A nondescript building with no signage, lights or other decorative features, the purpose of the Asmayee Temple in the heart of Kabul is known only to the small number of Afghan Hindus — and sometimes Sikhs — who visit it regularly. These days, few in Afghanistan are aware of the existence of their Hindu and Sikh compatriots, and even fewer know that this week the two communities are gathering at the temple to celebrate Diwali, one of the most sacred festivals for Hindus and Sikhs.
In contrast to its outer appearance, the inside of the Hindu temple is bright and colourful; its rooms decked with streamers and holiday lights. But the festivities here are far simpler and more sombre than Diwali celebrations in other parts of the world, a reflection of a people eager to remain discreet. The prayer hymns play softly in the background, much like the conversations of the worshippers.
"It could prove to be very dangerous for us to celebrate our faith with the pomp and splendour," shares one volunteer temple worker, speaking to The National on the condition of anonymity.
“We can’t even practice our funeral rites with dignity — grand celebrations are a far-fetched dream,” he adds, referring to the incident in 2012 when a Hindu funeral procession was attacked by an extremist Muslim mob in Kabul.
In a local cultural trait adopted by both the Afghan Hindu and Sikh communities, female and male worshippers gather in separate rooms to offer their prayers to the various gods and goddesses revered by Hindus, as well as Sikhs.
“It isn’t celebrated [here] like Diwalis around the world,” says a young Hindu woman named Komal. “It's just another occasion for Afghan Hindus to meet with members of the community."
"No bright light and fire crackers for us,” she adds, as she lines the staircases with small clay lamps and candles to be lit during the evening prayers.
But this wasn’t always the case.
“Before 1992 (the start of the civil war), Diwali celebrations in Kabul used to be grand,” recalls Rawail Singh, a Sikh civil activist visiting the Hindu temple.
Although Sikhism is often confused as a sect of Hinduism, the two are in fact separate religions. However, Sikhism, a fairly new religion, adheres to many practices of Hinduism, an ancient religion dating back thousands of years. And although Afghan Sikhs have their places of worship, known as gurdwaras, they also frequently attend Hindu temples.
Mr Singh says he has watched the country deteriorate politically, socially and culturally in the last four decades of war.
“There were over two lakh (200,000) Sikhs just in Kabul in the 1980s,” Mr Singh says. Today, there are about 7,000 Sikhs and Hindus throughout the whole of Afghanistan.
Prior to his community's decline in Afghanistan, Mr Singh says that Sikhs were deeply involved in the country's financial businesses and trade and were among the most trusted moneylenders.
“Before there were formal banks, Afghans trusted the Sikh community with their money and came from across the country to keep their gold and precious items in our safekeeping,” he says. “They (other Afghans) would refer to the sardars as ‘Lala’ which respectfully means older brother," he adds, using a form of address often given to Sikhs.
Over the years, Sikhs and Hindus, like their fellow Afghans, have fled the country in larger numbers — first during the war with the Soviets, then during the civil war and then during the Taliban's extremist rule.
“Many of us returned after the US invasion hoping for a better future, but the damage done to our social fabric seems irreversible,” Mr Singh says, referring to the continued religious persecution of minority groups even after the fall of Taliban.
Many Afghans are unaware that many ancient religions once thrived alongside each other in Afghanistan, often assimilating with other communities.
“Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism) visited Afghanistan some five hundred years ago; there is historical evidence of it everywhere across Afghanistan,” Mr Singh says at his home, situated not far from the Asmayee Temple and close to Kabul’s biggest Gurudwara (Sikh temple).
“Ghazni province (in southeastern Afghanistan) also has four beautiful Sikh Gurudwaras. In fact, the world’s smallest hand-written Guru Granth (holy text) is housed in Ghazni and revered by Sikhs around the world,” Mr Singh says, narrating some of the myths and legends surrounding the growth of the religion of his ancestors in the region.
“There are four Gurudwaras in Jalalabad city in (eastern) Nangarhar province because many Sikhs used to call that region home,” he adds, explaining that he is himself from Nangarhar and later moved to Kabul.
“But even today, there are times when I get asked if I am Afghan,” he says sadly.
Mr Singh and his wife, Preeti, who do not know their exact ages but believe they are in their early 40s, have many such stories — some historical facts and others the stuff of legend — which trace the heritage of the proud minority group. And festivals and social gatherings become a time when the community members gathers to reminisce of the glory days.
“There is little for us to otherwise do, and for now this is the only way we can preserve our culture and history,” says Mrs Singh, while rolling sweet dough to fry gulab jamuns, a popular Indian sweet.
Everyday the couple adorn themselves with symbols of their faith that set them apart from the other residents of the largely conservative Muslim neighbourhood in which they live. While Mr Singh wears his Sikh turban, Mrs Singh wears sindoor, red vermilion cosmetic powder, along the parting of her hair, and a red bindi on her forehead.
“I don’t feel uncomfortable displaying my faith in Kabul people, especially those who know me in the neighbourhood and who are very respectful of my faith,” says Mrs Singh. And yet it isn’t uncommon for the couple to encounter Muslim Afghans asking them to convert to Islam.
“Kabul used to be a lot more tolerant and [a more] diverse place not too long ago,” Mr Singh says.
The Singhs, who live with their two children in Kabul, a son aged 14 and a daughter aged 12, fled Afghanistan for India in 1992 before returning home 10 years later. They are among the only ones in their extended family who returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban were expelled and then remained, with other family members now living in India, Pakistan and Europe.
“We don’t have any blood relatives to celebrated Diwali with. The local community is all we have,” Mrs Singh says with melancholy as she prepares sweet rice for a community Diwali meal that will be held at the Asmayee Temple.
The idea of leaving the country has crossed her mind several times, more frequently in recent years, she says, as the insurgent attacks on Kabul have increased.
“I worry about my children and their future. My husband and I have spent nearly all our lives without an actual home, moving from one place to another; we hope to give our children a better future,” Mrs Singh says, albeit with very little hope, her years of refuge in India still fresh in her mind.
Yet despite the increasing security issues, the couple is determined to stay in Afghanistan as long as possible. Mr Singh wants to continue his activism in reviving and preserving Hindu and Sikh heritage in the country. And the Singhs, like many other Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, identify strongly with their national identity.
Earlier this year, the Sikh community across Afghanistan, at the behest of Mr Singh, cancelled Holi celebrations in the city following an attack in March on the army hospital that resulted in over 200 casualties.
"Earlier today, I put up another message of solidarity on Facebook in response to the latest series of attacks on Tuesday that killed over 70 people," Mr Singh says, reading the message aloud: "Elahi, tabha shavi; Holi ma rah berang sakh te; wa Diwali ma rah tarek."
It roughly translates to: “I hope the almighty destroys you; you who turned our Holi colourless and now you’ve cast darkness on our Diwali.”
“I feel it is important for me to speak up as an Afghan on every opportunity I get,” he says.
In response, a large number of Afghan Muslims reached out to Mr Singh, urging him and the rest of the Sikh community to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights.
“Brother, in these times of darkness, we need to celebrate light,” one Muslim wrote on Facebook in response to Mr Singh's message.
“If it wasn’t for the security situation, Kabul is the most beautiful place to live,” Mrs Singh says.