PUTARB SINGH – Henty New South Wales

PUTARB SINGH – Henty New South Wales

 Extract from: SIKH AND HINDU CREMATIONS IN AUSTRALIA…by Len Kenna & Crystal Jordan 2015.

Putarb Singh aka Purtarb, was an itinerant hawker in Victoria and New South Wales. When he retired from hawking Putarb settled in Henty, New South Wales and lived in a shed behind the saleyards. He was a picturesque figure in Henty and remembered for his long whiskers, which he usually twisted and tied across his head. He became known as Cheap Jack Charley, old Putarb Singh, it was claimed, would buy and resell anything that stood, or even leaned, on four legs. He was also a successful horse dealer.

Putarb would have been one of the Indians that signed the petition addressed to the Governor General of Australia in May 1902, drawn up by Indian’s living in and around the Albury district. In the petition they asked for a Member to be elected in the Federal Government to represent their interests, regarding the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. They stated in that they were willing to pay a levy of 2/6 (25 cents) each to pay the salary of such a representative. However nothing seemed come of the petition.  It should have been addressed to the Right Honorable Joseph Chamberlain.[1] The Sikhs in Western Australia sent a similar petition, signed by 100 Sikhs, to the Right Hon. Mr. Chamberlain in 1898.[2]

Rule Singh, Rutten Singh, Sunda Singh, Currum Singh (see image below), Gharne Singh and Harman Singh worked in the Henty district and were friends with Putarb. He was often called upon to perform the last rites at the cremation of his Indian countrymen, for example; Rur (aka Rural or Rule) Singh in June 1939 and Rutten Singh in 1944. Both funerals were at the Albury Indian Cemetery. Other cremations he may have attended at the Albury Indian Cemetery of; Devan Singh July 1905, Jundan (aka Jundar, Gundar possibly Jundah or Gundah) August 1907, Sumar Singh March 1917, Utcher (aka Atcher) August 1917, Naran Singh from Kergunyah May 1918, Tarum (aka Taram) April 1918, Poorn (possibly Poonam or Pooran) Singh April 1923, Naran Singh from Dedarang August 1933 and Hamel Singh December 1935. Rutten Singh’s funeral seems to be the last one recorded at the Albury Indian Cemetery. Esser Singh died in a car accident at Wagga Wagga and was not cremated but buried in the Albury Indian Cemetery in 1929.[3] (Note: A cremation of an Indian was reported in c1928 by an Albury resident. It is possible that Esser was cremated by his countrymen and not buried, as was recorded on his death certificate in February. A cremation for Esser Singh was not reported in the newspaper.)

The Cremation of Devan Singh, Albury 1905. Reported to be the first cremation at Albury Indian Cemetery. Australasian Melb. 29 Jul. 1905.  Esher, Ernam, Buddan, Bishan, Junda, Unda and Buddar Singh were present at the funeral, five of them lifted the coffin onto the pyre and Esher Singh read the prayers. Photographs by J. W. Hunter.  By 1944 nearly all of the Indians pictured in this photograph would have died except for Putarb Singh.

More about the Albury Indian Cemetery. A couple of months after the Esher Singh conducted the cremation of Devan Singh in 1905, he and Chere Singh (may have been Sher Singh but he died in India in 1920 and Chere is reported as applying for hawker’s licenses after that time.), both residents of the Albury District, wrote to the Albury Borough Council, on behalf of their Indian friends, asking the Council, “to grant them an acre of land on the Common, or any  lesser area, embracing the site of the recent cremation for the purpose of cremating their dead.’ The Aldermen generally were in sympathy with the request, but the Council Clerk was asked to furnish a report as to the best location for the site, etc. The Engineer presented his report on a site for the Indian Community at the next meeting of the Council on the 4th October. His report, printed in the Border Morning Mail and Riverina Times on the 6 October 1905, stated; “In regard to the site for burial purposes for the Hindoo people, I visited Popp’s Lane. There is an area of 38 acres fronting this road, and about 20 chains east from main Wagga Road, which has been set apart by the Government as a cemetery reserve.  I would suggest that one acre be set apart in the N.W. corner of the reserve, half-an-acre to be for the Buddhists, and half-an-acre for the Mohammedans, provided they fence it in to council’s approval.”  A report in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express on the 20 October stated that the Albury Borough Council recommended, “that one acre be set apart as suggested by the Engineer for a Hindoo Cemetery.”

Esser Singh from Wagga Wagga NSW, 1926. Courtesy of National Archives Australia.

Albury Banner and Wodonga Express NSW Fri. 29 Sep. 1905, p. 23.

The two Indian men pictured in this photograph would have been Purtab Singh and Currum Singh who organised the cremation. Currum Singh read the ceremony at Rule Singh’s Cremation on 25 June 1939 at Albury Indian Cemetery, N.S.W., now Jelbart Park. Photo: R. J. Fielder courtesy of Albury Museum NSW. Note: Currum Singh died at Wagga Wagga 1942 and his remains were not cremated at the Indian Cemetery they were buried in the Methodist Section of the Henty Cemetery which was quite unusual considering Putarb Singh was the informant on his death certificate. Putarb was quite elderly by 1942 and the last of the Indians that had previously organised the cremations in the Albury and Henty districts so it seems he was unable to arrange the cremation for Currum.

The last of his Tribe. In 1951 Purtarb was the last of his countrymen still living at Henty. He committed suicide and his body was found on the 30th September 1951 in his bush hut, at Henty, which he had set on fire. After a careful examination, the police stated that his heart had split as a result of internal combustion. It appears that Purtab had set fire to his hut before he slit his own throat.

Putarb was a wealthy man. He owned two houses and had almost £1,000 ($2,000) in the Bank. He had lived in the Henty District for approximately fifty years. New Patapa Singh of Myrtleford, Victoria,  who was reported to be Putarb’s nephew, identified fragments of a book in the ashes, as the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. He explained to the Coroner that the Akandh Path is read at cremations and at other times.[4] The reason for his apparent suicide was that Putarb had asked New Patapa to travel to India with him. He refused and as result of the refusal Putarb became depressed.[5]

When Patapa refused to accompany his uncle to India, he may have disappointed him, but under normal circumstances, this would not cause a normal healthy person to take his own life. The true cause of his suicide would have been an underlying problem with Putarb’s mental health.A large number of rural workers suffered from depression; this was the result of living hard and lonely lives. The incidents of rural suicides in the Sikh community (and possibly in other migrant communities) were higher than in the rural Australian community.To say that Putarb Singh committed suicide because his nephew would not accompany him to India is too simplistic. If Putarb had wanted to go to India that badly he could have accompanied someone else, or returned to India on his own.

In any case, Putarb must have suffered a painful, mental and physical death. To prepare for his death by reading his own Akhand Path (funeral service), if that is what he did, and then to endure the pain of cutting his own throat and, while bleeding to death, set fire to his house to ensure that his body was cremated is difficult to comprehend.This behaviour suggests that it is the result of deeper issues in Putarb’s mental health. But, it is a good example of the difficult lifestyle that the Sikh hawkers and rural workers endured, during this time.

Putarb Singh was not given the rites of cremation as he had organised for his countrymen, he was buried in a neutral zone in the Henty Cemetery, in an unmarked grave in the presence of four police officers, the gravedigger and undertaker. Putarb’s grave has been restored and a marker with his name installed on it due to the efforts of Funeral Director, Edward Dale, who ensured that unmarked graves that could be identified in the Henty Cemetery, were restored and markers with names were placed on them. In 2008 Mrs. Sujatha Singh, the Indian High commissioner visited Henty to acknowledge the communities effort in recognising two Indian hawkers who are now in marked graves.

lenkenna-crystaljordanAre Indians An Ethnic Minority? Vols 1-5

© Len Kenna 28.11.2015

[1]“Indian Residents of Australia. Petition to the King.” Morning Bulletin Rockhampton, Qld. Wed. 28 May 1902, p. 7.
“Asiatic Immigration Restriction. Petition From Sikhs to Mr. Chamberlain.” The West Australian Perth, WA. Fri. 21 Jan. 1898, p. 3.
[3] Singh, Esser, Death Certificate 5106/1929 NSW
[4] Note: It is most likely that the remains of the Holy Book were wrongly identified by Patapa Singh, or wrongly reported in the newspaper. The remains were more likely to be of a smaller Holy Book called the Gutka and not the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. This assumption is made because Sikh religious practice requires that if, a Sri Guru Granth Sahib is kept in a private home it must be kept in a special room, which is kept solely to house the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. This would not have been possible as Purtab Singh was living in a small tin hut. A tin hut is not a respectable place to keep the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. The Gutka was photographed being used at several cremations at Albury that were organised by Purtab and Currum Singh, both from Henty.
[5] Hawker’s Death was Suicide. The Canberra Times, ACT, Saturday 6th October 1951, p, 3.

The Indian in this photograph may be Currum Singh who was reported to have read the ceremony at Rule Singh’s Cremation on 25 June 1939 at Albury Indian Cemetery, N.S.W., now Jelbart Park. Photo: R. J. Fielder courtesy of Albury Museum NSW.



Purtab Singh grave marker at Henty Cemetery NSW. Photo: Crystal Jordan Purtab Singh grave marker at Henty Cemetery NSW. Photo: Crystal Jordan