Thousands of people will travel into the heart of Dubai’s industrial area next week to celebrate in the country’s only Sikh temple.
For the 50,000-strong Sikh community in the UAE, the annual Vaisakhi festival, on Sunday and Monday, is one of the biggest in the calendar.
Regarded as a harvest festival and marking the Sikh New Year, Vaisakhi is extra special because it also commemorates the year Sikhism was born as a collective faith.
“We will have so many people here,” says Surender Sing Kandhari, chairman of the Gurunanak Darbar temple in Jebel Ali, Dubai. “People travel here from all over the country. It is a day out.”
The temple, near Jebel Ali Hospital and the Jebel Ali Equestrian Club, opened in 2012 with the blessing of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who agreed to donate the land.
Mr Kandhari came to Dubai in 1976 from Hyderabad, India, to help run a family business. At the time there was just a handful of Sikh families in the city, most of whom used the Hindu temple in Bur Dubai’s Old Souk, built in 1958, as a space to meet and pray.
“When I came to Dubai, every Sunday we would need a place to sing hymns to praise the Lord, and have food together. We would meet in homes. We used to all have celebrations in private houses or fire small warehouses,” says Mr Kandhari. “It was all under the radar.
“When I moved here the Sikh community was about 1,000 people. Now there’s 50,000 in the UAE, and 48,000 of these are blue-collar workers.”
A lot of the regular congregation are lorry drivers, carpenters, masons and electricians, because people from Punjab are “strong workers, hard workers”, says Mr Kandhari, a father of two and grandfather of four.
Before the Gurunanak Darbar was completed, a lot of the Sikhs living outside of Dubai had nowhere official to gather to worship or celebrate religious festivals or weddings.
In Dubai, the Bur Dubai temple and private homes being used for mass gatherings were bursting, prompting Mr Khandhari and fellow community leaders to look into the possibility of building a larger space for worship of the Guru Granth Sahib, the central religious text in Sikhism which is worshipped like a guru.
“It grew from five families, to 10 families to 50 families and it became hard for us to ask the hostess to make 400 chapattis in a day. So then we needed a rule, whoever comes brings 10 chapattis, and the hostess would make the vegetables and the dal.”
Before the early 2000s, Sikhism was not officially recognised in the UAE so a new temple was not allowed.
“I took the initiative and we went to talk to a few people,” says Mr Kandhari. “We were advised to go to the Islamic Affairs Authority and get clarification from them whether Sikhism could be practised in the UAE.
“I explained the religion, and translated a few versus of the book into Arabic.”
Sikhism was founded in the 16th century in the Punjab district of India and Pakistan. It is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak, the founder, and his nine gurus. It believes that there is only one God, and the Guru Granth Sahib is considered a living guru. Men and women are considered equal, and all Sikhs are required to treat others with respect and to take care of those less fortunate.
After explaining this to the authority, the group were given a plot of land from the Dubai Government with permission to build a temple.
The plot is in an area known unofficially as “religion city” with coptic, evangelical and orthodox churches, among others, all within one or two blocks.
It is an obvious and pleasant reminder of the religious tolerance of the UAE.
The beige coloured temple has three levels of underground car parks, and two floors above ground. It stands apart from the other churches and is surrounded by a sort moat, inspired by the sarowar - a lake or pool - at the Harmandir Sahib, known as the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, Punjab, India.
There are two main entrances, each with their own washroom and cloakroom (shoes are not allowed to be worn in the temple) and headscarf stand (men and women must cover their heads inside the temple).
The main prayer room, with a 7.2 metre high ceiling, has a glistening elaborately decorated table on which sits the Guru Granth Sahib. There are chairs around the outside of the room for the elderly and impaired, set below the main ground so no one person is sitting higher than the religious text, and a large soft purple carpet for the able-bodied worshippers to sit.
There are libraries and private prayer rooms set off the main hall, and an 18-metre diameter dome roof.
It was designed to reflect the Golden Temple.
“I wanted the best,” says Mr Kandhari, who was involved in the designing process. Most of the money for the temple came from the wealthier members of the country’s Sikh community.
“Even the one dirham the driver gives is just as important as the Dh1 million the businessman gives,” says Mr Khandhari.
Two years after it finally opened, the temple is always busy. As well as the thousands who visit from the across the UAE, it has also become a destination for tour groups of Sikhs from India and the UK.
The singers in the temple, who perform in the prayer hall on rotation, are hired from India if their demo tape impresses the temple’s board of directors. There are 35 full time staff and dozens of volunteers who help at busy times.
In the short time it has been open, the temple has also become a location for destination weddings.
“There is a London businessman who organises tours. They come to us in the morning and spend the day here, the second day they do a safari on the third day they come back to the temple, and on the fourth day they go home.”
The temples serves 10,000 vegetarian meals every Friday, and about 1,000 during the week, to people who enter the doors, regardless religion or race. In 2013 it served 984,000 meals.
In the large stainless steel kitchen on the ground floor everything is in mammoth proportions. There are cooking pots that are so large that it takes broom-sized spoons to stir the contents. An industrial chapatti machine makes 800 chapattis every hour.
The walk-in fridge has dozens of sacks of tomatoes, potatoes and other fresh vegetables. In another larder-type room there are shelves full of ghee, vegetable cooking oil and flour. More than 700kg of rice, 1,200kg of wheat flour and 200kg of ghee is cooked every week.
Much of the produce is donated by the temple’s patrons and arrives at any time of the day or week in vans at the back door.
It means that anyone who walks in, even for a short time, will be offered a cup of tea and a sweet or savoury snack, or even a takeaway dinner.
“We give respect to everybody. Whether he’s a driver or a business owner, we don’t differentiate. There’s no class system.
“Most of the blue-collar workers aren’t with their families. For them it’s a great place for them to come and meet people; to spend a day in the summer heat inside a place with air conditioning, listening to hymns, having food and meeting friends.
“It has changed peoples’ lives.”
* Mitya Underwood