Sikh community at Woolgoolga
Locally known as the "Missing Piece of Paradise", Woopi (as it is affectionately know to the locals) is highly regarded for it's fine beaches, good surfing, varied fishing, and bush walks. Another important aspect of Woopi is it's Sikh Culture. The township's population is 50% Sikh, and they own 90% of the local banana farms. Woopi has two Gurdwara's. The Sikh Temple Woolgoolga (the first purpose built Gurdwara in Australia) and The Guru Nanak Gurdwara ('The Temple on the Hill').
The Woolgoolga community has been in existence for well over one hundred years. Prior to European settlement, the area was inhabited by the indigenous people of the Kumbaingeri tribe. It's name originated from 'Wel-gul-ga', an Aboriginal name for the local wild berry plant. Woolgoolga is a unique place where east meets west and the two complement each other and continue to thrive side by side in harmony. It has been the focus of much attention from reporters, historians, sociologists and others, for Woolgoolga is an oasis of Sikh culture in Australia.
A highway traveller approaching Woolgoolga may look in disbelief at the spectacular pure white Temple, with its golden domes reaching out to the heavens and wonder at the Indian elephant in front of a splendid palace with minarets. Is it a simmering mirage, they may wonder? These edifices have appeared to have been scooped up by magic and placed amidst an Australian town.
However, there is nothing magic about the success of the Woolgoolga Sikhs who have continued the good work in the finest tradition of the Sikh pioneers who settled here despite great hardship.
The early Sikh migrants came here to pre-Federation Australia as free settlers when there was no restrictive immigration policy. They were adventurist male sojourners who left their families behind and came to make their fortunes and returned home when they had made good.
While some of them did return to India, the majority developed a love and attachment to their new home and its people remaining to lay the foundations for the Australian Sikh community.
The early Arcadian settlers came from the farming community of Punjab and settled in Northern Rivers of New South Wales and North Queensland, where they led austere and frugal lives and faced many hardships.
The first Sikh settlers came to Woolgooloa in the 1940s. Initially they worked as labourers on the banana plantations, but later acquired leasehold and freehold banana plantations. Sikh migrants from other parts of Australia were attracted to this area once they were aware of an established Sikh community and learned that good living was to be made in banana plantations. Today over 95% of Woolgoolga's banana industry and 10% of Coffs Harbour is owned and operated by Australians of Sikh ancestry.
Amongst the itinerant Sikhs who came to Woolgoolga in the 1940s were Joginder Singh, Ralla Singh, Ganda Singh and Rap Chand. The first permanent resident of Woolgoolga was Labu Singh from Belga and Booja Singh from Malpar Arkan district Jallandhar. Booja Singh was the first Sikh to purchase a banana plantation in Hollaways Road and a residence in Beach Street.
There are 2,500 Sikhs in the Coffs Harbour City Council area and 450 students enrolled at Woolgoolga Public School of whom 21% are Sikhs. At Woolgoolga High School there are a total of 877 students of whom 12% are Sikhs.
The establishment of the Sikh community would not have been possible without the welcome, tolerance and encouragement of the host community. There are anecdotes of the host community assisting the Sikh migrants in business, financial affairs, correspondence and encouragement to maintain their culture and religion. In fact there were three members of the host community on the committee which built the First Sikh Temple of Australia in Woolgoolga.
The descendants of those early rustic migrants have been fortunate in acquiring secondary and tertiary education in Australia. Consequently, today. amongst the Woolgoolga Sikh community we have solicitors, teachers, doctors, engineers, town planners, accountants and policemen.
The Sikh migrants have integrated into the host community and have contributed to the local economy. By maintaining their culture, religion and heritage they have contributed to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the town, thereby giving Woolgoolga it's unique and distinctive character. Woolgoolga truly is a microcosm of today's multicultural Australia.
We are grateful to our forefathers who chose to make their home in this country where there is personal, political, religious freedom, social and cultural equality. We are proud and honoured to be Australians. We are thankful for the privileges that we have enjoyed as Australians and we will fulfil our obligations with great enthusiasm. We will endeavour to make this community a paragon of multicultural Australia.
Olympic torch does the bhangra
It was 'bhangra' time for the Olympic torch in New South Wales on Wednesday. The Sikh community at Woolgoolga, north of Sydney, put out their special emblems and dressed in their best attire for the Olympic torch to change hands outside their temple on Thursday. The temple is the centre for 2,400 Sikhs in the area. Mainly farmers originally from the Punjab, it is the highest concentration of Sikhs in Australia. Priest Majit Singh said the Sikh community was as happy as anybody else to enter into the Olympic spirit. Meanwhile, it seems not everyone in Australia is into the Olympic spirit.
How the Sikhs went bananas in Woolgoolga
As you enter Coff’s Harbour, tucked between Sydney and Brisbane, it is not hard to guess why the big banana stands as a landmark. The area grows one of the best varieties of bananas in Australia. And the fruit has a dominant Indian connection.
In the early part of the 19th century when the British still ruled India, a few adventurous men from Punjab decided to cash in on the shortage of farm labourers in Australia. Their journey led them first to Queensland, then south to Coff’s Harbour, and finally in nearby Woolgoolga, New South Wales.
Familiar to farming these men slowly acquired small parcels of land and began working hard to make their fortunes. By the 1940s, they had laid the foundation of the first Australian Sikh Community in Australia here at Woolgoolga, 20 km north of Coff’s Harbour. Today, some of the wealthiest Indians reside in Woolgoolga.
Undeterred by the spells of Autumn rain, which otherwise made for a good excuse for a sleep-in at the beach resort we had booked ourselves in, we decided to explore the town known for its great beaches, pristine scenery, nature walks and great fishing.
After a drive around Coff’s Harbour, we headed off to Woolgoolga or Woopi as locals call it. A winding road took us to a majestic gurudwara perched on top of the hill. It is, in fact, the second Sikh shrine built in Australia, in 1970. The first gurudwara, constructed in 1968, still stands nearby, a mere shadow to the new one.
Over hot chai and tikkas, head priest Gurmandip Singh said the gurudwara was a meeting place not only for the 1,200 Sikh residents of Woolgoolga but also of the local community.
It was easy to locate Satpal Singh Gill, 38, whose great grandfather travelled to Australia around 1910. “He worked in the Wollombi area and earned enough money to invest in small farms for banana cultivation,” Gill proudly says. “We were the second family to have moved to Australia,” he adds.
The traditional life of Sikhs here hasn’t changed much. Kirpal Singh, 50, a banana grower, says they’ve maintained their traditions. “Every farm is in close proximity. Work starts at 7 am and by 4 pm we are at home and have time to socialise and keep our culture alive.”
Through the 70s and 80s, many among those born in Coffs Harbour went back to Punjab and got married. With banana cultivation on the decline, many of the original growers have diversified into blueberries and macadamia nut plantations.
Woolgoola winds in and out of hamlets comprising not more than two Indian groceries, the two gurudwaras and lovely houses and farms. After a day’s tour, we head off to the beach, but that piece of Sikh history in a quiet, serene part of Australia visits the mind and overstays its welcome.