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Largest Nagar Kirtan event held in Yuba City brings pride to region’s Sikh Punjabi community

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Jamie Jiang
Five men holding swords walk in the procession behind devotees sweeping the ground with brooms, pouring water, and singing hymnals.

This year’s Nagar Kirtan parade was the largest in history, temple representatives said. It was held the first weekend in November at the Sikh temple of Gurudwara Sahib in Yuba City. Also known as the Sikh Parade, the event has occurred yearly since 1979.

It’s considered by Yuba Citians to be the largest gathering of the Sikh Punjabi diaspora in California — if not the nation. The festivities center around the Sikh holy day of Guru Nanak Jayanti, the birthdate of the founder of the religion.

Yuba City saw anywhere from 160 thousand to 250 thousand attendees this year, according to temple representatives. That’s around double the amount of people who came to Yuba City last year. Some attendees drove across the country to attend; others came from outside the United States.

Rajkaranbir Singh is the general manager of Punjabi Radio USA, a community radio station that broadcasts U.S.and international news in the Punjabi language. Singh says Yuba City has the oldest Nagar Kirtan Sikh Parade in the country, which could explain its popularity.

Jamie Jiang
Around twenty women work together to make Punjabi roti in the templet community kitchen.

“This is one of the oldest towns where Punjabi people settled,” he said.

According to demographic data reviewed by one researcher, the Sikh Punjabi population in Yuba City dates back to the early 1900s. Throughout a century of changing immigration patterns, Yuba City’s Sikh-owned agricultural industry kept it a prominent place for new immigrants.

Singh says many in the Sikh Punjabi diaspora across the nation have ties to Yuba City. As a result, coming to the Yuba City Nagar Kirtan, more than perhaps any other, feels like a homecoming.

“Everybody has their relatives living in this area. And they come, they stay with them,” Singh said. “It's like Thanksgiving.”

As a result, Yuba City’s Sikh Punjabi community takes the role of the gracious host. And the city doesn’t just host for a single day. For two and a half months leading up to the kirtan — or parade — attendees may arrive in Yuba City to hear Sikh religious officials read from the religion’s scripture.

Jamie Jiang
This year’s parade saw the largest number of people to ever attend a Yuba City Nagar Kirtan.

In preparation, Yuba City’s Sikh Punjabi community donates food and labor in abundance. This is known as selfless sewa, a religious act of charity. Many families do sewa by working in langar, or community kitchens, to provide free, hot, vegetarian meals to all festival attendees.

Yuba City resident Manpreet Kaur helped in a community kitchen at the Sikh Temple of Gurdwara Sahib during this year’s festival. After sewa, she had to rush home to look after her baby.

“We go home, like, take a quick power nap. And then we're back here. That's how it is,” she said. “And that's how it’s supposed to be. Like there's no way you can feed that many people by chilling at home, you know?”

Kaur said many of her relatives came to stay with her family in Yuba City. She said she was able to see family members coming from as far as Boston.

In the temple’s own langar, Yuba Citians filled the ranks. One cook in the kitchen estimated around 50,000 people came to eat at the temple each day during the festival. To meet the demand, some began working in the middle of the night. Around twenty women arrived every morning to make Punjabi roti.

Some cooks perform sewa at the temple even outside of the Nagar Kirtan festival. They see it as a religious act.

“Everything has god,” one woman said, gesturing to the dough in front of them.

Jamie Jiang
Two women sit in the temple listening to prayers, hymns, and reading from scripture.

Tejinder Singh Dosanjh is the secretary at the temple and helped organize Yuba City’s first Nagar Kirtan event in 1979. He said there were double the number of community kitchens across the city this year than there were last year. Due to the efforts of these sewa-doers, there wasn’t a single moment when the festival ran out of food.

“It makes me proud,” he said.

That pride, he said, comes from being Sikh and Punjabi. It also comes from watching his city host huge numbers of the Sikh diaspora.

“It is the happiest day of our life, as a Sikh… Punjabi community living in a Sacramento Valley small city, Yuba City.”

Even after the Nagar Kirtan, Yuba City’s sewa-doers stayed behind, cleaning up after the thousands of congregants and the weeks’ festivities. On the Monday following the festival, Dosanjh said there were just over 200 Yuba Citians still at the temple, giving to their community in the name of selfless sewa.

Jamie is NSPR’s wildfire reporter and Report For America corps member. She covers all things fire, but her main focus is wildfire recovery in the North State. Before NSPR, Jamie was at UCLA, where she dabbled in college radio and briefly worked as podcast editor at the Daily Bruin.