‘The locals were accepting and supportive’

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Australia’s first Sikh Granthi Surjit Kaur talks to The Indian Sun about the ‘First Sikh Temple’ in Woolgoolga in 1968

It was going to be Australia’s own Golden Temple—a place where the first Sikhs who migrated from India could come together, in a lush farming region on New South Wales’ North Coast. But there was a dilemma: who would be the first Granthi, or ceremonial reader of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, the Holy Book in Sikhism.

While an enterprising community of Punjabis had set up roots in Woolgoolga—coming to work on banana plantations during a labour shortage in World War II, before taking over farm leases themselves—their numbers were still few back then, in the mid 1960s, nothing like today. The White Australia policy was still in place and Christianity was the dominant religion.

There was simply nobody in Australia who had acted as a Granthi before.

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This is how the position ended up falling to SurjitKaur. With “a passion” for Sikkhism, a Bachelor in Punjabi, and Major in Sikh religious literature and history, she was the most qualified person for the task. That she was also a woman was mere coincidence.

In a country with a troubling history of racism, the story of Australia’s First Sikh Temple is inspirational—telling of a vibrant community spirit that stretched far beyond the migrant population.

Ms Kaur kindly told it to The Indian Sun, with the help of her grandson, who acted as translator.

When the doors to Australia’s aptly named First Sikh Temple were thrown open in Woolgoolga in 1968, it was not just Sikhs who stepped inside.

“The locals of the time were very accepting and supportive,” Ms Kaur said. “And most people (Sikhs and non-Sikhs) were heavily involved.”

Ms Kaur was invited to teach Sikh religion at the local high school by headmaster Doug Whitton, running classes alongside a nun who taught Christianity. “Mr Whitton also had Indian children in the school committee,” Ms Kaur said. “His message was of integration, not separation.”

Ms Kaur found herself becoming not just a religious leader for the community, but a helping hand, easing the path for new arrivals. “I liked helping the people (especially the ladies) who were still new into Australia. I used to act as an interpreter in doctor consultations, or help their children settle in at school. And once a week I went into the school to teach kids kirtan (hymns with music). I also taught Sikh cooking and art, fitting into the school curriculum,” she said.

Today Woolgoolga’s Sikh community is vastly different. Accounting for around 50 per cent of the local population, they mix Western and traditional Indian dress, speak English with an Aussie twang, and are more devout, according to Ms Kaur.

“At first Woolgoolga only had a couple of Sikh families, who were not as familiar with all the intricacies of Sikhism, but they were very trusting of their faith and their community,” Ms Kaur said. “Nowadays, maybe due to the increasing Sikh population, there are more devoted and well-researched Sikhs, so they spread awareness of the evolving religion and the many more practices.”

She said the children of the first generation have become educated and integrated. “The way they talk, act, dress, is all different. The children nowadays all speak English, wear both traditional and western clothes and even cook a variety of foods. The differences that there used to be are now obsolete. Knowledge and education has empowered the next generations to grow and follow the paths they choose without the hurdles their forefathers had to face,” she said.

As for Ms Kaur, she’s left the area and settled with her family in the capital of Canberra. “I’ve grown quite old but I still go to Gurdwara religiously. In our faith there are three Sevas (duties), Than (donation), Mann (prayer), and Tdhann (volunteer). I still try and do all of these, but because of my age I am limited to mainly donation and prayer,” she said.

“I also assisted in founding and have taught in the local Punjabi school here. Furthermore, I have taught kids traditional Punjabi dancing (banghara and giddha) for the annual multicultural festival.”

With Australia’s turban-clad Sikhs having faced misdirected slurs and abuse after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Indian Sun asked Ms Kaur if she thought Australians were more understanding of Sikhism today?

“There is definitely more awareness and education about Sikhism in the wider community (not just Sikhs) today, especially with the youth conducting their own research into various faiths. This knowledge has led to a shift,” she said.

“In the old times, for example, we had chairs in the temple for the elderly. As always, the holy book was elevated. These days however no chairs are allowed. Another difference was that in my days the local non-Sikhs also came into temple, the same way we went into church with any of our catholic friends. These days this doesn’t happen,” she said.

“In my opinion, the world today needs the Sikh message most. In an environment of fear, terrorism and hatred, the Sikh message of peace, community, and equality is vital,” Ms Kaur said, as she explained the parable of a poor man who donated a sesame seed to the temple. “The community said that even the sesame seed will be shared. The message being that even the smallest item is valued and can be shared. There is no place for greed in the world today and without greed the world would be a much better place. I personally believe there is no future heaven, the world we live in today is our heaven.”

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