'Not many people know about Sikhs': Spotlight on Australia's growing community

SBS World News takes a look at a community that has almost doubled in the last five years according to the latest census data released in June this year.


Around 400 Sikhs gather in front of Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012. Source: AAP

Sikhism originated in India about 500 years ago.

Today, there are , including 126,000 in Australia according to the latest census figures, making it the fifth largest religion in the country after Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

The monotheistic religion's main tenets centre around equality and service to the community.


Origins and beliefs

The 'Sikh' religion, which in Punjabi means 'disciple', was founded by Guru Nanak in the 15th century in India’s northwest.

He was the first of 10 gurus who established the faith's foundations with scriptures and regulations for Sikhs to follow.

The religion's sacred book is called the 'Guru Granth Sahib' and is considered to be the revealed word of God.

Sikhs believe in karma and reincarnation, and that the consequences of a person's actions determine whether their soul will break free of the cycle and become one with God.

There is no formal ceremony to become a Sikh, rather, one must follow Sikh philosophy to become a member of the faith.

President of the Sikh Association of Western Australia, Gurdarshan Singh, told SBS World News that Sikhism “does not show other religions in bad light,” and celebrates freedom of religion.

“There is only one God though called by different names, we all are children of the same God, and God will not discriminate between his children for simple fact that they followed either of Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, etcetera," he said.

Mr Singh said, the purpose of life is "to meditate upon God so that He can guide you; to work and earn in an honest way; and to share one's wealth with others and help the needy.

“Hence, if you are a true Hindu or a true Muslim, you are equally good as a true Sikh.”

As well as equality and altruism, Sikhism centres around five rules, Professor Gary Bouma, an expert in Sikhism at Monash University, told SBS World News.

These include never cutting hair from your body, carrying a kirpan (a ceremonial steel sword that Professor Bouma says is not sharp) at all times, wearing a particular style of underwear, wearing an iron bangle on your wrist, and having a comb.

However, aside from these requirements, Sikh men are most identifiable by their turbans.

Boy participating in his Dastar Bandi a ceremony unique in the Sikh community where a young male decides to start wearing a turban.
Boy participating in his Dastar Bandi a ceremony unique in the Sikh community where a young male decides to start wearing a turban. Source: Getty


Professor Bouma said he understands the turban, or patka (a child's turban), is not one of these five rules, and is worn by Sikhs to manage their long hair.

"But it is so very cultural to manage their hair in that way," he said.

"Young people adopt that [the turban] fairly early on, before puberty, but no point before that would they have their hair cut."

Covering the head with a turban also symbolises respect towards God said Mr Singh.

“Since Sikhs believe God to be present everywhere, they cover their head not just in Gurdwara Sahib [temple] but everywhere else as well,” he said.

The turban is a symbol of, “sovereignty, dedication, self-respect, courage and piety".

Mr Singh also said turbans, as outward symbols of faith, allow Sikhs to serve as ambassadors of their religion.

He also said this makes Sikh's "a target of suspicion in an increasingly terror-weary world".

In the aftermath of the 911 terror attacks, many Sikhs were confused with Muslims, and .

According to a 2009 Sikh Coalition report, nine per cent of Sikhs in New York City since 9/11 because of their religious identity.

Recently in Australia, a five-year-old boy was denied enrolment to a school in Melbourne because his turban was against their uniform policy.

Sikhs in Australia

Sikh numbers in Australia have almost doubled in the last five years, with the 2011 Census recording 72,000, compared to 2016 when the numbers jumped to 126,000.

"Sikh's have rapidly been increasing in the population because so much migration has been happening from Asia," said Professor Bouma.

India, where most Sikhs come from, was the for Australian residents born overseas, after the UK, New Zealand and China.

But Sikh’s were documented in Australia as early as the gold rush in the 1850s and 60s.

However, their long-term presence in the country is not often acknowledged according to Sikh Association of Western Australia president, Gurdarshan Singh.

Camel team leaving Oodnadatta, South Australia in 1914.
Camel team leaving Oodnadatta, South Australia in 1914. Source: State Library of South Australia

“Not many people know about Sikhs and their contribution in building infrastructure in the formative year in Australia,” Mr Singh told SBS World News.

During the late 1800s, camel caravaners, known as ‘Ghans’ worked in Australia to assist in early Europeans exploring the desert.

While the majority of Ghans were Muslims from the Middle East, a small but significant number of them were Sikhs from India.

The group of cameleers established camel farms and rest houses along desert routes, often resulting in permanent connections for remote cattle and sheep stations with major towns and cities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

5 min read
Published 26 July 2017 at 2:41pm
By Andrea Booth, Amanda Copp