Posted by: Singh Is King | Monday, August 6, 2007

An Unexpected Turn of Events

Over 25 years. That’s how long it took me to put into words the story of this solstice yatra and the events that occurred along the way.

Summer Solstice Yatra 1979

Our cars, packed and piled with camping gear, finally pulled away from the curb on Preuss Road. We were off!  It had been a hectic day of going to work, followed by last minute shopping, packing, locating camping gear, and meeting with our fellow travelers for the 15-hour or so drive to the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico for Summer Solstice Sadhana. We had planned to meet, pack up the cars and be on the road by 7:00 PM. It was Friday night, and we calculated that by driving straight through we would get up to the Solstice site late in the morning of the next day, with plenty of time to set up our tents and participate in the day’s events. Yet, delay after unexplainable and frustrating delay put off our departure until almost 11:00 PM.

We sat around Sat Anand Kaur’s and Harkirat Singh’s kitchen table, snacking and chatting excitedly about Solstice and plans for our drive ahead, trying not to get negative about the person who was late and thus holding up our departure. I commented lightly, and others agreed, that it felt so odd with all the delays and leaving so late, that perhaps the universe was setting us up for something in a certain time and space. At last all our co-travelers were present, packed, and set to depart.

It was a dark cloudless night. Looking up, I noticed that the stars seemed more visible than usual, peering through the layers of reflected city lights and atmosphere, beckoning us to get going!

Karta S (Ctr)

Karta Singh (center) flanked by Siri Gurmukh S (L) and I can’t remember name of man on R. Is that Babaji in the background?

Our small caravan consisted of two well-packed vehicles. Sat Anand Kaur, Akal Kaur and Karta Singh, all striking in their nihang style of dress, drove together in Sat Anand’s Volvo wagon. Recently inspired through their Amrit vows, and influenced by their studies with Bhai Mohinder Singh (who taught kirtan and gatka for several months in Los Angeles) they wore full bana, with gleaming steel chakras (circular swords) and khandas (double edged swords) on their damaala style turbans, navy blue cotton cholas, with shiny kirpans at their sides. Little Hargobind Singh, Sat Anand Kaur’s two-year-old son, was already asleep, nestled comfortably on the floor in the back seat.

Inside our Econoline
At home in the back of our van.

Siri Ved Singh and I had packed our white Ford Econoline van with all our gear and made the large back area a cozy spot for our five-year-old daughter Sat Kartar Kaur, and our fellow travelers, my closest friend Siri Bhrosa Kaur, her nine-year-old daughter Sat Hari Kaur, and her friend, Siri Krishna Kaur. Sleeping bags, foam pads, duffels, pillows and blankets all layered…. so those riding in the back could find a cozy corner to curl up and try to get some sleep during the long journey ahead.

We planned to change drivers every two hours. This way we would all get at least some sleep and be pretty alert for driving. After a couple of hours, it was time for a switch, and both cars pulled over somewhere in the Mojave Desert. We chatted a bit, checked on the kids, and were on our way again. Now it was my turn to drive the Volvo.

As we neared Kingman, Arizona I was finding it harder and harder to keep my eyes open and signaled to the other car to pull over. Akal Kaur volunteered to take over my spot, but wanted some coffee to help her stay awake. So we pulled over to a truck stop on the east end of Kingman. While she was inside getting her coffee, I got back in the van with my family. Akal Kaur, newly charged with caffeine, jumped behind the wheel of the Volvo.

We hit the road again, Siri Bhrosa Kaur driving and I in shotgun, both of us assuming the Volvo was right behind us. Siri Ved Singh was happy in the rear with the kids, finally getting a chance to sleep and was out like a light within a few minutes.

The sun was just starting to rise, golden orange and pink hues first peeking from behind the distant mountain tops, and then spreading its soft warm light out across the desert sky; the air still chill, crisp and clear.  Siri Bhrosa and I were chatting away, anticipating Solstice, commenting on the incredible beauty of the scenery, soaking it all up, and then, finally, we noticed that the Volvo was not behind us.

Thinking we may have sped ahead or that they might have somehow been delayed, we pulled over to let them catch up. We waited. As each minute went by, each second seemed longer, and we felt a sense of dread creep into our hearts. We noticed that really no cars at all were behind us, just one or two coming by every so often. We turned and looked at each other and agreed: we’d better go back and see what was going on.

We had not driven long when we came to a massive jam of cars, backed up as far as we could see. A semi-truck slowly approached from the opposite direction. As it passed by. Siri Bhrosa waved and called out the window, asking, “What’s happened? Why is the traffic all backed up like this? Our friends our missing…”

He called back, “What kind of car were they driving?”

We answered, “A yellow Volvo station wagon.” He gave us a distressed, panicked, and helpless look, and without another word drove on. Siri Bhrosa steered the van on to the shoulder of the road to bypass the line up of cars and sped ahead.

And there we saw, stretched and twisted across the entire highway, a 16-wheel semi truck on its side. There were police cars, an ambulance, and standers-by scattered everywhere, cars being rerouted around on the shoulder, cars everywhere. At this point, our already dreamlike frame of mind went to surreal. Everything turned into images, flashes, disbelief, horror, incomprehension… “Is that the car?! O my God, that’s their car. Where is the top?  O my God, O my God.”

Siri Bhrosa and I jumped out of the van, leaving Siri Ved Singh with the kids, and ran to the Volvo. The top, windows and all, had been completely sheared off by the head-on impact with the truck.1 And there was Sat Anand Kaur, crumpled and limp, lying across the back seat, unconscious, barely a breath of life, crushed by the force of the impact. I was struck by the image of her kirpan, held in her hand.

The rescuers were trying to lift her out of the car and onto a stretcher. “Do you know these people?” one young man asked.

“Yes, they are our friends, we are traveling with them. Where is the baby!?” And then I saw Hargobind in the arms of a rescuer, passing him to Siri Bhrosa, so he could continue to help with removing the others from the car.

I glanced at the front of the car, where Akal Kaur and Karta Singh had been seated. But all I remember seeing is a blur of color. I didn’t see Akal Kaur or Karta Singh. Perhaps mercifully. Or, perhaps I did see and completely blocked it from memory. I did not even think of or remember them, for what I could see right before me in the back seat was so all-encompassing.

I ran over to the van to tell Siri Ved Singh to take the kids and follow us in the ambulance to the hospital. Siri Bhrosa and I climbed into the ambulance and they brought in Sat Anand. Hargobind was still crying, but safe. All I saw was Sat Anand… Sat Anand. There was only one paramedic in the ambulance with us; the others were still trying to extricate Karta and Akal from the car. He couldn’t have been much older than me (I was 26) and I could tell by the slightly panicked look on his face that he knew there was no hope to save Sat Anand. But still, he asked Siri Bhrosa and I to help with CPR, counting, pumping, giving oxygen, all a blur, the siren screaming, sounding oddly far off in the distance, the ambulance flying at what seemed warp speed, so, so fast, yet utterly out of time… eight miles to the hospital in what seemed like seconds. And then there was a moment, a shift in energy, a last most faint whisper of breath, and in that instant we knew she was gone, and we uttered Wahe Guru Wahe Guru Wahe Guru.

We arrived at Kingman Medical Center, and they rushed her into the ER, still trying to revive her, to pull her back, without success. Little Hargobind, although seriously injured with broken bones and a ruptured spleen, was going to make it and be OK.

Remembering the others, I asked the nurses, “When will the next ambulance come?”

“They are bringing the man. They are still trying to get the woman out.” I had a distinct feeling they were not telling all they knew.

In what seemed like a few minutes, they brought in Karta Singh and the truck driver. The truck driver was groaning as they rushed him by. His legs soaked in blood. But I learned that blood, like crying, is a good sign. He was alive and would survive. But Karta, I only saw him briefly, his body in jerking spasms, was taken behind a curtain for immediate care. It didn’t look, or sound, good. Siri Bhrosa Kaur, having identified herself as an RN, went in to observe and help.

I went to the nurses’ station and asked if I could use the phone to call Los Angeles. They said yes, but for long distance it would have to be collect. I was thinking of Yogiji and how he must know of this. I dialed the number for Guru Ram Das Ashram (at that time, the sevadar could transfer calls to Yogiji, who lived in the back), but the sevadar refused the call, saying he could not accept collect calls. Frantic and adamant, I insisted, “You must accept this call. This is an emergency! You have to accept this call. I have to talk to Yogiji!”

I heard some muffled voices and In the very next instant I heard Yogiji’s beloved voice, and he said, “Who is this? What has happened?” and my heart melted and I felt I was safe, and his voice, just the sound of his beloved voice, brought me some ease.

Trembling, I replied, “Sir, this is Siri Ved Kaur. There has been a terrible, terrible accident. Sat Anand, Sat Anand Kaur is gone. She’s gone, Sir.”

“Who else is there with you?”

“Siri Bhrosa is with me, Siri Ved has all the children. But I think Akal Kaur might be gone (at that moment a nurse confirmed it with a nod), yes, Sir, Akal, she is gone too, and Karta Singh, we don’t know about Karta. Hargobind is hurt, but he is going to be OK.”

I don’t remember the remainder of our conversation, only the strengthening and loving resonance of his voice as he said, “Remember God.”2

With nothing remaining for us to do in the ER, Siri Bhrosa and I joined Siri Ved Singh and the children in the waiting area. We sat in a circle on the brightly colored vinyl-covered chairs, in shock and in dream, and began to chant to Guru Ram Das… Guru Guru Wahe Guru Guru Ram Das Guru, Guru Guru Wahe Guru Guru Ram Das Guru…

Later that morning we were joined by Kirpal Singh (Akal Kaur’s husband) and Harkirat Singh (Sat Anand Kaur’s husband). They had taken the first flight to Phoenix, and then Ravi Taj Singh, a pilot living in the Phoenix area, flew them to Kingman in a Cessna. It felt good to have them join us. It was odd, because we were acting happy and smiling, but we weren’t happy. We were all in so much shock. The nurses who saw us greet Kirpal, looked at each other and at us, amazed that at a time like this we could smile, and that we could sit with our children and pray and chant, and not shed a tear. And, to this day, I have still not shed a tear.3

My memories become a blur after that. We all checked into a motel with a pool so the kids could swim and play. There were phone calls to home, to Espanola…. Harkirat and Kirpal making immediate funeral arrangements, Harkirat at his son’s bedside. Others driving to solstice, having heard of the tragedy, came and also stayed at the motel. There were may 10 or 15 total. Was it Saturday? Sunday? How did the time pass? I do not know.

We learned that Karta was going to be transferred to a better hospital in Phoenix (where he passed away about two weeks later)4. Hargobind was still in the hospital, and would be transported to Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles in a few days. All that was left to do was to take care of the remains of our sisters.

In the afternoon Siri Bhrosa and I went to the funeral home to prepare the bodies of Sat Anand and Akal for the cremation to be performed later that evening. The mortician directed us to a door and said the bodies were in there. With a bucket of yogurt, towels, and fresh bana to dress them in, we entered the room. Cold, sterile, inhuman, stark, white. Two tables, two draped bodies, two souls watching.

Harkirat Singh joined us and as he stood to the side, reading the holy banis, with a pained voice, tears in his eyes, the voice of the Guru filled the room, vibrated off the walls, and penetrated our hearts.

We removed the draping sheets and saw before us profoundly empty shells. Clothing torn and stained. The top of Akal Kaur’s head gone, simply gone. Skull empty. A plastic bag of what remains they could find. Pieces of bone piercing through skin. Bones so crushed that, to lift a limb, it took all of our four hands. Vacant shells. Spirit filled room. We bathed the broken bodies of our sisters in yogurt, talking little, only as needed, praying, feeling the absolute presence of God. Nothing was subtle. Everything was absolute. It was a seamless, emotionless, and incredibly meditative experience. Knowing death intimately, and feeling the profound sacredness of that space. And as we deftly bathed and turned the bodies, gently and with love cleansing their wounds, smoothing their hair, dressing them in their beautiful white bana with all their K’s, and finally wrapping the bodies in white sheets, saying a final prayer, Siri Bhrosa Kaur and I also tied the knot in a bond of sisterhood that had already been weaving itself for many lifetimes.

That evening the small chapel filled with traveling friends and family flown in, maybe fifteen or twenty people in all. Sitting in dark wooden pews, we read from Peace Lagoon and then Pritpal Singh, Harkirat’s brother, said the Ardas. No instruments, no music. Perhaps we chanted. Some chose to stay for the cremation. We left, and went back to the motel for a long and deep sleep.

That night I fell into a dream. The dream was nothing but a black endless void. There was no color, no light, no image… only the sound of Akal Kaur’s voice, clear and pure, speaking to me, “We are OK. We are very happy. Don’t worry. We want to come back again as Khalsa.” And that was all.5

At Ladies Camp after Solstice

In back: Siri Krishna K, Sat Kartar K, and Sat Hari Kaur. Front: Siri Ved K and Siri Bhrosa Kaur. This shot is taken after Solstice down at Ladies Camp.

The next morning we packed up the van and the kids and all of our scattered belongings and left the motel, continuing on our yatra to Summer Solstice. The Siri Singh Sahib had told us we should come to see him as soon as we got to Espanola. We arrived at the Ranch just before sunset and were shown into his living room. We touched his feet and sat down close by, feeling the love, the stares of others there, all trying to comprehend what had happened, and what we must be going through. He said little. He looked at us, I am sure most keenly at our auras, and sent us on our way, saying we must get up to the Solstice site as soon as possible, and keep the silence.

I was so grateful for that silence, to not have to answer questions, tell the story, deal with anything, but just be in the protective umbrella of Guru Ram Das on that holy land, healing, meditating, walking the long dusty path to our tent, coming back up the hill, practicing sacred White Tantric Yoga, all in a dream, all in grace, in Guru’s protection. That Solstice, the following eight weeks of women’s camp, and the return home… all were like a dream to me.

Under the

Gurdwara at Summer Solstice, held under the “Tantric Shelter”.

My only other recollection of that summer is from KWTC: I was at a handgun course taught by a retired military man. The 20 or so participants were sitting on a set of small bleachers, or perhaps it was a little hill. He was talking about the power of a gunshot, the damage it can do, being a bit graphic, and asked how many of us had seen the body of someone who had suffered a violent death. No one raised a hand, not even I.

Ever since, when I recall this event, I think of Siri Bhrosa and I so innocently enjoying our drive together, coming around the curve of a mountainside and seeing the glorious sunrise reaching out to all corners of the distant sky… our pulling over and waiting, and waiting, and then finally turning back to search for our companions. And how, in those few minutes we transitioned from joy, to fear, to shock, dealt with it, and were changed forever.

1.   Later it was surmised that after taking the wheel, Akal had likely gotten on the highway going in the wrong direction. Realizing her mistake, she turned around, speeding to catch up to us. For many miles the highway had been divided, but in this long stretch east of Kingman, it was a two-lane highway; one lane each direction. When passing a car, with speed estimated by police at 80 mph, she struck the semi truck head on. This stretch of highway, long known to the locals as an accident hazard, has since been changed to a divided highway.

2.   I learned later that at the time of my call to the sevadar, Yogiji had just stepped outside the ashram to leave for the airport, on his way to New Mexico. Sensing something wrong, he had taken the phone from the sevadar. Harkirat Singh just happened to be at the ashram to bid farewell to him, and thus was immediately informed of the loss of his wife, Sat Anand Kaur, and the miraculous survival of his son, Hargobind Singh.

3.   Note from Shakti Parwha Kaur: You may not have shed a tear during or after your experience of the violent deaths, but reading your story brought tears to my eyes more than once. … Let me share with you a short postscript to that day, because I was standing in front of Guru Ram Das Ashram when the call came through, and I remember being shocked at the way in which the Siri Singh Sahib told Harkirat what had happened. He simply stated it as fact — no emotion — just a stark fact, “Your wife has been killed in an accident.” Then he took him (and several of us went along) into the back, to the living room of the ashram. I cannot recall exactly what was said, but I do remember being on the sidewalk when he so matter-of-factly told Harkirat his wife was dead. I guess life and death are viewed more objectively when one is a master.

4.   Karta Singh had severe spinal cord injuries and never regained consciousness. Yogiji told us that Karta Singh had a choice to make whether to live as a quadriplegic or to leave this world. It took him two weeks in a coma to make that decision, and then he was gone.

5.   A few days later I heard that Yogiji had said Akal Kaur and Sat Anand Kaur wanted to come back and be born to Sikh families. He asked all the thousand people at Solstice to chant for them the long Akaaaaaal, so that they could let go of this earth, pass through the blue ethers, and merge blissfully with the Infinite.

And lastly, I am actually not certain if this was in 1978 or 1979.



  1. […] bookmarks tagged gatka An Unexpected Turn of Events saved by 5 others     loneshortty bookmarked on 02/02/08 | […]

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