Every Iranian I meet on my trip is astonished to hear there’s a Sikh temple, or “gurdwara,” in Tehran. I wouldn’t know of it myself but for Iranian-American author Hooman Majd’s terrific book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, where the temple makes a cameo appearance in a juicy rumor about the antecedents of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini… but more about that later.
It’s taken me a week of false starts and red herrings to find the temple, hidden behind a high gate at the dead end of a quiet street. It’s hard to imagine that the motorcades of two Indian prime ministers—Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2001, and Manmohan Singh in 2012—were able to squeeze in here. The building itself looks more like a Soviet-designed office than a place of worship. But once in the inner sanctum, I feel like I’ve been transported to a gurdwara in almost any town in India, with only the beautiful Persian rugs signaling my real location.
Bahrinderjit Singh Sahni, a worshipper who’s sitting on one of the carpets with some of his friends, helping to count the take from the donations box, notes my mystified expression and laughs: “I’m sure you didn’t expect to find this here.”
It certainly is a surprise. Not a surprise that there are Sikhs in Tehran, because they are the most peripatetic of India’s peoples, and there is no corner of the globe where I would be taken aback to find a Sikh. And it stands to reason that there are gurdwaras all over the world—I’ve even been to the one in Helsinki, Finland. But I hadn’t expected to find one in the capital of the theocratic Islamic Republic, which has a well-earned reputation for intolerance of all religions other than Shia Islam. The United Nations’ special rapporteur on human rights has repeatedly accused Tehran of persecuting and prosecuting minorities for their faith. On Pew Research’s index of government restrictions on religion (pdf), Iran ranks alongside its nemesis, Saudi Arabia.
The gurdwara’s presence here shows that the picture is more complicated than it might seem. There are no Sikh temples in Riyadh. Iran’s minorities are not uniformly oppressed. Tehran has several churches: the Armenian St. Sarkis Cathedral is probably the most prominent. A small Jewish community is allowed to preserve some of their religious and cultural traditions, as are the remaining Zoroastrians.
The liberties of these groups are severely constrained, but they are much envied by other minorities that are denied even tokenism. The Baha’i, for instance, are brutally persecuted. And Sunnis, who make up 10% of the population, are the target of official discrimination. Although it is not uncommon for Shia and Sunni to pray in each other’s mosques across the Muslim world, Iran’s Sunnis complain that, although they number close to 1 million in the capital, they are not allowed to build a proper mosque of their own—and that the authorities routinely destroy ad-hoc places of worship.
The Sikhs, on the other hand, number in the mere scores—there are between 60 and 100 families in Tehran. The gurdwara was founded in 1941, and the current structure was built in 1967, when the community was 10 times larger. But Saheb Singh Kotwalia, a regular worshipper, tells me he feels no discrimination at all. “We are in the [Iranian] culture, and their culture is part of our lives,” he tells me.
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.”