The imposing double-storied Gurunanak Darbar Gurdwara, the first building as soon as one enters what is now known as the Religious City of Dubai, wears a forlorn look on a Wednesday morning.
Apart from the gurdwara, there are seven churches in the vicinity and a temple that is in the final stages of construction. In normal times, the place would be teeming with the faithful.
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But this is the 'new normal. The strict UAE government's Covid-19 guidelines mean that people can only come in for half-hour 'paths in the morning and evening.
The Gurunanak Darbar community kitchen, or langar, which fed almost 1,500 people on a usual day and up to 50,000 on special days, has been stopped ever since the country went into the first lockdown in April 2020.
But there has been no rest for Surender Singh Kandhari, and his men at the gurudwara. His thinking is simple – if the devotees can't come to the gurdwara, the gurdwara will go to the devotees.
"When the first lockdown in the UAE was announced and we could not have our langar, we went to labour camps in different Emirates and distributed 150,000 kilos of raw food. There were many blue-collared workers desperate to get back, so we organised 15 chartered flights to India free of cost," says the 78-year-old Kandhari, a resident of Dubai since 1976.
"When vaccination started, we managed to source it and conducted a camp in February this year to inoculate 5,000 people. This was inclusive and open to all: people from all religions and social strata were vaccinated free of charge."
The gurdwara became even more active when the deadly second wave hit India.
"We wanted to do something useful, and everyone told us that we should do something with oxygen, given the paucity back home. Using my business connections in China, we managed to procure a total of 770 concentrators and shipped them to various parts of India. We sent them to Punjab, Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand," adds Kandhari.
"We sent them to various gurudwaras. There were places where we did not have a connection to any gurdwara. In Bengaluru, I tied up with a church, and in Chennai, we sent 25 concentrators to Loyola College, my alma mater, and requested the Principal to give it to those who needed it."
Kandhari, who now has a sprawling business empire of tyres and batteries in over 65 countries, has slowly handed over the reins to his two sons and spends a majority of his time in his capacity as chairman of the gurdwara.
His wife of 53 years, Bubbles, is the vice-chairman and equally involved in social work.
"I always saw this place as a centre of humanity and not just as a temple for the Sikh. I was guided by the one thought of Guru Nanak Dev Ji that we need to promote humanity. We can only be the best Sikh, or Hindu, or Muslim if we are the best human being," says Kandhari, who has also been a popular member of various UAE government delegates in promoting inter-faith harmony and tolerance in conferences around the world.
Every year since it was established in 2012, to 2019, the gurdwara has hosted iftar throughout the holy month of Ramadan.
"We put up separate partitions for men and women inside the gurdwara. We have a Maulvi and hundreds of people break their fast after he leads the prayers. We could not do it the last two Ramadans because of the pandemic and so many people wrote to me how much they missed it," adds Kandhari.
Photo by Unsplash
In a city known for its glitzy malls and numerous things to do for tourists, Gurunanak Darbar has the power of attracting people.
"We are probably the most popular gurdwara outside India. Every year, we have more than a million visitors. Of these, nearly 30 per cent are visitors to the UAE. We have had over 300 marriages, most of them coming from places like India and the UK," says Kandhari.
The land for the gurdwara is given free by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai.
The total construction area is 120,000 square feet, spread over a 25,400 square feet plot in Jebel Ali.
When completed, the total cost was 65 million dirhams (Rs 13.23 crore).
"The year 2008 was probably a bad year to start the construction as the world faced a severe economic downturn. Even though people were extremely generous in their offering, it took four years to be completed," recalls Kandhari.
"People would ask me how I'd get it built and if we should reconsider the size. I had read a story of Mother Teresa's when she started building the Missionaries of Charities in Kolkata. It seems she had no money and would tell others: it's not my house. It's God's house. He will make sure it is completed'.
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"It's remarkable how we got the funds. People were so generous across religions and nationalities. I once had a Pakistani friend who visited the construction site. When he found out that we were struggling for funds, he immediately gave me a cheque of 100,000 dirhams.
"We have been extremely blessed with the generosity of people. Now, we are just trying to pay it forward." (IANS/AD)