Where other West Knoxvillians might have a mother-in-law apartment, Satwant Singh Puri and his wife Pushpinder have fashioned a Sikh Guardara—three rooms, one of them a kitchen, where Sikhs from the area come to share food and a religious ceremony the first Sunday of each month.
The Puris, who first lived in the house in 1977 and returned after moving out for a while in 1988, converted the basement for the services some three years ago—but that doesn't make Puri the spiritual leader, he hastens to clarify. “Nobody's a priest here—all are students. 'Sikh' means student, or disciple, a seeker of truth.”
Inside the innermost room of the Guardara, literally the “door of the teacher,” the sacred scripture of the Sikhs, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, is covered by ornate fabrics. All who enter do so with heads covered, the men in turbans, and shoes off, there to sing praises and listen to readings. Each week's fellowship meal, prepared the night before, includes some sort of vegetable, and lentils, traditionally black ones, just as it would in India.
Sikhs are a minority religion among Knoxville's Asian Indians, as they are in his home country, says Puri, who first came to the U.S. from Punjab in 1970, and now, at 65, works as a structural engineer at Alstom Power. The Guardara is attended by fellow ex-patriots of India, probably 20 or 25 families, and an equal number of Caucasian American Sikhs, says Puri.
“We believe all are equal and one God is the creator,” says Narinder Singh, a professor from the University of New Dehli who is at the Guardara on a weeknight because he's visiting his daughter, a University of Tennessee student.
Pushpinder, who is also from Punjab, has a second strong faith—in her husband. “We're married the last 35 years, arranged marriage,” she says with affection in her plain-spoken, gracious way. “We believe in each other.”