Vermont Gurdwara: A Nexus For Immigrant Sikhs In Los Angeles

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Two months ago Hari Singh left his family in the Sikh boroughs of West London for Los Angeles, eager to enroll at a local community college and embrace a new chapter of his life in the United States. He dreamt of the quintessential college life, drawn up in the storyboard rooms of Hollywood, since he was a teenager.

But like many newly arrived immigrants, Singh, 19, struggled to acclimate with the intricate multiracial relationships that define Los Angeles. His religion, coupled with his visa status, made job-hunting an arduous process. And when he failed to secure classes or a job Singh turned his sights away from the decadent lifestyle he envisioned, toward the Gurdwara - or Sikh house of worship - that welcomed him when he first arrived.

"When everything with school didn't work out, I came back to the Gurdwara," said Singh, who now lives at the Vermont Gurdwara on Vermont Avenue near Griffith Park. "It's a good social community [for Sikhs]. They made me feel quite welcome, something I haven't felt from Americans."

Founded over 55 years ago, the Vermont Gurdwara - which translates literally to "gateway to the guru" - is the first Sikh house of worship in Los Angeles, according to Ajit Singh Nimana, the Gurdwara's head priest. One of five listed Sikh houses of worship in Los Angeles, the white edifice maintains sleeping accommodations for more than two-dozen practicing Sikhs and a full, cafeteria-style kitchen for the Sikh practice of langar, a free, community meal.

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The Gurdwara also boasts a spacious prayer room, void of any seating, which Nimana said holds more than 200 people during their Sunday prayers.

"People from all over the world can stay here at Vermont Gurdwara," Nimana, 53, said with Singh translating. "These are the teachings of Guru Nanak," he said, referring to the founder of the monotheistic Sikh religion, which today has roughly 25 million followers.

Although he has lived in Los Angeles for several years, Nimana does not speak more than a lick of English, a fault he attributes to working so diligently with the Sikh community. Like many living in the Gurdwara, Nimana speaks mostly Punjabi, an Indo-Aryan language originating in northern India and Pakistan.

"People from all across Los Angeles, and even the colleges of Los Angeles, get together at our Gurdwara to pray," said Nimana, who opens the doors of the Gurdwara at 5:30 a.m. daily.

Once people come to the Gurdwara, it's fairly common for them to stay involved with the community, Nimana explained. He estimated that 80 percent of the number of Sikhs living in Los Angeles that have come to pray at the Vermont Gurdwara have continued their connection.

"As with other immigrant populations, you're likely to find members of your own community at a mosque, church or, in this case, the Gurdwara," said Vinay Lal, a professor at UCLA's Center for India and South Asia.

Gurdwara Vermont in Los Feliz | Photo by brianandjaclyn used under a Creative Commons license
Gurdwara Vermont in Los Feliz | Photo by brianandjaclyn used under a Creative Commons license

Strict followers of Sikhism, such as Nimana, adhere to a number of religious prohibitions. They refrain from cutting their hair, using intoxicants such as alcohol or drugs and are discouraged from obsessing over material possessions. Sikh teachings also reject the notion of discriminating a person by caste, a complex system of social stratification defined by different hereditary groups.

But universal to all Sikhs is the idea that all people are equal in the eyes of God. And while the concept of equality exists esoterically for many religions, Sikhs express it in a physical way, inviting all members of their community to share a meal regardless of social standing.

Singh now prepares langar for the Vermont Gudwara, cooking up the free meals served to all visitors daily as compensation for his stay. His duties are part of the Sikh practice of Missal, or regular chores carried out by volunteers.

While Singh pines for London and the day he can move back with his family, he said the Gurdwara has helped him cope with living in Los Angeles for the time being.

When asked how he found himself in Los Feliz, far away from the traditional pockets of Indian immigrants living in Los Angeles, Singh smiled begrudgedly, explaining that the Gurdwara found him.

"I come from a practicing Sikh family, so coming to the Gurdwara here was the easiest transition," Singh said. "But it's up to each person to follow the faith. It's hard for young people this day in age."

Singh's story of finding his community draws parallels to the estimated 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States today, Lal said. He added that the Gurdwara's practice of langar helps new immigrants acclimate because the practice of sharing a meal with fellow Sikhs, as well as other community members, is familiar.

"Gurdwara, in this sense, are a place that make Sikhs, particularly a young Sikh, feel comfortable," Lal, whose body of work focuses on the Indian diaspora, specifically in North America said. The Gudwara serve as "a nexus for Sikhs looking to find a sense of community" in the United States.

Singh's experience with Los Angeles living may not mirror that of the greater Sikh community in California, estimated at nearly 100,000. However, his connection with the Vermont Gurdwara accentuates the facility's value to newly immigrated Sikhs keen to connect with their community.

"Whether you're Sikh or a non-Sikh, everyone is welcome here... that's what [Sikhism] is all about."

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