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Afghanistan: Sikh heritage which has a long and deep-rooted antiquity in the region, being displaced

(Image courtesy: Pritpal Singh @TheAfghanDutchSikh on Facebook)

Dr. Narjeet Kaur

With the Taliban overthrow of Afghanistan, the history of the infinitesimal but imperative Sikh community in the country is slowly coming to the end of its existence. It would not be wrong to say that the glorious era of Sikhi in Afghanistan has concluded. The historic communities of Hindus and Sikhs are on the verge of extinction due to the targeted oppression of non-Muslims in Afghanistan. It is painful to see how the celebrated Sikh heritage, that has a long and deep-rooted antiquity in the region, is being displaced and eroded from the pages of history.

Hindus and Sikhs have always been closely linked due to their similarities, friendliness towards each other — so much so that they are often seen as one community in Afghanistan. Some of the earliest converts to Sikhism settled in Afghanistan 500 years ago, with an increased migration of them to the region during Partition of the Indian subcontinent, as many feared religious persecution in the newly created Pakistan. Afghanistan is (was?) home to holy places for both religions.

Glorious History of Sikhism in Afghanistan

History aficionado Inderjeet Singh in his book, ‘Afghan Hindus and Sikhs: History of a thousand years (2019) suggested that the history of Sikhism in Khurasan (medieval Afghanistan) begins with the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak. When trying to Google for the words 'Afghan sikhs’ , you will not get many references in the public realm. Roger Ballard (2011) stated that Afghan Sikhs are “likely to be made up of those members of the indigenous population who resisted the process of conversion from Buddhism to Islam which took place in this area between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, and who subsequently aligned themselves with the teachings of Guru Nanak – himself a Khatri and the founder of the Sikh tradition – during the course of the fifteenth century”

Opposing the shared supposition that Sikhs in Afghanistan are contemporary immigrants of Indian origin , the history of Sikhs in Afghanistan goes way back and begins with the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak (1469–1539) who was a prolific traveller. The life and times of the Guru is recorded in Janamsakhis which are semi-historical in nature as they are written in a devotional manner and do not contain dates but records of his visits to Mecca, Medina, Baghdad, Kabul and Kandahar . The earliest copy belongs to the early 1600s but their earlier antiquity cannot be ruled out. Guru Nanak and his companion in his travels, Bhai Mardana left Mashhad (Persia) to reach Balkh and then reached the outskirts of the city of Kabul which was under Babur at that time. In one instance, the Guru met some holy men who inquired what brought a Hindu ascetic to a land of Muslims. The Guru replied that ‘the Almighty created the same Divine Light, which pervades all. God has created all beings in the same mould. However, some of them wear janeu while some others get themselves circumcised’. The holy men were very impressed with the Guru. The Guru stayed in the city for some time and then travelled farther into the country.

Sikh Gurus and Their Followers In Kabul

The Mughal Emperor Babur captured Kabul in 1504 and by 1526 he was the master of North India. Kabul& Eastern Afghanistan became one of the provinces of Hindustan . Indian merchants had been regularly visiting Kabul throughout the centuries\The province of Kabul remained with Hindustan until 1738 when it was conquered by Nadir Shah, the Persian ruler. During this period, the Sikh chroniclers record numerous names and instances when Sikh followers from Kabul came to the region now known as East Punjab, to pay respects to the Sikh Gurus.

Bawa Kirpal Das, who was a descendant of Guru Amar Das (1552–74), the third Sikh Guru, wrote Mahima Prakash Vartak in 1741. This manuscript mentions the name of Kabul wali Mai (Lady from Kabul) who did seva (voluntary service) with great devotion when the digging of the Baoli (stepwell) at Goindwal (district Tarn Taran, East Punjab) was undertaken by the third Guru.12 The manuscript refers to Bibi (sister) Bhago who was in-charge of the Manji (Sikh preaching centre) in Kabul while according to an inscription in Gurdwara Haveli Sahib in Goindwal her name was Mai Sevan. These may be two different women or the same individual, but it is remarkable that there was a Sikh woman preacher in the 16th century.

Guru Arjan was the fifth Guru of the Sikhs. His cousin, Bhai Gurdas wrote Vaaran which are much revered by the Sikhs and it mentions the name of Bhai Rekh Rao and Bhai Bhana Mallan, the Sikh residents of Kabul. The manuscript Sikhan di Bhagat Mala written by Bhai Mani Singh around 1720s elaborates that they looked after the stores of the local chief. Some Sikh chroniclers have mentioned the same anecdote for Bhai Katara. Bhai Gurdas (1551 – 1636) is said to have visited Kabul, the Khalsa Gurdwara at Shor Bazaar was built by him during this period..

17th and 18th Century

An early 17th-century Persian manuscript Dabistan i Mazahib considered to be written by Zulfiqar Ardastani has a chapter on Nanak Panthis. It mentions two anecdotes relating to Bhai Sadh who lived near Balkh. The anecdotes show that a devoted Sikh is content with the will of the Almighty which may bring joys and sorrows in life and their devotion to the Guru.

The 18th century manuscript, Mahima Prakash mentions that Bhai Gonda was sent to Kabul to preach the Sikh doctrine by the seventh Guru, Har Rai (1644–61). The manuscript also records an anecdote about his devotion. Gurdwara Guru Har Rai Sahib at Shor Bazaar which was the site of the unfortunate but deadly attack on 25th March 2020 was established by Bhai Gonda.

Giani Gian Singh mentions that Guru Tegh Bahadur was travelling towards Samoa (Bathinda, East Punjab) when he was informed about the Sangat from Kabul and Peshawar coming to see him. The Guru halted at Samoa and sat under a tree to receive the Sangat. When the Sangat arrived, a farmer working in the nearby fields provided bread and buttermilk for them. The Guru blessed the peasant and a Gurdwara was built to commemorate this event.

Prof. Hari Ram Gupta quotes from contemporary records that a Duni Chand from Kabul bought a costly tent at Anandpur (East Punjab) to be used for Guru Gobind Das (later, Guru Gobind Singh from 1699) for holding a durbar in 1688–89. The tent was made of the finest silk and had numerous pictures stitched with threads of gold and strings of pearls hung around it. The flooring had beautiful Persian carpets. The gesture hurt the pride of Pahari Rajput ruler Bhim Chand who already held a grudge against the Guru which later led to the Battle of Bhangani (1689), first of the several battles between the Sikhs and the Pahari Rajput rulers.

19th Century

In 1808, Mountstuart Elphinstone was sent to Afghanistan by the British to study and possibly make an alliance lest the Russians decided to invade the sub-continent.As an example of Afghan toleration, Elphinstone mentions a Sikh goldsmith who he says was a very intelligent man and had travelled throughout Afghanistan, Persia and Central Asia. This Sikh goldsmith always spoke about ‘the kindness and hospitality’ of the Afghans as opposed to the Persians who were very suspicious and would not allow the Sikh to draw water from the well or walk in the rain lest he splashed water on a Persian making him impure!

The period between mid 18th to the mid 19th century is an important one in the history of Afghan Sikh relations. For about 101 years the Afghans and Sikh empire were neighbours and mostly antagonists. By the early decades of the 19th century, the Sikh empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh had annexed large parts of the Durrani empire under the Afghans. During the Second Anglo-Sikh war of 1848-49, however, the Sikhs were supported by the Afghans, even though they lost out to the British.

Hindu Presence in Afghanistan

The Hindu presence in the country dates back to the pre-Islamic period: Kabul, for example, was the seat of a dynasty of Hindu rulers between 9th and 11th century. After the Muslim conquest and conversion of most people in the territories making up modern Afghanistan, other Hindus moved to Afghanistan in various capacities, from slaves to governors. However, the current community originates mainly from merchants and public servants whose destinies were closely intertwined with the Afghan state since its inception in the mid-18th century. ‘Sikhs, on the other hand, have a long history of neighbourly relations with the Afghans, as trade between Punjab and the Afghan highlands rarely stopped.

Hindu and Sikh Migration from Afghanistan

The population of 700,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan in the 1970s. The number of Hindus and Sikhs living in Afghanistan, which was approximately 220,000 in the 1980s, has declined considerably over the past 3 decades due to conflict, discrimination, the poor economic situation and lack of employment. Current population estimates vary considerably from between 44 to 100 families consisting of between 200 to 900 individuals (see Population and Reasons for migration), living primarily in urban areas of Kabul and Nangarhar, and often in temples due to lack of available or affordable housing (see Location of communities and Gurdwaras and Mandir temples). An investigation reported “nearly 99% of Hindus, Sikhs left Afghanistan in the last three decades,” revealing that “Sikh and Hindu population dropped to 15,000 when the Mujahideen was in power during the war in 1990s and remained at that level during the Taliban regime. It is now estimated that only 1350 Hindus and Sikhs remain in the country.” The report also shows that Hindus and Sikhs had suffered huge setbacks after the Taliban regime collapsed in 2001. This forced a large number of them to leave the countryside and to migrate to Kabul for a living. As a result there are no Sikh or Hindu citizens living in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

It is reported that there are 2-4 Gurudwaras left in Afghanistan and a single Hindu temple. The religious sites have always been seen as a safe place for Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan. But with the widespread persecution, the temples and Gurudwaras have turned from just religious complexes to living quarters in the past few years as the Hindus and Sikhs fear going out into the public

Gurdwara Chisma Sahib in Jalalabad is sacred for Sikhs, as they believe Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, visited the region in the 15th century. The historic Asamai temple in Kabul is located on a hill named after the Hindu Goddess of hope, Asha. The temple has survived numerous conflicts and attacks but it still stands. The temple is a remnant from Hindu Shahi Kings, who ruled from the Kabul Valley as far back as 850 CE. There are many Asamai temples around the world now including London, Frankfurt, Faridabad, and Amsterdam, all named after this famous Kabul temple.

What once used to be a flourishing land, a pastiche of languages, cultures, religions, and ethnicities have all been destroyed with the stir of the Taliban and civil unrest in Afghanistan. Instead of blossoming on its multiplicity, Afghanistan has effectually repressed and weakened all of its non-Muslim groups, vehemently making it a land fading minorities.