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The 1,300-strong Sikh community in Woolgoolga, an Australian beach town, may appear to be unusual because it coexists with a predominantly white population in this remote area of the nation. But, if it is an oddity, it is an affluent one, and it also demonstrates that Punjabi culture can coexist with Anglo-Australian culture, even at a time when some members of the Australian government have instilled racial anxieties about non-white Australian residents.

Sikhs of Punjab in Woolgoolga 

Woolgoolga, located about 550 kilometres north of Sydney and just 25 kilometres from the popular seaside resort town of Coffs Harbour on the northern New South Wales (NSW) coast, "is a unique cultural village," according to John Arkan, whose great grandfather came to the region to work on sugar cane farms from a village in Punjab with the same family name. He refers to it as a village because it reminds him of India. 

Woolgoolga's Sikhs are primarily descendants of Punjabi labourers sent by the British to work on sugar cane plantations in the nineteenth century. Many generations later, the offspring of these labourers, as well as later waves of Punjabi farmers who moved to the region to set up companies selling various commodities, are landowners and affluent farmers in Australia.

Sikhs holding prominent positions

Arkan, a third-generation Australian Sikh, was appointed as the councillor on the Coffs Harbour City Council, which governs Woolgoolga. He had been re-elected three times since 2008, once narrowly missing becoming mayor by 331 votes.

Arkan runs an Indian spice shop in Woolgoolga and a mobile kitchen, which he drives to Sunday markets in the region to offer his trademark Indian naan with butter chicken and dal stew - delicacies he claims are popular with rural Australians. He said the votes of the local Sikh population alone were not enough to earn him a place on the council, and that he needed to get Anglo-Saxon votes, which he said with a hearty grin that he succeeded to win , “because I talk like them [and] they come and eat my curries”.

Farming, a crucial occupation for Sikhs of Woolgoolga 

As white colonial settlers arrived in the region towards the end of the nineteenth century, they were drawn to the timber in the forested areas, which they cut down for profit. The cleared area was then converted into sugar cane farms, and the settlers brought in hardworking Punjabis from Indian rural settlements to work on the plantations. Many of them were seasonal employees who were only paid when there was work on the fields.

During the switch from sugar cane to bananas, the Punjabi settlers in the region mostly worked as street hawkers, but they, too, eventually became banana farmers. By the 1990s, they had acquired the majority of the plantations and essentially controlled the Australian banana industry, becoming wealthy along the way. Banana production in 2017-18 was valued at A$434 million (US$322 million), with the vast majority of the crop sold in Australia.

Early restrictions faced by Woolgoolga’s Sikh community 

Sikhs were not allowed to hold freehold property titles during the government's "White Australia" policy, which lasted from 1901 to the mid-1970s and virtually prevented all non-European immigration into the country. As the embargo ended and they were able to buy their own land and farm it, they began bringing in wives from India. When the congregation grew, they built Australia's first Sikh temple in Woolgoolga.

Gurudwaras in the region

The Woolgoolga Sikhs' first gurdwara, or temple, a simple brick chamber erected in 1968, was designated an NSW state heritage monument in October 2020. The region presently has two Sikh temples that mirror the majestic architecture of a gurdwara in Punjab. The Guru Nanak Gurdwara (named after the Sikh religion's founder, Guru Nanak Dev, who died in 1469) opened in 1970; a more elaborate one was built next to the heritage-listed gurdwara (which is now used as a community meeting space) at an estimated cost of A$3 million (US$2.2 million), with funds raised from the local Sikh community and other Sikhs scattered across Australia. It debuted as the "First Gurdwara" in April 2019.

Sikh community setting ground in Australia

Swarn Singh Sandhu, a community elder who immigrated to Australia in the 1980s and has been a farmer for 30 years, said Sikh temples help to bring the people together and collaborate, especially when it comes to festival seasons that help pass religious traditions to the next generation. He stated that the Woolgoolga Sikhs used to travel to India for match making, but the new generation mainly found partners within Australia's Indian population. He claims that his three Australian-born boys have done the same.

When the neighbouring state of Queensland began growing its banana crops in the 1990s, the Sikh dominance of the banana sector came to an abrupt halt. He explained that they planted too many bananas, and when prices fell, they couldn't sustain themselves. So, they started with blueberry and cucumber, then more recently, raspberry and blackberry.

The Sikh farmers are the driving force behind the A$200 million blueberry revolution in the Coffs Harbour area. In 2001, more than 100 blueberry-growing Sikh farmers formed the Oz Group Co-operative. The organisation assists them in marketing their products to major supermarkets and wholesale markets in Australia and around the world.

Preserving  Punjabi and Sikh culture in the community 

Although the Punjabi language that the Sikh community used to speak is diminishing, the religion is still alive and well, according to Paramjeet, who speaks with a thick Australian accent. However, he said that he had not gone full Sikh by getting baptised into the religion.

He laughingly said, “ I haven’t gone into baptism, because if you do, you need to keep the ‘five Ks’ – that means not cutting the beard, and wearing a turban,” he said, referring to the five traditional Sikh adornments of kesh, kara, kanga, kachhera, and kirpan (uncut hair, a steel bracelet, a wooden comb, cotton underwear and a steel sword, respectively). The wearing of the turban, for men, is considered the spiritual crown. But, I believe I’m a Sikh and I’m also Aussie,”

 

*Based on an article by Kalinga Seneviratne, published in South China Morning Post on 6th December 2020

 

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