By Harbans Lal, Ph.D., D. Lit (Hons)
A new Gurdwara is always a milestone of a Sikh community anywhere. It signifies the presence of the Sikh community in that area. Over a century ago, the pioneering Sikhs built their first Gurdwara in North America in the city of Golden.
Golden is a town in southeastern British Columbia, Canada, located 262 kilometers west of Calgary, Alberta, and 713 kilometers east of Vancouver.
As the birth of Sikhism lies thousands of miles away from North America, the year 1890 acquired a special significance in the annals of Sikh history in North America. This year a gurdwara was established first time in North America.
In 1991, my wife Amrita and I availed the opportunity to celebrate the 101st Anniversary of the first Sikh Gurdwara in the American continent.
According to the book, Kinbasket Country: The Story of Golden and the Columbia Valley, Published by The Golden & District Historical Society, Golden, BC, Canada (1972), a Sikh Temple was built in Golden, in 1890. The Golden Society extracted evidence for this Gurdwara from the annals of Golden’s history available with the city municipality and other depositories.
In a more recent book, Golden Memories, published in 1982, there are several references to the ancient Sikh population of Golden city, including the 1890 Gurdwara. Because of this discovery, the Heritage Conservation Branch of British Columbia, Ministry of Culture, considered installing a historical plaque in the City of Golden to commemorate the first Gurdwara founded in North America.
Golden has been chosen as one of 15 locations in the province to receive a special recognition status of historical importance to the South Asian Canadian community.
There is no other mention of any Gurdwara building in North America before 1890. The famous Ross Road Gurdwara of Vancouver that has been the seat of major Sikh activities for a century is believed to have been built eighteen years later, in 1908.
My wife Amrita and I visited the city of Golden with a population of around 3600 at the time of our visit. This was the year of the 101st celebration of the Golden Gurdwara.
The city of Golden is located on the Trans-Canada Highway at the Columbia and Kicking Horse rivers’ confluence. Coming from the west, it is a gateway to Glacier National Park that leads to Yoho, Banff, and Jasper National Parks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It serves as a great base for exploring hiking trails, world-class skiing, waterfalls, lakes, and various heritage sites. These were the most heavenly places that we ever visited.
Driving around a few miles from Golden, we instantaneously remembered the Hem Kund valley described in Bachiter Natak’s story of Guru Gobind Singh’s time. Hem Kund Sahib, formally known as Gurudwara Sri Hemkund Sahib Ji, is a Sikh place of worship and pilgrimage site in Himalaya’s Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, India. This is because, around Golden, there are two lakes of clear blue water surrounded by seven peaks of many glaciers that inhabit this area. Because of these peaks, it is not unusual for a devout Sikh visitor to have a vision of hem kund right there. The site is so beautiful that a picture of one of these lakes was chosen as an emblem printed on a $20 note of Canadian currency.
We found references to Sikhs and the first Gurdwara in many records of Golden City. Besides, the coming of Sikhs to this town and they’re establishing the Gurdwara there generated many stories vividly remembered by many old-timers living in that city.
The last resident who personally knew the first contingent of Sikhs coming to Golden had deceased only a few years earlier. Before her death, she had related many stories of the pioneer Sikhs of that city to many Sikh friends and visitors and the media reporters.
There are records of Sikh patients in the local hospital. There were records of Sikh dealings with local businesses. Sikh skills in the lumber industry are well known to every citizen of Golden.
Sikhs, around 45 in number, are said to have come to this lumber mill town in 1880. Some traveled via mountainous roads that were laden with snow in winter and were hazardous to travel. Others reached this city by boats rowing through the Columbia River.
Hari Singh, who fought in the First World War as a soldier in Royal Canadian Army in Europe, moved to this town in 1902. He was wounded in the war and received treatment in a Golden City hospital.
The Golden inhabitants remembered Hari Singh for his cheerful personality and also for his silk turban. His turban was often found shortened at the laundry where Hari Singh often visited to get his turban cleaned. The laundry owner apparently could not resist keeping a piece of the precious silk material every time he had an opportunity to do so.
The Golden Star newspaper often recorded stories about Sikh old-timers. According to available records, the local hospital treated the first Sikh patient in 1906.
On July 10, 1991, the Star published an article by Manmohan Singh Minhas in commemoration of the role played by Sikhs in the development and economy of Golden City. Sardar Minhas, a mechanical engineer, and a successful entrepreneur wrote a book on the history of the Sikh Canadians of the Golden city.
During our visit, the city residents told us that the original Gurdwara was built on land allotted by The Columbia River Lumber Co. It was built among bunkhouses that Sikhs used for their living quarters. A wooden building housed the Gurdwara that displayed the Sikh emblem, and Nishan Sahib, both installed on the gurdwara exterior. The inside of the gurdwara building was known to be lavishly decorated with plush carpets and rugs where the congregation sat and where Sri Guru Granth Sahib installed.
In the beginning, the congregation or Sangat was all-male as the first Sikh woman entered Golden City only in 1923. Piara Singh, son of Herdit Singh, was the first Sikh Canadian born in the Golden Hospital nearly a century ago on August 26, 1924.
In the Golden Gurdwara of 1890, the Sunday service was held regularly and was open to everyone. The city residents often came to the service to join Sikhs Canadians in prayer. The Canadian neighbors frequently met their Sikh friends for an afternoon chai at the community kitchen, langer. True to the Sikh traditions, the Gurdwara served as a community center for everyone in need of such a place.
As misfortune was to have it in 1927, a massive fire broke out, and it burned the Columbia River Lumber Co and the original Gurdwara building, both to ashes. A few years earlier, the Sikhs Canadians had built a co-operative sawmill to sustain their employment, but it too had to be closed as it could not survive the competition.
Thus, the Sikhs lost their livelihood and were forced to leave this town searching for employment elsewhere. They took their sacred book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, along with them. The Gurdwara land reverted to the city, and the building without Guru Granth Sahib ultimately came down.
The current Sikh era in Golden began in 1962 when Gurdial Singh Dhami moved to town. He still lived in Golden when we visited. Then, there were 67 Sikh families residing in Golden City and another eight Sikh families living in the surrounding areas.
In 1978, Ms. Wixen, an old-timer, coaxed local Sikhs to either restore the historical Gurdwara or build another to replace it. He offered his help.
Within a short time, the community collected nearly $100,000 in donations; most neighbors, irrespective of their religious affiliation, contributed. The Government of British Columbia granted $15,000 for the Gurdwara building. The state funds came from the lottery account. The Honorable Lames R. Chabot, Minister of Lands and Parks, helped a lot. Local lumber companies donated the needed lumber. The Sikh employees worked overtime in exchange for the lumber they needed for the gurdwara building, and labor was donated by local Sikhs and Sikhs from neighboring areas. The non-Sikh Golden residents also were active participants in the construction project.
Thus, the new building to house the Gurdwara was entirely all community effort.
The Anniversary was celebrated in the new Gurdwara building that stood at 13th Street and 6th Avenue and was spotted easily for its tall Nishan Sahib. It was a two-story building, the upper level for the service and the lower one to house the langer facilities and the residential units.
The new Gurdwara building opened in 1981, and Sardar Shiv Singh Jaswal volunteered to perform duties of a granthi at no remuneration. During our visit to the Golden City, Jaswal Singh had us as his guest. He retired from his profession to continue to perform the Gurdwara services until 1984, when the new granthi, Giani Daljit Singh of New Delhi, was installed. Then the leading service was held every Sunday, but a mini service was held daily. The Golden Sikh Cultural Society was found to manage the Gurdwara. Sardar Balhar Singh of Evan Forest Products was serving as the president in 1991.
The Golden city is now a tourist attraction, and many visitors come to pay homage to the Gurdwara every year. Sikh congregations traveling between Vancouver and Calgary pass through this city. They invariably stop here. On the day of our visit to Golden in 1991, a busload of Sikh children came from Vancouver. They rested there and enjoyed their meals in the langar of the Gurdwara. They were en route to their summer camp in Banf National Park, but their bus broke down near this town.
The Society and the local Sikhs welcome every visitor and provide well-known Sikh hospitality to those dropping in on their way to Calgary or Vancouver or those who visit the Canadian Rockies and the Cascade Mountains for vacation.
Send all communications to:
Harbans Lal, Ph.D.; D.Litt (Hons)
Professor Emeritus & Chairman, Dept of Pharmacology & Neurosciences, University of North Texas Health Science Center.
Professor Emeritus, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India.
President, Academy of Guru Granth Studies.