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There's a lasting link between the 35-character alphabet used to write Punjabi and the Sikh religion.

The Sikh scriptures and the Punjabi language of many Sikhs were written in a script known as Gurmukhi. So to be fully initiated into the religion, you must know how to read it.

That has created a problem for the Sikh community of Livingston, California, U.S.A. Their children, many of whom speak only English, aren't able to understand the service in the gudwara - let alone some of their own family members.

The problem, increasingly common in many Sikh communities, is threatening to create a cultural, linguistic and religious divide between generations, said several local Sikhs and the Sikh media. It's also a threat to the continuance of the religion among second- and third-generation Sikh-Americans.

But since April 2009, because of the effort of a group of Sikhs in Livingston, 50 to 60 children have been taking weekly Punjabi classes.

And recently the group was given a more permanent home at Selma Herndon Elementary School. Henry Escobar, the Livingston superintendent of schools, has provided the Punjabi classes the use of several classrooms at the school.

"The kids were losing out," said Kirpal Singh Grewal, one of the people who helped organize the language classes. "There was no opportunity for them to attend some classes, so they didn't really know the language."

Kirpal's wife, Tripat Kaur, who helps teach Punjabi language classes, said that for many Sikhs the fact that their children couldn't understand what was being said in the temple was at the heart of the effort to create Punjabi-language classes. "The religious part was very important," she said.

In early 2009, a group of concerned Sikhs, including Kirpal Singh, his wife and Hardeep Singh Rai, got together to start classes, said Tripat Kaur. First, they taught the classes in the gurdwara, but there wasn't enough room. "Everything was there except for the proper place," he explained. Four Merced College students who speak Punjabi helped teach, along with several community members in Livingston.

While it isn't the first effort to start such a school, so far it's the only local effort that's lasted, said Kirpal.

Tripat said earlier efforts failed for several reasons. Many in the Sikh community are working-class folks, and either aren't literate in Punjabi themselves or, since they're recent immigrants, wanted their children to learn English.

Kirpal said the classes in Livingston are part of a larger effort by Sikhs to keep their traditions alive as new generations grow up in the U.S. "This is a movement to revive our culture and language," he said.

The movement isn't confined to Livingston.

An article in the Spring 2008 in a San Jose based Sikh weekly newspaper warned that the loss of knowledge of the Gurmukhi alphabet was widespread - and not just in the U.S.

Nanak Singh "Nishte" wrote that not only were many of the Sikhs in India were illiterate in their own language, but many others were learning to read other scripts instead of Gurmukhi. "It is the prime responsibility of every Sikh to search ways and means to counter every attempt to undermine the Gurmukhi script,"

At least in Livingston, the trend looks as if it may be reversing itself.

[Courtesy: Mercury News]

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