Gentle voices ebbed and flowed in the pre-dawn darkenss as a muggy breeze drifted through an open window of the large gray house.
"Guru, guru, wa he guru," came a soft chorus of sopranos from the women.
"Guru, guru ram das guru," came the deeper response from the men.
White-turbaned heads, illuminated by a small orange light, tipped and swayed in rhythm to the chants.
It was 4 a.m., and while Herndon slept, a gathering of American Sikhs was beginning the Sadhana, a daily three-hour prayer service sung in the Gurmukhi, the ancient language of the Sikh religion.
Outside, men and women in traditional Sidh dress -- white turbans, white leggings and white shirts -- walked sleepily up the gravel driveway to a house little different from its neighbors in this subdivision on the northern edge of Herndon. As the worshippers came into the front room, each unfurled a sheepskin prayer rug before a simple altar holding Sikh scriptures. On the floor in front of the altar were ceremonial knives, a picture of the Sikh temple in Amritsar, India, and a vase of fresh pansies.
As the dawn sky lightened to a gun-metal gray, children wandered into the room and dozed or played, waiting for their parents to finish the regimen of yoga and meditation. Then, as the final song ended, the men, women and children were off to jobs, to school or back to begin daily chores. For the past decade, this community of nearly 70 American Sikhs has lived communally in Washington, offering up their chants in Dupont Circle town houses and operating two city businesses -- the Golden Temple Restaurant near Dupont, and the Golden Emporium Health Food Store in Georgetown.
Over the past year, however, the Sikhs have pulled up their city stakes -- closing their businesses, moving out of rented town houses and transporting their way of life to suburban Virginia.
"We feel our move from the city is a natural evolution," says 28-year-old Avtar Kaur Khalsa, a Sikh minister, yoga teacher and clinical psychologist who, like other Sikhs, shares the common last name of Khalsa, meaning the pure ones. "We've grown up, people have matured and we have new needs. But we're still committed to family life, health and hard work."
Adds Gurujot Singh Khalsa, the 34-year-old leader of the Washington area group: "Wanting to buy homes was a natural trend. We asked ourselves why we should continue renting instead of building up equity. Some of us had savings, some had trust funds. It's hard to enjoy stocks and bonds. You can't play volleyball or raise a garden on them."
Orginally the community planned to settle in Great Falls, where four Dikhs bought large homes they hoped several families could share. But complaints from neighbors, who feared the Sikhs' plan for communal living would lower property values, forced the Sikhs to abandon Great Falls. l
After looking at several Northern Virginia communities, the Sikhs shifted their focus to Herndon.
Already, a small cul-de-sac formed by Whitewood Lane and Fireside Court is ringed with Khalsas, where the Sikhs have bought seven homes. Another Sikh family has moved to Wilshire Drive in Herndon, a short distance south of the main group, while three other families have bought homes in nearby Reston. Gurujot Singh's house and seven acres in Great Falls are on the market for $395,000, and he hopes the other families in Great Falls will soon join the Herdon settlement.
The Sikhs, according to their leaders, want to be good neighbors and blend unobtrusively into their new community. And while they have traded communal town houses for a communal cul-de-sac, they still adhere to the strict faith that binds them together.
Sikhism, founded in northern India about 1500 A.D., combines elements of Islam and Hinduism. Based on a belief in one God, it rejected the ancient Jhindu belief of a strict caste system and idolatry.
The faith was brought to the United States in 1965 by an east Indian religious leader named Yogi Bhajan. As practiced by Sikhs in this area, and most of the 250,000 followers in the United States, it is an austere religion based on an obscure form of yoga and a strict moral code: No drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no meat, no premarital sex, lots of hard work and an emphasis on strong family bonds.
The Sikhs in this area seem to be a gentle, friendly people, and call thenselves the 3HO -- Happy Healthy Holy Organization.
Many longtime Sikhs admit they first came to the religion as a way of rebelling the more traditional values of their parents and American society. Enthusiastically, they adopted the traditional Sikh dress, joined fellow Sikhs in communal living arrangements, took menial jobs as dishwashers and cooks and immersed themselves in the strict discipline of their faith.
But over the years, as they began raising families and adapting to the complexities of modern America, the Sikhs have started to seek some of the things they rejected a decade ago.
"Eight, nine, 10 years ago it was a whole different era," says Gurujot Singh. "A single man could wash dishes for $60 a week, pay rent and make it. It's a whole different world now. We have children, and you can't raise a family waitressing and washing dishes."
"Along with their new suburban homes, the Sikhs own cars and stereos and dishwashers. They water their lawns along with the rest of the neighbors. They play golf on the public course, and they have formed a softball team that competes in a local community league. Their children attend local public and private schools, while the parents work in such professions as computer science, law and accounting.
"It's just the way you'd expect it in the suburbs," says Avtar Kaur, who lives with her husband Sat Singh, a contract bidder for landscape firms. "Initially, people are put off by our outfits. But after awhile, they trust us, and what we wear affirms their feelings. We don't lie. We donht cheat. We're not into ripping people off."
With their unique clothing, the Sikhs are hard to miss, expecially in the small town of Herndon, yet they don't seem to have made much of an impression on other residents.
"We do wonder how many people are living in some of the houses," said Joy Norton, who lives with her husband Paul and their two children on Whitewood Lane. "As far as I know, our neighbors donht seem to be concerned, because (the Sikhs) don't seem to be disturbing anyone's home life.
"They stick to themselves. We wave to them and they wave to us and that's the extent of our contact."
Avtar Kaur was quick to explain the seemingly unusual number of people in some of the Sikh homes. Many of the Sikh families are large, she said, and some smaller ones share their homes with single persons. "A small family with a single person or two is the most common situation," she said.
Edwin Martin, Herdon town manager, says he occasionally sees a few Sikhs swinging nine irons on the public golf course.
"Besides their dress, they seem to blend in like everyone else," he said. "They have the same concerns of other people."
Like buying new cars. For instance when Avtar Kaur commutes to Washington to teach yoga classes, she drives a Honda Accord.
"It's new," she said one evening after class. "I have a real good tape system, and I don't mind having any of it."
Avtar Kaur, who comes from Montclair, N.J., is one of the most prominent Sikhs here.
"There are some pleasant, wonderful things about material living," she says. "You have money and want more. You get things and want more. But we're trying to maintain the basic values as spiritual people."
Still, the Sikhs, like many of their suburban neighbors, are well versed in American capitalism. Most American Sikh groups support themselves with family businesses, from landscaping to making brass beds. For the Washington area Sikhs, it's shoes and soda pop.
The group distributes Shakti Shoes, leather and cork footwear, and Joney Pure soda, a soft drink sweetened with honey. Gurujot Singh, the local chieftain who doubles as president of Honey Pure Inc., said the two businesses employ about two dozen Sikhs and should gross more than $2 million this year.
"You can't walk into any health food store on the East Coast without seeing Honey Pure," said Gurujot Singh, as he sat on a long beige sofa in his spacious Great Falls home.
Although Gurujot Singh was happy to expound on the family business and the religious side of the Sikh community, he was reluctant to talk about himself and wary about a newspaper story about the Sikhs' move to the suburbs. The less publicity, he said, the better.
"Whatever's in the paper, that's who we are," he said. "When Iran takes hostages, we're Iranians. When it's Hare Krishnas begging at airports, we're Hare Krishnas. When the Arabs turn off the oil, we're Arabs. If Moonies do something weird, that's us.
"There are plenty of groups of Christians living around here doing the same things we are. It's just that we wear different clothes."
One member of the Sikh community, 28-year-old Gurutrang Singh Khalsa, who just opened a chriopractic practice in Herndon, says he has gone the whole route from "chubby Jewish kid" in Baltimore, through the LSD daze of the 1960s, to Sikh ashrams in Baltimore, Washington and Los Angeles. Gurutrang Singh summed up the new life in the suburbs this way: "We're still neurotic Americans, but we're trying to live up to an ideal."