Skip to main content

How Sikhs went bananas in Woopi

As you enter Coff’s Harbour, tucked between Sydney and Brisbane, it is not hard to guess why the big banana stands as a landmark to visitors. Banana plantation is big in this area. Of course, there is nothing spectacular about seeing widespread banana trees but the fact is, the area grows one of the best varieties of bananas in Australia. And the bananas have a dominant Indian connection.

In the early part of the 19th century when the British still ruled India, and the first world war was just beginning, a few adventurous men from Punjab decided to cash in on the shortage of farm labourers in Australia. Their long journey led them first to Queensland, then south to Coff’s Harbour, and finally settling in nearby Woolgoolga, New South Wales.

Familiar to farming these men slowly acquired small parcels of land and began working hard to make their fortunes. After becoming established in the area, many then returned home to bring out there close family members. By the 1940s, they had laid the foundation of the first Australian Sikh Community in Australia here at Woolgoolga, 20 km north of Coff’s Harbour. Today, it is said that some of the wealthiest Indians reside in the Woolgoolga area.

Undeterred by the spells of Autumn rain, which otherwise made for a good excuse for a sleep-in at the cosy beach resort we had booked ourselves in, we decided to explore the towns known for its great surfing beaches, pristine natural scenery, nature walks and great fishing experiences for all holiday makers.

After a drive around Coff’s Harbour, we headed off to Woolgoolga or Woopi as the locals call it. A winding road took us straight and we found ourselves first greeted by the majestic gurudwara perched on top of the hill. The Sikh temple has special mention as ‘a must see’ in the local tourist information directory. It is, in fact, the second Sikh temple built in Australia in 1970. The first gurudwara constructed in 1968 still stands nearby, a mere shadow to the new one.

Inside we meet up with Gurmandip Singh, the head priest who welcomed us with a hot chai and tikkas. He boasts of the gurudwara as being a meeting place for not only the 150 Sikh families in Coff’s Harbour and the 1200 Sikh residents of Woolgoolga but also of the local community who enjoy great rapport with each other.

It was easy to locate Satpal Singh Gill, member of the second family that settled here in the early part of the 19th century. A fourth generation, Gill, 38, recalls how his great grandfather travelled to Australia around 1910. “He then asked the Australians here that he had a young son back in India and whether they would help him bring some of his family members here. So in the 1920s, my grandfather came here. They worked in the Wollombi area and earned enough money to invest in small farms for banana cultivation.” Gill proudly boasts, "We were the second family to have moved to Australia.”

Like Gill, Kirpal Singh, is a third generation Sikh resident. At Hasting Street, where he resides, his next door neighbours are, in fact, his extended families. The traditional life of the Sikhs here has not changed much with time and the geographical distance. “It’s the blessing of the Guru that we have been able to maintain our culture and traditions,” says Gill. One thing common about Sikhs everywhere in the world is there is the gurudwara that keeps the community closely knit.”

Singh, 50, a banana grower, says much of this is because they all belong to the farming community and “we communicate and see each other every day of the week.” Every farm is within close reach of each other. “Work starts early at 7 am and by 4 pm we are at home and have time to socialise and keep our culture alive. It is pretty much the same lifestyle as in the villages back in India,” he adds.

In fact, Joginder Singh, 63, laughs as to how they are viewed as being still 20 years behind the times when they go back to India. “Woolgoolga has retained the culture, customs that were brought here since the 1920s.”

And even as the community grew, he says all through the 70s and 80s, those born in Coffs Harbour and Woogoolga still went back to Punjab and got married . “That was just another way to keep the culture alive.” He, however, laments that in time that may slowly disappear as the newer generation is marrying into people born here. That might be a small part but worrisome, he adds.

With the banana plantation on the decline in the area, many of the original banana growers have today diversified into blueberries and macadamia nut plantations. The flat arable land in Queensland and use of machinery has taken over the hilly plantation of bananas here which require a lot of manual labour. But that, says Joginder, is a saviour for the community from disintegrating.

Woolgoola, winds in and out of hamlets comprising not more than two Indian groceries, the two gurudwaras and lovely houses and farms. There is also a street named after Coff’s Harbour Sikh councillor John Arkan. After a day’s tour we head off to the beach, but that piece of Sikh history in a quiet, serene part of Australia visits the mind and overstays its welcome.

(This article of mine was published by The Hindustan Times on 5 June 2010)


Popular posts from this blog

A Mad Man Or A Boor

What does one do when one encounters a mad dog? Or what does one do when one encounters a man with pre-fixed notions about everything in life, most specifically of women who live alone and give him some importance? The two are equivalent to me and basic intelligence says avoid the paths they tread like plague. But I chose to tackle them head on. I almost got rabbies. The mad man said [sic] " You sound like a very desperate person. A single and frustrated woman who is looking for anyone to leave a comment on your blog so much so that you wouldn't even spare a spammer ." Spammer being, the first comment on the previous post is apparently a spam, an advert for T-shirts. Bummer! I thought it was a handsome Spaniard or Latino, so I had replied "Hi Rodrigo", hoping to take the conversation forward offline. Anyway! All this the mad man found out. I didnt. Sure, I dig comments because I love the spontaneity and intelligence of my friends. And I didn't invite the ma


Two million people at the National Mall in Washington alone. The world watched too as Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. So did I. I rudely cut roomie's soap operas and switched to CNN to witness history being created. Some day I may live to tell the tale of how Barack, the much touted Afro-American President of the United States, stumbled with his swearing-in oath. I was a bit disappointed as I watched the man who had run the most successful of election campaigns, the man who Americans were pinning their hopes on, take his oath. Clearly, he was under too much of a pressure to be the best. So before Chief Justice John Roberts could complete the first sentence, there was Obama abruptly breaking out into his first names... " I Barack Hussein Obama.." and then waited for the judge to complete the sentence.. The next line was even taxing. He stopped short after two words... " That I will excute ..." and then Justice Roberts cont

The Churn

11 am: There I was bang on time at work, perhaps, in a long time. The occasion: a meeting called by the top boss and compulsory attendance required. I am, as always, out of the loop. Reason being there is always so much happening in my life that I am always behind everything. That does not mean I fail to deliver! And unlike some people who are truly into perception management (will delve on it later) and are such repository for all 'inside news', office gossip and politics least interest me. I mean, who cares if someone is quitting for some place else or is having an affair with so and so, or is being transferred unless that person happens to be someone I am generally fond of. Maybe then I would have been privy to some of the classified information ahem... So, was I in for shock today? The meeting was sombre and had a full house attendance. And then our top boss spilled the beans. Three of the men at the helm were either quitting or were assuming other responsibilities and a n