Sikhs across Victoria come together to celebrate the 550th birth anniversary of Sikhism’s founder

Hundreds of people from all over Victoria attended Bendigo's first Nagar Kirtan.The 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, is being celebrated worldwide — and for the first time in Bendigo. A colourful parade with a decorated mobile Gurduara float complete with priest, hymn singing, and martial arts displays made its way through Bendigo, followed by hundreds of people from Melbourne to Mildura on Sunday.


 A mobile gurdwara weaves its way through Bendigo followed by a procession.

Photo: Bendigo’s first Nagar Kirtan today celebrated the 550th birth anniversary of the founder of Sikhism. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)

The 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, is being celebrated worldwide — and for the first time in Bendigo. A colourful parade with a decorated mobile Gurduara float complete with priest, hymn singing, and martial arts displays made its way through Bendigo, followed by hundreds of people from Melbourne to Mildura on Sunday.

Called Nagar Kirtan, the traditional celebration is common in Sikh villages, towns and cities across the world for the auspicious occasion.

Hundreds of people from all over Victoria attended Bendigo's first Nagar Kirtan.
Photo: Hundreds of people from all over Victoria attended Bendigo’s first Nagar Kirtan. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)

For one Bendigo family this familiar event from childhood could finally be shared with their children. “It brings tears to my eyes, it feels like our dreams are coming true,” spokesperson of the Bendigo Sikh community and organiser Sandeep Singh Sandhu said. “We’re not going to miss our motherland much because the environment is coming here.”

Sandeep Singh Sandhu creating his turban from metres of fabric.
Photo: Sandeep is often asked about his turban made up of a long scarf, which is used to cover his uncut hair. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)

Mr Sandhu first arrived in Bendigo six years ago feeling lonely and estranged from his community. It was a difficult decision to leave the closeness of extended family, friends, and familiarity of his small, rural village in the north Indian state of Haryana.

Children were the main reason the ex-school owner travelled over 10,000 kilometres to Australia before being joined by the rest of the family. “You have to go and find a good life and a good job,” he said. “It was very hard for me to leave all my family. We are four sisters and one brother,” his wife Simran Kaur Sandhu said.

The Sandhu family out front their brick Bendigo home.
Photo: The Sandhu’s have called Bendigo home for the last six years after leaving Melbourne. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)

After a long line of jobs from an Uber driver to working in construction, the aged care personal carer and his ex-English stenography instructor wife changed their plans when their son was born. “I had to make a decision where his future would be safe,” Mr Sandhu said. “Now we feel Bendigo is our own village.”

Mistaken for Muslims

A Sikh hawker with his horse drawn wagon delivering goods to country Australia.
Photo: From the 1890s to the 1930s Sikh hawkers travelled throughout regional Australia selling supplies and household items. (Supplied: Australian Sikh Heritage Council )

The Sikhs have a long history in Australia, first arriving in the 1850s with many of them working as hawkers selling their wares throughout regional Australia. As the fifth largest religion in the world, Sikhism has about 30 million followers worldwide. Here is Australia, Punjabi is the fastest growing language group with about 130,000 Sikhs calling Australia home.

Yet many Australians do not know much about Sikhism, according to the convenor of the Australian Sikh Council, Harkirat Singh. “One of the motives behind the event is also to raise awareness about Sikh identity and to get to know Sikh people. To promote understanding” he said. “So, [people] don’t have any misconceptions in their mind.”

The celebrations begin with prayers.
Photo: The celebrations begin with prayers. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)

While both Mr Sandhu and his wife feel welcomed by the Bendigo community, it proved difficult during Bendigo’s anti-mosque rallies where they were often mistaken for Muslims. “I was so uncomfortable going out because I was called, two or three times when I was driving, different names. I don’t want to say what,” Sandeep said. Mrs Sandhu also said she felt a little insecure and was concerned about the possible backlash to a Sikh temple. “Maybe we’ll have the same problem like the Muslim community is having?” she said.

Place of worship needed for Bendigo

The Granthi or priest reads from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Holy Book) inside the mobile Gurduara (temple).
Photo: The Granthi or priest reads from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Holy Book) inside the mobile Gurduara (temple). (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)

While some other regional Victorian towns such as Swan Hill, Shepparton, and Mildura have their own Gurduara, or place of worship, Bendigo, which is home to about 200 Sikh families, does not. Instead, the community gather once a month at a local church with a priest often coming from Melbourne and further afield in the state. “It is very difficult, we are working hard. One day probably this dream will come true that we will get a place of worship,” Mr Singh said. “The community has long been longing for a permanent place.”

The next generation

Mr Sandhu said meditation, earning a living through honest means, and sharing wealth were central to Sikhism.

A young boy airborne with two swords.
Photo: There are five things Sikhs should wear, called the ‘Five Ks’, including the Kirpan, or sword. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)

However it was a challenge to maintain their culture for the next generations with only a monthly service, according to Mr Sandhu. While Punjabi is spoken at home, both children cannot read or write it. “We’re trying to teach them at home,” Mr Singh said.
Sandeep teaching his daughter Jasmin and son Kanwardeep Punjabi language.

Photo: Sandeep teaching his daughter Jasmin and son Kanwardeep Punjabi language. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)

His son, 14-year-old Kanwardeep, first arrived in Australia when he was four years old and feels strongly about his faith. “We see all as one and we share what we have, and we never discriminate against others for their beliefs or values,” he said.
Kanwardeep tying his patka often worn by children before donning the turban.
Photo: Kanwardeep tying his patka, often worn by children before donning the turban. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)

While there are a few Sikhs at his high school, Kanwardeep is the only patka-wearing Sikh. He said he was excited by a parade the likes of which Bendigo has never seen before. “Some Sikh kids over here have never had the Nagar Kirtan. They’ve never been in India,” he said. “So showing them is a great feeling.”
Simran Kaur Sandhu enjoys the Bendigo parade with her son Kanwardeep Singh Sandhu.
Photo: Simran Kaur Sandhu enjoys the Bendigo parade with her son Kanwardeep Singh Sandhu. (ABC Central Victoria: Larissa Romensky)

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