A flower shop outside Krishna Temple in Bur Dubai Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/Gulf News

Dubai: In a quiet cobbled alleyway of Bur Dubai, the door of the Imam House opens out to the courtyard of an ancient Hindu temple called Haveli, built more than 100 years ago — 1902 to be precise.

The muezzin’s call rises, calling the faithful for the Maghrib prayer, while the bells of the aarti ring out in celebration of worship of the deity Krishna. And this has been happening for well over a century.

“Proximity brings clarity, distance creates misunderstanding. We have lived with the Hindus in our midst for a long time. They worship, we follow our faith, and we connect as people. There has never been any problem.” Majid Noor, an Emirati, who runs a wholesale store in the textile market that houses the ancient mosque and temple complex of Dubai, told Gulf News. His father Mohammad Noor, who is 80 years old, set up the shop nearly 50 years ago.

Mohammad said: “The land for the temple, next to the mosque, was given by the Ruler… why would any of us have a problem? We all lived in peace. I was born here, I used live in this area, never saw any issue. We used to see them having their celebrations; we followed our traditions – there has always been peaceful co-existence.”

The textile market was originally known as Souq Al Banian, which means the market for the ‘Banian’ community. The trading communities from the Sub-continent that arrived in the late 1800s and settled in Bur Dubai close to the Creek were called ‘Banian’. The first group of traders of the Bhatia clan from the Sindh province of Pakistan was from Thatta. The second migration took place about 60 years later and were Sindhi families from Gwadar, now a part of Pakistan but once ruled by Oman. They were all Hindus by faith.

“Since the 1820s many traders used to pass through the UAE, it has always been open and people were allowed to practice their religion. We have always been accepting. The UAE has always been based on freedom of religion - the moment you accept the existence of a person in your country, you are also accepting their religion,” Abdullah Bin Jassim Al Mutairi, told Gulf News. He is Advisor to the Chairman of the Dubai Arts and Culture Authority.

“My grandfather arrived in Dubai in 1850, my father in 1895… I came in 1942. The temple [Haveli] was already established when I arrived [to work in the family business]. Life was very simple, no Hindu-Muslim issues… everything was very trustworthy,” 91-year-old Maghanmal J. Pacholia said. He has been part of the Haveli’s managing committee for decades.

“We hear of things happening in all parts of the world, including India and Pakistan. It’s everywhere, but you don’t feel any impact here. The administration, discipline and rule of law have been good.”

Bharatbhai Shah, an Indian businessman, who has spent 68 years in the Middle East, added: “The tolerance I experience in the UAE is equal to India. I don’t miss India here. There is no hindrance in my religious practice here because of the tolerance, although it is an Islamic country surrounded by Muslim countries.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to the UAE on August 16, 2015, witnessed the announcement of land for a temple being granted to the Indian community in Abu Dhabi. While most rejoiced, a few voices of dissent denounced this, taking to social media to voice displeasure.

Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Federal National Council Affairs responded via Twitter that the country has always been accepting and, “using this subject to criticise the UAE is a dirty approach from a sad group that wants to see things the way they want and ignore the clear facts for their own negative motives.”

Heman Bhatia, who is part of the original trading families to first settle along Dubai’s coast, said that trade, especially re-export was the prime source of income in the 20th century. So, there was a constant influx of trading ships into the Emirate, arriving with grains, oil, sugar, textiles and other daily use commodities.

“There was always respect between the Banian community and the Emiratis. Many of them used to travel to Mumbai on ships for study and medical care. The second temple or the Guru Mandir was established in 1958,” Bhatia said. It is located behind the Haveli. All of it is within 200 metres of the Al Fahidi Fort, which now houses the Dubai Museum.

Ashok Sawlani, arrived in Dubai at the age of 17, to work in the family business, in 1968.

He said; “My father Ramchand Sawlani encouraged the setting up of the second temple, to help guide the young people along the right path and gather in the evenings. There was an extra Guru Granth Sahib [the holy book] at the temple in Gwadar, Pakistan. My father had that transported to Dubai.” This was then placed as the central part of the second temple, followed by the installation of a few other deities. Hence, it is known as the Guru Mandir.

The growth of the community witnessed increased connectivity.

“UAE society has always been characterised by openness. Who are these people who are rejecting the building of the temple [Abu Dhabi]? Who are we to reject the building of the temple when our forefathers accepted it? What is the harm if someone builds a temple? It does not harm me or affect my worship in the mosque,” Abdullah Bin Jassim Al Mutairi said.

“We never had fanaticism in our society. People led simple lives and used to attend the Diwali celebrations of Hindus. People used to greet traders on their religious occasions. Shaikh Rashid would visit businessmen’s homes in Bur Dubai, who were celebrating Diwali.”

Bhatia added: “In fact, Shaikh Rashid had declared a holiday for Diwali… the customs, bank and shipping company were closed. He would go to one or two houses and greet people saying, ‘Salaam alaikum Diwali’.”

The roots of tolerance run deep in the UAE, the past is testament to this openness of thought and practice.

- Translation input by Mohammad H. Al Jashi/Gulf News Translator