Sikhs mourn astronauts killed in disaster

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More than 300 people came out Sunday afternoon to The Sikh Cultural Society's temple in Richmond Hill for a ceremony honoring the seven Columbia astronauts who died Feb. 1 when the space shuttle broke apart upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

The special memorial service, known as "Akhand Path," featured a continuous reading of hymns from the Sikh holy book, the Gurugranth Sahib, for 48 hours. The official ceremony, held at 95-30 118th St., began Friday night at 6 p.m. and ended Sunday afternoon around 2 p.m., continuing unbroken for the period by religious members who filled two-hour shifts reading sacred passages.

"We have sympathy for them; we are also Americans," said society chairman Sulakhen Singh. "We are proud that one of our own was there."

Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born female astronaut, died in what was supposed to be her second triumphant return to Earth. She was originally from the Punjab province, which is the area where the Sikh religion was founded, said general secretary Jager Singh.

The secretary said the memorial service is a typical one that Sikhs perform when someone close or related to them unexpectedly dies. He said the prayer ceremony is similar for both mournful and celebratory occasions.

"We will request they have a good place of rest," Jager Singh said. "We pray that the expired peoples should go into the heavens."

Members of the society, who congregated in a temporary building adjacent to their headquarters which burned down last summer, came from throughout the tri-state area to attend the service.

Society members plan to write a letter of condolence to President George W. Bush to express their feelings of loss for the Columbia crew, Jager Singh said. He said since immigrating to America more than 20 years ago he has felt close ties with the local population.

"We are citizens here, we belong to this country," he said. "We are happy here."

Throughout the service, society members offered free breakfast, lunch, dessert and drinks to the hundreds in attendance.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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