With lilting music, prayers of thanks and a communal vegetarian feast, Baltimore-area Sikhs celebrated the opening of their first local temple in Randallstown yesterday.
Five sword-bearing Sikhs, garbed in traditional white costume, stood by as the temple's flag was hoisted yesterday morning. A rainbow of flower petals showered down upon the congregation when the orange and blue pennant reached the top of the pole.
The festivities followed the conclusion of a marathon 48-hour worship service, in which the Sikhs' 1,420-page holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, was read cover to cover by congregants taking turns.
"It's a dream come true, basically," Prabhjot S. Kohli, incoming general secretary of the Sikh Association of Baltimore, said of the eight-year effort to build the temple.
After the morning flag-raising, members filed inside the new temple, or "Gurudwara Sahib," for more singing and prayers, including a brief children's service. Then celebrants filed outside again for "langar," a free community lunch prepared by members in their new kitchen downstairs. Men, women and children ate sitting cross-legged, as is their custom, on carpeting covering the still-grassless ground in front of the new building.
The temple's inauguration yesterday coincided with Vaisakhi, the holiest day in the Sikh calendar marking the religion's beginning.
The completion of the Gurudwara Sahib, which means "Abode of God," marks the end of an eight-year quest for the local Sikh community. The 11-acre site, a former farm field off Liberty Road, was originally bought for about $60,000 in 1984, but construction of the temple, which cost $300,000, did not begin until last year.
Before this, Baltimore-area Sikhs had to drive to Silver Spring to attend a temple service, or they worshiped in each other's homes. Local Sikh leaders say they hope the new temple will serve as a magnet to draw their community closer together, and they plan to add a library and classrooms.
About 300,000 Sikhs live in the United States, and about 110 families belong to the local Sikh association. But the new temple's construction already has drawn a trickle of new members.
"Every day someone adds on," said Dr. Ajaipal S. Gill, a physician and chairman of the association.
Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden attended yesterday's celebration, wielding the scissors for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. Several neighboring residents also came by.
The Sikh religion is a casteless offshoot of Hinduism, begun in 1699 in northwestern India. Its 14 million followers let their hair grow as one of the symbols of their faith, and men wear beards and turbans. They espouse equality of women and community service, typified by their "langar," or free kitchen, which is open to anyone. Members say they also help in area soup kitchens and collect clothing for the homeless.
"We believe God is present everywhere," explained Kirpan K. Singh. "Of course, we have this Gurudwara, but we don't believe He's only in there. We believe God is among us."
But Sikhs' appearance, dictated by their religion, has occasionally subjected them to discrimination in this country. Mr. Kohli, a state highway engineer and an official of the Baltimore Sikh association, won a human-rights complaint earlier this month after he was denied a job as manager trainee for a Domino's pizza franchise because he refused to shave off his beard.