Sikhism in Australia

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Sikhism in Australia Australia
Total population
0.83% of the total Australian population (2021)
Regions with significant populations
Victoria91,745 (1.41%)
New South Wales47,165 (0.58%)
Queensland27,713 (0.54%)
Western Australia18,583 (0.70%)
South Australia17,259 (0.97%)
Australian EnglishPunjabi

Australian Sikhs number over 210,000 people and account for 0.8% of Australia's population as of 2021, forming the country's fastest-growing and fifth-largest religious group.[2] The largest Sikh populations in Australia are found in Victoria, followed by New South Wales and Queensland.

Pre-Federation: 1830s–1901[edit]

'Podgy', a Sikh hawker in Goulburn Valley, Victoria.

Early migrants: indentured labourers and cameleers[edit]

It is difficult to separate the history of early Sikh arrival to Australia from that of the numerous other religious faiths that were represented the people of British India and more specifically the Punjab province. It appears that the first Sikhs arrived in the country somewhere in the late 1830s, when the penal transport of convicts to New South Wales (which at the time also consisted of Queensland and Victoria) was slowing, before being abolished altogether in 1840. The lack of manual labourers from the convict assignment system led to an increase demand for foreign labour, which was partly filled by the arrival of Sikhs. The Sikhs came from an agrarian background in India, and thus fulfilled their tasks as farm labourers on cane fields and shepherds on sheep stations well.

"Initially, the migrants from India were indentured labourers, who worked on sheep stations and farms around Australia. Some adventurers followed during the gold rush of the 1850s. A census from 1861 indicates that there were around 200 Indians in Victoria of whom 20 were in Ballarat, the town which was at the epicenter of the gold rush. Thereafter, many more came and worked as hawkers - going from house to house, town to town, traversing thousands of kilometers, making a living by selling a variety of products."[3][better source needed] From the 1860s onwards, cameleers, commonly called 'Ghans' were brought to Australia to help explore and settle Australia's vast arid interior. While the Ghans consisted mainly of Muslims from largely from British India and some even from Afghanistan and Egypt, a sizeable minority were Sikhs from Punjab. The Ghans set up camel-breeding stations and rest house outposts, known as caravanserai, throughout inland Australia, creating a permanent link between the coastal cities and the remote cattle and sheep grazing stations until about the 1930s, when they were largely replaced by the automobile.

Entrepreneurial migrants: travelling rural hawkers[edit]

Towards the end of the 19th century, Indian hawkers, many of whom were Sikh, became a common sight in the country regions throughout the country. Peddling was a common occupation in rural India and was readily transplanted to rural Australia, due to its widely dispersed population. Hawking required little capital to begin, with young men travelling on foot until they had enough money to purchase a horse and cart. The hawking system was based on credit, with warehouses selling goods to Indian wholesalers on credit, who provided the hawkers their stock on credit, who in turn sold their goods to the farmers and farmhands on credit. Credit was vital as money was often only available after the harvesting of the crops. The hawkers sold a wide variety of goods from work wear and farming goods for the men of the household, to fashionable clothing, trinkets and sewing needles for the wives and daughters. All hawkers required licenses issued by the state and from the 1890s licenses started to become restricted to British subjects.[4] This denied Afghans, Assyrians and Chinese from renewing their license, giving the Sikhs a monopoly on hawking which they held until the 1930s when new European migrants began to ply the trade. While the hawkers were usually well received by the people of the country, with many stories of the hawkers cooking curries with the wives and playing cricket with the men, their success worried some politicians. Sikh hawkers sent some of their profits back to their families in the villages of Punjab and invested the rest by building stores and buying land, especially in northern New South Wales, where their continued acquisition caused the minister for of lands, Niel Nielson, to speak out. Two of the most successful Sikh hawkers were Baba Ram Singh and Otim (Uttam) Singh who arrived in 1890 learnt the trade and prospered and in 1907 they established "The People Stores". Baba Ram Singh lived to be 106 and is thought to have brought the first Guru Granth Sahib to Australia in the early 1920s, while in his lifetime Otim Singh acquired £10,000 and developed a thriving business on Kangaroo Island.[5] As their families were not allowed to join these early pioneers many travelled back and forth finally returning to their original homeland to retire.[6]

Some of the earliest arrivals in Australia, whose families / offspring continue to live in Australia. They have reached their 4th-5th generation now in Australia.

1. 1885 - Surjan Singh Johal (Jandiala, Jalandhar) 
2. 1885 - Mahan Singh Grewal (Dhaliwal, Jalandhar) 
3. 1889 - Baba Ram Singh Rai (Bhulla Rai, Jalandhar) 
4. 1890 - Pal Singh Pooni (Muthada Kalan, Jalandhar) 
5. 1890 - Oudham Singh Arkan (Malpur Arkan, Nawanshahr) 
6. 1890 - Gharne Singh Malhi (Chugha Kalan, Moga) 
7. 1893 - Mangal Singh Bains (Bilga, Jalandhar) 
8. 1893 - Prem Singh Majhel (Bhalojala, Amritsar) 
9. 1894 - Khem Singh Bhatti (Sahlon, Nawanshahr) 
10. 1895 - Beer Singh Johal (Jandiala, Jalandhar) 
11. 1895 - Bella Singh Bhangal (Amargarh, Nawanshahr) 
12. 1895 - Inder Singh Arkan (Malpur Arkan, Nawanshahr) 
13. 1896 - Jualla (Jolla) Singh Sohal (Atta, Jalandhar) 
14. 1896 - Santa Singh Atwal (Bara Pind, Jalandhar) 
15. 1896 - Narain Singh Hayer (Heran, Jalandhar) 
16. 1897 - Jawala Singh Lalli (Lallian, Hoshiarpur) 
17. 1897 - Inder Singh Bagri (Chak Kalan, Jalandhar) 
18. 1898 - Waryam Singh Sidhu (Mansurpur, Jalandhar) 
19. 1898 - Indar Singh Sondhu (Jalandhar) 
20. 1899 - Genda Singh Atwal (Rasulpur, Nawanshahr) 
21. 1899 - Karam Singh (Boparai Kalan, Jalandhar) 
22. 1900 - Sarna Singh Dhesi (Sang Dhesian, Jalandhar) 
23. 1900 - Gunda Singh Bains (Bains, Jalandhar) 
24. 1901 - Basawa Singh Bassi (Bundala, Jalandhar) 
25. 1901 - Kishan Singh Chohan (Chohan Nagar, Jalandhar) 
26. 1901 - Thakur Singh More (Sadhpur, Nawanshahr) 
27. 1901 - Inder Singh Dhadlie (Golewal, Nawanshahr) 
28. 1901 - Inder Singh Thandi (Thandian, Nawanshahr) 
29. 1902 - Moti Singh Benning (Kishanpura, Nawanshahr) 
30. 1902 - Munsha Singh Toor (Dhaliwal, Jalandhar) 
31. 1910 - Bakhtawar (Buck) Singh Samrai (Samrai, Jalandhar) 
32. 1880~1901 - Sewa Singh Dhesi (Kahna Dhesian, Jalandhar) 
33. 1880~1901 - Arjan Singh Sandhar (Nawan Pind, Jalandhar) 
34. 1880~1901 - Bhulla Singh Sodhi (Mehmoodpur, Nawanshahr) 
35. 1880~1901 - Ganga Singh Gosal (Ratainda, Nawanshahr) 
36. 1880~1901 - Lachman Singh Sanghera (Bilga, Jalandhar) 
37. 1880~1901 - Gurbhan Singh (Bilga, Jalandhar) 
38. 1880~1901 - Karam Chand (Bilga, Jalandhar) 
39. 1880~1901 - Gurdit Singh (Bara Pind, Jalandhar) 
40. 1880~1901 - Jewan Singh (Chak, Jalandhar) 
41. 1880~1901 - Dalip Singh (Dhuleta, Jalandhar) 
42. 1880~1901 - Ram Singh (Bilga, Jalandhar) 
43. 1880~1901 - Booja Singh (Chak, Jalandhar) 
44. 1880~1901 - Nanak Chand (Bilga, Jalandhar) 
45. 1880~1901 - Bishan Das (Dhaliwal, Jalandhar)

CEDT - Certificate of Exemption from the Dictation Test[edit]

Many of the early Sikh pioneers obtained Certificates exempting them from a dictation test that non-whites had to undergo if they wanted to enter Australia after 1901. However, it is not known how the Sikhs that entered for the first time after 1901 continued to or were permitted to reside and work in Australia.

The Dictation Test was a written test in any European language chosen at random by the Migration Officers. It was primarily designed to keep non-white people from entering Australia. However, any Indian or other non-white person who was resident in Australia before 1900 could, if they chose to leave Australia, leave after applying for the CEDT, which would ensure that they could return to Australia at a time of their choosing and not undergo a Dictation Test.

Many people of all nationalities left Australia and later re-entered Australia with little difficulty.

During the White Australia Policy: 1901–1973[edit]

Sikh troops washing their clothes in the surf at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli Peninsula.
RAAF Personnel with a Sikh man during WWII.

From federation in 1901 until 1973, immigration of non-whites, including Sikhs, into Australia was restricted due to the enactment of the White Australia policy. The laws made it impossible for Sikhs to enter the country unless they were merchants or students, who themselves were only allowed in for short periods of time; it also made it impossible for Sikhs who already lived in the country from returning to the motherland, as they would be barred re-entry. Historians place the number of Indians in Australia at federation in 1901 somewhere between 4700 and 7600.[5] According to the 1911 census, there was only 3698 'Indians' (mostly Sikh) signifying a large decrease, with the trend continuing, with only approximately 2200 'Indians' in the country in 1921.[7]

Open discrimination of non-whites before the passing of the laws was also widespread. After the conclusion of World War I, however, the stance of Australia on Sikhs shifted. Sikhs were classified as a martial race by the officials of the British Empire, who believed they were brave, loyal and well-built for fighting. As such they were preferentially recruited to the British armed forces as part of the Sikh Regiment, which quickly became the most decorated regiment in the Empire. They fought side by side with the ANZAC battalions in the battle of Gallipoli and earned the respect of many Australians. This combined the need to strengthen links to counter the growing threat of an expansionist and industrialised Japan saw Indians of Australia given rights far greater than that of other Asian groups through a series of steps between 1925 and 1929, Indians in Australia were allowed limited property rights, were given the right to vote and allowed a pension.

The Sikhs began to use their new-found rights in the 1930s when the early pioneers begun to bring their 'sons of working age' to Australia. Initially they had a strong presence in the Atherton Tableland region of Queensland and the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, especially Maclean, Harwood and Clarence, where they worked as manual labourers, mainly working on the sugar cane fields, but also finding work in other industries such as the construction of railways. During World War II, Australia suffered from a dearth of labourers as the White population was recruited into the army and sent overseas, where they fought side by side with the Sikhs in the Battle of Malaya, Battle of Singapore and numerous other hostilities. This allowed Indians to work in many agricultural sectors which they had previously been barred from working in due to protests by agricultural unions. One of the opened industries was the banana industry, leading to the Sikhs in Australia migrating from to the banana growing areas of Woolgoolga to fill the shortage, forming a Sikh community that still exists to this day.

The Partition of India occurred in 1947, with the state of Punjab, the home to the majority of the Sikh community in Australia, being divided between the Islamic Pakistan in the west, and the Secular Hindu, Sikh, Muslim India in the east. As a result of the upheaval, many of the Sikh father and sons returned to the Punjab to protect their family, assets and land from the turmoil, however many of them arrived back in Punjab to find that they had lost everything. Those young and fit enough to still work in Australia returned, mainly to work on the banana farms in Woolgoolga, although some ended up working in Northern Queensland.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Sikhs worked hard and started to purchase land and start their own banana farms. With steady work and income, the Sikh men started to bring their wives from Punjab to Australia. In 1961 there were six Sikh women in Woolgoolga, creating Sikh households and Sikh children born in Australia. As Indians were allowed naturalisation, the first true Sikh Australians came into being. The pull of the Sikh community in Woolgoolga led to Sikhs from other areas of the country migrating to Woolgoolga in the hope they could follow their kinsmen to a banana led success. In 1968 the First Sikh Temple was opened in Woolgoolga, becoming the first Gurdwara to be opened in the country.[8]

Post White Australia Policy: 1973–Present[edit]

With the enactment of the Racial Discrimination Act by the Whitlam government, Sikh migration to Australia dramatically increased. While most Sikh immigrants can trace their heritage to Punjab, many come from countries other than India including Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Kenya, Uganda and the United Kingdom. Sikhs migrate to Australia because it is a free stable country with economic opportunities. In many cases Sikhs suffered injustices in their home country, and in the case of Uganda, open persecution.

Whereas early immigration was mainly as labourers working in the country, new migrants are now mainly based around the major cities, working in a variety of fields from driving taxis to health professionals. Melbourne is now home to the largest Sikh population. Since 2000, there has been a great increase in the number of Sikh students studying in Australia, with many staying on in the country after the completion of their studies. In May and June 2009, a number of Sikhs fell victim to a spate of attacks on Indians studying in the country, leading to protests in Melbourne and Sydney.

According to the 2016 census, the Sikh population numbered 125,909 individuals, of whom 39% live in Greater Melbourne, 21% in Greater Sydney, and 10% in Greater Brisbane. The states and territories with the highest proportion of Sikhs are Victoria (0.89%) and the Australian Capital Territory (0.54%), whereas those with the lowest are the Northern Territory (0.28%) and Tasmania (0.10%).[9]


Sikh Australians by state and territory (1991−2021)[10]
State/territory 2021 2016 2011 2006 2001 1991
Pop. % Pop. % Pop. % Pop. % Pop. % Pop. %
Victoria 91,745 1.41% 52,762 0.89% 29,382 0.55% 9,040 0.18% 4,601 0.1% 2,085 0.05%
New South Wales 47,165 0.58% 31,737 0.42% 21,748 0.31% 11,618 0.18% 8,600 0.14% 3,320 0.06%
Queensland 27,713 0.54% 17,433 0.37% 9,357 0.22% 2,627 0.07% 1,961 0.06% 1,000 0.04%
Western Australia 18,583 0.7% 11,897 0.48% 4,927 0.22% 1,407 0.07% 1,092 0.06% 615 0.04%
South Australia 17,259 0.97% 8,808 0.53% 5,301 0.33% 1,230 0.08% 823 0.06% 510 0.04%
Australian Capital Territory 4,323 0.95% 2,142 0.54% 1,083 0.3% 361 0.11% 249 0.08% 138 0.05%
Tasmania 2,208 0.4% 488 0.1% 233 0.05% 71 0.01% 71 0.02% 46 0.01%
Northern Territory 1,401 0.6% 634 0.28% 265 0.13% 42 0.02% 40 0.02% 36 0.02%
Australia 210,400 0.83% 125,901 0.54% 72,296 0.34% 26,396 0.13% 17,437 0.09% 7,750 0.05%
Geographical distribution of Sikhs in Australia per 2021 census
Historical Population

Legacy and celebrations[edit]

Australian Sikh heritage[edit]

The Australian Sikh Heritage Trail in June 2021.

Australian Sikh Heritage Trail, a group of interconnected pathways in Adenia Park, Riverton, Western Australia, is a monument commemorating the history of Sikhs in Australia.[11] The location, adjacent to the Canning River, is significant as the heritage-listed Sikh cremation site.[12] The winding trail features interpretive signage, plaques, benches, a sheltered area, and a boardwalk by the river.[13] Information on the signs is organised by theme, such as Sikh farmers, Sikh wrestlers, Sikh Anzacs, Sikh hawkers and Sikh entrepreneurs.[13]

Man Mohan Singh, a pilot officer in the Indian Air Force Volunteer Reserve at the onset of the Second World War, consequently joined the RAF Coastal Command and took command of a Sunderland flying boat during the Battle of the Atlantic. He later became a flying officer with the British Indian Air Force. In 1942, he was with the flying boats that arrived at Broome, Western Australia when a Japanese air attack destroyed them all. Singh survived the attack only to drown in the harbour. Singh is remembered on the Darwin Military Museum Memorial Wall[14] and has a memorial in Singapore.[15]

Australian Sikh Games[edit]

In 1988 the first annual Australian Sikh Games commenced, with Sikhs from South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales arriving in Adelaide to compete in a field hockey competition to celebrate the opening of the first Gurdwara in the city. From there the competition grew and in 1989 netball, Association football (soccer) and kabaddi. Tug o' war, volleyball and cricket are also included, while track and field and golf event have been previously competed but are currently non-competition events. Non-sports cultural events such as Bhangra and Giddha are also held simultaneously in the host city.[16]

Punjabi language in Australia[edit]

Punjabi is the 13th most common language in Australia with over 130,000 speakers[17] and it is the 3rd most common language spoken at home among recent migrants. 81% of Punjabi speakers are Sikhs, 13.3% are Hindus and 1.4% are Muslims.[18]

Melbourne Sikh Gurdwara

Attack on Sikh Community[edit]

In 2023, four Hindu extremists, linked to Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), attempted to vandalize the Sikh temple of Melbourne’s Miri Piri Gurdwara and the posters of Sikh leaders placed outside the temple with graffiti. All the four Hindu men were caught in the act, carrying cans of spray, sticks and paint, and apologized after confessing their attempt to vandalize the Sikh temple and the posters outside the Gurdwara. All the four Hindu men were arrested by the authorities.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Australian Bureau of Statistics : 2021 Census of Population and Housing : General Community Profile" (XLSX). Archived from the original on 28 June 2022. Retrieved 2 July 2022.
  2. ^ "Media Release - Census reveals Australia's religious diversity on World Religion Day". 18 January 2018. Archived from the original on 15 January 2019. Retrieved 15 January 2019.
  3. ^ " | The Art and Culture of the Diaspora | TRADERS OF GOODWILL: Sikh Pioneers of Australia". Archived from the original on 15 September 2023. Retrieved 15 September 2023.
  4. ^ "Muslim Journeys - Stories - Cameleers and hawkers". Archived from the original on 9 June 2009. Retrieved 11 July 2009.
  5. ^ a b Deacon, Desley; Russell, Penny; Woollacott, Angela, eds. (2008). Transnational Ties: Australian Lives in the World. ANU Press. doi:10.22459/TT.12.2008. ISBN 9781921536205. Archived from the original on 10 October 2009. Retrieved 11 July 2009.
  6. ^ "Sikhs, Arrival of Indians in Australia, Australian Sikhs, Indian, India |". Archived from the original on 27 June 2022. Retrieved 15 September 2023.
  7. ^ Jupp, James (October 2001). The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521807890. Archived from the original on 15 September 2023. Retrieved 21 November 2020.
  8. ^ Verne A. Dusenbery, Rashmere Bhatti: A Punjabi Sikh Community in Australia – from Indian Sojourners to Australian Citizens
  9. ^ "Census TableBuilder - Dataset: 2016 Census - Cultural Diversity". Australian Bureau of Statistics – Census 2016. Archived from the original on 14 January 2023. Retrieved 29 July 2017.
  10. ^ "Australia-Community Profile". Archived from the original on 23 November 2022. Retrieved 23 November 2022.
  11. ^ Wynne, Emma (20 April 2018). "Sikh Australians and their contributions celebrated in new Perth monument". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 26 April 2018. Retrieved 16 January 2020.
  12. ^ Shonakshi, C. (10 October 2016). "Sikh heritage Down Under: Telling the untold story". The Times of India. Archived from the original on 18 October 2016. Retrieved 16 January 2020.
  13. ^ a b Grewal, Preetinder (18 April 2018). "Heritage Park to highlight Australia's Sikh history". SBS Punjabi. Special Broadcasting Service. Archived from the original on 16 January 2020. Retrieved 16 January 2020.
  14. ^ "Remembering Flying Officer Manmohan Singh —". Archived from the original on 16 November 2022. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  15. ^ Chowdhry, Mohindra S. (2018). Defence of Europe by Sikh Soldiers in the World Wars. Troubador Publishing Ltd. ISBN 9781788037983. Archived from the original on 15 September 2023. Retrieved 27 August 2021.
  16. ^ "Origins::Australian Sikh Games". Archived from the original on 21 January 2008. Retrieved 22 May 2022.
  17. ^ "SBS Audio and Language : Punjabi : Census Explorer". Archived from the original on 4 November 2012. Retrieved 28 November 2012.
  18. ^ "Census reveals rise of Indians in Australia | Indian Herald". Archived from the original on 12 June 2017. Retrieved 20 November 2012.
  19. ^ "Indian extremists caught vandalising Sikh Gurdwara in Melbourne". Geo News. 2 February 2023. Archived from the original on 25 August 2023. Retrieved 25 August 2023.

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