According to the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi, the Indian community in the UAE consists of about 2.6 million people. To put things in perspective, that is a staggering 30 percent of the UAE’s total population; significantly more than any other national community in the UAE (including the Emirati!). With such a huge number of Indians, a majority of which are Hindu, you’d expect the country to be sprawling with temples, right? Wrong. In all of UAE’s 83,000 sq km, there is only one official Hindu temple complex.
To get to the complex I followed the advice of the wise people of the internet and got off at the Burjuman metro station. From there, Google maps assured me that my walk to the temple was a mere 20 minutes. After 40 minutes of fun under Dubai’s sun, I found myself standing in front Bur Dubai Grand mosque, the oldest mosque in Dubai, with Google maps insisting that I have arrived at my destination. The only clue to the fact that there’s an Indian temple in that area, were the streams of people walking to and from the back of the mosque.
Hiding behind the huge structure, is a charming little courtyard bustling with shoes, flowers and the people carrying them. The crowds gathered around three main spots: the shoe rack, the flower counter and the staircase leading to the first temple. I first headed to the flower counter, which was completely covered in heaps of flowers arranged in long strands. Without confirming with me that I actually wanted one, the man behind the counter cut out a long strand of jasmines, tied the ends into a knot and handed me the necklace. He said, “The tourists usually like these” and requested 5 dirhams in return. He explained that flowers are usually tied in women’s hair or used as offerings to the deities of the temples.
Beyond the flower counter is a small grocery shop selling only Indian products. The two most sought after commodities, the shopkeeper told me, are the flowers and the 10 to 15 dirham plates of bhog, which in Hinduism refers to the food offered to the Gods.
Going out of the backdoor of the shop, I found myself in what must be the smallest most colorful alley in all of Dubai. This very narrow street, which is known as Hindi Lane, is lined up with about 15 miniature shops drowning in threads, flowers and little statues of Hindu deities.
Towards the end of the alley, is another staircase leading to the second temple. Having been assured that it is fine that I, a non-Hindu, enter the temple, I slid off my shoes and followed the crowd up the stairs. As I entered the temple I was instantly engulfed by a crowd of people praying and clapping as they faced one side of the temple.
After a couple of “sorry”s and “excuse me”s I managed to wriggle my way out of the crowd and stand at enough distance to see what was happening. Probably noticing the confusion on my face, a man in a bright pink shirt approached me and without any introductions said, “They’re praying to Shiva. This the temple of Shiva. He is one of the three main deities of the Hindu religion.” Then he walked back in to the crowd praying and clapping as he went.
At the back of the room is another staircase leading directly into a small Sikh temple called gurdwara. Usually Sikh temples are separate from Hindu ones, but this arrangement was made due to lack of space in the area. There are actually several separate gurdwaras around Dubai. Seeing that both men and women had their hair covered, I quickly stuffed my hair in my hoodie and whispered an apology to the man who’s been observing me in amusement since I came in. He chuckled to himself and said that I didn’t have to cover my hair if I didn’t want to. He then placed his hand on the empty carpet spot next to him inviting me to sit down. “This is a gurdwara,” he explained “a place of worship for the Sikhs. Do you see where people are kneeling?” I nodded, looking at two men who had their heads, knees and palms on the ground the same way Muslims do when they pray, their bodies pointing towards the end of the temple. “This is where the Guru Granth Sahib is; the holy text of Sikhs. It’s like the Bible and the Quran.” He then excused himself to pray.
I then headed back to the courtyard where the first Hindu temple was. Knowing the procedure, I slipped off my shoes, put them in the rack and followed the crowd up the stairs. I learned from a woman in an elegant sari that this temple is dedicated to Krishna, an incarnation of the deity of Vishnu. “Shiva is the destroyer, Vishnu is the preserver and Brahma is the creator, but he’s least popular.”
After asking all the questions I possibly could, I thanked her for time and headed for the door. Just as I was leaving, the athaan (call to prayer) from the mosque was just starting. All the way down the stairs, I could hear both the athaan and the Hindu prayers. For a brief moment, the two sounds were in perfect rhythm and almost indistinguishable from one another.
It’s a sad fact that there’s only one Hindu temple complex in all of the UAE; that cultural diversity and true and equal coexistence are only manifested in brief moments until the louder culture takes over.
For days after my trip, every time I heard the athaan, I heard the Hindu prayers as well. I still don’t know what the words of the prayers mean but I can’t help but think that they can’t possibly be preaching something radically different from those of the athaan.
For my earlier article in the series ‘The Dubai You Don’t Hear About’ click here to read about Al-Fahidi District!