During our travels of North America we came across a number of strange cases about the buildings of various gurdwaras. Among them is the interesting case of the founding of the first gurdwara in America, at Stockton, California. This was also called, "Gadari Babeyan da Gurdwara"—(the gurdwara founded by the members of the Hindustan Gadar Party.) Both these factors make it unique.
The oldest existing Sikh gurdwara in both the US and Canada was founded in 1912 and despite the fact that there are bigger gurdwaras, it has retained its pre-eminence in the religious history of North American Sikhs. Whenever there is a reference to the immigration of Sikh to these shores, a reference is always made to the Stockton gurdwara.
In 1912, the older building came up. The Nishan Sahib was raised, to mark it as the house of Guru Nanak and the Guru Granth Sahib was ceremoniously installed. All the steps were taken to have a proper gurdwara where a Sikh could pay obeisance to Wahe Guru. The enclosed black and white photograph shows that first building, which is now being used for housing the library and for holding of the akhand paath.
We felt a sense of wonder and awe when we saw the gurdwara and thought about its founding so long ago. First, the event was too near to the beginning of the Sikh migration into America which started around 1900. Secondly, till 1910 the total Indian population as per the US Census figures was only about 2000 in the whole of California; 2000 individuals, and not families. And most of them were the day labour category, earning in pittance. There was no organised Church to back them, nor even the State. Still, those poor devout raised the funds and built the First gurdwara in America way back in 1912 to spread the message of Guru Nanak.
But it was a different sort of gurdwara, then. Not only the gurdwara but even most of the sangat of 1912 was a different lot. They built the Sikh gurdwara, but initially ran it more like the Christian Churches which were all around them to emulate. Their mode of worship was far removed from the norms prescribed and in the gurdwaras in India.
The enclosed black and white picture of that time shows the scene inside the gurdwara. Sri Guru Granth Sahib was installed upon the raised platform at one end of the hall. The devotees did not sit on the floor as was normal in India and elsewhere. They are seen sitting upon the chairs facing Guru Maharaj. Therefore, it was not necessary to enter the premises barefoot. They kept wearing their shoes even inside though some of the worshippers used to keep hats and head-gears outside. Even the main speaker can be seen bare headed.
This state of affairs continues for about a dozen years. Though, today no one is sure when the chairs from inside the Diwan Hall of the gurdwara were removed, but it is certain that by 1929, when the second building was ready, chairs were no longer inside the Diwan Hall. People started sitting upon the floor. The enclosed coloured photograph shows the latter building. Both the Diwan and the langar hall are now in this latter building. The second coloured picture shows the scene inside the Diwan Hall.
However, inside the langar hall the benches and the tables continued for ages, right till our time, when the hukumnama issued by Jathedar Ranjit Singh of the Akal Takht in 1998, disapproving the eating of langar on tables was considered contrary to the Sikh maryada. Now there are no tables and chairs/benches even in the langar hall.
Covering of the heads inside the Diwan hall was also not compulsory till, as late as in, 1974, as many of the Sikhs of that age, in America, were clean-shaven. In fact outside the main Diwan hall, in the lobby, there were hat-stands for people to leave their headgears. In effect, in those early days shoes were in and headgears out, rather contrary to the present norms when shoes are out and headgears in. Still, it is admirable that those devout Sikhs did meet as Sangat in the presence of Sri Guru Granth Sahib. And that was a big achievement by itself.
Since 1912, when the Stockton gurdwara was established, until next gurdwara came up, almost fifty-five years later, the Stockton gurdwara was the only beacon of light for all the Sikhs on the West Coast of USA. If someone had to go to the gurdwara, it had to be to Stockton. If an akhand paath had to be kept, it was at Stockton. In time, many other gurdwaras have come up, in many other towns, but the Stockton gurdwara retains its unique status of being the oldest existing gurdwara in North America.
When we visited the gurdwara to show the documentary on the Golden Temple we had spent five days in the hallowed precincts. It was a very satisfying experience.