The Sikh Association of Western Australia (SAWA) caters for religious, educational, social and welfare needs of Sikhs living in Western Australia.
SAWA was officially registered on 13th August, 1975 and pro-team principal office bearers were:
President: Harbhajan Singh Bejawn
Secretary: Zora Singh Gill
Treasurer: Sardul Singh
At that time there were no more than a dozen Sikhs in Perth and they realized a need for an organization that would co-ordinate and cater for these needs and for the students who were studying in Perth universities. Initially, they used to get-together once a month at each other homes to hold religious ceremonies and social functions. With time, the membership grew and religious ceremonies were moved to community halls. The WA Migrant Center, Maylands Community Hall and Australia-Asian Association’s hall were common venues for these events.
Since its incorporation, SAWA has had a dream to find a permanent home and in 1985 this dream came true when SAWA purchased a small church in Kensington. At that time there were less than 50 families and the place was ideal for the size of the Sikh community. Before long we found ourselves being squeezed for space. It did not take us long to realize that we needed move to a bigger and better facility
In 1996, the SAWA Executive Committee proposed setting up a separate committee to be named as the Land and Building Committee. The aim of this committee was to acquire and develop facilities for a broader Sikh base in Perth .
In 1997, the Land and Building Committee purchased 5 acres of property at Canning Vale and had it successfully zoned for a ‘place of worship’ and community use.
The total cost of this project to date is close to $1.7 million. Most of this was raised through donations from Sikh communityies in Western Australia , Interstate and overseas. Donations are most welcome at anytime. Please post your cheque to SAWA and an official receipt will be issued (tax deductable in Australia ).
The new Gurudwara caters for the needs of over 500 families of Sikh community.
SAWA has appointed Giani Balbir Singh Ji to look after the premises of the Gurudwara in Canning Vale.
W.A. Sikhs of Yesteryear
(by Sarawan S Vagel)
When we look amongst us, we notice that the longest resident Sikhs in Perth are people like Harbajan S Bejawn and Sardul Singh who arrived in Perth in the early 1960s. Yet, we often hear of Sikhs who lived in W.A. in the late 19th Century. Occasionally, we come across articles mentioning Sikhs we have never heard of or a person who claims that he/she had a Sikh ancestor. There is this plot of land in Riverton that was used by Sikhs as a cremation ground – yet none of us know of anyone who was cremated there. In 1898, 45 Sikhs signed a petition addressed to The Hon. Joseph Chamberlian, Secretary of State for the Colonies. The petition makes interesting reading and requests for better treatment and livelihood opportunities.
Questions arise as to who were these people, what were they doing in W.A. and what happened to them? This article which has been published in the previously, is being republished with some additional information for the benefit of those who have not read it before and to refresh the memory of those who have.
Remote Australia in the 1800s was largely unexplored, access was poor and several expeditions had failed or became lost. Most travel in those days was by horse and horse drawn wagons. The British authorities in Australia realized that the camel would be more suited as the weather and terrain was similar to that of north-west India. With this in mind the authorities started to bring in camels and camel-handlers (cameleers as they were called). Initially, they were brought from the North Indian Frontier and were mainly Afghanistanis. (Mr Kushwant Singh, a renowned Indian writer, argues that these people were not from Afghanistan but were Punjabi Moslems from Punjab, India. He says that Afghanistan was a snow-clad country, unlike Punjab whose climate and terrain was similar to remote Australia. India was a British colony and the authorities would be inclined to use people from within the British Empire. Also, the petition signed by 45 Sikhs makes reference that Sikhs fought under the British Imperial flag in Kandahar and Gabul(Kabul)). As more people settled in remote Australia more cameleers were brought in from India and with them came Sikhs. The discovery of gold increased this need even more.
Many people in Australia have difficulty in distinguishing the ethnic background of Asians living here. We, Sikhs, have been confused with Pakistanis, Arabs, etc depending on the people in the news of the day. During those times, the Afghan Wars were in the news. If Australians are confused today, it does not take much to imagine what the situation was then.
Initially, the Sikhs came in as cameleers to move goods and people around. Later as more people started settling in remote Australia, these cameleers started hawking and some even went into farming or opened local trading posts.
The 1880-1920 Years
The ‘Census of Western Australia – 1901’ shows that there were 261 Afghans and no Indians. If there are 45 signatures on the petition dated 20th January, 1898, it can only be deduced that the Sikhs were all categorized as Afghans. The ‘Commonwealth of Australia Census – 1911’ shows that there were 153 Afghans and 549 Indians in Western Australia. Records in “Asian Immigration to W.A.: 1829—1901’ show that 70% of the Indians were Punjabi Moslems, 25% Sikhs and the rest Hindus. If the petition was signed by 45 Sikhs, i.e. those who were around Perth, there would have been others who were traveling in remote areas going about their business or settled in other towns and communities. It can, therefore, be safely estimated that there would have between 80-90 Sikhs in W.A. at the turn of the century.
Subsequent Commonwealth Censuses of Indian numbers in Western Australia are as follows:
The 1954 Census did not list a single Afghan or Indian in Western Australia. Several reasons have been given for this situation. One is the ‘Progress Theory’ which states that the introduction of motorised and rail transport led to the decline in the use of camels. The price of a camel dropped from £150 in 1901 to £5 in 1932. Another reason given is that the 1st World War and the depression of the 1930s made employment harder to find and many cameleers did not return after visiting their homeland.
These days more credence is given to the theory that rests with the ‘White Australia Policy’. In 1901, after the formation of the Federation of Australia, the Barton Government adopted legislation that virtually stopped ‘coloured’ immigration to Australia. Any ‘coloured’ person already resident in Australia had to apply for a ‘Certificate of Exemption’, which was not easily available, if he wanted to re-enter Australia. The State Government also made it difficult to obtain trading and business licenses for them to operate.
The depression of the 1930s also led to the rise of anti-coloured sentiments and the Australian Workers Association (AWA) began to campaign against the use of Afghan cameleers. A European cameleer was paid £4 a week compared to £4 a month for an Afghan. Any employer who employed Afghan labour was black-listed. Newspaper editorials, ugly incidents and community pressure also put fear into these ‘Afghans’. The Westralian Worker, a union newspaper, gives some insight into these exclusionist policies. In its edition dated 30th August, 1901 it wrote:
“Some months ago the AWA took the Afghan question in hand. Today finds a decided decrease in their numbers. Fully one half of them have silently taken their departure, we know not where”.
Many migrants returned to their homelands and those who remained eventually died. After 1901, there was a marked increase in the numbers who left Australia compared to the number immigrating to Australia.
The ‘coloureds’ were not allowed to bring wives or families when immigrating to Australia. Some did marry local women or had relationships with them. This is why the ‘Singh’ surname appears in some family trees.
Note-worthy Personalities & Items from this Era
First Recorded Sikh
The earliest recorded evidence of a Sikh being in W.A. was Pal Singh who arrived in Perth in 1886. He was a camel owner and settled in Wyndham.
In was normal for cameleers who came here to live close to one another. As they were known as Afghans, these areas became known as Ghantowns. In W.A. there was an established Ghantown in Coolgardie. Around Perth there was no single area but many stayed in East Perth, North Perth and around Fremantle.
A camel driver who lived in Leederville in 1896. He was one of the applicants for the cremation grounds. He died in Perth and would, most likely, been cremated at the Riverton cremation grounds.
Arrived from the Punjab in 1900. He was a professional wrestler and athlete. He too died in Perth.
He was a trader who travelled in the Great Southern. He had a store in Cranbrook and died in 1941.
He was a hawker who traded in a horse-drawn wagon in the Albany-Bunbury region with his brother, Nahel Singh. He was well respected and known as ‘Gentleman Singh’. His wagon was drawn by two horses, one of which tended go berserk at times. On one such occasion, Herman was driving the wagon near Wilgarrup River when the horse went berserk and bolted. His wagon over-turned and killed him. His brother, Nahel, cremated him at Deeside and the spot is marked by a post and rail grave.
Herman’s brother who returned to India, taking Herman’s ashes. He returned to W.A. 20 years later and rebuilt the grave as it stands now. After his retirement he lived in a two-room cottage in Cranbrook.
Also known as Charlie Smith, he was a hawker in Leederville in 1899. He left W.A. in 1923 and Buttan Singh reported his death in India.
A farmer in Wandering. He lived there in 1897.
Most Sikhs would travel around W.A. hawking their wares and would then return to India to retire. Some, however, were not able to do so and in 1932, the Sikhs were allocated a piece of land on the banks of the Canning River to be used as a cremation ground after a sickly Sikh immolated himself as he feared that he would be buried. The application for this land was made by Massa Singh and Buttan Singh. This area is now the heritage site.
Battye Library, Perth Asian Immigration to W.A. 1829-1911
Tin Mosques to Ghantowns—STEVENS Christie West Australian Newspapers
The Countryman Magazine Census of Western Australia
State Archives: Accession 527227/1898 Canning City Council
Sikhism is a progressive religion well ahead of its time when it was founded over 500 years ago, The Sikh religion today has a following of over 20 million people worldwide and is ranked as the world’s 5th largest religion. Sikhism preaches a message of devotion and remembrance of God at all times, truthful living, equality of mankind and denounces superstitions and blind rituals. Sikhism is open to all through the teachings of its 10 Gurus enshrined in the Sikh Holy Book and Living Guru, Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
The Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) is the sacred place of worship for Sikhs and other believers of the Sikh religion. One can always find a Gurdwara wherever there are Sikhs. The Sikh Holy Scriptures are enshrined in a book called the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS) and it is the ‘Living Guru for Sikhs’. The SGGS is always installed in a prominent place in the Gurdwara.
Sikhs congregate in the Gurdwara to participate and listen to recitation of the scriptures, hymns and teachings of Sikhism. In the Gurdwara, no shoes are worn and the head must be covered at all times as a mark of respect. When entering the Gurdwara, devotees pay their respects to the Sri Guru Granth Sahib by bowing in humility and then sit on the floor.
The Gurdwara is always marked by the Nishan Sahib (Sikh flag) that is visible from a distance. Ceremonies are held every Sunday and on other auspicious days. The Gurdwara Sahib is located at 280, Shreeve Road, Canning Vale and anyone is welcome to participate in the ceremonies and share a vegetarian meal.
Charges for Religious private functions & Weddings
Cooking in the kitchen is not allowed for any non-religious private function.
Kitchen to be locked at 9.00 pm and no cooking is allowed after 9.00 pm .
Kitchen Charges for religious private functions other than Weddings:
Vegetarian Cooking $ 150 ( for 4 hours only )
Charges per hour after 4 hours $ 75 per hour.
Standard Charges $ 250
Kitchen+ Hall + Waste disposal $ 500
Marquee $ 100
NB. – Please fill in the prescribed form and pay the charges in advance.