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Sikhs get ready to open Gurudwara

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    Scott Wong , The Arizona Republic

    The Nishkam Seva Sikh temple in northwest Phoenix possesses a resilient spirit, much like the devotees who soon will fill its prayer hall.

    Blackened earth shows where a recent brush fire scorched a hillside just a few feet from the temple. Thieves struck the construction site six or seven times last year, making off with tools, copper wiring and even a generator.

    And a dispute between Phoenix and Glendale over how to provide the temple with utilities has left the completed structure sitting empty for months.

    But later this spring, hundreds of Sikhs will file into the gurdwara at the base of the Hedgepeth Hills north of Loop 101.

    They will remove their shoes and wash their feet in fountains. They will fill the sanctuary with the sound of religious hymns. And they will sit cross-legged in rows in the dining hall, sharing in a traditional meal of cooked vegetables, lentils and bread.

    The 19,000-square-foot
    gurdwara, or temple, with its stucco façade, concrete columns and nine gold-leafed domes visible to thousands of commuters along the freeway each day, is not only a symbol of religious identity and freedom.

    It also marks an important milestone in the Sikh community's efforts to weave itself in the fabric of mainstream culture.

    "Once you have been lucky to live in a country like America, you realize it is time to give back," said Jaswant Singh Sachdev, a Phoenix neurologist and Sikh community activist who helped guide construction.

    "We want to have a beautiful place that everyone can feel proud of. We are here to serve and be part of the rest of the community."

    Sikhs trace their religion back to the Punjab region, which straddles the border of northern India and Pakistan. It was there that Guru Nanak founded Sikhism about 500 years ago. Sikhs believe in one God.

    Most Sikh men can be identified by their turbans and uncut beards, which are mandated by their religion.

    But because of their appearance, Sikhs became targets of discrimination and hate crimes after Sept. 11, 2001. Fearful for their lives, many Valley Sikhs maintained a low profile. They avoided public places. They stayed in their homes.

    "Before, people misunderstood us," said Phoenix restaurant owner Harjit Singh Sodhi. "They thought we were members of al-Qaida or the Osama bin Laden family or terrorists."

    Sodhi knows that feeling well.

    His brother, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was fatally shot at his family's Mesa gas station just days after the 9/11 attacks. His killer, Frank Roque, apparently thought the Indian immigrant, who was wearing a turban, was Middle Eastern.

    Harjit Singh Sodhi still smarts from his brother's death. He still hears the racial slurs.

    But he firmly believes that progress is being made.

    A sign of that progress: Residents are welcoming the
    gurdwara into their neighborhood.

    "I just feel God wants us to live in peace no matter what our nationality, our faith, our skin color," said Aurica Fisher, a Greek Orthodox Christian who lives near the new temple. "We have to respect each other; we have to have a lot of understanding for each other."

    Sitting just off 51st Avenue, the $5 million Nishkam Seva Gurdwara Sahib was financed by the family of the late Valley cardiologist Jasbir Singh Saini.

    It is one of two Sikh temples under construction in Phoenix. The second is the Guru Nanak Dwara Gurdwara, near Ninth and Oak streets in central Phoenix's Coronado district.

    The three-story, 21,000-square-foot temple will replace a much smaller
    gurdwara next door, which the community has outgrown. Another temple, Arizona Sikh Gurdwara, is just blocks away.

    With about 1,500 families settled throughout the Valley and more moving here every year, Sikh leaders wanted to build a
    gurdwara away from the community core near downtown.

    They found a 5-acre site between the Adobe Dam Recreation Area and Loop 101. It was ideal for the cluster of Sikh families that call the West Valley home, said Sachdev, an Indian immigrant whose family moved to Phoenix 30 years ago.

    "Most people living in the West Valley will not go downtown if they can get what they are looking for near their home," he said.

    When it finally opens, anyone will be welcome to worship in the
    gurdwara. But for those not quite comfortable with that prospect, the temple features an "Awareness Center," an observation room for the public.

    Built in the shape of an elongated octagon, the 4,000-square-foot prayer hall is divided by a thick red line. Women sit on the right, men on the left.

    A courtyard links the sanctuary with a dining hall, where a meal is served after every service. A spacious terrace provides a gathering place.

    "I wanted to make the temple look like a contemporary
    gurdwara," said Abdul Slatewala, architect and general contractor. "It is not too ornate."

    Slatewala, a Muslim, broke ground on the project about three years ago. But getting utilities to the site proved difficult.

    Although the site was within Phoenix's boundaries, putting water and sewer lines under Loop 101 was cost-prohibitive. The easiest solution: Ask Glendale, whose Arrowhead Lakes neighborhood is nearby, to extend their lines to the temple.

    Bickering between the two cities resulted in a two-year delay, Slatewala said, driving up the project's cost by $500,000.

    But an intergovernmental agreement emerged about six months ago. Glendale will supply water and sewer services at wholesale cost to Phoenix, which in turn will bill the
    gurdwara and an adjacent office project.

    Now, the
    gurdwara is just awaiting plumbing. It's the final hurdle for a temple that has been years in the making.

    Reach the reporter at (602) 444-6914.

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