News / Edmonton

Meet the Edmontonian who made the calendar used by millions of Sikhs

Pal Singh Purewal spoke with Metro on New Year, according to the Nanakshahi Calendar he invented

Dr. Pal Singh Purewal, pictured at his home in Edmonton's Mill Woods community, created the Nanakshahi Calendar.

Kevin Tuong / Edmonton Freelance

Dr. Pal Singh Purewal, pictured at his home in Edmonton's Mill Woods community, created the Nanakshahi Calendar.

Millions of Sikhs around the world celebrated the New Year on Wednesday, thanks to a calendar invented in Edmonton.

When Pal Singh Purewal came to Edmonton in the mid-1970s he had already been working on the Nanakshahi Calendar for 20 years, to give Sikhs a consistent record of the religion’s significant dates going back to the birth of the religion’s founder, Guru Nanak, in 1469.

Sikhs had historically followed the Bikrami calendar, which uses the movement of the stars and the moon, so months don't always match up with seasons – meaning key celebrations always occurred on different dates according to the common-era Gregorian calendar.

“There was too much confusion. So I decided to do something about it,” Purewal said.

“The Sikh nation should have their own calendar, because a calendar is a very important and necessary part of the identity of a nation.”

So Purewal decided to fix key days to the cycle of the sun, so dates wouldn't shift from one year to the next.

It required a lot of math.

Purewal studied ancient texts to master the calculations that led to the creation of the Bikrami calendar, and studied Sikh scripture and astronomy to align key dates.

He started doing the long calculations manually in the 1950s when he was a math and science teacher in India.

Purewal moved to England in 1966 and joined Texas Instruments as a senior engineering technician, where he got the first handheld calculator, speeding up his work exponentially.

“It was such a great relief,” Purewal said.

He moved to Edmonton in 1974 to be with his brother and finally published the first version of the Nanakshahi Calendar in 1999, when Alberta Sikhs became the first to use it.

“I took time out of my professional job on this work, day and night, for many years,” Purewal said.

“It was a labour of love.”

Purewal has been heavily involved with Edmonton’s Sikh Community since moving here, notably launching the annual Sikh parade in 1999.

In 2003, his calendar was officially implemented by the highest Sikh authority in the world, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee in northwestern India.

While some gurdwaras and orthodox Sikhs have chosen not to recognize it or to use a modified version of it, Purewal said about 80 per cent of Canadian Sikhs still use his version.

Arundeep Singh Sandhu, director of the Edmonton Heritage Council, said it is “basically the accepted calendar of the Sikh nation across the world.”

“It’s such a big help in planning out your future programs and celebrations and all of that. So that you know April 14 of every year is Vaisakhi and everyone knows it,” Sandhu said.

“People have figured out when their birthday was. Especially some senior citizens who used the old Lunar calendar when they were born, they didn’t necessarily know when their actual birthdays were in the Western calendar system, and now they can line them up both ways.”

Sandhu said he’s proud the calendar came out of his home city, and would like to see a local park named after it with a plaque that recognizes Purewal’s contribution.

“It’s a pretty big deal for an Edmontonian to have an impact on that level,” Sandhu said.

“Edmonton is always aspiring to be a world-class city, and this is one of those great contributions to a portion of the world’s population.”

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