- click to enlarge

Sikhs In Australia

Sikhs in Australia

Sikhism originated in the Punjab, a region that was partitioned between India and Pakistan in 1947. Millions of Sikhs moved to India as refugees leaving behind their holy places, homes and properties.  They re-established themselves in east Punjab and made it the granary of India.  Today Sikhs are found all over the world. This is due to their adventurous nature, their universal outlook, their undivided faith in God and Sikh Gurus, and the spirit of optimism. 

Sikhs are known to have arrived in Australia early in the nineteenth century. They are often mistaken for who they are not. It is therefore appropriate to provide some information on their religious beliefs and practices.

Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak who was born in 1469 in Talvandi (Nankana Sahib) a village near Lahore now in Pakistan. The religion went through a unique formation process. Nine Sikh Gurus followed in succession over a period of 239 years (1469 – 1708). It is Guru Nanak’s light that illumined the successors. All the Sikh Gurus used the name Nanak in their compositions that are included in Guru Granth Sahib. In 1708 Guru Gobind Singh the tenth Master ended the line of person Gurus by proclaiming the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh Holy Scripture) as the eternal Guru of the Sikhs.  This itself, is a unique phenomena in religious history that a religious book is the Guru

The story of the succession of the Gurus, the founding of prominent spiritual centers, and temporal seat of authority, the compilation of Guru Granth Sahib, the martyrdom of the Gurus, the struggle against injustice and oppression, inculcation of martial spirit, the introduction of the Amrit (baptism), the symbols and articles of faith and many other events give the Sikh religion an identity of its own.

Sikhism is a new revelation. The teachings that the Sikh Gurus gave to the world came direct to them from God. This was stated by Guru Nanak and confirmed by successor Gurus. Sikh Gurus provided a revolutionary system of thought, aimed at the spiritual, social, economic and political well being of the people.  

Society was torn by conflict. Guru Nanak had a vision of common humanity that transcended all barriers of caste, creed, race and nationality. He wanted to bring about harmony and social cohesion. He said “There is no Hindu and there is no Muslim” The terms Hindu and Muslim included Jains, Buddhists, Jews, Christians and others. He was asking people to look beyond their external differences to the fundamental unity of mankind. He did not overrule any existing tradition but directed people to the possibility of living in peace and harmony in a true spirit of fellowship and justice. Guru Nanak’s teachings are equally relevant to Australian society today.

Guru Nanak’s doctrine is monotheistic.  He taught the oneness of God. God is simply One without a second, who is eternal, infinite and all pervasive.  He is the Creator but lives within his creation.  He is formless, yet the whole creation is His personal form. The purpose of life is to seek God and be united with Him and enjoy the blissful state forever.  
Sikhism regards life as a blessing. Life is an opportunity to do good to society. Family life is favored. A spiritual person should not withdraw from the world. This world is God’s mansion. The journey in this world is real. Man’s material happiness is as important as spiritual liberation. Worldly concerns are related to higher spiritual and moral goals. This explains the Sikh work ethic. He is hard working and reliable much like the Aussie battler.

Class distinctions on the basis of caste (where one is born noble or untouchable) are rejected by Sikhism. Sikhism also rejects the notion of superiority of the economically better placed class over others.  Higher classes are not governed by any separate code of ethics. Equality is the fundamental principle that regulates social relations among all. Similarly spiritual realization is dependent on one’s love for God and His creation and not caste. This egalitarian principle makes it easier for the Sikh to integrate in Australian society.

Sikh religion gave women equality with men and raised strong protests against their centuries old social disabilities. Sikh women do not observe the purdah (veil) and there is no restriction on their attending or conducting prayers in the Gurdwara. A Sikh lady was appointed as a Granthi (a reader of Guru Granth Sahib) when the first Gurdwara was opened in June 1968 in Woolgoolga, Australia.  Similarly for many years a lady led in all religious services at a Melbourne Gurdwara until she died a few years ago. Ladies are encouraged to be members of management of the Gurdwaras.

Sikhs in Australia have modeled their life style to Guru Nanak’s teachings but modified to Australian environment.  Guru Nanak traveled for about 22 years having dialogue with the religious leaders of his time. Then for the remaining 18 years of his life he settled as a farmer in a village which he founded. Here he gathered around him a community of ordinary people engaged in ordinary occupations of life and introduced his methodology of restructuring religious and social life of people.

Guru Nanak started a Gurdwara where people gathered daily in holy congregation (sangat) to pray together and then sat in a row (pangat) to have food from the community kitchen (langar).  The rules of pangat are that people will sit in the same row, partake the same food, without distinction of high or low, rich or poor. The concept of pangat translates the principle of equality into practice. In this way people were able to renounce their social prejudice. All the Gurdwaras in Australia have adopted these principles and all Sikhs and non-Sikhs are welcome to the Gurdwara.

The langar or common kitchen introduces the idea of ‘seva’ or selfless service. In preparing langar, people contribute physically by service in preparing and serving the food or financially through donations of money and kind.  People do so with a great deal of love and devotion.

Guru Nanak’s methodology for a peaceful and contented life and path for salvation emphasises three cardinal principles: naam japna, meditation resulting in the recognition of the presence of God; kirat karni, honest labour emphasis on working for an honest living and not to be a burden on society and vand shakna, sharing and giving to charity.  These principles determine daily life and all forms of rituals, austerities, pilgrimages, ancestor worship, or fasting is rejected. There are no auspicious days or holy days. All days are holy days. In Australia, Sikhs gather in the Gurdwaras for prayer in large numbers on Sundays although there are services in the Gurdwaras in the morning and evening each day.  

Guru Nanak created a socially cohesive community. To ensure the continuance of his teachings he nominated a successor principally on his humility, service and piety. This process continued until the tenth Guru proclaimed Guru Granth Sahib the sacred book as the Guru. For Sikhs no living person, however holy or revered, can have the title or status of Guru. In all Gurdwaras in Australia the Guru Granth Sahib occupies a central place. It is highly revered. It has languages common in India easily understood by the common people. Most Gurdwaras in Australia project English translations of the Gurbani (Guru’s Word) on to a screen for the benefit of Sikh youth and non-Sikhs.

In 1699 Guru Gobind Singh introduced an initiation ceremony (baptism in Christian terminology) referred to as taking Amrit. The person having taken amrit is referred to as an Amritdhari Sikh or member of Khalsa brotherhood. They are each given the surname Singh and are to wear at all times the five articles of faith: Kesh- unshorn hair usually tied up as a knot and crowned with a turban or patka; kanga- a small comb placed in the hair under the turban, kara- iron bangle worn on the wrist; kachhera prescribed shorts worn as an undergarment and kirpan small sheathed sword. A lady taking amrit takes on the surname Kaur and wears the same five articles of faith. Initiation by Sikhs is a matter of personal choice. They live according to a strict social and religious code of discipline.

The five articles of faith are worn by an Amritdhari Sikh at all times for religious observance. To ask a Sikh to remove these imposes a burden. A lack of understanding by the Australian Community can often be a cause of traumatic experience for a Sikh and a reason for a comment that they are being discriminated against. A turban is associated with uncut hair. When a Sikh is asked to remove his turban in public he feels insulted and humiliated and if it is knocked off his head he feels dishonoured.  The Sikhs also feel let down since they fought alongside the Anzacs and British for the preservation of egalitarian and democratic ideals. For many years RSL Clubs had denied entry to Sikhs because of their turbans. It was not until 1993 the RSL club at Woolgoolga changed its rules that allowed headgear to be worn “by people with genuine religious, racial or cultural conviction.” Even in other organizations or institutions which require the wearing of a uniform, the turban is often questioned. In recent times because of the war on terror, Sikhs have been the target for racial abuse and harassment. The wearing of a kara is questioned by school teachers. Frequently a religious authority has to write a letter to the school explaining that it is a religious item. The kirpan is sometimes seized at point of entry into Australia even though it is not a prohibited item for import. Security agencies have often excluded Sikhs from games venues and other public areas because of the kirpan even though there are clear exemptions in the law for wearing these items.  The Sikhs are law abiding people. They easily integrate into Australian Society but they expect the Australian Community to be more informed of their religious practices.

Sikh migration to Australia

The story of early Sikh migration to Australia is closely linked to the larger pattern of South Asian migration. In immigration data Sikhs were usually grouped as Indians and were also referred to as ‘Hindoos’ or ‘Ghans’; but in all probability a person using the surname Singh was a Sikh. Some Sikhs are known to have arrived in Australia in the first half of the nineteenth century. There is convincing evidence that a greater number of them came during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Shiploads of camels were brought to Australia in the 1860’s where there were Sikhs among the handlers. The cameleers were referred to as Afghans. Pal Singh (clearly by name a Sikh) who arrived in 1886 was a camel owner and lived in Wyndham. In 1898, 45 Sikhs from Perth signed a petition addressed to the Hon. Joseph Chamberlain, Secretary of State for the Colonies. They claimed being discriminated and denied miner’s rights and hawker’s licenses. The petition requested better treatment and livelihood. The 1901 census of Western Australia shows there were 261 Afghans and no Indians.  It can be assumed all the Sikhs were included with the 261 Afghans (Vagel 2001 p. 6) Records in “Asian Immigration to W.A.: 1829 – 1901” show that 70% of the Indians were Punjabi Muslims, 25% Sikhs, and the rest Hindus.  Subsequent Commonwealth of Australia Census show:  that there were 153 Afghans and 549 Indians; 1921: 157 Indians; 1933: 107 Indians and 1947: 0. The numbers declined because of legal impediments and discrimination. Many migrants returned to their homelands some stayed and married locally. This is why the “Singh” surname appears in some local Australian family trees.  While some worked as camel handlers others would travel around Western Australia hawking their wares.

The first mention of Sikhs in South Australia is Croppo Sing who is credited to have opened the first bank account with the Bank of South Australia in 1847. He was a shepherd. There was a small community of Sikhs in Port Augusta from1866 to 1930 liked to the arrival of the camel. It was in 1866 that Samuel Stuckey brought in camels and their handlers from India. Some of the handlers were Sikhs. Sikh hawkers are reported around the turn of the century in various towns in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia. Some of them settled in the hinterland and married locally. An Otim Singh a hawker opened a Peoples Store on Kangaroo Island at the turn of the 20th Century.

The Sikh practice of cremation of the dead was always a public spectacle for locals. The first recorded public cremation (4 May 1903) in Adelaide was that of a Sikh and was reported in ‘The Advertiser’ and ‘The Observer’.  In Perth the Sikhs were allocated a piece of land in 1932 on the banks of the Canning River for use as a cremation ground after a sickly Sikh immolated himself as he feared that he would be buried. The application was made by Massa Singh and Buttan Singh.

Sikhs were in Queensland and New South Wales prior to Federation.  They lived under very harsh conditions chipping cane, husking corn, hawking and vegetable gardening. They did work that enabled them to earn an honest living. They began to cluster in two distinct groups in the Clarence District and Atherton Tableland and moved between these two locations depending on seasonal work and ventured into surrounding areas. Gradually over time a Sikh community grew at Woolgoolga.

These early settlers suffered considerable discrimination due to the Australian attitude towards Asian migration. The passage of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 officially excluded all coloured people from White Australia. A would be immigrant had to pass a language test in any European language to gain entry. Any one already in Australia could obtain a certificate of domicile. This offered an exemption from the language test. The origins of the settlement of Sikhs at Woolgoolga therefore predate 1901.

The early Sikh migrants were sojourners. Their intention was to make enough money to return to the Punjab. However they were conscious of their obligations and true to their religious teachings and spirit of freedom. At least seven Sikh soldiers are known to have left Australian shores to fight in the 1914-1919 War under Australian Command.  Their personal characteristics of honesty and hard work and their toughness and drive to do better enabled them to establish trust and respect with White Australians.  There were cooperative relationships among them. Some helped them during the depression years with rations, information, licenses, and correspondence. These relationships encouraged them in the late 1930s and 1940s to bring their sons who subsequently settled in Coffs Harbour.  

They took advantage of the economic opportunities that presented themselves in banana plantations and with some certainty presenting itself in terms of a settled lifestyle they began bringing in their wives and minor children to Australia in the 1960s. These settlers have invested in their children’s education. They have gradually moved into professional occupations or businesses and are making their own decisions about partners.  The period of 1950s and 1960s saw the arrival of Sikh students at universities. Some settled in Australia. The annulment of the White Australia Policy in 1973 provided further opportunities for Sikh migration. Since the 1970s and 1980s Sikhs have come in as professionals or under the family reunion scheme. As a result, during the last three decades Sikh population has undergone an internal transformation. Sikhs have come from India, United Kingdom, East Africa, Singapore and Malaysia and also from Fiji. The later arrivals have settled in the capital cities and have socially integrated. A recent influx of students from India legally entitled to work 20 hours a week while undertaking their studies have added to the numbers of Sikhs in the country. 

Sikh population in Australia has been on the increase. The 1991 census identified 7795 Sikhs. By 1996 census they numbered 12017. In the five years leading to 2001 the community increased to 17401. The 2006 census identifies 26429 Sikhs with concentrations in the capital cities: Sydney 9875; Melbourne 8591; Brisbane 1806; Adelaide 806; and Perth 1393; Hobart 48; and Darwin 24.

Sikh Organizations and Institutions

Just like other migrant communities Sikhs have naturally concentrated on building places of worship (Gurdwaras). The first Gurdwara (The First Sikh Temple) was opened in Woolgoolga on June 1968. This Gurdwara is a symbol of the trust and respect the Sikh community in Woolgoola developed with the wider Australian community. There were three non-Sikh Australians in the committee that brought this to completion. Currently there are 30 Gurdwaras in Australia. In the earlier years, to avoid objections from local communities, the Sikhs adopted the strategy of purchasing existing Church buildings when these came up for sale  

The Gurdwaras have enhanced Sikh solidarity. They provide spiritual comfort and have been of tremendous help in settling the new arrivals. Being the focal point of gathering these have spawned other cultural, welfare and sports organizations. Interfaith activities have become significant in recent times with Gurdwaras encouraging visitors from local communities.

Punjabi language schools run adjunct to the Gurdwaras. The first Punjabi Language School started in Woolgoolga. In Victoria, the Gurdwaras spearheaded the move to gain acceptance for Punjabi as a Victoria Certificate of Education (VCE) subject. The first group of students set for their VCE Punjabi language exams in 2006. Similarly, this has occurred in New South Wales. In addition to language, Gurdwaras provide instruction in sacred music and scriptural reading.

The gatherings at the Gurdwaras provided incentives for the development of sports associations.   These cater to the sports and cultural needs particularly of the youth. These have provided an incentive for Sikh Australians to get together once a year during the Easter holidays for a sports festival. The first Sikh sports were held in Adelaide in 1985. Since then other Australian capital cities have hosted this event. While this annual event brings Sikhs together it has encouraged their participation in local league games e.g. hockey, netball, etc. There are upcoming Sikh youngsters in athletics, cricket and footy.  A Sikh girl was in the gymnastics team in the recent 2006 Commonwealth Games. From among the earlier generation of migrants at Woolgoolga it is known that Sikhs have excelled in wrestling (participating in Commonwealth Games) and boxing and also tug- o- war and lawn bowls. 

Enterprising individuals have started publishing community newspapers in the Punjabi and English languages.  These are monthly and distributed free at the Gurdwaras, funded through income from the advertisements of local community businesses. There is one quarterly journal in English the Sikh Link, devoid of any advertisements or announcements but with a spiritual orientation for the youth.

In Melbourne there is the 3ZZZ an ethnic community radio funded by the State Government. There is a timeslot for Punjabi language as well.  The SBS Corporation broadcasts Punjabi program from Sydney and Melbourne. These provide news, views, interviews, music and culture. The Punjabi radio programs and newspapers are gradually enabling the integration of the community through dissemination of information. 

Twenty First Century

Sikhs enter the 21st century with a great deal of optimism. They were part of the Commonwealth Centennial celebrations in 2001.  There is no doubt that early settlers faced considerable racism at hands of many European Australians. But they have never shown any resentment or ill feeling. They have gone about quietly trying to resolve the issues and not to be of any trouble. Similarly they have won the respect of many European Australians who have assisted them in integrating into Australian society. The turban is a statement of their religious identity. Whenever this has been in the way of gaining acceptance at the RSL club, the Ambulance Service or for driving a bus, or joining the Police Force they have quietly negotiated even though it may have taken a long time. Since the bombing of the U S World Trade Centre in 2001 they have faced harassment and physical abuse due to mistaken identity issues but have handled these as calmly as possible. The internal mix of the community is enabling them to involve themselves in various spheres of activity in Australian life.

- Gurdarshan Singh Gill



Bhatti Rashmere and Dusenberry Verne A. eds.; A Punjabi Sikh Community in Australia: From Indian Sojourners to Australian Citizens: Woolgoolga Neighbourhood Centre Inc. 2001. 

Lepervenche Marie M; Indians in White Australia, Allan & Unwin, Sydney 1984.

Singh Dya; The Sikhs: their presence in the first century of white settlement of South Australia;  Research project and dissertation, University of South Australia 1994.

Singh Gurmukh; The Rise of the Sikhs Abroad; A Rupa Publication

Singh Harbans;  Berkley Lectures on Sikhism; Guru Nanak foundation New Delhi; 1983.

Vagel Sarawan S.; “W.A. Sikhs of Yester Year” in Commemorative Magazine: Sikh Association of Western Australia (Inc.) 2001.

Email this page to a friend   Visit us on Facebook   Follow us on Twitter   Check us out at YouTube