Harbhajan Kaur Purewal

Harbhajan Kaur Purewal (August 19, 1934 – April 1, 2017) helped to lay the foundation for what would become one of the best known Sikh communities in California. She was among the first generation of Sikh women who immigrated to Yuba City where she dedicated her life to her family, friends, faith, and community.  Harbhajan was one of four members of the Purewal family who donated land to establish the first Sikh Temple in Yuba City.

Harbhajan was born in the village of Rurka in the Jalandhar district in Punjab to her parents, Lal Singh Sandhu and Dhan Kaur. Lal Singh was a prominent farmer of wheat, corn, cotton, and sugarcane. Dhan Kaur was a kind and gracious woman who bore 12 children, six of whom passed away. In Rurka, Harbhajan received an elementary education. Although she had wanted to pursue further education, she was unable to do so because girls were rarely allowed to attend school beyond their villages. Harbhajan learned skills and crafts such as knitting, sewing and embroidery.  She also enjoyed playing cards and games with her friends.

Her family experienced many difficulties resulting from the 1947 partition of Punjab.  Her grandfather and uncle had previously purchased land in the district of Multhan in Chak 118 (which is now located in Pakistan); they also owned land in what is now India. They farmed on land that was divided by Partition.  At the age of 13, Harbhajan and her family were forced to flee their home to India. The journey was arduous, with many dangers. Mohinder Singh Sandhu, Harbhajan’s eldest brother, was shot in his right shoulder and while he would recover, the trauma caused his pregnant wife to miscarry their eight-month old son.

Harbhajan, Punjab, c 1954.

At the age of twenty, Harbhajan married Bakhtawar Singh Purewal in Punjab, India.  Swaran Kaur, her older sister, arranged the marriage.  Bakhtawar was a farmer who had already settled in the United States with his brother, Udham, in 1951. Although Harbhajan Kaur had never seen her husband before their wedding, the couple bonded over their devotion to the Sikh faith and shared family values.

Soon after the wedding, Harbhajan left her family to join her husband in America. This was the first time she ever boarded a plane, which was a frightening and sad experience. During a routine overnight layover in Hawaii, Harbhajan felt stranded and helpless. Harbhajan could not speak English and this was the first time she had traveled alone. When she walked off the plane, she had expected to find her husband at the airport in San Francisco, California. Seeing Harbhajan distressed, an airline employee brought over a very nice older Indian gentleman who helped her.  This stranger brought her home where his American wife hosted her overnight and provided some words of comfort and familiar foods which Harbhajan later recalled as mangoes, dates, and almonds. The couple advised her about what to expect in America.  The compassion and wisdom that Harbhajan received on the way to America remained with her for the rest of her life. For Harbhajan, meeting this stranger was like “an angel” watching out for her.

Bakhtawar and Harbhajan Purewal, Yuba City, 1958.

Upon her arrival in San Francisco, she joined her husband and brother-in-law, Udham, in Lodi, California where they briefly lived while farming grapes. It was difficult adjusting to this new lifestyle with the men working long hours, leaving Harbhajan feeling homesick and isolated. This was the most difficult time in her life; she passed the time with housework and writing letters to her family in Punjab.

Shortly thereafter, the Purewal family moved to Yuba City, a community she would call home for the rest of her life. Slowly she built a new life, and the family built a prosperous family business with her husband’s brother, Udham Singh Purewal, and his wife, Pritam Kaur. Harbhajan Kaur never shied away from hard work, playing a vital role as a leader in both the family business and at home. She raised five children. She made lots of new friends, relationships which spanned the rest of her life. This special group of women shared a sacred bond having endured many common challenges. 

Harbhajan was fortunate in her family life and in the success of their farming business. She and her family felt that it was time to give back to the community. By the mid-1960s, the Purewal family owned and operated one of the largest peach and prune farms in Yuba City. Having established solid local roots, Harbhajan and her family began to involve themselves in the establishment of the Sikh community. Harbhajan, her husband, her husband’s brother and his wife all made the decision to donate nearly eleven acres of land to build the first Sikh Temple in Yuba City on December 16, 1968.  She supported her husband who served as the Committee President of the Sikh Temple for over ten years. They welcomed new Punjabi immigrants and sponsored thousands of immigrant Sikhs. Harbhajan taught her children about their Sikh heritage as well as the Punjabi language. She additionally promoted cultural shows, attended community events, and prepared traditional dishes for local weddings and festivities.

“Hey Waheguru, even if I thank you a billion times, it still wouldn’t be enough.”

In the 1970s, there was a renaissance in the Punjabi Sikh community in which many Sikhs connected more deeply with their faith. Harbhajan and her family also became more committed to Sikhi. In 1975, Harbhajan, her husband, and approximately 30 of their family members and friends participated in a historic Amrit ceremony in Yuba City’s Tierra Buena Gurdwara. In the Sikh faith, taking Amrit is a significant ceremony in which Sikhs assume a deeper commitment to reciting daily Sikh prayers and a greater responsibility to core values, such as seva (community service) and a more ethical, spiritual lifestyle. Harbhajan became a member of the Women’s Prayer Group at the Gurdwara: the women met each Tuesday for prayer and for preparing langar (communal meal) for the entire sangat (congregation). Her deep faith and chardi kalaa (spirit of eternal optimism) inspired her family and friends. Harbhajan and her friends greatly enjoyed performing seva at the annual Sikh parade. For years, these women cooked and prepared meals for thousands of attendees for days in shifts before and during the festivities.

Harbhajan remains a role model in the family and in the community. She enjoyed a special bond with her grandchildren. Playing an instrumental role in their upbringing, she fostered a special relationship with her eight grandchildren. Their grandmother would remind them to always keep God in their life no matter what challenges they may face.

Harbhajan with friends and family in Punjab, India, 1956.

Harbhajan Purewal and Preetam Purewal and their husbands gifted the land for the Yuba City Gurdwara, December 16, 1968.

Harbhajan will be remembered by her community and family as a kindred spirit, for her warm and contagious smile, kind demeanor, and her sense of humor. Though she faced extraordinary challenges as a young bride and new immigrant, she came to consider this once unknown country her beloved home. Harbhajan and her family were blessed with the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scripture) in their home.  They recited prayers from the scripture every morning and evening.  These daily rituals strengthened the family’s bond and faith. 

Harbhajan passed away peacefully on April 1, 2017 surrounded by her loving family.  She left behind five children: Sukhbinder (son-in-law Harinder), Ginger, Sharon (son-in-law Kamar), Sukhdev (daughter-in-law Jaspal), and Munjit.  There are also eight grandchildren: Sathi, Amrita, Shaunjit, Simi, Arjan, Rumyn, Vikram, and Nevin.

Family Wedding, Yuba City, April 10, 2016.

Photos courtesy of the Purewal and Singh families.

Source: Extensive written feedback provided by the Purewal and Singh families.