Kids Corner


Dubai Gurdwara Feeds The Masses





Thousands of people will travel into the heart of Dubai’s industrial area next week to celebrate in the country’s only public Sikh place of worship -- Gurdwara.

For the 50,000-strong Sikh community in the UAE, the annual Vaisakhi festival --  which falls this year 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 the Khalsa Order of the Sikh Faith was born.

“We will have so many people here,” says Surinder Singh Kandhari, chairman of the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara in Jebel Ali, Dubai. “People travel here from all over the country. It is a day out.”

The gurdwara, 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.

Sardar Surinder Singh came to Dubai in 1976 from Hyderabad to help run a family business. At the time there was just a handful of Sikh families in the city, most of whom congregated in rented space 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 Surinder Singh. “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 Surinder Singh, a father of two and grandfather of four.

Before the Guru Nanak Darbar was completed, a lot of the Sikhs living outside of Dubai had nowhere  to gather to worship or celebrate religious festivals or weddings in a public place.

In Dubai, the Bur Dubai facilities and private homes being used for mass gatherings were bursting, prompting Surinder Singh and fellow community members to look into the possibility of building a larger space for worship. The focal point of a service in a gurdwara is the Sikh Scripture -- the Guru Granth Sahib -- and the sole 'object' of worship is the One God, God of All -- referred to Muslims as Allah, Christians as God, etc.

“It grew from five families, to 10 families to 50 families and it became hard for us to ask the hostess to make 400 rotis in a day. So then we needed a rule, whoever comes brings 10 rotis, and the hostess would make the vegetables and the daal.”

Before the early 2000s, Sikhism was not officially recognised in the UAE, so a gurdwara was not allowed.

“I took the initiative and we went to talk to a few people,” says Surinder Singh. “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. It is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak, the founder, and the Nine Gurus that followed him. It believes that there is only one God, and the Guru Granth Sahib is considered a living Teacher/Guide. Men and women are considered equal, and all Sikhs are required to treat humanity 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 gurdwara.

The plot is in an area known unofficially as “religion city” with coptic, evangelical and orthodox Christian 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 gurdwara 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.

There are two main entrances, each with their own washroom and cloakroom (shoes are not allowed to be worn in inner sanctuary) and headscarf stand (men and women must cover their heads inside).

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 Scripture, 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 Surinder Singh, who was involved in the designing process. Most of the money for the gurdwara 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 Surinder Singh.

Two years after it finally opened, the gurdwara 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 around the world.

The singers in the gurdwara, who perform in the prayer hall on rotation, are hired from Punjab if their demo tape impresses the gurdwara'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 gurdwara 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 gurdwara, and on the fourth day they go home.”

The gurdwara serves 10,000 vegetarian meals every Friday, and about 1,000 during the week, to people who enter the doors, regardless of religion, race, gender, etc. 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 huge ladles to stir the contents. An industrial roti-making machine makes 800 rotis 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 gurdwara’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.”


[Courtesy: The National. Edited for]


April 9, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Harinder Singh (Punjab), April 09, 2014, 11:28 PM.

May Waheguru bless the UAE.

2: H. Kaur (Canada), April 12, 2014, 3:31 PM.

All else aside, I have a question for everyone. That is, the harvest festival thing always associated with Vasaikhi. Always I hear about this harvest festival, that this is not just a special day for Sikhs but some big celebration for people all over India. Yet, though there are hundreds of thousands of Hindus in Canada, for instance, I have yet to see them have any sort of big harvest celebration. I don't see anything on the news about all these Indians in India having a huge harvest festival either. I suspect the harvest festival thing is just Indian propaganda bought into by many, including Sikhs. I don't see anyone saying Christmas is also a "pagan" celebration though it was superimposed upon a pre-Christian festival. Perhaps if those "pagans" were still around they would insist and we could cease to think of Christmas being a unique event. Does anyone else think this harvest festival thing is an attempt to take away the special significance Vaisakhi has for Sikhs? I know not too long ago the Harper government ended up just wishing some kind of a harvest festival happy day and acting like there was nothing Sikh about Vaisakhi though they quickly changed their tactic when Sikhs started speaking out against it. This is precisely the kind of thing the linkage is supposed to do, forget about it being a special thing for Sikhs, it is just another Indian thing encompassing everyone, even though I do not see the Indian masses of other faiths celebrating the harvest festival.

3: Rup Singh (Canada), April 14, 2014, 11:32 PM.

H. Kaur ji, you raise a valid point.

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