The immigration of Indians to Australia began in 1800 when they were brought in from the north-western region of Punjab as workers in agriculture and gold mining, and as domestic helpers. Most of these immigrants settled in New South Wales.
In the 1860s, cameleers from the Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab, Bihar of British India, as well as what is Pakistan today, were brought in with their camels for the Burke and Wills expedition. With the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, Indian immigration was halted. However, Anglo-Indians and British citizens who were born in India were permitted to migrate after India achieved independence from Britain in 1947.
With a change in the Australian Government’s policy in 1966, Indian migrants had the opportunity to settle in Australia and so began the arrival of professionals including doctors, teachers and engineers. These migrants represented the diverse cultural, linguistic and religious groups in India.
Settlement in NT
The first wave of Indian-born migrants to the Northern Territory (NT) began in the 1970s. This group of migrants, predominantly from the northern and central Indian states of Gujarat, Punjab and Bihar, included geologists, teachers and public servants who found that Darwin provided employment opportunities.
Many returned after Cyclone Tracy and re-established themselves here despite their losses from the disaster. By the early 1980s, the Indian community in Darwin, made up of about six families, was joined by other arrivals of Indian descent from Fiji, Malaysia and Singapore.
Today the Indian community in the NT includes a more diverse range of people including settlers from the southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. These new Indian migrants have been attracted by the job opportunities in the NT, as well as the living conditions and environment.
In the past, Indian students pursued higher education in American and British universities. Many students are now choosing to further their studies in Australia, including at Charles Darwin University.
Proximity to India, lower costs of studying and the agreeable weather are some of the factors influencing students to come to Darwin.
Settlement issues and challenges
The Indian community faced two major challenges when they arrived in NT.
Earlier Indian migrants faced difficulties because of the isolation of Darwin and the absence of their extended family ties.
The availability of spices, particularly fresh spices, was a major challenge to the community. To overcome this, spices were purchased in bulk from interstate suppliers and stocked in large freezers.
Over time, as the community increased in size, it developed a support network.
According to the 2006 Census, there are 590 Indian-born people in the NT, representing 0.4% of Indian-born people in Australia. The number of people in the NT Indian community is understood to be much higher.
English is widely spoken. There are also other languages and dialects spoken in the community - for example, Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada and Bengali.
Religion, practices and traditions
The main religions practised by the Indian community in the NT include Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.
Community events in the NT
The Indian community participates in many cultural and social activities. Some of the cultural activities and functions organised by the Indian Cultural Society are listed below.
Festival of lights
The annual Christmas function and the Hindu Deepavali, the festival of lights, are important celebrations for the multi-faith community.
The colourful festival of Holi is celebrated on Phalgun Purnima at the end of February or early March each year. The Holi festival has an ancient origin and celebrates the triumph of 'good' over 'bad'.
The festival bridges the social gap and renews positive relationships, with people hugging and wishing each other 'Happy Holi'. They share sweets and throw colourful dye and water as part of the festivities.
Baisakhi is a celebration of spring and the harvest.
Dandia - stick dancing
Dandia or stick dancing is performed at various times, including at the annual India @ Mindil Festival, a popular event showcasing Indian culture, crafts and food at Mindil Beach. The festival also includes demonstrations of sari tying, chappati flat bread-making and mehndi (henna decoration).
Other events and activities
The Indian Cultural Society organises family-oriented picnics. Health workshops on dementia and cancer are organised. The community has a volunteer health worker.
Other regular activities include:
- weekly Hindi language classes every Sunday at Alawa Pre-school (non-Indians also participate in these classes)
- weekly Telugu language classes
- an education program on Indian values, heritage and culture held on the first Sunday of every month - this program aims to give children an understanding of Indian culture rather than enforcing it
- dancing lessons in both traditional and Bollywood styles
- music lessons - Indian percussion and string instruments such as tabla and sitar and lessons in singing
- running and walking club every Sunday morning as well as yoga classes
- an equivalent to Valentine’s Day celebrations - a Gazal and Shayari (romance and poetry) night held at Charles Darwin University
- cooking lessons and an informal cooking club held in the homes of Indian community members
- Indian embroidery sessions, traditional needlework and arts and craft.
For more information contact Indian Cultural Society president Bharat Desai on 0488 574 933 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources and acknowledgements
This community profile was developed with assistance from former Indian Cultural Society NT president Jaya Srinivas, as well as information from the Australian Government's Department of Immigration and Border Protection website.