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Holy Home

Richmond's first and only temple for Sikhs opens to a grateful community.



There are now five Gurdwaras in Virginia. Richmond's is the only one within a 100-mile radius.

On a recent Sunday, followers gather at the temple. Inside the prayer hall, a handful of men sit cross-legged, many wearing turbans. The less orthodox, the clean-shaven, don bandanas or scarves. To the left sit women, dressed in traditional garb — the salwar kameez, the sari — all topped with shawls as a show of respect. Every few minutes, someone enters the room (about the size of two tennis courts), walks shoeless across the blue carpet, then bows and places dollar bills before the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book of nearly 6,000 hymns, which followers of this monotheistic faith regard as their living guru.

Beside this guide — covered with red and gold cloth, and shielded by a canopy — sit three men, playing the harmonium and tabla, or drums. As a ragi, a devotional singer visiting from New York, sings verses in praise to God, many congregants close their eyes. Soft light pours through the windows.

This quiet moment is a departure from the years of hard work that went into making this temple a reality.

"There were a lot of disheartening moments but somehow God gave us the strength to continue," says Sidhu, a father of four who came to America in the early 1980s.

The first of Richmond's Sikhs, most from Punjab, came to Virginia in the 1970s. With only a handful in the area, they settled for religious gatherings, divans as they're called, at each other's homes. Then in 1975, a retired military officer from India, Surjit Singh Bawa, started monthly services at the West End Community Center on Ridge Road. It attracted not only Sikhs but also Hindus and Christians of Indian origin.

Bawa, who moved to Richmond in the 1970s to be closer to his son's family, always felt that Sikhs had a future in Richmond. "We're open," says Bawa, an 88-year-old who is known for his past talks on Sikhism at area schools.

In 1984, events back in India galvanized many Richmond Sikhs. That June, the Indian army, attempting to weed out what it deemed militants, raided Sikhism's holiest site, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, in northern India. Regardless of political affiliation, Sikhs worldwide were hurt by this event. (The Indian government estimated the dead in the hundreds, while independent human rights groups said that 7,000 to 10,000 died within the Golden Temple vicinity alone.)

Today, Sidhu and other community leaders say that old wounds have healed. And like others, Sidhu is reluctant to speak further of 1984's events. "In times of stress we want to be available," says Sidhu, adding that the temple is open to people of all faiths. (This month, the Gurdwara held a memorial service for a Hindu woman who recently died.)

But the 1984 events supplied a sort of motivation. "That's when I felt we needed a voice of our own," Sidhu says. "The Sikh community was so badly hurt and there was not one Hindu sympathetic toward us." That raid, Operation Blue Star, motivated him to help start the Sikh association.

"The motivation came in that we need a place to worship," says Manmohan S. Grewal, a mechanical engineer who recently volunteered his time doing the drawings — the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing designs — for the current temple.

In 1986, local Sikhs bought a patch of land in the Bermuda District of Chesterfield County, and many believed a Gurdwara was at hand. But some voiced concerns about its remote location, and the project was scrapped. Then in 1998, community leaders settled on another property, some 30 acres, owned by the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.

That site was also far from ideal, Sidhu says.

It was heavily wooded and waterlogged (some 20 percent of the acreage consisted of wetlands), and the group pumped $350,000 into development costs alone. In all, about $1.5 million (much of it borrowed money) went into the temple's construction. Along with eight other Sikh followers — all established medical doctors and engineers in the area — Sidhu has pledged $100,000 over the next 15 years as a guarantee to the bank.

It's a commitment Sidhu and others are willing to make.

"Never in the history of Sikhism has a Gurdwara been declared bankrupt," he says. "Sikhs are very giving"

Long-term goals include building a seminary and a facility for the elderly, and a soup kitchen for anyone in need, regardless of religion.

Though the temple is largely finished, there's still work to be done during the next five years. The parking lot needs expanding, the landscaping is incomplete, the temple's exterior still needs domes, those signature features of a Gurdwara. And members are interviewing for a ragi who can lead the congregation. While well-versed in scripture, a leader also needs to relate to the next generation of Sikhs by speaking English, Sidhu says.

"We are Americans first. This is our culture," says a 50-year-old neurosurgeon who has contributed $100,000 to the temple. ("I get my name professionally," he says, explaining why he declines to be named.)

"This dream could not [have] come true without the help of the entire community," he adds. "Hopefully, someday it will be a positive force for the city and community of Richmond." S

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