Last month, a parade drew over 80,000 people to the Sacramento Valley. People in colorful clothing and turbans sprinkled water on the street and swept the concrete, cleansing the route.
They were celebrating a holiday of the Sikh faith: the 500-year-old religion from India’s Punjab region. This gathering in Yuba City is the largest gathering of its kind in the United States, because Sikhs have lived in this farming community for over a century.
The first float in the Guru Gadee festival carried the religious text at the heart of this holiday. Worshipers walked along side, singing.
People came from far and wide -- Vancouver, the U.K., Dallas, New Jersey -- and flooded these small streets. They looked up to the helicopters dropping rose petals on the crowd, and talked to the men from various Sikh motorcycle clubs, showing off their Harleys.
Many walked between floats, offering food and drink to passers by. Happy Singh -- from Manteca, California -- and his family prepared tea they handed out for free.
The parade started and ended at the Tierra Buena gurdwara, or Sikh house of worship, a gleaming blue and white structure that appeared to be rising out of the orchards surrounding it. People waited in long lines for food: I had a spinach and cabbage curry served by family members of a Sacramento-based produce trucking company, and sweet jalebis: fried dough covered in syrup.
The tea and the multiple tents serving food are part of the tradition of langar, the Sikh communal kitchen.
“Whenever we gather there’s free food,” said community elder Mohinder Singh Ghag. “Any time any person comes to our temple, we try to accommodate him with a night's sleep and free food."
Ghag took me on a tour of the temple grounds: booths displayed books about Sikh bedtime stories, Punjabi TV and Radio stations, demonstrations of turban-tying, and lots of civic organizations. Jaskarn Singh was here sharing the work of SEVA Selfless Service, which feeds hundreds of homeless people in Sacramento and other cities every month.
“This is the biggest gathering where our community is in one spot, just feeling very spiritual and one,” he said. “This is our Christmas.”
The sheer number of people here was pretty astounding, especially given that, in the early 1960s when Mohinder Singh Ghag first arrived, only a few Punjabi families lived in the area. To worship, his family traveled to a gurdwara over 90 miles away in Stockton.
Ghag moved here, like other Sikhs, for farming. At 86, he’s still farms on his property in Live Oak, just outside Yuba City. In late October, he oversaw the kiwi harvest. Workers on a small crew plucked the fuzzy fruit from what look like oversized grape vines, tossed them into bags slung around their necks, then dumped them into bins on a tractor idling between rows.
For most of his life here, Ghag grew peaches, and right there on the side of the field he started reciting a poem he wrote called “I’m A Peach Farmer" (Mohinder Ghag’s a bit of a poet with a number of books published in Punjabi).
In the early 1900s, the impacts of famine and British colonialism forced thousands of Punjabis out of their homeland. Many found their way to the Sacramento Valley, with a familiar climate and location at the nexus of many rivers.
“This area is very close to the Punjab,” Ghag said.
Within years, though, Indians and other Asians were barred from owning land, because of so-called Alien Land Laws. By 1917, Congress passed a law barring immigration from many Asian countries, including India.
In the 1950s, Mohinder Ghag’s sister married into one of those early-immigrant families, and 10 years later sponsored Ghag to come. He remembers being one of a few men in the area wearing a turban.
“It helped me a whole lot, the turban,” he said. I did a double-take when he said this. After Sept. 11, 2001, and more recently after the shootings in San Bernardino, hate crimes against Sikhs ballooned. Some attackers mistook Sikhs for Muslims. Others simply targeted Sikhs for being different. But, Ghag says, his turban has opened doors.
"It helped me a whole lot because I’m a source of attraction wherever I go," he said.
I approached Ghag every way I could with questions about isolation and discrimination, but he insisted: "In this community I haven’t felt that someone discriminated [against] me."
Ghag dove into civic life here, starting a Punjabi writers group, serving on the hospital board and the Peach Advisory Board, even being a California delegate for the Democratic Party.
“If you’re in a society and society’s got an investment in you, if you don’t turn it back the society will go bankrupt,” Ghag said. “So it’s our duty to serve.”
Connecting with neighbors is a big reason the Sikh community started the public Guru Gadee celebration 37 years ago.
“It’s more recognition that we are a community living here,” Ghag said, “and since then it’s bigger and bigger every year.”