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One Of The City's Least Understood Communities Takes Center Stage

In today’s over-heated political climate, people wearing turbans are sometimes typecast as dangerous. It’s a perception constantly confronting one of San Antonio’s lesser-known cultures. Now, an exhibit at the Institute on Texan Cultures reveals the history of Sikhism.    

Sikhs have long had a perception problem, and 9-11 is the time and place where those perception problems began. The events of 9-11 seared into the minds of some Americans a deep-seated distrust of Middle Easterners, especially those whose appearance was less westernized. 

“Our biggest obstacle in the US is really just a lack of awareness of who we are and what we stand for.”

The “we” Gurpaul Singh refers to are those who practice the religion of Sikhism. As a spokesperson for the Sikh community, he walked us through the ITC’s Sikh exhibit.

“After 9-11 because of our identity, Sikh males in particular wear turban and have an untrimmed beard, and I think we’ve all become victims of mistaken identity and confusion, with some of the images you see on CNN and Fox.”

Post 9-11, several fatal Sikh shootings were the result of shooters trying to kill people they felt were related somehow to terrorist attacks. Singh says that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“We’re actually a peace-loving religion. And the concept of our religion was based on equality. Equality of all men and all women, from all backgrounds—caste, creed and cultures, and races.”

Sikhism is a 500 year-old religion, borne of the Punjab, where India meets Pakistan. The other two religions in the area were Islam and Hinduism, and Sikhism was decidedly different from the rigid social strata that existed there.

“Based on the last name and the family you were born into, there was a caste system and social order and one group did not mix with the other. In our belief system are men are equal, again, against the social concept and order of the day. And also, all women are equal to men. So we really believe in true equality, where women can perform ceremonies, be fully active in the temple and have the same stature and respect as men, quite a foreign concept.” 

The exhibit is a result of a combined effort by three prominent institutions to bring the artifacts and displays to San Antonio from Washington DC: the Smithsonian, the University of Texas and the Institute of Texan Cultures. The exhibit’s ornate fabrics, shiny swords, documents, hundreds of historic pictures and other elements reveal much about the religion. Singh says the part about Texas Sikhs is particularly interesting.

"We actually as a community started migrating here well over a hundred years ago. In Texas some of the earliest settlers came here in the early 1900s. And particularly there’s a very nice section that’s been developed specifically for the Institute of Texan Cultures.”

Sikhs have always had to fight for their rights even in the land where their religion began. And while the exhibit’s tone is decidedly positive, their fight continues 500 years and thousands of miles later.

For more on the exhibit, go here

Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii