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Chardi Kala Project showcases Sikh culture in Whatcom County

Children's Art Festival aims to unite communities through creativity, shared meals

People roam in the entry hall of Singh Sabha Gurdwara on Sunday, March 10. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)
By Cocoa Laney Lifestyle Editor

It’s a Sunday afternoon at Bellingham’s Singh Sabha Gurdwara, one of three Sikh worship spaces in Whatcom County. The building is abuzz with activity: Adults greet one another as their children play games. Musicians, called ragis, perform gurbani kirtan (Sikh hymns) on harmonium with tabla. 

Sikhs bow to Sri Guru Granth Sahib — considered both a holy book and eternally living guru — and take a reading from its 1,430 pages at the height of service. All worshippers gather on the floor as a sign of equality. 

Just across the hall, the smell of freshly made daal and well-spiced chai wafts from the langar into the entryway. In accordance with the Sikh principle of seva (selfless service without expectation of reward), this communal kitchen is staffed entirely by volunteers. Anyone who visits the gurdwara is invited to enjoy a meal free of charge, regardless of religion, race, gender or class.

Sikh followers pray in the worship hall on March 10 at the Singh Sabha Gurdwara on Telegraph Road in Bellingham. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)

Today the langar hall is a gathering place for Sikh worshippers, but on March 23, it will become the venue for the Chardi Kala Project’s third annual Children’s Art Festival. The Chardi Kala Project works with Whatcom County’s three gurdwaras to build bridges between Sikh and non-Sikh community members. 

The Chardi Kala Project is involved in a variety of outreach efforts, but the Children’s Art Festival is their major annual event. Community members of all faiths are invited to exercise their creativity, enjoy a meal and maybe learn a thing or two about the diverse cultures within Whatcom County.

About the Chardi Kala Project

Founded by the late Dr. Kirpal Singh and Dr. Phyllis Singh, the Chardi Kala Project began in January 2018 to combat discrimination against Sikhs and promote intercultural understanding. Executive Director Kamalla Kaur said it’s named for a Punjabi term meaning to “to keep our spirits uplifted, particularly in tough times, because you know you’re doing the right thing.”

The project is under the fiscal umbrella of the Chuckanut Health Foundation, and its first initiative was to provide meals to homeless community members. Kaur initially connected Lynden’s langar kitchen to organizations such as HomesNow and Bridge2Services. Today, they continue to deliver meals to sites including Swift Haven and the Civic Field encampment.

Harneet Singh and Sulakhan Singh perform Sikh music at Cedar Tree Montessori Preschool. (Photo courtesy of Kamalla Kaur)

Eventually the project began offering presentations in local schools and universities. In addition to Kamalla Kaur and Director Tarnjot Singh Brar, a wide roster of volunteers — including Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu — aid in these educational efforts. Sidhu has been involved with Chardi Kala since its inception; he said in an email that the project “has made a tremendous impact in showcasing Sikh culture and religious traditions to fellow citizens.”

Kaur also organizes field trips to Whatcom County’s three gurdwaras, a phrase that translates to “home of the guru,” though members of all faiths are welcome. On these days, she said that “everyone becomes [a Chardi Kala Project] volunteer” by virtue of welcoming and interacting with visitors. Punjabi culture Bhangra dancers and displays of Gatka — or Sikh martial arts, considered to be both a physical and spiritual practice — help with outreach in the wider community. The Chardi Kala Project also runs a job fair out of Lynden’s Pole Road gurdwara.


Lunch is served Sunday, March 10 inside the Singh Sabha Gurdwara. Visitors are invited to enjoy food free of charge. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)

Finally, the organization participates in various interfaith networks and events across Whatcom County — but the Children’s Art Festival has become the Chardi Kala Project’s flagship festival. Jacquie Bresadola of Pace Atelier Art Studio facilitates arts and crafts for the event, which she described as “a great opportunity to bring all the communities together in a space that maybe people aren’t familiar coming to.”

Sikhism in Whatcom County

Through its outreach, the Chardi Kala Project aims not just to raise awareness but reduce hate crimes by way of education. This is important given Whatcom County’s complex history of racism and anti-Asian violence.

In 1906, around 200 Sikhs arrived in Bellingham from Punjab to work in lumber mills. A year later, these workers were attacked by a mob and forced out of the county. Sikhs did not return to Whatcom County until 1983 — despite the fact that British Columbia is home to one of the largest Sikh populations outside India.

Worshippers, including Kamalla Kaur and Sukhvir Singh, gather at Singh Sabha Gurdwara. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)

In the decades since their return, Sikhs have become an integral part of Whatcom County’s economy and agricultural community. Whatcom County grows the largest per-capita crop of raspberries in the world; it’s now estimated that Sikh farmers account for more than half of this production. Punjabi immigrants also own a range of Whatcom County trucking companies, motels, convenience stores, fast food restaurants and construction businesses, thus contributing to the economy by way of job creation.

Kaur said Whatcom County is now home to between 5,000—8,000 Sikhs; moreover, there are clear signs of progress within the wider community. In 2018, a permanent monument, known as the Arch of Healing and Reconciliation, was erected in downtown Bellingham to honor and memorialize Sikhs, Japanese and Chinese immigrants — all of whom were forcibly removed from Whatcom County. Local politics also exemplify the success of reconciliation efforts, with Sidhu now twice-elected to the role of county executive. 

The Arch of Peace and Reconciliation was erected in 2018 to memorialize and honor the sacrifices of immigrants in Whatcom County. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

But amid significant progress, issues still remain: In December 2019, a Sikh Uber driver was assaulted by his passenger following a series of racist remarks. The driver escaped and called 911, and the incident was declared a hate crime by the Bellingham Police Department. This attack further catalyzed the Chardi Kala Project’s outreach: Kaur said Sikhs are often subject to heckling and outright racism, especially amid spikes of Islamophobia following 9/11.

Sukhvir Singh, a representative of the Singh Sabha Gurdwara and Chardi Kala Project volunteer, said he is frequently assumed to be Muslim due to his turban. This is despite the fact that turbans, or dastars, are characteristic of Sikhism, not Islam. Dastars, which are worn to represent respect and humility, are one of several oft-misunderstood facets of his faith.

Sukhvir Singh, right, speaks to Sikh followers in the Langar Hall alongside Kamalla Kaur on Sunday, March 10. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)

Singh explained that “sikh” means “learner” in Punjabi. The religion is relatively young, having originated in 15th-century South Asia. Members of the Sikh faith, most of whom are of Punjabi descent, study the teachings of founder Guru Nanak, the first of 10 human gurus (the 11th and final being the Guru Granth Sahib). 

Guru Nanak traveled throughout India and wider Asia to spread the message of Ik Onkar, a god that resides within all creation. The ultimate goal of Sikhism is to overcome egoism and to unite with the omnipresent divine. Guru Nanak advocated for women’s equality, challenged the Indian caste system, and advocated for peace, tolerance and equality across cultures and religions. 

As such, seva — or selfless service — is an integral part of the Sikh religion. In Whatcom County, Sikhs are among the first groups to provide assistance in times of crisis: Brar said during the pandemic, the Chardi Kala Project helped high-risk individuals obtain groceries and medication. The Sikh community also fundraised $75,000 for flood relief in November 2021 and brought meals to those affected.

The Sikh langar tradition is part of seva, or selfless service without expectation of reward. (Jack Warren/Cascadia Daily News)

These efforts, in tandem with the Chardi Kala Project’s outreach, helped deepen Sikhs’ connections with the wider community.

“People recognize us now as a constructive member of the community,” Brar said. “I am really happy for what we have done so far.”

Building bridges through creativity

If you’re looking to learn more about and connect with Whatcom County’s Sikhs, the Children’s Art Festival is an opportunity to do just that. Food from the langar kitchen (plus pizza) will be provided, and Bresadola will facilitate stations for four different crafts: painting, glue guns, weaving and polymer clay. 

Children’s art in Jacquie Bresadola’s studio, Pace Atelier Art Studio. Bresadola will be leading arts and crafts at the Children’s Art Festival on Saturday, March 23. (Cocoa Laney/Cascadia Daily News)

Kaur said these open-ended activities have resulted in a “natural translation” among attendees. She cited an example from 2023, when her own makeshift bracelet — crafted from a tape roll and stickers — sparked laughter across languages.

“I went over to where the parents were and I was … showing off my bracelet,” she said. “A Punjabi young woman who speaks English very well says, ‘Oh, come on. That’s so beautiful you could wear to the supermarket!’ So all the people who speak English cracked up — and then she translated in Punjabi, and all the Punjabi folks laughed. And then somebody translated it into Spanish!”

The art festival is free of charge, and community members from all cultures are invited to attend. While there will be opportunities to learn more about Sikhism, Kaur noted it is against the religion to proselytize, and this aspect is completely optional. Rather, she hopes that the event will help folks feel comfortable visiting a different culture’s place of worship. 

Children work on a group painting at the 2022 Children’s Art Festival at Singh Sabha Gurdwara. (Photo courtesy of Anne Harrington)

“Feeding people and feeling the hospitality of the gurdwara, that’s the number one goal,” she said. 

Bresadola described the gurdwara’s atmosphere as a feeling of “deep connection and love,” and the Children’s Art Festival is no exception. She believes art has a unique way of facilitating connections, regardless of culture or religion — and not only among children.

“Pre-K all the way up to an adult … we don’t treat [festival attendees] any differently, and they just get to experience having fun with creativity,” she said. “I think just having an openness to exploration with creativity is a doorway to communication, and to furthering us into community.”

The Children’s Art Festival is presented by the Chardi Kala Project in partnership with Pace Atelier Art Studio. The event takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 23 at Singh Sabha Gurdwara (591 Telegraph Road). Info: thechardikalaproject.org

Cocoa Laney is CDN’s lifestyle editor; reach her at cocoalaney@cascadiadaily.com; 360-922-3090 ext. 128.

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