Participants in the Sikh ceremony called the Akhand Path can drop in at any time, day or night. There's areligious requirement that the kitchen always be open. And, like homebound rituals more familiar to mostAmericans, this, too, ends with a party.
An Akhand Path is a continuous reading of the 1,430 pages of the Sikh sacred book, the Sri Guru Granth. Theceremony, born in India two centuries ago as a reaction to persecution, has become a mark of the faith's identity in 21st century America.
The ceremony can be done for many reasons: a birthday or anniversary, the death of a loved one, a childstarting college. Recently, the Suri family celebrated and consecrated a spectacular new home in Plano, Texas.
"I am married 17 years, and this is the first time I am doing it," said Haninder Suri, known as Ani to herfriends. "I promised myself that I would do this when I had something big."
Shortly after 8 a.m. on a recent Thursday, the Suris and a few friends prepared for the prayers that begin thereading.
"Anything good in the religion starts in the morning," Ani Suri said.
A faint aroma of hot cereal filled the small room as the turbaned Sikh priest began to chant. Gurdial Singh Paras of the Sikh Temple of North Texas sang the prayers that start an Akhand Path. (It is pronounced with theaccent on the "kh." The vowels all rhyme with the "A" in "Ali," and the "th" sounds like the English "t.")
Akhand Path means "unbroken reading." Over two days, a series of men and women read the sacred text, whichthey revere as a living spiritual leader. Like relay runners passing the baton, each new reader recites a fewlines in unison with the previous reader before continuing alone for an hour or more.
An Akhand Path happens in North Texas about twice a month. Sometimes in the Sikh temples, called gurdwaras,sometimes in private homes, Sikhs observe this ritual even as other more visible emblems of their faith fade.
Although Sikh custom calls for men to have long beards and wear turbans over uncut hair, the readers andworshipers who visited the Suris over two days ranged from fully, visibly observant to closely shorn andsmooth shaven.
Like members of other faiths, Sikhs in America are struggling to identify which rituals and customs areessential, said Dr. Gurinder Singh Mann, a professor of Sikh studies at the University of California at SantaBarbara. Cut hair or leave it long? Read the Sri Guru Granth during worship only in its original language orallow use of English translations?
"This is the first time Sikhs have had to address these issues," Mann said. "Their decisions will decide theshape of the future of the community."
Next month, he is hosting a conference that will examine the way Sikhs who have left India have adjusted theirfaith to their new homes. The Akhand Path has become a significant way for Sikhs to assert their unique faithand culture, he said.
"It's a show of commitment of the community to its members," said Aman Singh, a 25-year-old electricalengineer who celebrated with the Suris.
Some experts estimate that there are more than 16 million Sikhs in the world and about 250,000 in the UnitedStates, although no formal count has ever been taken. Local leaders say there are about 500 Sikh families inNorth Texas belonging to four gurdwaras.
"There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim," Guru Nanak Dev proclaimed. He planted the seeds of an egalitarian faith and was succeeded, in turn, by nine more gurus. The tenth guru,Gobind Singh, created the tradition of five visible emblems of Sikhism: uncut hair and beard, a comb worn inthe hair, a steel bracelet, a specific style of undershorts and a ceremonial sword to be carried at all times.
This guru also completed work on a book of sacred writings. As he was dying in 1708, he declared to hisfollowers that the text itself would become their guru.