Hindus in the Middle East

For the devout Hindu living in the Gulf, there are signs of hope.

As an ad executive from India, Ajay Gopinath was all set to earn some international experience with a stint in the Middle East, finally settling on an agency in Saudi Arabia. Upon his arrival in Jeddah airport, however, he confronted an altogether unfamiliar side of business travel. “I was carrying a picture and a small Ganesha idol,” recalled Gopinath, who has since returned to India. “The picture was torn up in front me and the idol crushed. I also saw Bibles being torn.”

Within Saudi Arabia, as he would soon learn, even a privately held non-Islamic religious display can get one arrested. This includes, for example, praying alone in one’s house. Nonetheless, thousands of Hindus and other Indians flock to the Middle East each year. Once wooed by the seemingly endless wealth of the oil industry, immigrants are now drawn to a variety of fields. To be sure, life in the largely Muslim Gulf ranges widely, from repressive, fear-filled days in Saudi Arabia, through a laid-back existence in easy-going Oman, to the relative excess of Dubai. But even in Dubai, it is hard to forget that you are in an Islamic country, and this, mixed with rumor, mutual stereotyping, and expat-unfriendly residence laws, makes the Hindu in the Middle East always a little nervous, and never completely at home.

But in countries like Oman and the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, this fear is being increasingly tempered with liberalization. Nandini Hazra, a devout Hindu in Dubai, notes, “That feeling of being trapped is just not there any more. The changes have been tremendous in the last six or seven years.” Hazra acknowledges that when she first came to Dubai nine years ago, it was difficult to pursue a Hindu lifestyle. “These days, however, I can get anything I want — all utensils — in silver, copper or steel, Hindu magazines, prayer books and tapes of bhajans.” The lenience of the Dubai authorities extends much further than availability of items. According to Hazra, the Indian community is now able to openly celebrate traditionally “loud” festivals like Holi and Divali. There has never been any problem with celebrations in the privacy of one’s home, but now, Hindus are able to use public spaces for their revelry. Hazra talks about how Hindus gathered last year at a large open space in Dubai and “played color” for Holi. During Divali, they actually set off fireworks in a space between buildings in the area of Bur Dubai.

 “Three years ago, we would never have dared do this,” she says. “Now, nobody bothers. The police come, watch us for a bit and then leave. There is no harassment.” Sachin Kelkar, who works in a publishing firm in Oman and is an active member of the Indian Social Club, speaks with a smile about how the Ganapathi festival was celebrated last year — in full form, with a special puja and a host of cultural celebrations in the Krishna Temple complex.

Kelkar suggests that the leniency towards Hindus in Oman is largely due to the Khimjis — a powerful business family that has great say in the various ministries of the country. Also, Oman’s current ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, is openly appreciative of the Indians’ contribution to his country’s growth and he has personally granted support to the two temples in the country. Jayant Vyas, the second priest at the Krishna Temple, Muscat, is all praise for the Sultan: “During the Babri Masjid riots in India, the Sultan personally ordered his guard to protect the temple. He told us not to fear any attacks and to continue with our pujas.”

Vyas also notes that he is treated with respect at the airport as soon as it is known that he is a priest. Vyas claims that Bahrain, Dubai and Oman are the only three places in the Gulf that have temples. Bahrain’s temple, however, is very small and mainly caters to a certain community from Rajasthan. In Dubai and Oman, most Hindus are left in peace.

An important point that many Hindus here stress is the fact that people of various communities meet at one place. The argument is that in India the temples are huge, and there are so many of them. In this part of the world, there is basically one small set of buildings with all the gods together. In Dubai, the Sikh is in the same complex and so there is a feeling of oneness between all communities and even with the Sikhs. Regarding his priestly duties, Vyas is much happier in Oman than he was in India. One of the great advantages, according to him, is that there is no problem with money in Oman. He is able to get the monetary backing to conduct just about any puja he wants from local devotees.

However, it is interesting to note the reaction of Adri Saha, also a devout Hindu, who spent two months in Oman: “I was pleasantly surprised that there was an actual brick-and-mortar temple in Oman. But I was very uncomfortable about the fact that there was the crude reflection of money throughout. All that gold and silver ornamentation for example — and the indulgent fountains with colored lighting, in front of the idols.”

Considering that money is the driving force behind immigration to the region, that is hardly surprising. In spite of this, people seem to get by. Says Hazra, “I actually enjoy it more here than in India. The camaraderie is greater because people get together and celebrate even the small festivals which normally pass by unnoticed in India.” While jobs and wealth may bring Hindus to the Middle East, it is culture and spirit, often unseen, that continue to sustain them.