Story: Diverse religions

Page 6. Sikhs

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In 2013 New Zealand was home to more than 19,100 Sikhs, a religious and ethnic community based in the Indian state of Punjab. The population more than doubled between 2006 and 2013. The New Zealand Sikh Society was established in 1964. Sikh numbers were very small until the changes to immigration policy in the 1980s. The first Sikh gurudwara (temple) opened in Hamilton in 1997. Seven more gurudwaras were set up in the Auckland area, and others in Tauranga, Te Puke, Hastings, Palmerston North and Wellington. The community has increased almost sevenfold since the 1990s, and in 2009 the first South Island centre opened, in Christchurch.

What is the Sikh religion?

Sikhs acknowledge a lineage of 10 gurus or teachers, beginning with Guru Nanak (1469–1539). In 1708 the 10th guru, Guru Gobind Singh, nominated the Adi Granth (the Sikh sacred scriptures) as his successor, thereafter known as Guru Granth Sahib or ‘living guru’. The Guru Granth Sahib is a central feature in each gurudwara. Sikhs celebrate the Punjabi New Year, Vaisakhi.

Sikh men traditionally wear a dastaar (turban) and have a full beard. Sikhs subscribe to the five Ks:

  • kachch (wearing full undergarments, indicating self-discipline)
  • kara (wearing an iron bangle on the right wrist, referring to dharma or order)
  • kes (unshaved and uncut hair symbolising saintliness, dating back to Guru Nanak)
  • kanga (carrying a hair comb)
  • kirpan (a small dagger, symbol of self-reliance).

Come on in

The Sikh place of worship, the gurudwara (literally guru’s door), traditionally has doors opening in all four directions, to symbolise that all are welcome. Inside a gurudwara shoes must be removed and the head covered. Every gurudwara provides langar, a free communal meal. The gurudwara in Wellington, opened in 1997, is the southernmost in the world.

Problems in New Zealand

Their traditional clothing and artefacts promote Sikh social cohesion and identity, but also differentiate them from other New Zealanders and can cause concern. For example, wearing the kirpan has been an issue at schools and on domestic flights. In 2008 a Sikh policeman in Nelson became the first to include a turban as part of his uniform. However, in 2009 the Manurewa Cosmopolitan Club refused to admit a Sikh wearing his turban, leading to an official complaint to the Human Rights Commission. Wearing turbans can also raise health and safety issues for Sikh workers.

Sikh organisations

Sikhs are represented nationally by the Sikh Council of New Zealand (SCNZ) and the rival Supreme Sikh Council of New Zealand. Tensions have arisen when Hindu organisations have claimed to include Sikhs under a Hindu identity. In 2007 SCNZ successfully defeated attempts by the Hindu Council of New Zealand to install Guru Granth Sahib in the Hindu Heritage Centre in Māngere, South Auckland. There is a New Zealand Sikh Women's Association in Auckland and a Sikh Centre in Manukau promoting greater interaction between Sikhs and the wider New Zealand community. The association sponsors annual competitions in painting, writing and phulkari, traditional Punjabi embroidery.

Studying Sikhs

Professor Hew McLeod, originally from Feilding, was a world authority on Sikh studies. In the 1950s he became a Christian missionary near the Indian city of Amritsar, the spiritual home of the Sikh people. McLeod learned the Punjabi language and wrote highly influential books overturning long-held views on the origins of the Sikh religion. He later pioneered oral-history techniques to record the history of Sikhs in New Zealand.

New Zealand Sikhs

Sikhs in New Zealand place a particular emphasis on Anzac Day commemorations, when they remember Sikh combatants at Gallipoli. They are also active in interfaith dialogue.

Prominent Sikhs include Sukhi Turner, the mayor of Dunedin from 1999 to 2004, and Kanwal Singh Bakshi, who became the first Sikh MP in 2008.

How to cite this page:

Paul Morris, 'Diverse religions - Sikhs', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/diverse-religions/page-6 (accessed 17 October 2017)

Story by Paul Morris, published 5 May 2011, updated 13 Feb 2017