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A Harmony of Cultures: The Gurdwara at Abbotsford, B.C.

For the week of Monday February 24, 2003

On February 25, 1912, the Abbotsford Sikh Temple, or Gurdwara, opened its doors with much pomp and celebration. The oldest surviving Sikh temple in North America, it remains a symbol of how Sikh immigrants adapted to Canada while preserving their culture.

The Abbotsford Gurdwara

The Abbotsford Gurdwara
© Parks Canada / D. Hamelin / 2002

In 1904, five young Sikhs immigrated to British Columbia, hoping to escape the poverty that haunted farming families in Punjab, India. Their success attracted compatriots, who also dreamed of bettering their situation. Approximately 5000 Sikhs, mainly young unmarried men, arrived between 1904 and 1908. They left their families to work in logging, sawmills, farming and railway construction, intending to return quickly to India with their earnings.

At the peak of immigration in 1907, anger resulting from a recession was directed towards Sikh immigrants and some violence and rioting occurred. Discriminatory legislation was passed in response, severely restricting immigration and disenfranchising Sikhs. Not all communities were intolerant of Sikhs, however. In Abbotsford, they found employment easily, settled into the community and were able to build a temple.

For Sikhs, a Gurdwara is an essential institution: it houses the Holy Book, the Guru Granth Sahib, and is used for ceremonies and meetings. The construction of the Abbotsford temple was a community effort. Sunder Singh Thandi organized the project and with Argin Singh purchased a property. The Trethewey family, owners of the local sawmill and the largest employer of the Sikhs, donated the lumber. Sikhs around Abbotsford loaned the remaining $3000 needed, even though they were saving for their families.

Abbotsford Sikh Temple; View of canopied altar

Abbotsford Sikh Temple;
View of canopied altar

© Parks Canada / D. Hamelin / 2002

The temple’s design was a harmonious blend of Sikh tradition and Canadian style. The Gurdwara retained many traditional features: it was built on a hill and marked by a Nishan Sahib (flagpole). The first floor housed a community kitchen and common area where strangers and guests shared the langar (communal meal) and were given lodging or other assistance, depending on their need. The second floor had a prayer-hall with four symbolic doors and a canopied altar. The Sikh community wanted the temple to blend with surrounding structures so the exterior had a false front, wooden frame and gabled roof, like many buildings on the Canadian frontier.

The Gurdwara, core of the Abbotsford-area
Sikh community’s political, social and spiritual activities, is still used today, although a larger temple was constructed across the street in 1983. The Abbotsford Sikh Temple was designated on July 31, 2002 as a National Historic Site of Canada.

For more information on the history of Abbotsford and the Gurdwara, please see: Matsqui- Sumas- Abbotsford Museum Society.

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