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This is how Australia celebrated Guru Nanak’s 500th birth anniversary 50 years ago

Sikh prayers underway at the site of Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Woolgoolga in 1969 (left) and the building of the the Gurudwara (right). Source: SBS Punjabi

While the Sikh community in Australia embarks on a series of grand celebrations to mark Guru Nanak's 550th birth anniversary, Woolgoolga - the home to Australia's first Sikh temple - recalls how just half a dozen families came together fifty years ago to celebrate the first Sikh Guru's 500th Gur Purab.

November 12 this year has an extraordinary significance for the Sikhs world over. It’s the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru and the founder of Sikhism who was born in 1469.

Grand religious ceremonies are planned in big cities, as well as country towns across Australia that is home to 130,000 Sikhs, during the months of October and November to mark the historic occasion.

In Victoria, where the biggest Sikh population in the country resides, the government has allocated $200,000 to different organisations, besides announcing that major landmarks would be lit up in saffron colour.

Sikh organisations in Sydney are organising multiple events, including religious processions and a charity walk on the foreshore of Sydney Harbour. Thousands of people are expected to participate in these events.

Sydney Vaisakhi
Members of the Sikh community celebrating Vaisakhi in April 2018 in Sydney.
ASA/SBS Punjabi

This will be the first time a Sikh religious event will be celebrated in Australia with this grandeur. But for Woolgoolga - a small town on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales –  this will also be an occasion to look back at the times when just a handful of Sikh families marked the historic occasion of Guru Nanak’s 500th birth anniversary 50 years ago.

Rashmere Bhatti is a local historian who has documented the migration of the Sikhs from India to the Coffs Harbour – Woolgoolga area. She was a little girl when Guru Nanak’s 500th birth anniversary was celebrated.

“The elders bought a piece of land on a very prominent site on the approach to Woolgoolga, they celebrated Guru Nanak Devi ji’s birthday along with blessing the site for a new gurudwara (Sikh temple) in 1969, in a marquee,” Ms Bhatti told SBS Punjabi.

Akhand Path underway in 1969 at the site of Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Woolgoolga.
Akhand Path underway in 1969 at the site of Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Woolgoolga.

She says a three-day Akhand Path (prayer) was held at the site where the second Sikh temple in Woolgoolga was constructed.

“I clearly remember that we used to come from Korora with a picnic basket with the meals that my mum had prepared for the granthis (priests). It was very, very exciting to be driving up, to go inside in the marquee and be part of the main event in the community.”

Mr Bhatti’s uncle Maluke Singh Arkan was the secretary of the new Sikh temple at the time. Speaking to SBS Punjabi from an aged care facility in Sydney, he said there were just half-a-dozen Sikh families in Woolgoolga at the time.

“Everyone contributed to the best of their ability at the time and we could collect 2,600 Pounds for the Gurudwara and the celebrations,” Mr Arkan told SBS Punjabi.

Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Woolgoolga
Rashmere Bhatti at Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Woolgoolga.
SBS Punjabi

Australia’s first Sikh temple had already opened in Woolgoolga in 1968. But Mr Arkan said that the new Sikh temple had to be built due to some “disagreements” among the local community.

“We wanted to build it with the domes but the builders had no idea how to do that. So we hired an architect from Coffs Harbour and the building came up in about four-five months with one dome initially,” he told SBS Punjabi.

The first Sikh Temple of Australia
The first Sikh Temple of Australia opened in Woolgoolga in 1968.
SBS Punjabi

From just a handful of Sikh families fifty years ago, Woolgoolga has come a long way with Sikhs forming over 15 per cent of the total population of the town. It is also well known as a Sikh cultural centre in Australia.

New building of the first sikh temple
The new building of the first Sikh Temple of Australia opened in 2017.
SBS Punjabi

With the two oldest Gurudwaras in Australia, Sikhs from as far as Sydney and Brisbane come to visit the town. And the local Sikh community, like everywhere else has planned big celebrations on the occasion of Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary.

Besides religious ceremonies, the Sikh temple committee is organising a $75,000 donation for a breast cancer screening machine for Coffs Harbour hospital.   

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