The weather was warm and the chilled drinks were free, but some people in Somerville's Union Square still weren't buying.
Members of a local Sikh temple -- the women in vibrant tunics and some of the men in turbans -- had spread across the square last weekend to give away soft drinks and water to passersby and carloads of people stuck in construction traffic.
The responses ranged from a quick "No, thanks" to a skeptical "Nothing's free," and, most frequently, a curious "Free? But why?"
The drinks are distributed to commemorate the death of Guru Arjan Dev Ji, a Sikh spiritual teacher from the 17th century, said Satvir Kaur, who teaches Punjabi classes at the Sikh Sangat Society Boston temple in Somerville. "It's also a way to give back to the community and to raise awareness about the Sikh faith," she said.
Sikhs have been reaching out to Greater Boston for several years. But the puzzled reactions last weekend showed that many of their neighbors are still not acquainted with the religion.
Sikhism, which began some 500 years ago in the Punjabi region of what is now India and Pakistan, was founded on three main tenets of egalitarianism, religious pluralism, and social justice.
Worship services are open to all and community service is encouraged, often taking the form of a free meal offered to all who attend the worship service.
Guru Arjan Dev Ji died on May 30, 1606, after being tortured for four days without complaint, and the distribution of drinks celebrates his heroic death, Kaur said. Tradition calls for the serving of "chhabeel," a mixture of water, milk, sugar, and rose water concentrate, but Somerville health regulations prohibit distribution of opened drinks.
Last year, the Sikh community gave away 10,000 drinks in the Haymarket area, Kaur said. This year, at the less-congested Union Square location, they filled the back of a U-Haul van with 5,000 cans of soda, bottles of water, and jars of mango juice, chilled in enormous tubs of ice.
Young Sikhs ran around the square at the intersection of Somerville Avenue and Washington Street brandishing large, boldly lettered signs that announced "Free drinks!!!" and handing out pamphlets introducing Sikhism and explaining the occasion.
"We had to add 'No catch' to the signs because people thought we were giving away drinks for conversion purposes," Kaur said, adding that Sikhs do not proselytize.
Somerville resident Will Buck, who paused to sample a soda and read the pamphlet, said he often sees Sikh men sitting in Union Square. "They're more visible because of the turbans and I've seen them around, but I didn't know anything about them, so I thought I'd read this," he said, holding a copy of the pamphlet.
"It's a good way to educate people about Sikhs," added Sofia Jarrin, another Somerville resident who had stopped to pick up a drink.
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According to Kaur, the Boston area has major Sikh temples in Somerville, Medford, Milford, and Millis. While she doesn't have statistics on the number of Sikhs living in the region, Kaur estimated there are at least 500 families that attend these temples.
The Sikh community has had a presence in Boston since the 1960s, said Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University. But public perceptions took a downward turn after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"There were a lot of images of [Osama] bin Laden on television, and people were confusing Sikhs as linked with Al Qaeda," said Harpreet Singh, a 32-year-old graduate student at Harvard University.
Turban-wearing Sikhs were physically attacked, prohibited from boarding planes and trains, or taunted and insulted. On Sept. 12, 2001, a member of the Sikh temple in Milford was removed from a train because he was wearing a turban and misidentified as a possible terrorist.
Sikhs are still frequent targets for hate crimes and discriminatory remarks. The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy and outreach group, registers several violent attacks against Sikhs every month in its online database. According to Singh, it is "almost a given" that when he is out in public, someone will call him "Osama bin Laden," despite the fact that bin Laden is a Muslim.
In a study released by Cambridge-based Discrimination and National Security Initiative in 2006, 83 percent of Sikh respondents said that "they or someone they knew personally had experienced a hate crime or incident after 9/11."
Another 64 percent of Sikh respondents said that they were fearful for their physical safety after 9/11, compared with 15 percent of Indian Hindu respondents and 41 percent of Pakistani Muslim respondents.
Muslim women who wear head scarves and Sikh men who wear turbans directly experience "what it means to be a visible minority in America," Eck said.
"There is a sense in the community that one's visible difference can make you a target, but the Sikh response has been one of outreach, with campaigns to let people know more who Sikhs are," Eck said. "Part of what we're seeing with the distribution of drinks is a continuation of that effort."
While Sikhism is a distinct religion from Islam, Eck added, "Sikhs are very sensitive to the fact that saying they are not Muslim does not mean it's OK to discriminate against people who are Muslim."
Filmmaker Valarie Kaur (no relation to Satvir Kaur) toured the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, capturing the stories of how Sikhs dealt with prejudice and hate crimes. The result, a documentary entitled "Divided We Fall," has been shown in schools around the country, including Harvard, Tufts University, and the Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge.
"Violence occurs first in the minds of people and then in their acts," Kaur said. "If we can change people's minds by telling our stories, then maybe we can prevent violence and discrimination in the future."
Sitting on a bench in Union Square, sipping from her free bottle of water and observing the proceedings with a smile, Somerville resident Margaret McKenna said "people in Boston are not very friendly. They tend to be very skeptical."
However, she added, the free drinks seemed to be having a positive effect on passersby.
One woman, who requested a plastic bag to carry away her water and soda, had another question for a Sikh boy standing nearby.
"What's the occasion?" she asked.
"We're celebrating our culture," he replied.
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.