In the 1960s, three Australians in Woolgoolga NSW got together to help the growing Sikh community find a safe space for themselves to be able to practice their culture.
They did not know that half a century later, their grassroots efforts would become a heritage site.
Australia’s first Gurdwara (Sikh temple) at Woolgoolga near Coffs Harbour was this week listed on the NSW government’s State Heritage Register.
“The Temple is of great significance to the cultural history of NSW as it demonstrates the migration and permanent settlement of the Sikh community in our state,” the NSW Minister for Heritage Don Harwin said while making the announcement
“It is a wonderful achievement by the Sikh community in our state and country,” the Temple committee’s Public Officer Amandeep Singh Sidhu told to News Reporters.
The heritage listing was sought for the original building that was built in 1968, called The First Sikh Temple. The new gurdwara currently in use came up adjacent to it in 2019. In a first, however, heritage status was granted to the entire block, including the new construction.
“This is quite significant, as it highlights the site’s importance in the state’s cultural history,” Sidhu observed.
It was in 2013 that the process for heritage listing commenced. “We put the application in, and from then on it was a meticulous process for the authorities as they studied the history, the relevance to the community, relationship to the mainstream, and made physical site assessments. It was a staged process, with the local council first involved.”
Ultimately the assessing authorities were convinced the site has “strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group in NSW for social, cultural or spiritual reasons,” and “is important in the course or pattern of the cultural or natural history of NSW.”
Member for Coffs Harbour Gurmesh Singh, Australia’s first Sikh member of Parliament, said his electorate is a diverse and thriving region.
“Receiving heritage listing for the temple is very significant for our region, and a proud moment for Australia’s Sikh community,” he said.
The striking white structure with ornate onion domes and scalloped arches stands out from a distance. Up close, it impresses with its fabric-covered flag pole which holds aloft the triangular Nishan Sahib (Sikh flag), and the sculptures of horse-back protectors.
Tracing the history of the temple, Sidhu outlined, “The community began to build up here in the 1940s and ’50s. Just like back home in Punjab, many of the settlers were farmers. The community would get together once a month for prayers, and a few times a year they would drive up in buses to Bangalaow 250 km from here, to Baba Ram Singh’s farm. He had brought the Guru Granth Sahib out from India and would host communal prayers around it. This went on for 25 years. By the time he passed on, the community had grown larger, weddings were beginning to take place, and the need was felt for a place of worship with a larger hall for spiritual and social activities. The Woolgoolga Gurdwara thus took shape.”
He added, “The first committee was made up of three White Australians – the principal of a local primary school, a timber mill owner, and a publican. That committee stayed for a long time. Quite charitably, they were concerned about the emotional wellbeing of the Sikhs that lived around them and worked for them on the farms and mills. You need a place where you can gather and share your experiences and your culture, they said.”
Today, some 2000-3000 visitors pass through the gates of the gurdwara annually. Sidhu revealed that there are about 80-100 regulars but others come from all over the country.
“Many visit from the mainstream community locally because we are listed as a heritage site. Groups of students come for excursions from schools in the area within a radius of 200 km. Aged care facilities also bring their residents out to us for day trips.”
The Sikh community in Australia have made a mark for themselves with their seva (service) to their fellow citizens in the mainstream, particularly in recent times of bushfires, floods and COVID-caused isolation.
The gurdwara at Woolgoolga has been giving back with their own initiatives such as Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea (the Cancer Council’s annual fundraiser), music lessons for interested musicians, and other social-cultural programs.
“We are proud Sikhs, proud Indians, and proud Australians,” Sidhu concluded.
The gurdwara is the second Sikh site in Australia to be granted heritage status. The other is the Australian Sikh Heritage Trail in Riverton WA, a monument commemorating the history of Sikhs in this country.