The footprint of Gujarati's started appearing on the Canadian soil just over a quarter of a century ago. Ontario, the Province of Opportunity, had its doors open to immigrants from all corners of the world. Although the majority of the first immigrants were professionals, Gujarati's from all walks of life came to this country to enrich its multicultural mosaic.
Yes, the earlier years were spent in getting settled, finding that first job, renting an apartment, making a trip back home to get married or sponsoring a relative, buying a car or getting the children to school. But, one could not escape the need to celebrate the festivals like Diwali, participate in Raas garba or teach Gujarati to the children. It was this need that led to the establishment of the Gujarat Samaj of Toronto in 1970, the first association of its kind in Canada. Very soon, it was vibrant with cultural programmes, celebrations of festivals, language classes, dinners and get-together.
1977- It was this landmark year that the members of the Gujarat Samaj envisioned a centre which satisfy the cultural, social and religious needs of our community and which would help us to enhance, preserve and pass on our cultural heritage to the coming generation. It was this dream that resulted in the creation of a Building Committee under the leadership of Kiritbhai Kothari. Their mandate was to carry out a feasibility study and a needs assessment and judge the financial viability of such an undertaking. A Building Fund was established. The Committee did not take very long in coming to a conclusion that the best option was to purchase land and construct a building to suit the requirements. Our journey had begun!
By 1985 Gujarat Samaj had about $50,000 collected for the building fund. In December of this year, 9.77 acres of land, fronting on Warden Avenue just north of Major Mackenzie Road in Markham was purchased for $ 280,000. Enthusiasm was over whelming. Kantibhai Patel voluntarily prepared the drawings. Kaushikbhai Patel maintained liaison with the Town of Markham. Arvindbhai Patel voluntarily provided masaledar varieties of Gujarati food at all fund raising events. We had unforgettable fund raising events at Ramada Hotel, where people opened up their hearts and wallets and pledged almost $450,000. Many members of the community agreed to underwrite the losses in the event of collapse of the project. So far, we seemed to be up to speed in our journey.
Federation of Gujarati Associations (FOGA) came into existence during the late seventies with the objective overseeing the unity of Gujarati`s and undertaking mega-projects which would be beyond the scope of individual associations. Gujarat Samaj was interested in handing over this project to FOGA, as it fitted with their objectives and the needs of Gujarati community at large. However, FOGA did not agree with project and abruptly acquired a small church on Clark Avenue in Thornhill, and named it "Gujarat Bhavan". The journey almost came to a standstill. Gujarat Samaj decided to continue on with its journey, alone. But the road was laden with misfortunes. On May 29, 1986 when kiritbhai Kothari, Gitubhai Parikh, Motibhai Champsee, Manubhai Patel and Vasudevbhai Vyas went to meet Carole Bell, the then Mayor of Markham, with all drawings for building permit, they were told to take them back, as the Town had passed an Interim Control By-law just two weeks ago, which had frozen all developments on the land for a period of one year. Our battle then began, under the guidance of Ashokbhai Shah, the then Chairperson and an appeal was made to the Ontario Municipal Board to repeal this by-law. Extensive preparations were made by the members of the community with the help of Dr.Chandrakantbhai P. Shah. But the appeal was rejected in February 1987.
Once again, efforts were made by Kaushikbhai Patel, Manubhai Patel, Gitubhai Parikh and other members to persuade the Markham Council to exempt our property from the Interim Control by Law. Strong support was received from Councillors, Ron Moran, Gord Landon, Mike Popowich, Dorin Quirk, Alex Chiu and Tom Newal. In July 1988 recommendations were made by the planning Department to allow construction of Sanatan Mandir. The Regional Municipality of York also made recommendations in mid-1989 for approval but referred the matter to the Town of Markham for reconsideration. But in the meantime, numerous objections got in our way from the residents. They started collecting funds to take this mater to Ontario Municipal Board. The journey was full of road blocks.
At this juncture, the Markham Council appointed the late Hon. Tony Roman, the then Mayor of Markham, as one member committee to resolve the issue. These were the time when the real estate market had gone through the roof. Mayor Roman was a great friend and a well wisher of our community and he wanted to create a 'win win' situation for the community, by allowing us to rezone our existing site into seven estate residential lots to conform with the neighborhood and assist us in securing and alternate site with institutional zoning. As these lots were selling well in excess of $400,000 each, we could acquire a fully serviced site for our centre and have some funds left over in our hands for construction. While everyone's intentions were good, the confidence level in the community was at an all time low. The Building Committee and the whole project became a talk of the town and a material for gossip. Unfortunately, the recession in Canada was on full blast. It was hard for us to even get help in meeting small expenses which were needed to keep things going. Our journey was almost getting off-track. It was at this time that Motibhai Champsee was requested to take charge of the matters and become the chairperson in 1990.
The re-zoning of the existing site and selection of an alternative site took its time and toll. Our architect, Girishbhai Ghatalia, voluntarily helped to rezone the old site and did preliminary drawings for a new centre. Kaushikbhai Patel was constantly in touch with the Mayor for finding an alternate site. It was not easy to get a five acre site in Markham, as the town planning called for sites no bigger than two acres for churches and other institutions. Finally, our present site became available through the efforts of Tony Roman, who persuaded Mr. Rudy Bratty to severe five acres form the commercially zoned land owned by their group. Again, as luck would have it, the real estate market got softer for estate lots but the prices of institutionally zoned lands did not fall that low. In May 1992, we were able to sell the old site for $950,000. We acquired the present five acre site at the south-east corner of woodbine Avenue and Calvert Road on October 23, 1992, at a purchase price of $1,919,000. All zoned and ready to go.
Gujarat Samaj gave all of the proceeds from the sale of the old site towards the purchase of the present site. Although the title is held in the name of Gujarat Samaj of Toronto it is in trust for Sanatan Mandir Cultural Centre which belongs to the entire Gujarati community.
Soon after the purchase of the site, fund raising efforts went on full swing. The committee was able to obtain pledges in excess of $400,000 within the next few months; Brahmin Society came forward with their fund of $15,000 to help out Sanatan Mandir at a very critical time. While all of this was going on, in February 1992, FOGA appointed a task force to revise the constitution and unite the community. Attempts were made to merge Sanatan Mandir and Gujarat Bhavan under one umbrella. Keshavbhai Chandaria tried very hard to unite different factions of Gujarati community without much success.
In july 1993, the Committee decided to start religious services in a trailer on the new site. Many religious activities followed, sometimes by installing large tent on the site and countless hours of help from volunteers like Kanchanbhai Patel, Kaushikbhai Patel, Manubhai Patel, Vasudevbhai Vyas, Urmilaben Patel, Jayaben Vansh, Kusumben Patel, Savitaben Patel, Smitaben Vora, Krishnaben Chotai, Nirupamaben Patel, Viththalbhai Patel, Krishnakantbhai Shah, Manjuben Patel, Pankajbhai Shah, Hareshbhai Mehta, Kantibhai Patel to name a few.
On August 2, 1993, Bhumi Pujan and Pratima Anavaran were carried out with the blessings of Swami Shri Madhavpriyadasji and his followers. Lots of help and co-operation was received from Swaminarayan Bhakti Mandal, The site was also blessed by Shri Morari Bapu, Shri Rameshbhai Oza and others. In September 1993, Pujya Kothari Swami carried out the Pratima Sthapan of Shri Sahjanand Swami Maharaj with contributions made by Aksar Purshottam Swaminarayan Sanstha. A Samuh Satyanarayan Katha was organized on October 22, 1993 and the occasion was graced by Shri Rameshbhai Oza.
On july 10, 1994, Shri Bhupendrabhai Pandya conducted Saytanarayan Katha in English for the benefit of our youth, followed by the three week lecture series on Hinduism for the Nineties. A one day religious discourse was given by indirabetiji on july 11, 1994. Shri Satyamitranand Giriji initiated the Srimad Bhagwat Katha by lighting a dipak and the katha was carried on for a whole week from july 15 to july 22nd, 1994 by shri Krishnasankar Shastriji (Dadaji).
July 22nd, 1994 was the historic day for Sanatan Mandir Cultural Centre. In this day the Khatmuhrat and Kalash Sthapan Vidhi was officiated by Maheshbhai and Sushmaben Chokshi. Kalash Sthapan was perforemed by Dadaji. The brick laying ceremony was initiated by Satyamitranand Giriji Shri Bhupendrabhai Pandya, Kirtichandraji of Triputi Bandhu followed by many dignitaries from the Town of Markham and the Ontario Government. A donation spree went on where people paid $25 per brick for the centre. Within a very short period, almost $100,000 was committed.
In one of the FOGA meetings, Vasantbhai Lakhani, Surinder Gill and julius Deutsch advised that the project would qualify for grant from the Ontario Government under the jobs Ontario programme. Gitubhai Parikh, Hareshbhai Mehta, Motibhai Champsee, Keshavbhai Chandaria, Dasrathbhai Shah, Rashmibhai Sheth and Ilaben Devani took the challenge and vigorously continued on with the application to the Ontario Government for a grant for this project. As per their requirement, the KPMG Group was retained to do the feasibility study for the project. Letters of support for the project poured in from many associations, politicians, community leaders and businesses. The process was lengthy and time consuming. KPMG concluded the study with excellent recommendations for the project. On the 21st day of October 1994, on the occasion of Diwali celebration and fund-raising dinner, madame Elaine Ziemba, Minister of Citizenship, presented us with a cheque for $750,000 on behalf of Government of Ontario. The function was well attended, with presence of Hon. Jag Bhaduria, M.P., Frank Scarpitti, Mayor of Markham, Councillors Gord Landon, Alex Chiu and Bill Fisch. Surinder Gill and Julius Deutsch from the Ministry of Citizenship who had helped us in the process were also present. This was the first major event and the beginning of the marathon task of building the centre under the chairmanship of Chimanbhai Patel.
The Building Committee with help from many professionals form the community in the building industry decided to go ahead with the drawings for the first phase of the project, about 32, 000 sq ft in- stead of 20,000 sq.ft. originally planned. Pankajbhai Patel, our architect redesigned the project with lots of input from Kaushikbhai Patel, Milanbhai Shah, Sureshbhai Shah, Manaharbhai Patel, Purubhai Mehta, Hasmukhbhai Amin, Nilkanthbhai Patel, Bhagwanjibhai Mistry and others. Construction drawings were approved by the Town of Markham and building permit was issued. Lots of help and cooperation was received from Mayor Don Cousens and councillors. Tenders were requested for the construction. A total of fifteen tenders were received of which three were seriously considered by the Building committee. Finally, Jasper Construction Limited was awarded the contract to build the centre at a cost of $ 3,150,000.
The religious activities continued throughout. On june 11, 1995, Gayatri Parivar performed Gayatri Havan on the site. Shri Ramrambhai and Bhagwatbhai performed a ceremony to mark the beginning of the construction on july 23rd, 1995with the blessings of Dadaji. This occasion was attended by presidents of many Gujarati associations. With a bulldozer on site it felt as if our dream was now becoming a reality. It was now time to move our trailer. The activities continued at 333 Dennison Avenue during the interim period. Yogi Satyam conducted Kriya Yoga-meditation classes during August/September 1995. We also were fortunate to engage the services of Bipinbhai Vyas, our full time priest for all religious occasions. Kantibhai Patel, Kanchanbhai Patel, Pankajbhai Shah and Thakorbhai Vansh helped in preparation of Mahaprasad at all time for various sponsors. Flowers on all occasions have been provided by Smitaben and Anilbhai Vora. Pramodbhai Patel has provided professional video filming free of charge on many functions. Ratti Bhatti has given free use of his P.A. systems.
The construction began - the first concrete was poured on September 27, 1995. Since then, our construction committee chairperson, Kaushikbhai Patel, our chairperson, Chimanbhai Patel, Kumarbhai Budhdeo Nilkanthbhai Patel, Milanbhai Shah, Hasmukhbhai Amin, Purubhai Mehta, Bhagawanji Mistry and Maheshbhai Chokshi have been regular visitors to the site, dealing with day to day challengers that a venture of this nature entails. Maheshbhai has kept track of the entire progress on video. Maheshbhai Chokshi played a major role in securing the funding for the project in the amount of $3,100,000 from Royal Bank of Canada, without which again our journey could have come to a standstill.
While visiting India, Vasudevbhai Vyas, Kaushikbhai Patel, Maheshbhai Chokshi, Hareshbhai Mehta and Eknathbhai Desai took time to go to Jaipur, India, to select Murtis and place orders. Donors came forward to pay for the cost and the transportation of Murtis. All financial projections, records of donations, pledges, reports to Royal Bank, GST refunds, audits and accounting would not have been possible without the help of Pankajbhai Shah (our longest serving treasurer) Rashmibhai Sheth, and Yogeshbhai P. Shah. Bhavnaben Shah has helped in collection of outstanding pledges. Thakorbhai Vansh and Eknahthbhai Desai took charge of the quarterly newsletter for Sanatan Mandir Cultural Centre. Rashmibhai Sheth coordinated bank advances for construction. Yajmans have come forward for praan pratishtha of all murtis which will take place during the week-long ceremonies between July 28th, 1996 and August 5, 1996. The opening ceremonies for this landmark will be held on July 28th 1996.
Sanatan Mandir Cultural Centre is a result of twenty years of work by many dedicated individuals, some of whom are still with us and others who have left this world. Despite other commitments and responsibilities these individuals pursed their goals, resulting in the creation of a centre which will become a landmark of our community in Canada and will be cherished by generation to come. Our children will pick up from where we have left.