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San Jose Celebrates Expanded Gurdwara



In an event highlighting the influence and permanence of the Bay Area's Sikh-American community, Governor Jerry Brown and other political leaders joined thousands of colorfully dressed Sikh-Americans who on Sunday (April 10, 2011) celebrated the opening of their greatly expanded gurdwara in the Evergreen Hills of San Jose, California, making it the nation's largest gurdwara.

The open house marking the $20 million addition to the Sikh Gurdwara-San Jose drew Brown, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and other dignitaries including clergy from Christian and other faiths. They joined thousands of Sikhs who had traveled to the packed celebration from all over Northern California.

For several hours during the afternoon, hundreds of Sikh men and women patiently waited in a long line to pray in the vast, newly completed prayer hall in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Scripture.

Thousands moved on to the eco-friendly vegetarian kitchen, called a langar, where an army of volunteers had cooked spinach-and-mustard-leaf saag, spicy daal and sweets - enough to feed a crowd estimated to be around 10,000 people.

In a speech, Brown praised the Sikh-American community's success and urged members to continue to build business, political and community ties in California. To the approval of many in the audience, the Governor also vowed to seek justice for two elderly Sikh men who were shot as they went for a walk last month in Elk Grove, near Sacramento - an event many in the community believe was a hate crime because the Sikhs may have been mistaken for Muslims.

One man, Surinder Singh, 65, died, while a second man, 78-year-old Gurmej Singh Atwal, was seriously injured.

Despite the community's ongoing distress about the shootings, the mood at Sunday's gurdwara opening was overwhelmingly happy and proud, with the festivities not marred by the long and contentious battles the gurdwara committee has endured to complete the nation's largest and most expensive gurdwara.

As he returned to his car, Brown was surrounded by a crowd of Sikh men happily snapping pictures with their cell phones, and many said completion of the giant expansion and the presence of Brown and other leaders signaled a milestone for the Bay Area's Sikh community and culture.

"It's a great day for everybody to come together and celebrate," said Kavneet Singh, Managing Director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Eduction Fund in Washington, who was attending the open house. "This is the culmination of years and years of hard work."

Tough Times Over

Sunday's vibrant scene, also timed to coincide with the Sikh New Year's Day, called Vaisakhi, was the end to nearly a quarter-century of struggle for completion of what is now one of the biggest gurdwaras outside of the subcontinent.

In addition to the new prayer hall, the expanded campus includes 12 nearly finished classrooms for the 600-plus children who attend weekly religious school, and 11 apartments that house gurdwara caretakers and visitors. The entire campus is freshly landscaped with green grass, walls are painted in golden saffron, and the rooftops are majestic onion domes, reminiscent of gurdwaras in Punjab, where the Sikh faith was born more than 500 years ago.

"It's literally been one dollar at a time," said Sukhraj Singh Sohal of San Jose. "So, today feels good."

While the first phase of the gurdwara was finished in 2004 and cost $10 million, gurdwara leaders say the addition was about $1.5 million over budget and opened a year later than planned, and at times there has been intense internal criticism over its management and fundraising.

Bhupindar "Bob" Singh Dhillon, 69, the most powerful lay leader of the congregation, which has 3,500 registered members, has been both praised and criticized for his forceful hand in gurdwara affairs. Bhupindar Singh, who had a long career in real estate and homebuilding, ended up managing the project.

"A lot of people were saying it can't be done," he said. "So when it did happen, this makes me very happy."

Faith in donations

Bhupindar Singh insists his critics have died down to a few. But for a time, a vocal minority complained of shoddy workmanship. Now, however, the city says the project has passed most major inspections. Critics also griped about what they saw as Bhupindar's dictatorial attitude.

Harbans Singh of San Jose, who has been part of a group which has demanded better accounting of donations, still didn't want to miss the grand opening.

"This is a place of worship that should be filled with peace of mind and spiritual joy," he said. "I commend and congratulate donors who made it happen."


[This is an edited version of the original published in The Mercury News.]

April 11, 2011

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