Indians have lived in Persia for millennia, and have only occasionally faced serious repression. The last spasm of violence against Indians—specifically, Hindus—occurred in the 17th century, whipped up by a powerful cleric. The Sikhs arrived in large numbers at the start of the 20th century, mostly from the areas of British-controlled Punjab province that would eventually become part of Pakistan. They settled first in Zahedan, in eastern Persia, but many gravitated to Tehran.

Unsurprisingly, they prospered in periods when the British essentially controlled the country. (In My Uncle Napoleon, Iraj Pezeshkzad’s satirical 1973 novel of Iranian family life during World War II, later turned into a hugely popular TV series, the title character is convinced that a Sikh neighbor—with the improbably Muslim name of Sardar Maharat Khan—is a British spy.) The Sikhs tended to be—and still are, for the most part—merchants.

At its peak, the community is thought to have topped 5,000, but a decline began with the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and accelerated through the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. Some in the community attributed the exodus to restrictions imposed by the new theocratic government, but others point out that the long war was very damaging for businesses.

Now, about that rumor. Around this time, as Majd notes in his book, critics of the new regime spread the scuttlebutt that Khomeini, whose grandfather had lived in India, was greatly influenced by the Sikh faith—and that the Ayatollah might not even be Iranian. As proof, they pointed to the motif on Iran’s new flag, which looks a lot like a Sikh symbol. This was arrant nonsense, of course, but the resemblance is striking: When I point to the “Nishan Sahib,” or Sikh flag, at the gurdwara, my translator and driver immediately speculate the Sikhs were inspired by the Iranian flag!

The Sikhs kept the gurdwara going, with some help from the Indian government, despite the dwindling numbers. The school attached to the temple was opened to non-Sikh students, mainly other groups from the Indian subcontinent and Africa. The community was rattled by the 2003 murder of a Sikh businessman, especially when the murderer’s lawyers argued that their Muslim client was entitled to lesser punishment because his victim had been a non-Muslim. (The Iranian supreme court threw that argument out.)

Many of the remaining Sikhs are Iranian nationals. Kotwalia tells me he travels on an Iranian passport, enduring all the hardship that entails: “Getting visas is…. Ooooof, so hard!” But he’s proud to have served his compulsory national service, and to have voted in the 2013 presidential election. As we prepare to leave the gurdwara, he invites us back on Friday, to eat at the “langar,” or community kitchen. “It will be vegetarian,” he says, somewhat apologetically. “But maybe afterward, we can go out and get kebabs.”

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