Sikhism is the world’s fifth largest religion, but these peaceful people are greatly outnumbered and misunderstood in America. Uninformed people assume their turbans mean they’re Muslim, and racists continue to attack and harass them. The first hate crime after 9/11 was perpetrated against a Sikh man. Yet a group of Sikhs in New Jersey have embraced one of the most iconic pieces of Americana — the motorcycle — to pursue their own piece of the American dream on the country’s back roads.
At BuzzFeed, Teresa Mathew spends time with The Sikh Motorcycle Club Of The Northeast to report on these motorcyclists of faith. Club members fly the American flag and the Sikh flag on the back of their bikes. For them, riding is centering, creates brotherhood and reaffirms their commitment to Sikh values and ways of life. In the American imagination, bikers are associated with drinking, lawlessness, and rebellion. As Mathew points out, Sikhism was partly formed from rebellion against Hinduisms’ inequalities and India’s caste system, but members of The Sikh Motorcycle Club do not drink or smoke. And instead of defining themselves in opposition to authority, they submit to their ultimate authorities: family, faith, and god.
The members of the Sikh Motorcycle Club love to ride, to practice what KJ Singh, another founding member, calls “wind therapy.” One bright morning in early June, three members met in front of a gurudwara in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. In true Indian fashion, the other half of the group trickled in slowly. As the early arrivals waited, they prayed and ate the rotis and lentil curries provided as part of the gurudwara’s langar, a vegetarian meal cooked by volunteers. Once the whole crew was assembled, the riders helped one another program location details into iPhones and clambered aboard their bikes.
They rode for hours, past large swaths of rolling green fields and Shell gas stations and dappled, densely wooded back roads. As they drove their Harley Davidsons through small, sleepy suburban towns, the scene could have made for an edgy take on a Norman Rockwell painting. When they wear their helmets, clad head-to-toe in jeans and leather, the riders’ beards are the only thing that make them identifiably Sikh.
Harjot Singh Pannu doesn’t twist or tuck his beard away when he rides; it flies in the headwind like gray gauze. “I love it,” Harjot said. “People look at my beard and wish they have a beard like that.” When he rides, and the wind runs through his hair, he said, “to me, that’s like living with nature.”