Melbourne’s youngest Gurudwara embodies a broader cause

By Indira Laisram

About two years ago, when many championed for the setting up of a Gurudwara (Sikh temple) at 33 Officer Road, there was opposition from the local community who did not like the idea of a temple being established there. The project matter went to the VCAT but between the time of the application and the hearing, there was a change of heart and minds. The people who opposed realised this was not going to be an ordinary temple and the Gurudwara Siri Guru Nanak Darbar at Officer was established on 20th January 2019.

True enough, today the Gurudwara Siri Guru Nanak Darbar at Officer is not just a space for worship but a community whose ideas of social cohesion and community projects are at the core of its foundation.

“We are trying to develop a unique model where we are showcasing that a place of worship is also a community centre with the responsibilities of upskilling the community members as well connecting the community members with the wider community,” says Harpreet Singh, one of the founding volunteers.

Spread over a 20-acre property, volunteers from different age and professional backgrounds spend time together with a shared goal of sewa or service. They have managed to plant 1400 trees, grass at the entrance and also established an organic farm—leading to a verdant transformation of the place in a short time.

It has been less than two and half years since the Gurudwara was set up, of which a good 10 months has been taken away by COVID-19. But while many communities dissolved during the pandemic, this one was thriving. The pandemic also gave the volunteers more impetus to mobilise green work so as to make sure that the Granthi and Raagis did not develop mental issues trapped indoors by themselves.

Says Avtar Singh, “When things opened up, we gave them green projects such as laying green grass at the entrance, the area of which is around 350 sq metre, and planted about 100 trees. We also designed the 650 sq metre organic farm project and started work on it.”

The organic farm is more of a demonstration project as of now although many crops have been harvested. “We are still learning as we are growing. The idea was essentially so that people can take home some good ideas and start doing these things in their backyard. We have produced at least 300 kgs of vegetables so far. More is being harvested this month,” says Harpreet.

Guided by the Sikh prayer of pawan guru paani pita mata dharat mahat, which in essence, means that one has to be connected with water, air, earth, those planting the trees are mindful of conservation and respect for nature. So being on a rural property, volunteers make sure that the trees are not damaged by wild life and survive on nature’s rainfall.

Interestingly, Melbourne Water that has funded some of the tree planting project awarded the Gurudwara with another funding immediately after its audit. They were impressed that the survival rate of the trees was about 80+ per cent here as opposed to the normal benchmark of 65 per cent elsewhere.

“With the second funding from Melbourne Water, we will be planting 400 more trees on July 31, which is the National Tree Day,” says a proud Randeep Singh, adding, “We have been using rainwater for our organic farm as well as for our trees. We have about 95,000 litres of water storage capacity and we are planning to expand this to 150,000 storage capacity.”

People project such as these identifies into the larger landscape. Harpreet believes young people can imbibe these values of conservation and take them forward. “For example, the children in the gurudwara who celebrate the ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ will hopefully develop the habit of cleanliness and not only keep the Gurudwara clean but also their own homes and give their parents less headache.”

It’s indeed telling that the Gurudwara Siri Guru Nanak Darbar takes pride in itself as a community-focussed organisation.

During COVID-19, like other organisations, it distributed over 10,000 kilos of groceries to students and people from different ethnic backgrounds. The volunteers also developed an Indian veggie cookbook which was also widely received by the wider community. “We circulated a lot of hard copies I am quite sure about 600 people downloaded the copies from the web. It is one of our small initiatives to create awareness about Indian culture and the Sikh faith,” says Harman Singh.

The community experience at the Gurudwara Siri Guru Nanak Darbar is open to all. Not just Sikhs but people from different backgrounds have access to the Gurudwara. And with the population of the Cardinia Shire local council increasing massively as also the neighbouring Cassey Council, Harpreet, who also volunteers for different roles with the Cardinia Shire Council, believes the Gurudwara’s catchment of visitors and worshippers is huge.

The gurudwara has also in the past organised at least 15-20 open days for the wider communities which included six primary schools to visit the place and helped them in their understanding of the Indian culture. “We also have members from the farming community who come and look at what we can advise and vice versa,” says Harpreet.

For this youngest gurudwara of Melbourne, the diverse environment it has cultivated—be it in its celebration of Eid; hoisting of the Sikh, Australian and Aboriginal flag; or felicitating various volunteer groups that worked tirelessly during the Bunyip fires such as CFA, BlazeAid, Country Women’s Association, VicPolice, to name a few – suggests its ability to grow as a community. And fostering a kind of togetherness that is not new but rare.

In its short span, the Officer Gurudwara has received about 1.1 million AUD funding from the Victorian State Government, Federal Government and philanthropic organisations. It’s team of selfless volunteers was also awarded the Victorian Premier’s Volunteer Champion award in December 2019.

Just the kind of encouragement that the Gurudwara Siri Guru Nanak Darbar needs to grow further as a community, in alignment with its idea and ideals!

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