31 Oct Sundar Singh Thandi
A saga of leadership and devotion towards Gur Sikh Temple Sundar Singh and Mohinder Kaur (was also known as Harnam Kaur), the Thandi Family of Abbotsford
Sundar Singh, affectionately known by the Abbotsford families as Taya ji arrived in Canada in the year 1906-1907. He worked in the Tretheway lumber mills located on the river Fraser which was owned by Tretheway family, and was later renamed as the Abbotsford Lumber mill. Sundar Singh was eventually promoted and was made in charge of fifteen to thirty men. He was called the ‘boss,’ recalls Sundar Singh’s nephew Sucha Thandi, a farmer of Abbotsford.
It was Sundar Taya along with some more Sikh mill workers who first thought of constructing a small Gurdwara in Abbotsford around the year 1906. They discussed this idea with Kuhatay Curk. As much as Sucha can recall approximately $3000 dollars were deposited with the authorities, which was a sizable amount for that period. Sundar Singh was instrumental in buying one acre of land. He then thought of requesting the Trethewey lumber company for lumber to give towards the construction of the Gurdwara. He further inspired every Sikh to give money in-kind or cash, and to participate in the noble cause of building the Gurdwara. The Tretheway family agreed to provide the lumber to them, free of cost-a great contribution indeed. Every Sikh, including Sundar Singh, cleaned the lumber and painstakingly carried it on their shoulders to the site of the Gurdwara from the Mill.
It is not difficult to contemplate the kind of trouble all these families had to go through since the Gurdwara’s site was located up on a hill. Slowly and steadily, Sundar Singh and his Sikh friends became involved in building the Gurdwara. In the year 1911, the construction of the building of the Gurdwara was completed and its doors opened for the sangat of Abbotsford. The Khalsa Diwan Society of Vancouver became associated with this Gur Sikh Temple and shared their title recognizing this Gurdwara as one under their constitution. Sundar Singh was very much instrumental throughout this process. After the completion of the Gurdwara in Abbotsford, Sundar Singh then went back to India in order to get married to Mohinder Kaur. He was inclined towards doing farming and bought land in Abbotsford on his return.
During his stay in the Punjab, Sundar Singh had suggested to Sucha’s brother that if he studied and passed grade ten, then it would be easier for him to migrate to Canada. Unfortunately, he could not pass with good scores. Sundar Singh had even suggested the same to Sucha, and also said that if Sucha came to Canada, then he (Sucha) would be able to help him in the farm work.
When Sucha Thandi came to Canada in the year 1953, one of the first things he did was visit the Gur Sikh temple. He saw the building which was same as it is now, but the park at the back was not there. There was a drive way to the Gurdwara. There were only four other Indo-Canadian families in Abbotsford in the 1950’s, according to Sucha. He adds, “land was cheap, for one dollar you could get an acre. Wages were 10 cents an hour.” The land which is now so expensive was a swamp land, he adds and there were small parcels of lands available then. As such, a number of Sikhs bought such land. Slowly, as the municipality also expanded, they cleared the land of water. This resulted in a swamp land turning into a fertile land to farm. Earlier there were also tobacco plantations in this area; however, Sikhs did not work in the tobacco plantations.
In the early 1950’s, before he came to Canada, plans were being made for Sucha Singh’s marriage to Ms. Ossi Kaur. Ossi Kaur was visiting Punjab during this time-she was born in New Westminster and her family also had deep pioneering roots in Canada. During this time also, Ossi’s father was looking for a groom for her. Ossi’s father shared his intention with Tayee (Sundar Singh’s wife Mohinder) who had a photo of Sucha. Unusual for those times, Tayee suggested that the boy and girl see each other, and if they like each other then they could be married. Ossi’s father sent a family friend, Sher Singh to go to Mahilpur to meet Sucha, and if he approved of him then Sucha’s papers to immigrate to Canada could also be filed. In those days it was easier to get a visa. Sher Sngh met up with Sucha Thandi and asked him how he was related to Sundar Singh. After all the formalities, Ossi and Sucha were engaged and soon married in the year 1952.
Sucha and Ossi’s journey to Canada was full of memorable moments. At that time Sucha traveled on Pan America flight that took them to Hongkong from Delhi. From Hongkong they had to take a ferry called the President Cleveland. At Hongkong they had to stay for two days. Generally those traveling stayed at the Gurdwara. The Bhai at the Gurdwara gave them a room to stay. The matter was of serious importance as Ossi was expecting by then. They stayed at the Gurdwara for one night and then moved to the Granthis house. He was especially kind and considerate after he saw that Ossi was pregnant. The Granthi’s wife was Russian born and she did a lot for Ossi. From this point on they boarded the next ferry to the USA and landed at San Franscisco whereby they took a train to Vancouver. By evening they had reached the Vancouver, waterfront station. They had forty American dollars with them at the time which they converted into Canadian dollars.
From Vancouver, they came over to Abbotsford and went to the Gur Sikh temple to pay their respects. They took a taxi, driven by a Caucasian driver, who assured them to safely take them to Sundar Singh’s farm. Sucha recalls how the roads to Abbotsford were small during this time. Once you were on the highway there was a farm owned by Hari Singh who was also from Sucha’s village. According to Sucha, “I found the Gurdwara to be simple and felt less people at the Gurdwara as compared to the Gurdwaras in Punjab. There was not that much of a crowd in the Gurdwara. The Nishan Sahib could be seen from a far off distance and it was made of wooden cedar tree trunk and had a bulb fixed on top of it. It was approximately 70 feet. I attended the first Jor Mela ceremony, which was the ceremony of the Guru Nanak Dev’s Prakash’s Utsav,” recalls Sucha.
The Gurpurab celebrations year around were shared among various Gurdwaras in Victoria, Vancouver and Abbotsford. Since there were few car owners then, everyone gave rides to each other, especially at the time of Gurpurabs. Guru Gobind Singh birthday was celebrated at the Gurdwara at Vancouver; and Guru Nanak Dev ji’s was celebrated at the Gur Sikh Temple at Abbotsford and the ninth Guru’s celebration were celebrated in Victoria. During the Jor Mela celebrations every family in Abbotsford use to come together to decorate the Gur Sikh temple. There were few families in Abbotsford then and they tried and contributed to the best of their abilities. The Thandi family especially was actively involved with the Gurdwara. They contributed the making of the stairs and also help put up the newer nishaan sahib in 1957. Earlier there was a tall cedar tree which acted as the nishaan sahib. The Abbotsford authorities pointed to the fact that the tree could be of a problem to the traffic and passerby on the South Fraser Way as it might fell on the road. Hence a new nishaan sahib, made of steel was put at the Gurdwara. In addition, the stairs in front of the Gur Sikh Temple were made of wood, but then later on, Mohinder Tayee gave money for the construction of new stairs made of concrete.
With time, the population of the Sikh community increased in both Abbotsford and Mission. This helped a great deal towards the celebrations of the Jor Melas in Abbotsford as the community began celebrating those on a bigger scale. At that time there were a few pathis, some of them came from Victoria and Vancouver which was a very long journey as it took up to two hours to come from just Vancouver to Abbotsford. Sucha Thandi recalls that he had a Plymouth at that time.
During the 1920s there were many Gadarites who used to come to Abbotsford from the US. These revolutionaries used to find their way into Canada looking at the light put on the cedar tree, nishan sahib. At the Gur Sikh temple they used to meet, and decide their next course of action, whether it was to go to India or return to the US. For them the Gurdwara was an ideal place as it was on a hill top and had a tall nishan sahib.
Both of Sucha Singh and Ossi Kaur Thandi’s sons were married at the Gur Sikh temple. Sucha feels very happy to know that the Gurdwara has been recognized as a National Historic site. He believes that through this Gurdwara the history of Sikh pioneer will be known to the world. The location of the Gur Sikh temple is also very appropriate as it is right at the centre of the city and has a large space of land. It is on a high ground, hence can be seen and noticed from far. Indeed one can see the whole town from here as well, something that is certainly befitting given the rich history of its making.