In 1890 a significant narrative of North American Sikh history began with the foundation of the first known Sikh temple, or gurdwara, nestled in the Rocky Mountains near present-day Golden, British Columbia. This is a piece of history that not many people are aware of. Some may dispute it, but we Golden settlers believe firmly that the first Sikh gurdwara in all of North America was in fact in our town.
Golden has been home to many Sikhs over the past 100 years, and our rich history is now being shared with the world. For me, it is where my father’s family settled in the 1960s and it still resonates with how I see, feel and reminisce about “home.” The beauty of Golden is unsurpassed. It has drawn comparisons even to the beauty of Hemkund Valley in India, a site known to all Sikhs and linked emotionally to our faith. It was Dr. Harbans Lal who in 2013 made the connection between the sacred Sikh space of Hemkund Sahib and Golden, BC nestled in the beauty of mountain peaks.
In 2018, against an unchanged landscape of towering mountains, majestic forests, and cascading clouds, we held the first Nagar Kirtan (religious procession) in Golden—a homage to the history of this area.
The history of Golden Sikhs is rich, and in 2013, the Government of British Columbia conferred a historical designation on the town. Research by historians and societies and oral histories passed through generations speak of a log-house bunker turned into a gurdwara by Sikhs working for the Columbia River Logging Co. Although the original structure was destroyed by fire, careful measurements and historical accounts of the Canadian Pacific Railway allowed us to determine its location. As we walked to the spot where this first gurdwara stood, a sense of awe struck us. We stood in a place of history, community and stories untold. From here, we began the journey that would lead us to host our very first Nagar Kirtan in Golden in May 2018.
We often speak of the gurdwaras in Canada as meaningful community spaces at times when there were few of us and hardships all around. To mark key dates, the Sikh sangat (community) living in BC in the early 20th century would visit a specific gurdwara known to host a certain event. We wished to recreate this “travelling sangat” and return to those nostalgic moments. We hoped to open Golden’s arms to a travelling sangat from all parts of the world at the first known location of a gurdwara in North America.
In welcoming the travelling sangat to Golden and marking this commemorative event, we understood that sharing our history with the world was also an opportunity to acknowledge that the First Peoples of this beautiful land have been often silenced if not ignored completely. We were honoured to have Chief Christian of the Secwepemc Nation welcome us and share in this day as the procession commenced. This is a moment that allows us as South Asians to work towards reconciliation and acknowledgement of our role as settlers in this land.
Our present-day gurdwara (built in 1982) also has a great importance in the memories of Golden residents past and present. In one of our community meetings, photographs of the gurdwara elicited stories from everyone present in the room. Both young and old shared in the recollections of the building on the corner of 13th Street. As the planning for our Nagar Kirtan grew, so did the the memory of Golden in the hearts of those who had moved away. Generations of families and friends spoke to memories of the bustling langar hall of their childhoods, and the present-day day smiles of those still care for anyone passing through or visiting.
My family history in Golden dates back to 1965, as is the case with many of the Sikh families who have made Golden their home. As a child, I remember weddings, Sunday congregations, and what felt like daily Punjabi classes given by Granthi ji during the summer months. It was home, and the gurdwara belonged to the very definition of our heritage, culture and faith as Sikh Canadians. As the years have passed, the decline of the Punjabi presence in Golden hints at economic hardships, including the closing of the Golden Lumber Mills in 1990. Still, the perseverance and resilience of the Golden Sikhs is boundless, and we rose to the occasion once again as we began preparations to host a sangat of more than 3,000 people on a beautiful sunny Golden day in May 2018.
As the procession began, the community walked side by side with Sikh motorcycle clubs, RCMP cruisers, firetrucks, a Gatka (Sikh martial arts) team, the Rotary Youth Club, senior citizens riding in flatbed trucks, and many others. I felt a complete sense of community in that moment.The entire procession was led by our main float holding the sacred Guru Granth Sahib as devotional hymns were sung and echoed all around. In that first gurdwara 128 years ago, a prayer was called: “Bole So Nihal- Sat Sri Akal.” And in the shadow of the same mountains our sangat echoed the call in the spirit walking in Golden’s Nagar Kirtan. Who could’ve imagined?
The organization of this Nagar Kirtan was an enlightening experience. It brought back to us the historical traditions of Sikhs and Punjabis across British Columbia who often organized such gatherings as a sign of their strength, resiliency and resolve. This is why the work of the Punjabi Canadian Legacy Project is so important—it is a critical moment of historical reflection and acknowledgement of those histories that have been erased, elided and ignored. And on behalf of the community of Golden, BC, I am humbled and proud to say that I am a part of that moment, and that we collectively, are a part of that moment of the sangat coming together.
This piece was written with the permission and support of the Golden Sikh Society Executive Board 2019 (President: Amrik Singh Khunkhun; Vice-President: Navneet Rondeau).