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  • How Punjabi Pioneers purchased the Valley's first Gurdwara

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    January 26, 2015

    The history of Punjabis in the Imperial Valley can be traced back to the first large migration in the early 20th century. It was easy to see why Punjabis, an ethnic group coming from the Punjab region of India, chose the Imperial Valley to settle.

    According to Norma Saikhon, whose ancestors were part of the first migration, many of the settlers were highly experienced in agriculture and were inclined to a warmer climate that matched that of the Valley.

    “A vast majority were from Punjab, which is very similar to the Imperial County,” she said.

    According to Pioneers Museum, 18 Punjabi names were recorded in the 1910 census and by 1920, there were 268 Punjabis in the Valley. Most of the Punjabis were men.

    “There were no Indian women in Imperial County,” Saikhon said.

    According to Saikhon, laws restricting immigration didn’t allow Indian men to bring Indian women to the country until the mid-20th century.

    “They could marry them in India but they couldn’t bring them back to the country. So, many men ended up marrying Mexican women,” she said.

    Although the blended ethnicities influenced the Punjabi tradition, many families still practiced Sikhism, a dominant religion of Indian Punjabis.

    “At first, there was no place of worship. Whenever there was a funeral, everyone would travel to Stockton. I remember making several trips when I was young, I couldn’t have been older than nine,” Saikhon said.

    Unfortunate circumstances created the possibility of a worship temple for Sikhs.

    Following the events that occurred in Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast were forced into internment camps, which led to a mass relocation of Japanese-Americans living in the Imperial Valley.

    A Buddhist temple used by the Japanese stood on Commercial Avenue for decades. During the early 1940s, a group of Punjabi men, one of whom was Saikhon’s father, held a fundraiser and purchased the property. The Buddhist temple was rededicated to a Sikh Gurdwara, or place of worship.

    Although Saikhon isn’t a Sikh herself, she remembers attending many services throughout her life.

    “Services were usually followed by a reception with the most wonderful Indian curry dishes, many of which were vegetarian, including wonderful rotis, very similar to tortillas but made with whole wheat flour and lots of butter,” she said.

    Saikhon continued, “In the old days when I was a child, the sexes were not segregated in the temple as they are today but we did have to remove our shoes before entering. Folding chairs were also available in the old days but that has also changed to the traditional custom, meaning no chairs. After services, our fathers would visit outdoors, under the shady trees while the women prepared the meals.”

    This is where the Mexican influence became apparent.

    “That made the food unique. That was about the time when Indian men were now allowed to bring Indian wives back and when they tasted the food, they realized it didn’t taste anything like Indian food. That was because it had a touch of Mexican influence,” she said.

    Although customs have changed in the Gurdwara, it is still the centralized location of congregation for the descendants of those early Pujabi pioneers.

    “More and more immigrants have come into the country since,” Saikhon said. “People still serve food after service and socialize outside.”

    Imperial Valley Press Staff