Every first Sunday of the month, the burgeoning Sikh community members in Bendigo meet at the St Mary’s Anglican Church in Kangaroo Flat. It is a day when a priest from a Melbourne gurudwara comes with the holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, conducts prayers and everyone revels in the langar or meal served. However, this is a pre COVID-19 story.
For Sandeep Singh Sandhu, the man who is credited with bringing the community together, these are trying times but he is positive the energy will soon be back as the region gears up to return to a life of normalcy.
“The pandemic has pretty much affected us the same it has in the metros. While Bendigo is not a very populated area, people are still quite anxious. I ring families and tell them we have to stay very positive as we come from a country that has learnt to survive epidemics. Staying safe at home and being in touch with family and friends is the best way to cope with this,” says Sandhu, who is originally from Haryana, India, and settled in regional Bendigo since 2013.
Quite the community catalyst with his consistent social and organising skills, he helped revitalise the Sikh community here and established the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Bendigo around 2013-14. It all started when he moved here in 2013 from Melbourne. He realised he is “not someone who can stay at home. I like to meet people, create a bit of social network and do something for the community”. This passion for sheer connectedness led Sandhu to the Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services, a not-for-profit organisation that empowers people from migrant and refugee backgrounds to participate fully in Australian society.
Working with Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services gave him the idea to create a formal Punjabi Sikh community organisation. Sandhu along with his other Sikh friends mulled the idea of a monthly meet with help from any established committee of gurudwaras in Melbourne. Moreover, the idea of monthly meet also meant children could get together and learn about their culture, or when parents visit them from India they could have a place to go to and interact with others as most often they end up feeling lonely and socially isolated. So, this is how the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Bendigo came into existence.
“We have been getting good support from Craigieburn, Tarneit and Shepparton gurudwaras. They send a priest who comes along with the holy book the Guru Granth Sahibji and the Ragi Jatha (musicians) to conduct the prayers,” says Sandhu.
The Sabha organises a formal meet up every first Sunday. Other activities include teaching kids how to tie a turban, and a program called PB or Punjabi Bolo which is essentially teaching children the Punjabi language.
Last year when the world celebrated the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Bendigo became the first Sikh community in the region to take part in a colourful parade with a decorated mobile Gurudwara float complete with priest, hymn singing, and martial arts displays. It was a proud moment for the community.
The Bendigo Sikh community also unveiled a golden Ik Onkar statue at the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion last year with the help of the Victorian Sikh Council and local Sikhs.
At the moment, the Bendigo Sabha does not have a permanent gurudwara, But it is not something that worries Sandhu, who is grateful that the management of St Mary’s Church has been kind enough to give them a space for all their activities. “As long as we have a place, we are happy. It’s mainly about educating kids and the next generation and keeping them tied to their roots and culture. That is very important along with the religion.”
However, going into the future Sandhu is hoping for a positive response from the local Council as the Sikhs have been raising the issue with local MPs and administrators. “It will be nice to have a permanent place to keep our holy book and a home for the priest. That’s why we are trying to keep the funds safe and raise more but unfortunately this year has been very difficult,” he says.
Sandhu seems happy grappling with a chosen home, making a mark in community life and the greater multicultural scoiety. “It is very important when you are living in a regional area that others get to know you, so we also have to get engaged with others outside the community by inviting them to our cultural activities. That way they can see who we are and what we are doing,” says Sandhu, who was a school teacher back in India, but is now a health sector worker.
He believes social cohesion and assimilation can come about not just through food but through exposing cultures and establishing friendships through it. “Our kids are growing up here, they will raise the next generation, we are living in this multicultural country, so it is very important to assimilate and have cultural exchanges.”
In 2013, there must have been about 100 Sikh families in Bendigo reckons Sandhu. That has almost doubled over the past 6-7 years. Not surprising given Bendigo is emerging as a leading regional hub for migrants, especially Indians. “I see different people on the road now and I think it is growing very fast,” says Sandhu, with a laugh.
Like him, Gurmeet Singh, another of his Sikh compatriot who moved to Bendigo from Coffs Harbour, says, “We are surrounded by good people here and we have never regretted settling down here. Once you start getting used to the regional lifestyle, you also start appreciating the time you get to spend with your family and friends.”
During this pandemic, Sikh organisations in Victoria have been contributing to help those affected. In Bendigo, Sandhu has been the point person for the Khalsa Aid Australia in distributing food to the needy. Inspired, he also did other deliveries in his own capacity. With Bendigo becoming an increasingly multicultural area, people like Sandhu believe they have a shared premise to call the region their own.