From Public Opinion, Chambersburg, Pa., Saturday, July 10, 1999.
RELIGION: SUMMER CAMP FOR SIKHS
At local camp, young Sikhs learn heritage
But pressure of American culture is strong
By MELVIN DURAI
The narrow country road in Hamilton Township skirts a
creek, then bends sharply up a wooded hill to
a secluded camp called Lohgarh Retreat,
where children from as far west as California
and as far east as Japan come to learn about
their religion and culture.
They arrive with their parents on a Saturday in
late June, 100 boys and girls, turning the quiet
road into a stream of sleek cars and filling the
camp with sights and sounds that to most
Americans would seem strange.
Here in rural Franklin County, in a serene,
hilltop spread, they sing and study, pray and
play, dance and discuss. Boys learn to wear a
headdress called a turban; girls learn to braid
and style hair that for some flows down to their
legs. And they share the burden of looking
Decades ago, many of their parents emigrated
from India, where their religion, Sikhism,
emerged some 500 years ago.
The children, growing up in the United States
and other countries, have endured harassment
and ridicule for their beliefs and appearance.
Some have tried to blend into Western society
by doing what was unthinkable for their
forefathers -- cutting their hair.
Sikhs, who number 150,000 in America, believe
that hair is a gift from God and must not be cut
from any part of the body.
"Lots of Sikhs take their hair off because they
can't face the world," says Tejpal Singh Dhillon,
a camp director and investor. "But taking your
hair off is losing your Sikhism to a large extent."
By the end of the $400, two-week camp, some
youths, like Deshmeet Kaur Malik of Chappaqua,
N.Y., will feel revitalized in their desire to grow
their hair and follow the tenets of Sikhism.
"It's really empowering," Deshmeet, 15, says of
Others, like Navdeep Singh Arora, 15, of Effingham,
Ill., will be nagged with questions.
Should we continue cutting our hair? Are we
sacrificing our spiritual future just to feel accepted?
Why can't we be as strong as the other Sikhs?
"The camp puts unbelievable pressure on you,"
Navdeep says. "I wish I could have my hair for these
two weeks, so I don't have to deal with the pressure."
The 65-acre camp just south of Chambersburg was
named after the first Sikh fort in the Punjab, a state
in northern India that's home to the majority of
the world's 16 million Sikhs.
Local people still remember the retreat as Camp
Robin Hood, where for several decades girls from
wealthy families rode horses, played tennis and
frolicked in the pool.
Five Sikh doctors, later joined by two others, bought
the camp in 1992 for about $600,000, hoping to help
Sikh youths uphold their heritage.
"It's really to get these kids to believe that they can
choose to be Sikhs and to give them the confidence
and resources so they can develop their religious
identity," says co-founder Mandeep Singh Dhillon, 29,
son of Tejpal Singh Dhillon. (Sikh men adopt the name
Singh, meaning Lion, while women adopt Kaur, or
The camp is one of a number around the country that
serve religious minorities, but fewer than 10 for Sikhs.
Sikhs follow the teachings of 10 successive gurus,
considered messengers of God, starting with Guru
Nanak (1469-1539). The 10th, Guru Gobind Singh,
instructed believers to wear five symbols, all beginning
with the letter K, including the "kara," or bangle, and
the "kesh," or uncut hair.
The camp's youths, ages 9 to 18, study Sikh history,
sing Shabads (hymns), and read the Guru Granth
Sahib, the holy book that holds the teachings of
the 10 gurus and is considered the living guru.
"We can't teach them a religion in two weeks," says
program director Upinder Singh Dhillon, an economics
professor from Binghamton, N.Y. "What we can teach
them is a value system."
The older Sikhs also serve as role models. Many have
succeeded in fields like medicine and engineering
without sacrificing their Sikh identity.
"At one time, the Sikhs who came here thought you
can't be successful if you don't blend in," Upinder says.
"We want to tell them, no, we're successful."
Amardeep Singh, 25, a doctoral student at Duke
University, begins his afternoon class by passing out
"Oh my gosh, this is so cool," raves Bandana Kaur
Malik, 16, scanning the single sheet of paper that
outlines the history of Sikhs in America. "This is
She and 23 other youths are sitting on benches and
couches in the lobby of Lohgarh's lodge, under two
ceiling fans that offer slight relief from the oppressive
heat. Pictures of sights in India adorn the walls.
The class is one of six the youths are attending today.
Divided into four groups according to age, they follow
a daily schedule that leaves only a few hours for play.
Amardeep recounts how the first Sikhs arrived in
America in 1897, after serving in the British Army,
how they faced discrimination and were denied
citizenship in the 1920s, even after living here for
"They wanted to keep America white," Amardeep says.
He's wearing a black turban and a thick, unrestrained
beard. Some of the younger boys, not yet ready for
turbans, are wearing their hair in buns on top of their
heads, covered with scarves known as patkas. Five
boys sport hair that's brazenly short.
Amardeep tells them that Sikhs have been
misrepresented in the media, sometimes as terrorists,
as happened after the 1984 assassination of Indian
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikhs. He
encourages them to become journalists and politicians,
so they can help enlighten people about Sikhism.
"We need not be just two or three professions," he says.
Bandana, of Chappaqua, N.Y., has learned about Sikhs
in India, but never heard much about their American
"It's really exciting," she says after the class, "to see how
our roots developed here."
Before the evening prayer, almost every boy dons a
turban, wrapping a swath of cotton over his head. Tejpal
Singh Dhillon and other men help the younger boys
fashion the distinctive headgear.
"It's really hard," says Chetan Singh Chadha, 11, of
Potomac, Md. "Once I get the grip of it, then it'll be easy
Sartaj Singh Ajrawat, 15, also of Potomac, ties a blue
turban by himself, adjusting it in a mirror.
"I'm still trying to figure out what my style is," he says.
Navdeep Singh Arora wears a black turban that shows
signs of inexperience: It's a little flat and irregular.
He and about 10 other boys in the camp regularly cut
They're afraid of sticking out.
They know that some Sikh boys have been called names
like "ragtop" and "conehead."
"I was already being teased, even without wearing
(a turban)," says Shaminder Singh Bhullar, 17, of Calgary,
Canada, the only Sikh in his high school class.
At the camp, boys with short hair stand out from the rest,
but are accepted and encouraged by everyone. Still, the
message is clear: A good Sikh keeps his hair.
Navdeep, also the sole Sikh at school, is proud of his
"Sikhism is a great religion," he says. "Obviously, God
blessed me. We're such a minority."
But he doesn't know if he'll ever grow his hair.
"I'll have to get stronger and realize that looks don't
matter," Navdeep says. "It's something I'll have to decide
Sartaj cut his hair until seventh grade, then gained
enough confidence to wear a patka. Last year, he
graduated to a turban and hasn't encountered trouble at
It's important, he says, for a Sikh to walk with his head up.
"As long as a Sikh is confident, he's set."
Deshmeet Kaur Malik relishes the camp atmosphere
and unleashes her enthusiasm on everyone.
At a talent show, she bounces around, snapping photos
of her friends and joining a group of giddy campers in
singing a Backstreet Boys hit. At a group discussion,
she's quick to share her opinions and laughter. And
before a dinner of rice, lentils and curry, she leads the
youths in singing "Mool Mantar," the first verse of the
"I like being around the Sikh community," Deshmeet
says. "I don't feel as alone when I come here. They have
the same background, so they understand where I'm
She has never cut her hair -- it reaches her thighs -- and
vows to marry only a turban-wearing man.
"In a way, I feel that the men that keep their hair are
stronger," she says.
But Deshmeet, like many other girls, has adopted a
Western habit that strict Sikhs resist. Last year, she
began shaving her legs.
"I just felt weird, because I play a lot of sports and wear
shorts," she says.
Sisters Harleen and Netu Kaur Bhullar can empathize.
They have trimmed their hair, like their brother
"It's peer pressure," says Harleen, 11. "Everybody was
Netu, 14, says her long hair was tough to control,
especially when she played basketball and other
Their parents, Gurdit Singh Bhullar and Surinder
Kaur Bhullar, who immigrated to Canada in 1975,
have also cut their hair.
"I think you want to fit in with the crowd," says Surinder,
a camp volunteer. "You don't know whether you get
accepted with a turban."
The Bhullars have spent about $6,000 flying to the
United States for the camp and another event.
The results may be apparent soon. Their two daughters
have decided to grow their hair.
"I think this camp has totally helped me make that
decision," Harleen says.
Adds Netu: "I'm really proud that a lot of these guys kept
their hair. Even though I haven't, it makes me proud
that a lot of my brothers and sisters have."
In a few days, the multipurpose pavilion above the
boys' dorm hosts basketball games, a talent show,
solemn prayers and lively discussions.
On this evening, as fans whir and lightning bugs flash
through the air, 30 men and boys sit in a circle on the
carpet and discuss issues such as drugs, drinking,
dating, and hair cutting.
Counselors perform skits to illustrate the temptations.
The first features a marijuana dealer who says, "God
put everything for us to use. It grows
The boys laugh.
Camp co-founder Mandeep Singh Dhillon, who leads
the discussion, advises the boys to resist drugs, alcohol
"As far as Sikhs are concerned, no way in the world
should you be caught with them," he says.
The last skit shows a man trying to convince a Sikh
friend to trim his beard.
"The temptation to trim your beard is bigger than
alcohol and drugs," Ajay Singh Kohli, a 20-year-old
camp counselor, says after the skit. "But you've just got
to make up your mind beforehand. This is discipline."
Adds one boy: "I'm afraid that this new generation is
going to accept trimming their beards. It's just going
to disintegrate our culture."
Mandeep, perhaps trying to reassure several boys who
are clean-shaven, says: "We're all here to make
ourselves better. ... Sikhs are the ones following
the path. It doesn't matter where you are along that
path, as long as you're going in the right direction."
But moments later, he delivers the last word: "You cut
it, it's going to come back. You shave it, it's going to
come back. God wanted it there."
Navdeep Singh Arora, the clean-cut 15-year-old,
sustains an indirect lashing again, but doesn't
seem to mind.
"They have the right to talk, because it's our religion,"
he says later. "This is the two weeks of my life that I
feel out of place."
At the 7 a.m. prayer the next day, the pavilion turns
into a Gurdwara, or temple.
The Guru Granth Sahib, or holy book, is set on a
wooden throne on the stage, beside the minister and
a group of musicians. Slivers of sunlight peek
through the wooden boards above them.
The congregation kneels on the carpet facing the
stage, females on the left, males on the right, their
hair covered by turbans and scarves. Shoes and
sandals have been left beside the entrance, a show
of respect for the Gurdwara and holy book.
As Shamsher Singh Dhanjal thumps a pair of tabla
drums, his brother Savraj Singh Dhanjal plays a
harmonium and sends his resonant voice through
the pavilion and the neighboring fields and woods:
"Sabh sukh data ram hai, doosar nahi na koe
(God is the giver of peace. There is no other like him)."
Savraj, 18, of Hamilton, N.J., is wearing a white T-shirt,
tan slacks and a red turban. His beard curls down a
few inches below his chin.
He has never cut his hair, withstanding teasing in
school and questions such as, "Do you wear a towel
on your head?"
"Through the support of my parents and family, I was
able to hold onto my Sikh identity," he says.
The camp, which he has attended four times, has also
"The camp has really opened my eyes into what
Sikhism is all about," he says. "Every time I learn
something about Sikhism, I see that
it's really great."