Kids Corner


There Are Sikhs in Chile?




Last week, I met a Jorge Contesse Singh from Chile.

He is a law professor and advocate who sat beside me at a gathering of global legal experts. He had long black hair. neatly tied back in a pony-tail, so that a straight strong nose seemed to make sense.

He was part of a group of alternative thinkers who had come together at Harvard Law School to discuss and develop new legal theories needed to understand the new world order. When the participants went around the room to introduce themselves to the larger group, and Jorge stated his full name, that he was from Chile and was working on indigenous rights.

During the break, when he and I first started to talk, he told me about his work as an advocate for indigenous rights in Chile through his position as a Director of a Legal Clinic attached to the national law school. It was very interesting, but as soon as he handed me his card, he became fascinating.

As I took his card, I said (almost without taking a breath in between) , "You are a Sikh?" He nodded and clasped my hand, "Yes" he said. I then wanted to know more about this comrade of mine, whose great-grandfather, like me, had travelled far and wide.

I might have looked incredulous, but I still continued, as I was so curious and happy and excited to learn of his heritage. I continued: "How is that possible?"

He told me that yes, his great-grandfather was Sikh and was the one who had come over to Chile.

The break between lectures was over too quickly and we had to turn our attention back to the podium and all I could think about for the next hours (since we were not able to get a chance to talk privately) was what his family history was, where his grandfather come from - which town, which village, what street ... and what made him move to Chile.

That night, I got on the internet and looked up key words like 'Sikhs in Latin American', 'Sikhs in Chile', 'South American Sikhs', and all I could get were limited references in post - WWII newspaper clippings about Sikh regiments in the British army that had ended up all over the world. But nothing related to what Jorge had mentioned. 

Of course, being a Sikh-Canadian myself, I knew our story of the Komagata Maru and wondered if a similar story had happened there. So I went to sleep that night determined to get Jorge's the next day at the Harvard sessions. 

The next day, I sat beside Jorge and as soon as there was a break in the sessions, I turned to him and asked ... so tell me about your great-grandfather. He said, " I know his name is Inder Singh and he arrived in Valpraisio, Chile on a ship in the early 20th century." He continued to say, "My mother (who is his grand-daughter) thought that he came before the first world war (WWI) and that the ship was on its way to California."

I asked, "So why did he end up in Chile?"  He said, "Well, this is a romantic story!"

And he continued: "My great-grand father was travelling on the ship and he met my great-grandmother on the ship (who was Spanish) and once they stopped in Chile, they decided to stay and that is the beginning of my family history."

I was so much more intrigued and asked him if he knew more names that his great-grandfather had, for example a surname. As I explained all Sikhs carry the name Singh or Kaur, but some also have last names, names that sometimes correspond to the villages or regions they originated from. I also told him that around the same period we were speaking about, a ship filled with Sikhs travelled to the West Coast of Canada, it was called the Komagata Maru. And his eyes lit up, "Yes he said, the story you tell of the Komagata Maru sounds similar to what I hear in my family about Inder, my great-grandfather's journey to Chile."

Jorge continued: "What you also mention about Sikhs having some agricultural experience and entrepreneurial spirit, is how Inder Singh Gorali was described as a person."

(Note: I could not find it in a google search of Sikh surnames, but it could have been an phonetical evolution of the name 'Grewal'?)

He asked me to send him some information on the Komagatu Maru and I proceeded to look for more references to how Sikhs might have ended up in South America. What I found is this, from census documents in Argentina from the 1895 report that there were 6 persons of Indo-English origin there. The reason Sikhs might have showed up here was also attributed to the British, who were thought to have brought Sikhs to this region for various reasons including: provision of security for colonial sugar mill operations that were threatened by bandits; to build the railroads (that had also happened in Africa and Europe).

There was also another rumour about how Sikhs might have ended up in South America, which was that they had been dumped by ships on the shores of the South American continent and got to Argentina through Peru and Brazil and Chile. A final rumour, was that workers who were in Cuba working on the Panama Canal, after the construction was completed, apprehensive of going back to India, made their way to more Southern parts of the continent.

As further evidence to support the claim that Sikhs ended up and thrived in South America, a link has been established in the literature between the enactment of draconian laws in Canada and the U.S. that prevented the entry or expelled Sikhs and the fact that Sikhs ended up settling in South America as their new home.

So the story goes that once they suffered expulsion or were prevented entry into the promised lands of the British colonies in the New World and they were turned back to sea, they got off at the closest next port (Bolivia, Argentina and Chile), that they had heard back home from others that these places also had large free tracts of land for them to occupy and farm. And in order to entrench themselves into life in South America, they started by working in the sugar mills or railroads for the British as mentioned above.

Most of the evidence supporting the existence of Sikhs in South America comes from Argentina, where there have been studies done on 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation Sikhs.

Since in these countries the husband's name is kept, the name of the family becomes "Singh."

So, as a result of this chance meeting, I met Jorge Contesse Singh, a Sikh from Chile. I wonder about many more of our ancestors who are pioneers and who traveled far and wide to experience other cultures and countries. These explorers arrived in this continent completely different from the subcontinent and who are now part of the local cultural landscapes.


[Jasteena is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Harvard Law School.]

June 8, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Surinder Sikand (Foster City, California, U.S.A.), June 08, 2010, 11:25 AM.

Very fascinating and intriguing account of the origins of Sikhs in the South America which has fired my imagination. I wonder if Jasteena was able to photograph Jose Singh!

2: Gursharan (Hong Kong), June 08, 2010, 9:00 PM.

Excellent article.

3: Kirpal Singh (Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S.A.), June 09, 2010, 6:33 PM. Above is a link about Sikhs in Argentina. The story about Sikhs in Chile is fascinating. Thank you!

4: Manjit Singh Bara Pindia  (Canada), June 10, 2010, 12:25 AM.

There is a village named "Gorali" in the Gujranwala district (or Gujrat district). It is now in the Pakistan part of Punjab.

5: Anju (London, United Kingdom), June 10, 2010, 1:27 AM.

Fascinating article. What other remote and unexpected places have Sikhs ended up in?

6: Prabhu Singh Khalsa (Espanola, New Mexico, U.S.A.), June 10, 2010, 9:21 PM.

My sister-in-law, my brother's wife is a Sikh from Chile. There are hundreds of Sikhs in Chile who are not of Punjabi descent and who have blogs and pictures and facebook accounts that are abundant on the internet.

7: Amitoj Singh (Haryana, India), June 21, 2010, 9:45 AM.

Happy to see that Sikhs abroad are holding up the Sikh flag high and, at the same time, feel shame for Punjab's Sikhs who are letting things slide under Akali (mis)rule and the Akal Takht's mis-steps .

8: Surma Singh  (Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.), December 05, 2010, 6:04 PM.

Very cool article!

9: Inder Singh (Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A.), December 27, 2010, 5:04 PM.

I am visiting Chile in January 2011. I would like to get in touch with some Sikhs there. Can anyone help me with some contact info, please?

10: Rai Uriarte (Santiago, Chile), May 09, 2011, 1:04 PM.

You can visit to see more of Sikhism in Chile. We're a small Sikh community, but for sure, there's a Sikh presence in Chile. Blessings from Valdivia (south of Chile).

11: Naval Singh (Singapore), January 06, 2013, 7:18 AM.

Intriguing, but very pleasant news. Wish for more information.

12: Amarjit Singh Banwatt (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), May 05, 2015, 4:23 AM.

We are visiting Santiago, Chile and wondering if there is a gurdwara in Santiago. Local address will be very helpful. We are here till May 6.

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