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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)

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