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In quiet town, counterculture found peace at last

09/26/2005


http://www.statesman.com/travel/content/travel/stories/09/25espanola.html
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    For community of Sikhs, protests of the 1960s and '70s faded into a spiritual quest.
    Maxim Kniazkov photos
    Guruka Singh Khalsa helped found the 40-acre Sikh religious community in Espanola, N.M.
    By Maxim Kniazkov, SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN

    ESPANOLA, N.M. — For all intents and purposes, Peter the long-haired counterculture firebrand has died — to be born again and remain true to what he says was his spiritual calling.

    Faded jeans, rainbow-colored T-shirts, sandals and beads went into a trash bin. Along with LSD, hallucinogenic mushrooms, pot and other traditional paraphernalia of his former lifestyle.

    Out went his birth name, so conventional it would make him a welcome guest at most American dinner tables. In came a lengthy, foreign-sounding appellation.

    And, of course, a turban, a long white beard and robes flowing like the waters of the river Ganges.

    Guruka Singh Khalsa, the Pure Lion of Wisdom, is now an important person in the Sikh religious hierarchy who begins every day with a prayer, a successful no-nonsense businessman, doting father, husband married to the same woman for nearly 34 years, and a recognized community leader.

    A poster boy for the Republican Party?

    Labels are deceiving like shifting New Mexico winds, he laughs. But "the lost generation" of the 1960s and 1970s might have found itself here — in its own peculiar way.

    The largest organized Sikh colony in the United States (where Sikhs live in one centrally administered camp) comes to life every day even before some big city revelers go to bed. (Outsiders can visit the community and its Sikh Dharma Temple on Sundays or by appointment.)

    Shivering in the nighttime desert cold, the faithful begin trudging toward the Sikh Dharma Temple on the outskirts of this northern New Mexico town soon after 3 a.m.

    Yoga exercises are followed by meditation, through which Sikhs are communicating with God, seeking inspiration and counsel.

    Then, it's on to more mundane things: sending children off to school, getting ready for work, handling house chores.

    More than 400 people live in the 40-acre religious settlement that Khalsa helped found in 1971 together with the community's spiritual leader, Yogi Bhajan, who died last October.

    About a quarter of them are former members of the counterculture movement that shook the country more than three decades ago — only older, wiser and more at peace with themselves and the world around them, according to Guruka Singh.

    The rest are children, relatives, new followers, who, like everybody in the community, have foresworn tobacco, alcohol and meat — and preach hard work and devotion to God and family.

    Surely, some things never die. Their long hair might be graying and the outlook on life is not what it used to be, but the bonds of camaraderie forged on the sidewalks of Berkeley, Calif., are still strong.

    "Most of us are American-born," Khalsa explains. "Only very few are actually from India or Pakistan . . .. We've come to this lifestyle individually, through a long spiritual journey."

    Nobody denies it was the Beatles and their much-publicized 1968 trip to northern India to study transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that led many in North America to yoga and Indian religious philosophy.

    But what was first perceived to be just a fad has touched a chord and stayed around much longer than even the Fab Four were willing to indulge.

    "It was in no way an intellectual decision for me," recalls Khalsa, now 59. "It's like the feeling of coming home. I must have been a Sikh in my previous lives."

    He used to belong to the cultural elite, living alternately in Manhattan's posh upper West Side and Hollywood.
    His father was an Oscar-winning screenplay writer, whose name he steadfastly refuses to reveal. His mother? A well-known painter.

    He had, he points out, "a rich intellectual upbringing" filled by the music of Bach, Mozart and Vivaldi, and novels by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and James Joyce.

    He has a degree in microbiology from New York's City College and studied subatomic particle physics at Ohio State University.

    He is the producer of many popular computer video games. Had he chosen a different path, he probably would be cruising now in stretch limousines down Sunset Boulevard, sipping brandy and puffing on smuggled Cuban cigars.

    But that was not his calling, he says. He has chosen communal meals with his turbaned brethren and insists he does not want it any other way.

    "There is something special about family, the connection between elders and children," he says. "In a way, nirvana is now. We live it every day."

    As the sun broke through the clouds and warmed the earth, a young man sat in a lotus position in front of the temple, peacefully immersed in deep thought.

    A gaggle of children with school backpacks trooped alongside a trail, lowering their voices in order not to disturb the prayer.

    Guru Sadhana, a 26-year-old from Virginia and daughter of a couple of ex-peaceniks who found spiritual refuge in Sikhism, loaded things into her Acura, taking advantage of a lunch break.

    A newlywed with a business degree, Guru Sadhana worked in marketing for Golden Temple, a Sikh-owned natural-food and beauty-supply company, whose products she said were selling "very well."

    Golden Temple is just one of a constellation of businesses that form the backbone of the community's economy.

    Akal Security company guards many military installations in New Mexico and neighboring states, federal court buildings, airports, NASA facilities and water supply systems, earning millions of dollars.

    Then, there is a Santa Fe-based computer consulting firm called Sun & Son that specializes in Web-based e-commerce, document management and electronic publishing. Guruka Singh is one of its founders.

    At first surprised, locals are now accustomed to seeing men and women in Sikh attire in stores, restaurants and on the city school board.

    Asked whether people were apprehensive to have so many people with a rebel past in a town of just 15,000, Espanola Mayor Richard Lucero shook his head: "They are peaceful, congenial neighbors, and we are happy to have them as part of our community."

    Maybe, indeed, nirvana has arrived.

    If you go . . .
    Getting there: Take U.S. 84/285 until you reach the intersection with NM 106. The 'Dreamcatcher' movie theater at the intersection is a landmark to remember. Turn west on NM 106 toward Santa Cruz and take the first right — onto Sombrillo Road. The temple, marked by a massive golden dome, will be visible on the left about 500 yards after the turn, across the street from a public school.
    Admission: Free
    Hours: The Sikh Dharma Temple is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays, when services are being held. The services are traditionally followed by a group meal called 'langar,' to which visitors are invited. To arrange a tour of the temple outside normal visiting hours, call (505) 367-1315 and speak to the temple's secretary, Guru Meher Kaur (pronounced: gooroo mare car).
    Rules: Shoes must be removed when entering the temple. Both men and women must have their heads covered. Scarves are provided for any visitors who arrive without head covering.
    Weather: Temperatures can drop to 35 degrees during winter and rise to 95 degrees during summer.
    Lodging: Days Inn, Comfort Inn, Super 8 Motel in Espanola on U.S. 84/285 are a couple of miles north of the temple.
    Events: International Peace Prayer Day held each June in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. Information about specific dates can be obtained at www.peaceprayerday.org.
    Peace Prayer Day is followed by the Summer Solstice celebration, which is held at a 170-acre yoga campsite located in the crown of the Jemez Mountains. Details: http://3ho.org/events/yoga-retreat2.html.
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