Controversy Surrounds Country's Largest Sikh Temple Rising In San Jose

July 10, 2009

Author: Lisa Fernandez

Source: San Jose Mercury News

Perched high in the hills of San Jose stands the country's largest Sikh temple — its rippling water fountain and onion-shaped roof are poignant symbols of the spiritual heart of a vibrant immigrant community.

Now, the temple will become even bigger. Crews are building a 17,000-square-foot prayer hall, 12 classrooms, living quarters for temple priests and among the largest vegetarian kitchens in California. But behind the growing facade is an escalating controversy that has split the Sikh community and focused intense scrutiny on a one-time San Jose planning commissioner and twice-defeated City Council candidate who has staked his reputation on the controversial $18 million project.

Strolling through the sprawling compound on a recent morning, Bhupindar "Bob" Dhillon, remains undaunted.

"For Sikhs, this is the place where everything happens," said Dhillon, 67, the most powerful lay leader at the temple. "People take pride in building a nice temple. It shows how strong the community is.''

But as the new temple is being built, Dhillon and his camp are fending off claims of sloppy workmanship, financial secrecy, political back-stabbing, assault and suppression of speech. One temple elder accused a Dhillon ally of yanking his beard — a taboo in Sikh culture where hair is considered sacred — when he made an inquiry about temple donations. The battle at Sikh Gurdwara-San Jose has grown beyond typical church infighting — it's now a full-fledged battle over power and money.

At the center of it all is Dhillon, whom critics say saves his soft-spoken manner for guests but is quick to anger when questioned.