here, their prayers are answered,” he said with confidence. - Roda Griffin, M.S. '17. PHOTO CAPTION Syed Bilal Nizami (center) at Nizamuddin Auliya.

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

DAY 2: Our second day in Delhi was a day for the senses. We met Imams at the Jama Masjid, washed our feet at the entrance of a Sikh temple, rang a hanging bell in Jain mandir, heard a song about a lonesome bride, sampled Indian fragrances in the main bazaar and ate Punjabi food at a market stall that has been in the same family for six generations. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18.

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Jama Masjid.

Photo by Ana Singh

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LEADERSHIP OVER THE GENERATIONS: The leadership of the Jama Masjid has been in this family for over 300 years. According to Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam, it’s become particularly important since Partition, when many Indian Muslims moved to the newly created state of Pakistan, and his family was left responsible for the political and religious leadership of India’s Sunni Muslims. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18. Photo Caption -
Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam, photographed with his nephew, the next Grand Iman.

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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Young boys wait on a elevated platform at Jama Masjid for a midday prayer to begin.

Photo by Ana Singh

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SIS GANGJ GURUDWARA: The Gurudwara sits on what Sikhs believe is the execution site of the sixth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by the emperor Aurangzeb. The Gurudwara contains a shrine to the guru, where adherents stop to pray, as well as a bedchamber of sorts, where the Adi Granth, or Sikh holy book, is put to bed each night. The book is considered the living Guru and is revered as such by practitioners. -Ellen Ioanes, MS'18.

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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CAREER ADVICE: Geshe Dorji Damdul (photographed above), the director of the Tibet House, who works closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke to us about the nature of happiness and suffering, and how one must find peace within oneself to limit the influence of external factors on one’s state of being. And he had the following advice for being better journalists: “First be yourself happy,”

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 3: After two days of being shepherded around Delhi by Professor Trivedi and friends, today we were turned loose to report on our own. Alone or in twos, we left our hotel early this morning to navigate a city most of us had never been to with the challenge of reporting in a language we don’t know, within a culture that we’ve only read about in textbooks. Delhi is an absolutely vibrant city, fast paced and full of unexpected moments on every turn. -Elizabeth VanMetre, MS'17

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PERFORMANCE: The gopis began to toss flower petals over Krishna and Radha, ceremonially binding their love with flowers. The couple sat in a growing pile of gold, yellow and red petals as baskets of petals were poured over their shoulders. Then, in a startling move, Krishna and Radha jumped up from the flower pile-Thea Piltzecker, MS'17

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 4: VRINDAVAN- Soon enough, strains of music issued from the ashram’s main hall. We were right on time for the Holi play. The Rasdeva theatrical performance commemorates the original Holi; it recreates the story of Krishna’s playful interactions with the gopis (milkmaids) and his favorite gopi and consort Radha. An all-male troupe dressed in elaborate gold saris danced onstage; these were the gopis, enjoying their work in the village of Barsana. Krishna and his friends arrived next, decked out in gold pantaloons and bristling mustaches. The two groups engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange, drawing laughter from the large audience. After a tug-of-war and whirling musical numbers, Radha won their game. -Thea Piltzecker, MS'17

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A young child plays in the leftover flower petals of the play

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 5: In atmosphere, Vrindavan feels like a village. It’s mud streets and tiny alleyways cloak a population of approximately 57,000 people, and yet, in the history of Hinduism, its importance is profound. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, was born here. Radha, his supreme wife was born in a neighboring village. To celebrate their love and, in turn, love in general, Indians of all faiths spend a good part of the day pitching pigment at each other. Those of us who ventured out of the confines of the ashram came back splattered from head to toe in all the colors of the rainbow.-Gudrun Wilcocks, MS'17

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UNDERSTANDING HOLI: In the multi-colors of love, all the shades of skin are gone,” said Shrivasta Goswami Maharaj in his explanation of Holi. Maharaj is the head of the ashram known as Caitanya Prem Sansthan and photographed with Professor Yogi Trivedi (Left) and Ari Goldman (right).

Photo by Ana Singh

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In the aftermath of Holi

Photo by Ana Singh

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Holi celebrated in the Caitanya Prem Sansthan ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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Playing Holi outside the ashram

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 6: RISHIKESH – The River Ganges sets the pace for life in this city at the foothills of the Himalayas, just as it set the pace for our day of markets and aartis, puja and performance.Even though we arrived in Rishikesh after midnight, a few early-risers took to the river with the break of day. Along the banks, local volunteers filled buckets with water to wash out the last brightly colored dregs of Holi from gats along the river. One man sat in the Lotus position and meditated. Two women in pink and turquoise saris cupped their hands around an aarti’s flame and sent it out across the water. As the sun rose higher, we sat on the hotel balcony with chai, watching the light catch on the swells.-Natasha Frost, MS'17

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Two women participate in an intimate aarti ceremony on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh

Photo by Ana Singh

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ON THE BANKS OF THE GANGES: Haridwar seemed like part water park and part temple. We watched as hundreds of devotees, many of them with families in tow, bathed playfully in the river, the men in their underwear and the women in their saris. This bathing is one part of the washing away of sins – one step along the path to moksha. -Natasha Frost, MS'17

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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A Believer at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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An aarti ceremony at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 7: Rishikesh is a hard place to leave. The city offers an interesting contradiction in Indian culture. A beautiful town on the foot of the Himalayas, it is surrounded by natural beauty. The turquoise hues of the River Ganges flow below colorful bridges and alongside scattered buildings and shops. This morning, a few of us leisurely explored that world for a couple of hours. We wandered, we shopped and we questioned this enigma of a place — a place of countless yoga practices, ashrams, Ayurvedic cafes selling vegan foods and scones to people who have come here from across the world, clad in baggy pants and with yoga mats under their arms, to embrace their spirituality in India.-Nicole Einbender, MS'17

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Shiva representation in Rishikesh

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 8: Ninety-one small, carved elephants appeared to hold up each side of the Sun Temple, totaling 364 mini-elephants: the same number as the days in the solar calendar. The structure was carved out of sandstone from a nearby quarry, a material that absorbs heat. When our group stepped inside the temple, everyone gasped. The details which were eroded by the wind and rain on the outside were preserved in sharp images inside and told the story of the Ramayan. - Andrea Januta, MS'17

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Group Photo at the Sun Temple

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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PRACTICING COMPASSION: “Any being can reach enlightenment. An insect can reach enlightenment, ” said Maiti Jratha Suriji, a Jain nun (photographed with her sister). The two sisters practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro-organisms.-David Klein, MS '17

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 9: AHMEDABAD- Our day started at 8:30 when we set out for a walking tour of Ahmedabad’s old city. There, in the twisting alleys and secluded courtyards, we had the opportunity to see a few different threads in India’s religious tapestry. Though we stepped into a mosque and a Hindu mandir, we also had the opportunity to sit down and interview two Jain nuns about their lifestyle and experiences. They practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro- organisms. -David Klein, MS '17

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Jama Masjid Mosque in Ahmedabad

Photo by Sylvia Kang

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AN UNCERTAIN FATE: The Zoroastrian community arrived in Gujarat nearly 1,000 years ago, fleeing persecution in what had become Muslim Iran. Today they face a harsh demographic reality. There are only about 1,400 Parsis in Ahmedabad and the death rate has far outpaced the birthrate in the community, explained J. P Anklesaria , a retired brigadier and leader among Ahmedabad’s Parsis (Photographed above). Though hopeful that things will change, Anklesaria feared that if the trend continues in 25 or 50 years there will be no more Parsis in Ahmedabad -David Klein, MS '17.

Photo by Ana Singh

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A man practices puja in Ahmedabad

Photo by Ana Singh

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An Intimate Dinner with a Jain Family

Photo by Sylvia Kang

DAY 10: Saturday was our last full day in India. After a morning panel with Indian journalists, newspaper editors and media entrepreneurs at our hotel in Ahmedabad, we went our different ways to finish our reporting projects before meeting in the evening for our formal farewell dinner, held at a restaurant called the House of MG. Then it hit us: None of us will ever be the same after this trip. We’ll look at the world through a lens crafted by our experiences in this incredible nation full of religious diversity. We gained the skills necessary to cover religion with an open mind and an empathetic heart.- Cole Pennington, MS'18

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Indian Journalists discuss how they cover religion in their reporting

Photo by Ana Singh

DAY 11: We attended two Christian services: the high Anglican Dalit Church and the Mar Thoma Syrian Orthodox church, both in the Christian district of Ahmedabad called Behrampura. The Anglican church service was packed, housed in a sanctuary with dusty pink walls. A wooden cross hung high on the wall behind the preacher but the decorations were simple. Most of the color in the room came from the saris of the women in the congregation, with white lace scarves over their hair. On their laps, under folded hands, lay personal bibles in Gujarati.- Pia Peterson, M'S 17

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Believers raise their bible at the high Anglican Dalit Church

Photo by Ana Singh


Sikh Fashion Designer Committed to Reviving Punjabi Culture

https://vimeo.com/216092177

Video by Ana Singh

NEW DELHI — Sikh Fashion designer Harinder Singh recounts a trip to  Italy in 2002 with his wife where he experienced the hateful jeers of school children who spotted him in a white turban. Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what would become the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept — a clothing brand called 1469, named in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Guru Nanak Dev, has expanded into a major company with international reach and five stores in New Delhi, the Indian capital, and Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.

 

Article by Nicole Einbinder

NEW DELHI — Harinder Singh will never forget his trip to Italy in 2002. Singh, then 33, and his wife, Kirandeep Kaur, 29, were eating ice cream as they explored the sights and sounds of Florence. The streets were crowded, a blur of people and textures and smells. At first glance, the couple blended in with the other tourists of the city: two people in love, eager to travel the world and appreciate a new culture. Then they heard the students’ jeers: “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!”

The group of around sixty school children were pointing at Singh, a white turban wrapped delicately around his head.

“Oh my God,” Singh said to his wife in shock. But instead of walking away, the couple approached the children. Singh told them that they were from India and practiced a religion called Sikhism.

“Me and my wife started talking about our first guru, the revolution, our faith, we touched on Punjabi music and they knew Punjabi music so we got a lead there,” Singh says with a laugh. “That very moment was an exam for us. We decided we should do something about our identity since there’s no awareness.”

Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what he describes as the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept – called 1469, in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev – has expanded into a million-dollar company with international reach. They have five stores in New Delhi and in Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.

Almost 58 percent of the population of Punjab is made up of Sikhs, but in Delhi, Sikhs constitute less than four percent of the total population.

Standing in their 1469 shop in Delhi, the couple talk about the idea behind their business. “People in Delhi feel that if I speak Punjabi, I am backwards and not modern enough,” says Kaur, dressed in a light green sari, gold bracelets dangling off her arms. “To keep in touch with your roots, you need to know your mother tongue. I feel we are losing the pride.”

Scarves and saris in turquoise, pink and yellow hues line the walls of the shop, located in Delhi’s Janpath Market, one of the city’s best-known shopping areas. Tables are scattered with metallic jewelry and small sculptures, patterned bags and calligraphy accessories. Upstairs, the walls are filled with various t-shirts, many of which display Punjabi phrases, musical instruments and Sikh symbols.

Mayur Sharma, a frequent 1469 customer and host of the Indian travel show “Highway on My Plate,” says his favorite products are the t-shirts, especially the ones with the phrases “Pure Panjabi” and “Trust me I’m Pendu,” – the word pendu meaning “villager” in Punjabi. Sharma came across the company a decade ago and, since then, has pretty much only worn their t-shirts, even on his television show.

“I admire Harinder and Kirandeep’s passion for the arts, culture and history of our beautiful state,” he says. “You can feel the love in everything they put out.”

Punjabi culture is one of the oldest in India; the region has a rich legacy of poetry, music, food and art – in addition to being the birthplace of Sikhism. The Punjab was unified under the Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century, until the British annexed the region in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh wars, administering the region as a province of its Indian empire until Partition in 1947, when the independent states of India and Pakistan were established. Punjab was divided, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India while Muslims moved to Pakistan.

Kaur described the partition of 1947 as a shattering experience for the Punjab, creating social, religious and regional divides. She feels Punjabi art and culture took the biggest blow. Today, their brand aims to reinvigorate that rich culture.

Singh, dressed in a bright, turquoise turban and black v-neck with the word fateh – or “victory” in Hindi – emphasized 1469 is not a religious brand because he doesn’t believe in selling religion.

“Sikhism is a big part of it and we ourselves are Sikhs,” he says, “but, it’s a regional place because our artists are Muslim also, the music comes from Punjab, which is partly in Pakistan, and so are the handicrafts.”

Sharma says he is Punjabi, but not Sikh. He describes Singh’s passion for the culture as inspiring.

Singh’s clothing didn’t always center on Punjabi culture. He got his start in the world of fashion after graduating from the University of Delhi in 1988. He says he noticed that most t-shirts sold in India came from abroad – Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea – and were of dubious quality.

“I took an oath to myself to make a nice t-shirt for my country,” Singh says.

A year later, Singh started his own clothing company, Uni Style Image. He claims it is one of the first t-shirt companies in India’s history, and over the years partnered with major clothing labels across the world. In 2002, after over a decade with the company, grueling hours and time spent away from his wife and three children, Singh decided to leave to pursue other endeavors.

At the time, he had no idea he would eventually return to the fashion world as a pioneer of a wholly new concept centered on Sikhism and Punjab. But Singh also asserts he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes being born into a Sikh family as a blessing.

“Our religion is so beautiful, so transparent, so clear,” he says. “It’s musical, it’s simple, it’s modern and it’s very lightweight.”

Singh observes that while 60 percent of their merchandise is sold to Sikhs and those within the diaspora Punjabi community, around 40 percent of customers practice other faiths. The brand is especially popular in Japan, where many customers buy the t-shirts online and in bulk, according to Kaur.

Going forward, Singh and Kaur hope to continue educating people, especially youth, about their heritage and faith. Kaur says they are working to bolster their online presence and plan to open new stores domestically, in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as abroad in Canada.

“The best part about Sikhism is,” Kaur says, “it doesn’t tell you that you write this or read it and then become Sikh. It’s about the way you live.”

This article was published on Narratively here: http://narrative.ly/he-was-harassed-for-wearing-a-turban-then-he-built-a-global-fashion-brand-to-show-the-world-what-sikh-pride-means/


At a Sikh Temple in Queens Even the Air Around the Guru Granth Sahib is Holy

An elderly woman approaches the raised platform in a Gurdwara Sikh Center of New York in Flushing, Queens, where the holy book of the Sikhs, the Guru Granth Sahib, rests comfortably on a small bed. For all Sikhs, this platform is immediately recognizable as the takht, the Punjabi word for throne.

The woman’s feebleness is evident through the cane that supports her every move. When she finally arrives at the takht, she drops a dollar as an offering. Then she drops her cane to floor, takes a step back and falls to her knees. She places her head down and stretches her arms out to the Guru Granth Sahib.

Directly across from her, on the other side of the tahkt, an old man adorned in white garments and a white turban waves a traditional ceremonial whisk known as the Chaur Sahib with the flick of the wrist to cleanse the air surrounding the Guru Granth Sahib.

After a succession of living Gurus, the Guru Granth Sahib was appointed as the eleventh and final Guru by the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh. For Sikhs across the world, Guru Granth Sahib, a collection of teachings compiled by the fifth Gurus and his successors, is seen as the ultimate teacher of Sikhs.

According to Sartaj Alag, a practicing Sikh in Virginia, the ritual of the Chaur Sahib represents a symbolic acceptance of the Guru Granth Sahib as a Guru rather than merely a holy book. During the time of the Sikh gurus, it was custom for someone to wave the Chaur Sahib to protect the Guru from the heat and flies. Not only was this a display of deep respect but an opportunity for the volunteer to be as close to the Guru as possible. This traditional act of reverence for the living guru carried over to the Guru Granth Sahi. In this Gurdwara in Queens, both men and women share this coveted role known to Sikhs as the Sevadar.

Another indication of the divinity of the book is the incense that saturates the air near the tahkt. In Hinduism, the smell of incense is said to be the fragrance of the gods. While there is only one god in Sikhism, the use of incense is common in Gurdwaras across the world. Alag suggests that the use of incense to mitigate flagrant smells was common during the time of Gurus. So like with the chaura, the practice of incense continued when Guru Granth Sahib was recognized as the final guru. In his own religious practice, Alag finds the smell of incense conducive to his meditation and reflection on Holy Scripture.

 

On the right and left corners of the tahkt, bouquets of flowers decorate the holy space of the Guru Granth Sahib. Accorring to Alag the use of flowers in religious display is a tradition carried over from Hinduism with a key difference. In Hinduism flowers are offerings to the gods while in Gurdwaras they are used to create a welcoming environment for both the Guru Granth Sahib and the congregation.

In between delicate bouquets of flowers, nine curved swords, known to Sikhs as kirpans, are carefully laid out. The fierce display of kirpans acts in a symbolic protection of the Guru Granth Sahib. When Sikhism was first founded under Guru Nanak in the 15th century it flourished under the Moghul Emperor Akbar. Although Akbar was Muslim, he was tolerant of other faiths.

Akbar’s successor Jenangir, however, was militantly protective over Islam. Due to the increasing number of Muslim converts, the fifth guru, Guru Arjan Dev was summoned and executed by Jenagir’s orders. The execution had an immediate influence on Guru Arjun’s successor Guru Harobind, who first conceptualized the idea of the kirpan through the notion of the Saint Sipachi, or “saint solider.” The tenth Guru further enhanced the importance of the kripan when he suggested that the kirpan must be one of five religious artifacts every Sikh must wear.

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Members of the Sikh congregation expain Sikh Tradition to Columbia Students

Ana Singh

After a moment or two, the woman emerges from her deep bow. She picks up her cane and inches to her left where three Sikh men are singing the punjabi hymms of Shabad from the Guru Granth Sahib while playing traditional Indian instruments. Since the first Guru, Guru Nanak, religious musical expression has been an integral role in Sikh worship as a way to praise God. The poetic lyrics, enhanced by the sounds of the musical instruments, can be heard throughout the Gurdwara.

The woman then walks around to the other side of takht. She gives a brief acknowledgement to the sevador before bending slightly into a light bow to the Guru Granth Sahib.