Yuba City Sikh Festival, Part 5: The Parade

AND NOW, THE PARADE. To start, I recommend watching the video shot from the drone flying overhead during the festival:

The beginning and end of the drone flyover shows the beginning of the parade — the starting point of my post.

The lead float of the parade is a large throne upon which the Guru Granth Sahib is seated, one that is likely modeled after the palanquin upon which the Sikh scripture is carried in Amritsar during the daily processions in and out of the Golden Temple grounds. This, however, is a full parade float that holds priest, musicians, and attendees of the Guru.

The floats that followed either commemorated major historical events in Sikh history, including the martyrdom of Guru Gobind Singh’s two younger sons (discussed in a previous post), or martyrs of contemporary Sikhism.

The center of the Khalistan agitation was a stage constructed on the side of the parade route in support of the creation of Khalistan. Chants of “Khalistan / jindabad!” (long live Khalistan — the same style of chants that India and Pakistan used leading up to and after Partition in 1947), “What do we want? / Khalistan!” “India out of / Khalistan!” alternated with cries in English for Khalistan and speeches listing what rights the Indian government is withholding from the people of Punjab.

Our float then passed the Sikh Referendum 2020 stand and continued along the route, and the cries for Khalistan faded away as the stand crawled out of sight.

My mom and I sat on a float at the back of the parade procession, and the real magic was what we saw during our six hours proceeding very, very slowly down the 4.5-mile parade route. The route was lined at every possible turn with food stands set up by gurdwaras, charitable societies, and cultural groups, all serving chai, samosas, pakoras (vegetable fritters), kulcha (small sandwiches of potatoes and garbanzo beans), sweets, Punjabi beverages, just about every Punjabi snack imaginable. People handed food and snacks up to our float, then trash bags to collect and take away our waste. The volunteers ensured no one went hungry or thirsty during the parade.

These three photos are just a small sample of what the parade offered its attendees, as the sheer number of people there stretched much farther than the eye could see. This was as pure and grand an expression of Punjab — of the Sikh pillar of seva, or selfless service — I had ever seen, and it was right in my home state of California. It drew Sikhs from all around the world, including a woman from New Delhi who sat by my mother and me on the float. Despite the political turmoil underpinning the sentiment of this festival, the most prominent feeling was the genuine sense of pride and joy that followed us the entire weekend.

The following morning, Sikhs came out by the dozens to clean up after the parade, leaving the streets of Yuba City even cleaner than they were before the festival started. As good as Punjabis are at throwing parties, Sikhs are even better at cleaning them up.

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I’ve been sitting on this particular post for months now, mulling over what analytical framework with which I should be approaching it — is it the whole of Punjab and its vibrant culture packed into a 4.5-mile parade route? Is it Punjab showing the breadth of its global outreach, paired with its almost microscopic focus on the events of the homeland? And what about the cultural festival and its symbolism: how the festival is either an ideal of the culture it depicts or a microcosm, or both? The more I thought about how to frame the festival, the further, I felt, I was getting from it. Yet, it didn’t seem appropriate to just say, “This is Punjab,” and leave it at that.

I am exceptionally proud of my Punjabi-Sikh heritage. I have worked tirelessly for the past several years to learn the language and the faith, including two and a half years attending the Gurdwara Sahib of Chicago, a month in Ontario for the past life of this blog, and a month in Punjab for field research. My undergraduate education, largely, was a process of leaving home to find Punjab. I even returned to New Delhi after I graduated to work a job that proved unrealistic for me to take on, considering I did so without allowing myself time to recuperate after the whirlwind that was my final year of undergrad. Every Friday in New Delhi, I stood on the balcony of my apartment and called the professor I had stayed with in Punjab the previous year. Every week, as I sweated through the monsoon humidity and late summer heat, we discussed when I would be able to visit Punjab, his students, his children. “I fixed up a room for you,” he said, just as he had done the first time I stayed with him. “When the weather is better, when I get a free weekend, I’ll come visit,” I said.

Because of health reasons, I left India without making it to Punjab, and I was frustrated and disillusioned that I had traveled halfway across the world, only to miss Punjab because of weather and too heavy a workload.

I came home and saw Punjab stronger than I had seen in India — more concentrated, louder, more political. I had been to the festival six years prior, but my experience of this culture was limited due to lack of interest and decreasing exposure (read: being in high school). This time, I was in tune with the events in Punjab and their implications on the festival, with every song and speech in Punjabi, with every aspect of the festival and parade.

My family was at the first festival; my grandfather was an organizer, and my mom and her siblings walked the then 5-mile route. The turnout was marginal, and the other organizers complained about the length of the route. The idea for the parade, my grandfather said, came from a Sikh festival in Vancouver — a community that had settled in the continent decades prior. Today, with the growth of satellite television and social media, the Yuba City Sikh Festival has mushroomed in size to become the largest Sikh festival in North America. The festival represents the full spectrum of Punjabi-Sikh culture, from the idealized version of Punjab the organizers put forth, to the loud political advocacy of separatists, to the fraying edges of popular memory of Punjab among youth. Attendees see in the festival as much as they know of Punjab, whether they track daily news reports out of the home country or could care less about India and its politics. The festival is, indeed, Punjab — equally to those who never got acquainted with the home country, and to those who never really left.