Published September 13, 2023

In this contribution to Sights & Sounds, Alexander Carle, who earned his MA in Anthropology from George Mason University, explains how the Sikh and Punjabi community come together to temporarily transform the National Mall each April.

On April 9, 2023, the National Mall transformed from a space of American nationalism and Western secularism into a celebration of Punjabi heritage and Sikh history with the 6th annual Sikh Freedom March. Attendees were greeted with authentic symbols of Punjabi culture, including food, music, and dress. (Here, I use scholar Brandi Thompson Summers’s definition of authentic: a historically preserved aesthetic form that “draws on an idealized vision of the of the past” and represents a specific moment in space and time.[1])

Sikh chefs served a popular platter of daal (lentils), sabzi (spiced vegetables), roti (bread), rice, and kheer (sweet rice pudding), which recreated several authentic recipes associated with Punjabi gurdwaras (Sikh temples) in the late 1400s, when Guru Nanak founded the Sikh faith and the tradition of the langar, or the community meal that is distributed after religious services. For roughly 500 years, gurdwaras have distributed their langar food for free;[2] likewise, attendees of the Sikh Freedom March were not expected to pay for their meals, adding to their authenticity.

Khalsa Sikhs march down Independence Avenue with a float resembling the Golden Temple.

“You go anywhere, Sikh temple, you’ll get everything, free food, everything free,” one attendee explained. “And even here, where you go, you’ll get a free [meal] over there. No charge.” Also in keeping with centuries-old langar practices, most attendees of the Sikh Freedom March ate their food while sitting cross-legged on the ground.[3]

The air around the Sikh Freedom March was thickened not only by the scent of cooking, but also by the sound of kirtan, a sacred musical genre that combines the scripture of the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy text and undying Guru) with the ragas (musical “modes” or melodies) of the Indian Classical Age. There were several live kirtan performances throughout the day, most of which featured the tabla (Punjabi hand drums) and harmonium (reed organ).

A live recording of a kirtan performance at the Golden Temple of Amritsar in Punjab, India, considered by Sikhs to be an example of mastery. Courtesy Alexander Carle.

After a few hours, the kirtan performances came to a halt. It was time for the day’s main event: a massive parade down Independence Avenue. At the center of the procession was a float carefully decorated to resemble the Golden Temple of Amritsar, featuring an ornate takht (throne) and a granthi (Sikh religious specialist) reading scripture to the crowd. The float was surrounded by members of the Khalsa, the religious order of baptized Sikhs, each wearing an orange turban over his unshorn head of hair, an orange or blue set of robes over his torso and thighs, an iron bangle around his right wrist, and a sheathed kirpan (ceremonial short sword) by his left hip. Despite the long walk down Independence Avenue, none of the Khalsa members wore shoes during the parade. This uniform is well known to Sikhs across the globe, for members of the Khalsa have dawned similar bana (spiritual attire) for over 400 years.

A Sikh percussionist stands atop a float and plays the nagara, a drum used to lead Punjabi folk ceremonies.

The men of the Khalsa were not the only ones to express their ethnic/religious identities through authentic clothing practices (though they were, perhaps, the most visible).[4] [5] While some women in the crowd wore the Khalsa uniform, most opted for a more casual chunni (a scarf draped over the head and shoulders) and Punjabi shalwar (straight-cut, loose-fitting pants with ankle cuffs)—an authentic Punjabi outfit that Sikh women have worn since the 13th century, and that many women in the Washington, DC metropolitan area continue to wear when visiting their local gurdwaras. Many attendants removed their shoes in reverence as their Guru Granth Sahib passed them by.

A Sikh man removes his shoes as the Guru Granth Sahib passes by.

These Punjabi and Sikh symbols did not replace preexisting images of American and secular identities in the National Mall; instead, they intertwined to produce a new kind of space: a cosmopolitan space where Punjabi langar food was served in front of the United States Capitol Building, and where the sounds of kirtan reached the doors of American monuments and secular science museums.[6] [7] [8]

The Sikh flag—a triangular, orange flag baring the Khanda symbol—waves alongside the American flag.

As a temporary cosmopolitan space, the National Mall exhibited exceptional racial and religious acceptance. Many Sikh immigrants to America report that they have been subjects of ethno-nationalist and Christian-nationalist ignorance since September 11, 2001.[9] At the Sikh Freedom March, however, Punjabi and Sikh people could comfortably exercise their ethnic and religious identities without fear of retaliation. A site so central to American society had become a space where ignorance and xenophobia were pushed to the margins, and where sentiments of Punjabi and Sikh pride were allowed to thrive.[10] [11] [12] [13] [14]

In embracing authentic minority folkways, these cosmopolitan spaces also support the re/production of hybridized cultural products and practices. [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] In this case, the National Mall became the site of hybridized foods, like “Punjabi-style” pizza with a naan crust, vegan cheese, and tandoori vegetables. In addition to kirtan, the soundscape was often filled with contemporary Punjabi hip-hop recordings that combine “Western” instruments (808 drums, electric keyboards, bass guitars) with those more common to Indian Classical music.

A cosmopolitan scene: men wear turbans and suits while women wear chunnis and Western parkas.

And one must not ignore the numerous examples of hybridized dress: there were men wearing “traditional” beards and turbans with their contemporary designer suits, and women who paired “authentic” chunnis with blue jeans and modern handbags. Such intercultural products and practices made the National Mall a welcoming place for the second- and third-generation Punjabis and Sikhs whose intersectional identities may prevent them from feeling represented in seemingly more “authentic” spaces.[20] [21] [22]

The National Mall’s typical secular American identity may have returned after the parade concluded, but this unique cosmopolitan space is not gone for long. Organizers of the event are already in the process of planning the 2024 Sikh Freedom March—an event that is sure to please all festivalgoers regardless of their identities.

Alexander Carle was born in Towson, Maryland, and received his BS in Sociology & Anthropology from Towson University. While earning his MA in Anthropology from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, Carle studied the cultural impacts of postmodern transportation and communication technologies, migration, the production of social space, religious belief and practice, folklore, and sociopolitical theory.

Works Cited

[1] Summers, Brandi Thompson. Introduction to Black in Place: The Spatial Aesthetics of Race in a Post-Chocolate City, 1-23. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

[2] Singh, Parkash. Community Kitchen of the Sikhs. Amritsar, Punjab: Singh Brothers, 1994.

[3] Singh, Community Kitchen of the Sikhs.

[4] Badruddoja, Roksana. “Queer Spaces, Places, and Gender: The Tropologies of Rupa and Ronica.” NWSA Journal 20, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 156-188.

[5] Cantú, Norma E. “Wearing Identity: Chicanas and Huipiles.” In MeXicana Fashions: Politics, Self-Adornment, and Identity Construction, edited by Aída Hurtado and Norma E. Cantú, 25-50. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2020.

[6] Tsing, Anna. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

[7] Gupta, Akhil and James Ferguson. “Beyond ‘Culture’: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference.” Cultural Anthropology, 7, no. 1 (1992): 6-23.

[8] Emon, Ayeshah and Christine Garlough. “Refiguring the South Asian American Tradition Bearer: Performing the ‘Third Gender’ in Yoni Ki Baat.” Journal of American Folklore 128, no. 510 (Fall 2015).

[9] Chávez, Alex E. “Gender, Ethno-Nationalism, and the Anti-Mexicanist Trope.” Journal of American Folklore 134, no. 531 (Winter 2021), 3-24.

[10] hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, no. 36 (1989): 15-23.

[11] Badruddoja, “Queer Spaces, Places, and Gender,” 156-188.

[12] Emon and Garlough, “Refiguring the South Asian American Tradition Bearer.”

[13] Gilley, Brian. “Two-Spirit powwows and the search for social acceptance in Indian country.” Powwow (2005): 224-240.

[14] Cantú, “Wearing Identity,” 25-50.

[15] Badruddoja, “Queer Spaces, Places, and Gender,” 156-188.

[16] Gilley, “Two-Spirit powwows and the search for social acceptance in Indian country,” 224-240.

[17] Williams-Forson, Psyce. “Other Women Cooked for My Husband: Negotiating Gender, Food, and Identities in an African American/Ghanaian Household.” Feminist Studies 36, no. 2 (2010): 435-461.

[18] Tsing, Friction.

[19] Emon and Garlough, “Refiguring the South Asian American Tradition Bearer.”

[20] Badruddoja, “Queer Spaces, Places, and Gender,” 156-188

[21] Gilley, “Two-Spirit powwows and the search for social acceptance in Indian country,” 224-240.

[22] Williams-Forson, “Other Women Cooked for My Husband,” 435-461.