In 1968, Gurdas Ram Bhandari set out with one of his sons for his third and final home - Calgary, Canada. At 68, he had already lived a long, prosperous and often arduous life. Gurdas lost his entire family in an epidemic in India at the age of 16. Orphaned, overcome with grief, and having lost his family's property to opportunistic neighbours, the young man left Punjab for Nairobi, Kenya, where he had heard there were jobs on the railways for men who could speak English.
In Kenya he worked for the British railway for 45 years and had nine children with his wife, Satyawati. With the tragic passing of Satyawati when her youngest child was only two years old, Gurdas was left to raise and care for his family alone. After, the British left Nairobi, civil unrest and hostility towards foreigners forced the Bhandari children and their families to leave for Canada. When they landed in Calgary in 1969, Gurdas saw that his work was not done yet.
His efforts on behalf of his community started with the simplest things.
"When we first came, there wasn't even any **dahl," **recalls his daughter, Sneh Puri. But Gurdas knew of one store that carried lentils and spread the word in the small community. "Suddenly, in one day, all the **dahl ** was gone," recalls Sneh with a laugh.
Calgary had a burgeoning Hindu community. Over dinners at each other's homes and at monthly Sunday prayers at a local church, a group slowly began to take shape. They called themselves the Hindu Society of Calgary, a group that is still functioning as the hub of the Hindu community in Calgary today.
The Hindu Society's goals included establishing a central place of worship for Calgary's Hindu community. With new families forming and old souls leaving, the community also desperately needed someone who could perform marriage and funeral rites. Gurdas, who by now had come to be known as "Pitaji" within the community, was well versed in Vedic prayers and ceremonies.
The first Hindu wedding in Calgary was conducted by Pitaji and covered by the local newspaper. After that, at the request of community members, Pitaji would act as a pandit for various ceremonies. Many of Calgary's older Hindu couples began their lives together with a prayer from Pitaji.
Gurdas, along with his friend Dr. Faqir Sood, presided over numerous ceremonies to mark marriages, births and deaths. When people offered him money for his services, he would accept it as a donation towards the community's efforts to build a mandir in Calgary. That vision became a reality on September 29, 1990.
Gurdas was not there to see the dream realized. He had passed away in May 1984 at the age of 84. surrounding him were his nine children, their husbands and wives, and his many grandchildren.
In the words of the Hindu Society of Calgary: "With their work, dedication and love for our spiritual traditions [Gurdas Ram Bhandari and Dr. Faqir Sood] created a sense of unity among the early Hindu settlers in this city. With the passing away of our elders, Pitaji and Bauji, the society lost their valuable guidance."