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Richmond Hill sikhs replace burned gurdwara

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On March 8, 2002, a gas leak in the temple at 95-30 118th St. in Richmond Hill sparked a fire that killed 37-year-old Indian tourist Harvinder Singh Rattan. The event had a tremendous impact on the Sikh community, according to Bhupinder Singh Boparai, president of the Sikh Cultural Society. In the Sikh culture, gurdwaras are a place of hospitality for visiting Sikhs. The destruction of the temple resulting in the death of a visitor was a cause for intense mourning."We did not know what to do. We were in big shock and we cried. Everybody. Not only me. Ladies, wives, men, women, children, everybody was crying for like a month," he said. "He was a visitor. Any person who want to stay here overnight, we give him bread, we give him food, we let him stay overnight," he said.Sikhs vowed to rebuild shortly after the temple's ruin. In the meantime, a temporary worship hall on site has been providing area Sikhs with the same hospitality they would normally receive at a gurdwara but without the benefits of a spacious community center.Upon the gurdwara's completion by 2007, space constraints will no longer be a concern. Sikhs from around the world helped donate the $15 million necessary to build the four-story, 80,000-square-foot gurdwara, which will include a prayer room, library, priest accommodations, meeting hall, visitor's quarters and a several classrooms.Boparai said the gurdwara, to be named Gurdwara Sahib, will serve as one of the largest Sikh temples in the United States, catering to about 50,000 local Sikhs.Despite prejudices and various racially motivated crimes against Sikhs since Sept. 11, 2001, Boparai and other members believe the completion of the temple will give a fresh start to the Sikh society."After Sept. 11 people would yell at us and tell us to go back to your country. People think we are Muslim because we wear a turban and a beard," he said. "We want people to come for peace. We pray for everybody in the world. We ask God to give equal opportunity to everyone."As part of their religion, Sikhs are required to abide by strict traditions and observances of five dress articles, called Kakaars. Part of these edicts include the Kesh, or uncut hair, which serves as a reminder of God's gift not to harm the body. Sikhs wear their hair as a top-knot wrapped under a turban.Sikh Cultural Society member Dr. Ranjit Singh said the completion of Gurdwara Sahib will help to provide a fresh start for Sikhs. The temporary worship hall is fine for now, he said, but the real celebration will arrive upon the temple's completion."Without the building, you cannot start anything," he said. "If you want to start any project, if you do not have a space, you cannot start it."

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