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by  Nancy Swarbrick

In 2002 around 30,000 Wellington people attended the colourful Diwali Festival of Lights. Today there is appreciation of the diverse and complex cultures of New Zealand Indians. But these groups have not always been able to express their identity so freely. For years, hostility and prejudice made life difficult for Indian people in New Zealand.

Indian communities

New Zealand’s Indians are people native to countries in the Indian sub-continent, notably India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and their descendants. After the Chinese, they are the country’s largest Asian ethnic group. New Zealand has many different Indian communities, distinguished by place of origin, language, religion and caste. Often these differences have not been well understood by other New Zealanders.

Countries of origin

Until the 1980s most Indians in New Zealand were born in Gujarat, in north-western India, or were descended from those born there. The next largest group traced their origins to the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. A smaller number came from other places including Fiji, Africa, Malaysia, the Caribbean, North America, the United Kingdom and Western Europe. In 1981, about 46% of Indians had been born in New Zealand, 31% in India, 13% in Fiji, and 10% in other countries.

By 2001, two major changes were apparent. The proportion of New Zealand-born Indians had dropped dramatically to 28.6%, and the proportion born in Fiji had risen to 31.3%.


While the majority of Indians in New Zealand are Hindu, there are also Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Parsis and Christians, to name the main religious groups. Most Indians of Gujarati origin are Hindu, although some are Muslim. Those from Punjab are mainly Sikh. Indians who have recently come to New Zealand from Fiji are both Hindu and Muslim.

Identity – the best of both worlds

Some Indians not born in New Zealand still regard India or other places of origin as home. New Zealand-born generations, however, often think of themselves as ‘Indian New Zealanders’. A recent study suggests that many of these people maintain separate Indian and New Zealand identities. Within the home and with other Indians they follow traditional customs, such as observing religious and cultural rituals, speaking their language, wearing Indian clothes and eating Indian food. In public, they adopt the practices of the majority culture.

Early immigration

Arrivals before 1840

Indians have come to New Zealand since the late 18th century. At that time British East India Company ships brought supplies to Australian convict settlements, and often stopped in New Zealand to pick up homeward cargoes. Their crews included Lascars (Indian seamen) and Sepoys (Indian soldiers), some of whom deserted in New Zealand.

A Bengali man is said to have jumped ship in 1810 to marry a Māori woman. One man was living with his Māori wife in the Bay of Islands in 1815; another took up residence on Stewart Island after 1814.

1840–1890: few and far between

Before the 1880s Indians were not identified in census records, but their presence was noted. One, Edward Peter (also known as ‘Black Peter’), arrived around 1853. Although the Australian Gabriel Read is credited with discovering gold at Tuapeka in Otago, it was Edward Peter who told him where it could be found.

The 1881 census recorded six Indian men, three of whom lived in Canterbury and were probably servants of wealthy English settlers who had lived in India.

Increasing numbers

Steadier Indian migration to New Zealand began in the 1890s. By 1896 the number of Indians in New Zealand had grown to 46. The numbers fluctuated over the next 20 years as people arrived and departed, but by 1916 there were 181, including 14 females. They came mostly from the Navsari and Surat regions of Gujarat province, but also from Jalandhar and Hoshiarpur in the Punjab.

Reasons for choosing New Zealand

Overpopulation, underemployment, and the decline of village industries led many Indians to seek advancement in other countries. The rising standard of living, combined with crippling family wedding expenses, also made it vital to earn more money. Gujaratis and Punjabis had always had close contact with Westerners through British-run industries in India, and were aware of opportunities overseas. Some who were seafarers or employees of British civil servants heard about New Zealand’s employment possibilities.

Occupations and destinations

These first immigrants were often sojourners rather than settlers: they intended to return to India once they had improved their lot. They were almost all men. Many, especially Sikhs, were employed as flax workers, drain diggers and scrub cutters. In fact, in 1916 nearly half of all Indians lived in rural areas. They also built roads and made bricks, and in urban areas they worked as bottle collectors and hawkers of fruit and vegetables. Apart from a small community in Christchurch, most chose to live in the North Island, especially Auckland.

Racism and official opposition

Indian immigrants encountered prejudice from white settlers. They were often lumped in the category of ‘Assyrian hawkers’, along with Syrians and Lebanese. During the 1890s there were attempts to legislate against the activities of these hawkers, and to limit their immigration.

The Immigration Restriction Act was passed in 1899. Before this date Indians, as British subjects, had been able to enter New Zealand freely, unlike other Asian migrants such as Chinese, who as ‘aliens’ faced restrictions from the 1880s. The new act made it necessary for anyone not ‘of British birth and parentage’ to fill out their immigration application in a European language. But it proved only a minor barrier to Indians determined to go to New Zealand. Many simply memorised application information at special ‘cramming schools’ in Fiji, en route to New Zealand.


The numbers of Indian immigrants fell during the First World War because of travel restrictions, but climbed afterwards. The news that New Zealand was going to further limit Asian immigration, along with tough immigration laws in other destinations such as South Africa, contributed to the rise. In India, famines were another reason to emigrate. By 1921 the Indian population of New Zealand had reached 671.

Further restrictions

The increase in the Indian population led to more anti-Asian agitation among European New Zealanders. After the war a ‘reciprocity principle’ was established between India and self-governing dominions of the British Empire such as New Zealand. This stated that Indians, who were British subjects, could enter any other British country as visitors or temporary residents. It also allowed Indians living permanently in other British countries to bring in spouses and children. But New Zealand’s Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920 made it possible to block Indian immigration while maintaining the reciprocity principle. The act required anyone not of British birth and parentage to apply for a permit before entering New Zealand. The definition of British birth excluded Indians and other ‘aboriginal natives’ of British colonies or dominions.

Continuing immigration

As a result of the 1920 act Indians were usually denied entry permits, but they continued to come by other means. As families of existing Indian residents were allowed entry under the reciprocity principle, many men chose to send for their sons. These boys could gain a New Zealand education and help their fathers earn money. It was also simple for a resident Indian to bring in male friends or other relatives as his ‘sons’. Another way to get around immigration barriers was to arrive as a student under a temporary permit and, once educated and employed in a profession, apply for permanent residence.

The gender balance and population growth

Few women arrived before the Second World War. The Indian community remained predominantly male, as it was cheaper for men to leave their families behind and send money home. Many intended to return to India eventually anyway.

During this period, the official numbers of Indians of ‘mixed blood’ increased significantly: there were liaisons and intermarriage with both Māori and European women. The Indian population grew steadily into the 1940s and numbered 1,554 in 1945.

The White New Zealand League

Between 1925 and 1927, Indian market gardeners at Pukekohe were the target of a racist campaign started by other growers, which turned into a national movement.

The White New Zealand League, established in 1926, was opposed to both Chinese and Indian immigration because it was seen as a threat to the racial integrity and economic prosperity of European New Zealanders. The league found support among a range of groups including grower associations, labour organisations, local bodies and the Returned Soldiers’ Association, but flourished for only a few years.

However, racial tensions persisted at Pukekohe. Until the late 1950s, Indians there were excluded from barbers, private bars, and balcony seats in cinemas, and could not join the local growers’ association.

Taking part in politics

Before 1947, Indian associations took a keen interest in India’s struggle for independence, and hosted visiting Indian politicians. For many years their participation in New Zealand politics was limited to making submissions to Parliament on issues affecting the Indian population. Now, Indians are centrally involved in national and local politics. Sukhi Turner, who was a long-serving mayor of Dunedin, and Ashraf Choudhary, Labour member of Parliament, are two examples of high-profile politicians with constituencies beyond the Indian community.

Where they lived and worked

Most Indians lived in the North Island, especially Auckland, although there were communities in Wellington, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Manawatū, and Wairarapa.

After 1936, as agricultural occupations such as scrub and flax cutting declined, more Indians moved into market gardening. Punjabi Sikhs, who often had farming experience, settled mainly in the Waikato district and took up dairy farming.

The late 1930s also saw a shift to the towns, where Indians worked in hotels and in manufacturing and processing industries. Many laboured hard to acquire capital so they could open fruit and vegetable stores.

After the Second World War

Population growth

At the 1951 census there were 2,425 Indians in New Zealand. In 1981, they numbered 11,244. But by 2001, the Indian population had surged to 62,646.

Twelve years on, in 2013, a total of 159,333 people said they had Indian, Fijian Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi ethnicity. However, as some may have claimed more than one ethnicity, this is only a rough guide to the total Indian population.

Until 1981 steady growth was due to a number of factors, including a marked post-war diaspora of Indian people, and the arrival of the wives of the first Indian immigrants. During the 1980s, changes in immigration policy, along with political instability in other countries, brought many more Indians to New Zealand.

Women’s influence

After the Second World War Indian women arrived in greater numbers to help in businesses that their husbands and fathers had set up. With the birth of children in New Zealand, the Indian community became more balanced and settled, and also more self-sufficient. Although the New Zealand government saw the arrival of women as assisting assimilation into the wider community, in some ways it had the opposite effect. The home-making contribution of women made it more feasible for Indians to follow traditional dietary practices. Women also revived some daily religious observances centred on the household.

Vital ingredients

It was difficult to follow a traditional Indian diet in 1950s New Zealand, especially for vegetarians. Many ingredients were unavailable, so some lateral thinking was needed. Indian women grew their own chillies, coriander, garlic and eggplant. They ground rice flour by hand, and bought rosewater and cardamom from the chemist. These days other New Zealanders also have a taste for Indian food, and restaurants offering different regional cuisines abound.

Immigration policy

Before the 1970s it remained difficult for Indians not related to the earlier immigrants to enter New Zealand. However, a small number of Fijian Indians arrived in the mid-1960s. In 1972–73, 243 Asians (including many of Indian ethnicity) were accepted as refugees after being expelled from Uganda.

In the 1980s the official attitude towards Asian immigration relaxed and some business migrants arrived. Following the 1987 and 2000 military coups in Fiji, many Fijian Indians were accepted on humanitarian grounds. And since the 1990s small numbers of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have become established. In 2013 there were 2,853 Pakistanis and 1,476 Bangladeshis.

Occupational change

From the 1970s the opening of supermarkets changed shopping patterns. It was about this time that many Indians invested in dairies (convenience stores), which could make a small profit by operating for extended hours. Others started video stores or restaurants in the 1980s. While many Indians are still employed in retail work and market gardening, others, both men and women, have moved into skilled jobs and the professions, including medicine, education and information technology.

Retaining and transforming culture

Unity and diversity

From 1918 onwards, Indians adopted a united front despite religious and other differences. They established associations to combat ignorance and hostility, and to promote Indian values and culture.

The Auckland Indian Association was the first such organisation, and eventually there were nine regional associations. In addition, the Central Indian Association was formed in 1926–27 to respond to the propaganda of the racist White New Zealand League, and to provide a focus for the regional associations.

Nowadays, with the exception of the Sikh-oriented Taumarunui association, the Indian associations are predominantly Gujarati and Hindu in character. Sikhs and Muslims have established separate organisations to foster their own religious and cultural traditions. More recent immigrants of Indian ethnicity have formed their own support groups, such as the Probasee Bengalee Association, the Bangladesh New Zealand Friendship Society and the Pakistani Association.

Bollywood in New Zealand

After the Second World War, Indian associations began to hire and screen films in Hindi to impart an idea of Indian culture to the younger generation. These movies, usually musicals with a central love story, were produced in Bombay (Mumbai), sometimes dubbed ‘Bollywood’. Since the box-office success of Kaho naa pyaar hai (Say I love you), filmed in Queenstown, New Zealand has been seen as an ideal location for such movies.

Nurturing language

In the 1950s and 1960s some of the Indian associations started classes in Gujarati language and culture for younger people. Many of these classes continue today. Other languages, such as Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali and Hindi, were maintained within families. Formal teaching of Hindi began in Wellington in 1985, and Fijian Hindi classes started in the 1990s.

Keeping in touch

A monthly Gujarati newspaper, Aryodaya, existed briefly in 1921. It was followed by another periodical, Uday, published between 1933 and 1935. In 1972 the New Zealand Indian Chronicle ran for a short time. Now Indian New Zealanders are more likely to catch up with community news through websites such as Indian Newslink or NZ Punjabi, and the bi-monthly Hindi magazine, Bharat-Darshan.

The arts

The first Indian immigrants to New Zealand did not come from parts of India that emphasised the classical traditions in art, music, literature and dancing. Now that the Indian population is more diverse and established, there is considerable interest in dancing, music and other arts. Audiences flock to hear visiting musicians such as the sarod player Amjad Ali Khan, and classical dance is enjoying a revival among the younger generation.


Sport, especially hockey and cricket, has always been important to the Indian community. In the late 1920s in Wellington and Auckland, men would get together on a Sunday to play cricket, sometimes using the lids of banana boxes as bats. In the 1930s sports associations were founded in Auckland and Wellington, inspired by the All India Hockey Team’s tour of New Zealand.

Later, sports clubs were formed in Christchurch and Pukekohe, and in the early 1960s the New Zealand Indian Sports Association was established. From the 1970s women became involved, and the range of sports expanded.

Notable New Zealand Indian sportspeople include Ramesh and Mohan Patel, who were members of the 1976 Olympic Hockey Team, and cricketer Dipak Patel.

Religion and kin

Worshipping together

Early Hindu immigrants missed the colourful mass celebration of festivals such as Navratri (nine nights of folk dance and prayer), Diwali (festival of lights), Janmāsthami (Lord Krishna’s birthday) and Ganesh Chaturthi (Lord Ganesh’s birthday).

Nevertheless, before 1925 Hindu Indians in Wellington and Auckland met regularly to pray and listen to readings from the Bhagavad Gita, their central religious text. In the 1920s permission was received from some local authorities to conduct cremations according to Hindu and Sikh rites. Later, the regional associations organised Gita classes, and the community halls they built were used for festivals. In 1964 the Sanskāra Kendra, a centre for religious instruction, was established in Auckland. Both Auckland and Wellington now have Hindu temples.

Sikhs celebrate festivals including Vaisakhi (a commemoration on 13 April of the establishment of a sacred community by Guru Gobind Singh), and guruparba, the birthdays of other gurus. In 1964 the New Zealand Sikh Society was formed to provide opportunities for religious and social interaction, and in 1977 the Sikh Gurdwara (temple) was opened at Te Rapa, just outside Hamilton. Now there are gurdwaras in Auckland, Wellington and Hawke’s Bay.

There were initially so few Indian Muslims that organised worship was almost impossible. The New Zealand Muslim Association was founded in 1950 and reconstituted in 1976, bringing together Muslims of all cultures and ethnic backgrounds. According to the 2013 census, Indians made up about 36% of New Zealand's Muslim population.

Home and family

Traditional Indian family values emphasise the importance of family honour and duty, conforming to prescribed gender roles, respect for elders, and following parental advice on decisions such as marriage. In Indian society, extended kinship networks founded on caste are the basis of a sense of belonging.

The complex caste system of India was not fully replicated in New Zealand, and many Indians rejected aspects of it, following the example of Mahatma Gandhi. But it remains an important consideration in arranged marriages, and as a result suitable partners are often sought overseas.

Some attitudes have shifted, for instance beliefs about the role of women, expectations about living with extended family, and ideas on ‘cooperative’ arranged marriages where the opinions of the couple are taken into consideration. Despite these changes and challenges, the family remains at the centre of New Zealand Indian life.

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The numbers include Europeans born in these countries.


  • 1881 census: 1,112 (‘Europeans’: 1,106; ‘Asiatics’: 6)
  • 1901 census: 1,180 (‘Europeans’: 1,156; ‘Asiatics’: 24)
  • 1951 census: 3,838
  • 1976 census: 6,305
  • 2001 census: 20,892
  • 2006 census: 43,344
  • 2013 census: 67,176


  • 2006 census: 2,211
  • 2013 census: 2,850


  • 2006 census: 1,437
  • 2013 census: 1,476

‘Race aliens’

Between 1916 and 1966 the New Zealand census provided figures on ‘race aliens’ who were defined as people ‘not of European descent’. The census figures listed show those described as ‘Indians’ or ‘Hindus’.

  • 1916 census: 181
  • 1936 census: 1,200
  • 1951 census: 2,425
  • 1966 census: 6,843

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Indian: 97,443 (2006); 143,520 (2013)
  • Pakistani: 2,049 (2006); 3,261 (2013)
  • Bangladeshi: 1,491 (2006); 1,623 (2013)
  • Fijian Indian: 5,616 (2006); 10,929 (2013)

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Indians', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 January 2021)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015