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Image courtesy of Abhyudaya Tyagi

Power Through Religion: Selflessness in Abu Dhabi's Only Gurudwara

While the Gurdwara may have begun as a place for worship for the Sikh community, it has established a special significance for the community, becoming a source of unity regardless of their own religious beliefs.

Nov 9, 2019

The wail of an approaching infant pierced the tranquility of the room. For the past 20 minutes, the sole sound in Abu Dhabi’s only gurdwara had been the gentle yet purposeful voice of the Granthi, or Sikh religious scholar. But as the newborn and his family entered the temple, the wailing abruptly stopped. Even the infant had seemingly realized that he was now in a place of worship. Such is the peace and serenity of New Gurdwara Abu Dhabi, one of the only places of worship for Abu Dhabi’s sizeable Sikh community.
Located in the dusty lanes of Musaffah, the outer structure of the temple is a plain yellow facade which gives no indication that a place of religious worship is located inside its humble walls. In fact, the building is so nondescript that I stood outside, asking pedestrians about the location of the gurdwara, only to be told that I was standing in front of it.
However, the spirituality of the gurdwara is evident as soon as one enters its outdoor courtyard. Throughout the day, several devotees can be seen, taking off their shoes and washing their hands, as is customary in Sikhism. In a small corridor, visitors — both male and female — are asked to cover their heads with a small cloth before entering the temple.
Inside, the main hall of the gurdwara is grand yet dignified, with the primary spotlight on the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of Sikhism. Behind the Guru Granth Sahib, the Granthi — one of the few full-time employees of the gurdwara — delivers his sermon. Around the room, men and women of all religions sit cross legged on the floor, listening to the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib delivered in chaste Punjabi.
Upon the completion of the sermon, visitors are offered “Karah Parshad”, a traditional Sikh halva. After this, everyone is led to a separate room which functions as the langar for this gurdwara. The langar is the traditional communal kitchen in Sikhism, where guests are provided with a free vegetarian meal. All visitors, regardless of caste or creed, sit on the floor and are served a simple yet delicious meal of dal and roti — Indian flatbread — by volunteers. In one corner of the langar, another team of volunteers works tirelessly to help prepare the food for the next meal of the day. In the opposite corner, some older Sikh gentlemen teach some of their younger counterparts about the fundamental tenets of Sikh religion, including how to tie a turban.
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Image courtesy of Abhyudaya Tyagi
According to Mandeep Singh, who manages financial accounts for the gurdwara, the langar is essential for Sikhism. “A gurdwara is all about one’s connection to God. But how can one connect to God when hungry?” he questioned.
“The langer is a great equalizer,” added Harjinder Singh, chief coordinator of the Gurdwara. “Rich, poor, or middle-class, everyone sits on the ground to enjoy a meal together because at the end of the day, we are all human.”
The langer, like most of the gurdwara, would not be possible without the volunteers who help the chef with the preparation of food and the cleaning of dishes.
“Volunteering in the gurdwara allows many of us to give back to the wider community of migrant workers who visit the Gurdwara, regardless of religion,” said Mandeep, who himself is a part-time volunteer. “It also helps build a sense of solidarity for those of us who volunteer.”
It is this spirit of volunteerism that has allowed the gurdwara to outgrow its humble origins. The temple initially began as a small room in a Musaffah labor camp where Sikh workers used to gather and pray. After labor camps were moved out of Musaffah in 2014, Harjinder Singh acquired the land and began the construction of the gurdwara. As he put it, “[the people] wanted to create a place where Sikh workers could have the opportunity to connect with God even if they were far away from home.”
While the gurdwara may have begun as a place for worship for the Sikh community, it has established a special significance for all nearby residents regardless of their own religious beliefs. “In this gurdwara and all gurdwaras, anyone — Sikh, Muslim, Hindu or Christian — can enter. We are all looking for god in our own way. Inside, everyone is equal,” Harjinder Singh thoughtfully commented.
Throughout the interview, Harjinder Singh was also particularly appreciative of the UAE government’s initiative to celebrate the Year of Tolerance. “This initiative is brilliant. It shows respect for all religions. They have built Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Hindu temples ... and have also supported us by giving a license for the gurdwara,” Harjinder Singh explained. “In other countries, politicians seek to divide in the name of religion. Here, they are uniting. This is wonderful.”
Harijder Singh’s notion of universal respect carries through when he discussed his own spiritual conception of power: “Power comes from God. And for all religions, God is within us. So power is also within us. We may go search for it somewhere else outside ourselves, but it is actually within us.”
Over the next week, the gurdwara is preparing for the 550th birth anniversary of Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. For Harjinder Singh, this is an opportunity to bring together people of all faiths to celebrate Guru Nanak’s ideals, which emphasized equality, selflessness and peace.
“We are inviting people from the government and from various embassies. His values were for everyone, regardless of religion. So the celebration of these ideals should also be for all of us.”
Abhyudaya Tyagi is Features Editor. Email him at
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