A monotheistic faith originating in the Punjab region of South Asia, Sikhism dates back to the late fifteenth century, when founder Guru Nanak—the first of the tradition’s ten gurus—preached about the importance of honest work, human equality, and the devotional love of God. Sikhism is currently the world’s fifth-largest religion, and while most Sikhs still reside in South Asia, the Sikh population in the United States has grown considerably since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965. In Boston, Sikhs first met as a small study circle in the late 1960s, but the community has expanded dramatically over the past few decades, and continues to grow. Today, there are four established gurdwaras (temples) serving several hundred families in Greater Boston.
Of the gurdwaras in Greater Boston, the first founded was the New England Gurdwara Sahib, which emerged out of community meetings as early as 1968. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sikhs would meet in each other’s homes, but due to increasing numbers, they began renting worship space from local churches and businesses. The community—known as the New England Sikh Study Group—expanded steadily, eventually receiving nonprofit status in 1979. In 1990, the group purchased a former Kingdom Hall in Milford, which was converted into a permanent gurdwara, today known as the Milford Gurdwara Sahib.
The next lasting addition to Boston’s Sikh landscape emerged from the Happy Health Holy Organization (“3HO”), a non-sectarian group dedicated to the teaching of Kundalini Yoga, which received broad national attention in the 1970s. As a matter of practice, these teachings were often combined with Sikh traditions. In 1981, the group purchased a former Jewish summer resort in Millis, converting the property to a gurdwara and private apartments, known as the Guru Ram Das Ashram and Gurdwara. The community is also a part of the Sikh Dharma movement.
In 1997, Boston saw the formation of yet another sangat (Sikh community) when the Gurudwara Guru Nanak Darbar was founded. After years of meeting in homes or rented space, they purchased property in Medford’s commercial district in May of 2003. The gurdwara was completed in early 2004.
The most recent Sikh community is the Sikh Sangat Society Boston, which was founded in 2005 as an offshoot of the Medford gurdwara. Currently, the group meets at a building in Somerville, though a more permanent home is sought.
Students at several of Boston’s many colleges and universities have also formed their own Sikh societies. The Sikh Association at Boston University, for instance, is active in the campus community, sponsoring events such as film screenings.
Sikh Life and Practice in Boston
Many of Boston’s earliest Sikhs were professionals—doctors or engineers, for instance—who arrived in Boston in the years after the adoption of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. A second wave of Sikh immigration occurred in the aftermath of the deadly riots in Delhi in 1984, bringing Sikhs of a wider range of occupations and backgrounds to the area.
Keeping with tradition, the Punjabi language is used during Sikh diwans (services) for scriptural recitation and kirtan (sacred music), but several gurdwaras in the area provide translations with a projector. Punjabi classes are also common, particularly for younger worshippers and second-generation immigrants.
Kirtan is an integral part of Sikh observances, and in addition to the traveling musicians that perform the scriptural hymns, some Boston gurdwaras provide kirtan lessons for interested youth, and children often play the instruments and sing during the diwan. (To hear a clip of the kirtan at Sikh Sangat Society, click here, or to learn more about kirtan and youth classes in Boston, read an essay here). The langar, or communal meal, is another important aspect of Sikh culture, and worshippers and guests alike are invited to share an Indian meal at the end of the weekly diwan.
Particularly after the events of September 11, 2001, common misunderstandings about Sikh culture and customs–especially the turban–have led to incidents of discrimination across the United States, and Boston has been no exception. On September 12, 2001, for instance, a member of the Milford Gurdwara Sahib was arrested on an Amtrak train for carrying a kirpan, a small knife customarily worn by Sikh men. While the charges were eventually dropped, the incident left many of Boston’s Sikhs shaken, concerned, and motivated to engage with the broader Boston community to ensure that such confusion could be reduced. Some Sikh groups, for instance, created initiatives to teach law enforcement officers about Sikh practices and customs. Many gurdwaras have also held public events such as chhabeel celebrations, which provide opportunities to explain Sikh beliefs and traditions (to see a slideshow of a 2009 chhabeel in Union Square, click here.
The Future of Greater Boston’s Sikh Communities
As the area’s Sikh population continues to grow, many gurdwaras are seeking to expand. Spaces that could once comfortably accommodate worshippers have become quite crowded, and many communities are exploring plans to move to more permanent and sizeable locations. Members of the Milford Gurdwara Sahib, for instance, recently purchased land in Berlin, Massachusetts where they eventually plan to construct a new gurdwara. If the plans are successful, it will be the first purpose-built gurdwara in the area–another milestone for Boston’s growing and thriving Sikh community.