A few weeks ago, a sign announcing the “Hindu Temple & Cultural Center of Wisconsin” popped up along Fish Hatchery Road in a rural part of Fitchburg, about five miles south of the Beltline.

The sign likely surprised commuters. The seven-acre site, 2138 S. Fish Hatchery Road, looks like a farm, which is what it was before the American Hindu Association, the formal name of the Madison Hindu community, purchased it four years ago.

Since then, members have met in the site’s two-bedroom farmhouse for Sunday prayer services. But beyond those weekly gatherings, the site flew under the radar.

That is about to change, as evidenced last Sunday by the dozens of people who flocked to the site for a groundbreaking ceremony. A cultural center and temple building expected to cost between $350,000 and $400,000 will be built where a barn stood until just recently.

“Our community is getting bigger and stronger,” said Mahesh Sharma, chairman of the association’s board of trustees. “We can no longer accommodate everyone in a house.”

Hinduism is India’s most popular religious and cultural system and the world’s third-largest religion, after Christianity and Islam. Most Hindus believe in one God, who is all-pervasive, though he or she may be worshipped in different forms, in different ways and by different names. A basic belief in Hinduism is that the soul does not die but is reborn into another life form when the body dies.

Sharma, 57, a native of New Delhi, India, moved to Madison in 1992, at a time when there were relatively few Hindu families in the area, he said. There are now about 1,000 Hindu families in Dane County, of which about 300 are active in the association, he said.

For a Midwestern city, Madison has a relatively high concentration of Hindus, with most of them natives of India, said Sharma, who owns five gas stations in southern Wisconsin.

“UW-Madison is a big factor,” he said. “There are a lot of researchers here and professors and assistant professors. You also have a lot of doctors because of the medical facilities, and a lot of people working for technology companies.”

The American Hindu Association formed in Madison in 1997, with members initially meeting in a member’s basement, said Shiva Sathasivam, a member of the association’s building committee. As the community grew, meetings moved to rental spaces, then the farmhouse in Fitchburg, said Sathasivam, 57, president of Trinco Technologies, an information technology services provider.

The next closest Hindu temple is in the Milwaukee suburb of Pewaukee, Sathasivam said.

Five elements — earth, water, fire, air and sky — are important to Hindu theology, and all were incorporated in the groundbreaking ceremony. Followers prayed under large white tents Sunday, seeking permission from Mother Earth to use the land for the project.

The ritual “cleanses the area and removes any obstacles to construction,” said Madhavan Bhattar, one of the Hindu priests who conducted the ceremony. By the end of this year, Bhattar is expected to move to Madison from Detroit to become the local Hindu community’s first full-time paid priest.

The building going up at the site is expected to be completed later this year and will be a steel-and-iron, commercial-type structure, with an assembly room accommodating about 150 people, Sharma said. The association intends to offer many educational and cultural classes that will be open to the community, he said.

Prior to the groundbreaking, association members visited neighbors and secured the needed land-use approvals from the city of Fitchburg. Fitchburg Mayor Shawn Pfaff was among those at last Sunday’s ceremony.

Said Sharma: “People have welcomed us with open arms.”

The building likely will serve the needs of the local Hindu community for the next decade or so, Sharma said. Eventually, the association hopes to construct a grander, more architecturally ornamental temple farther back on the property, likely costing several million dollars, he said.

You can reach reporter Doug Erickson at derickson@madison.com or 608-252-6149.