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Gurdwara opens near White House

The National Gurdwara opens this Sunday in Washington DC, reports Gurmukh Singh.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2006 14:53 IST

The Sikhs of the US capital of Washington opened the National Gurdwara to public this Sunday with the completion of the Akhand Paath or non-stop recitation of the holy Granth Sahib.

Situated on Embassy Row, the National Gurdwara sits just next to the American seat of power.

And Dr Shamsher Singh Babra, who is a well-known since being one of the first Indians to join the World Bank in 1955, is the brain behind this Sikh monument.

Says Dr Babra, who has become known as Dr Shamsher Singh of World Bank:"Fifty years ago when I landed here, there were few Indians and no Indian religious place. At that time, we, sitting in the balcony of the Indian embassy, saw a glittering function at the nearby Masjid. I thought to myself: why cannot we have our own religious place in this area?''

His dream was realised this week.

"I wanted to get the inauguration done by the Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, when he visited Washington last year, but we had not taken possession of this place yet. It was incomplete. We could have gone ahead with that ceremony, but all sorts of problems cropped up. We didn't want to give some people the opportunity to embarrass the Indian prime minister," he says.

The National Gurdwara became fully operational this week, though some parts such as the holy Sikh flag of Nishan Sahib and the central dome of the structure are yet to be completed.

Though Dr Babra is non-committal about the formal inauguration date, he says he will not invite the traditional Sikh clergy for it.

"They are steeped in their old-fashioned ways, and stuck with old codes which were formulated when we Sikhs were living in rural areas. Today we are an international community. How can you follow something that says that during the anand karaz the girl cannot walk ahead of the groom?" he asks.

Built over a quarter acre of prime land at a cost of $2.5 million, the National Gurdwara serves as both a spiritual and a cultural centre for the Sikhs.

"More than anything else, this place reminds the American people here about the Sikh faith. The Sikh Cultural Society is our umbrella organisation under which we run the National Gurdwara and the Sikh Cultural Centre," continues Dr Dabra.

"We have three and a half stories: at the basement is a parking lot. On the ground floor, we have six rooms On the first floor is our gurdwara. The second floor is our spiritual hall and on the third floor lays our art gallery. Beyond this built-up area, we have another quarter acre for parking cars. Not even embassies on Row have such a big parking lot,'' he smiles.

When the construction work on the site began six years ago, it made headlines because white residents opposed it.

"Then 9/11 happened. People thought we will create problems for them as they thought we are Middle Easterners. They filed petitions against us, saying we will create traffic problems. They plastered graffiti and threw eggs here. But the media and local lawmakers stood by us. And we knew about our rights," Dr Dabra explains.

Why the shrine was named the National Gurdwara?

"Because it stands just a block away from the Washington National Cathedral. Isn't the name befitting the Sikh faith?'' he asks.

How is this place different from other Sikh shrines in the area?

"We are promoting spiritual as well as cultural aspects of our faith. The gurdwara part is solely for spiritual purpose. No speeches. All speeches are delivered in the hall. Then we stick to punctuality. Every Sunday, all ceremonies are over by 1pm. We promote inter-religious faith dialogue, and we get visitors from all over America," Dr Dabra answers.

In 1981, when Dr Babra and his friends bought this land for $240,000, they had just $13,000 in their collection.

"We never indulged in any kind of drama to raise money. We never made a show of it. Somehow, the money poured in. Then we raised the money for construction,'" he adds.

Having completed his mission, Dr Babra, who is the chair of the board, says, ``I will hand over the baton to someone younger very soon. I want young people and women to take over. In fact, a woman has already been appointed president of the gurdwara. That is a first.''

One of the many firsts to come?

"Yes,'" he laughs.