Their Queen arrived as an exile. Today, hundreds of Sikhs call Kathmandu home

Since the 50s, Sikhs have been building roads and running transport—all while feeding the hungry

Every Saturday morning, at 11, the doors of the Guru Nanak Satsang Gurdwara in Kupondole are flung open, ready to welcome all visitors. Head priest Daler Singh, whom visitors to the gurdwara call bhaiji, gathers musical instruments for the bhajan session while ten Sikh volunteers prepare the langar—the tradition of serving a vegetarian meal to all visitors, regardless of religion, caste, ethnicity or gender—in the kitchen. On most Saturdays, the langar, which begins at 1pm, serves more than 100 visitors, from community members and the homeless to curious onlookers who simply want a taste of Sikh cooking.

The Kupondole Gurdwara offers the langar, a tradition that was started over 500 years ago by Guru Nanak, as a service to the larger community. And that is just one of the ways in which the Sikhs have long been contributing to and enriching Nepali society. Ever since the 50s, Sikhs have laid Kathmandu’s water canals, designed the city’s roads and brought in some of Nepal’s first transport trucks. Their tale of migration and entrepreneurship is rarely told, but it has a long and storied history.

Over half a century ago, there were between 4,000 to 5,000 Sikhs in Nepal, says Daler, but owing to political instability and citizenship issues, the numbers have now dwindled in recent decades.

“With our community shrinking, it is our responsibility to remain significant here,” says Daler. “We’ve helped this country develop.”  

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Coming to Nepal

In 1849, a penniless queen-in-exile arrived in Kathmandu. Maharani Jind Kaur, famed regent of the Sikh Empire and the youngest wife of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, had escaped imprisonment by the British and crossed 800 kilometres of jungle to arrive at the doorstep of Jung Bahadur Rana, then prime minister of Nepal, who welcomed Kaur with all the dignity and respect befitting a queen. She was given asylum; a new palace, the Charburja, was built for her at Thapathali, where the Prasuti Griha maternity hospital currently stands, according to historian Purusottam Rana’s book Shri Teen ka Durbar Haru.

Kaur lived in Kathmandu for 11 years and during her time here, established a number of small gurdwaras across the Valley, enshrined with the 1,430-page Guru Granth Sahib, a holy handwritten Sikh manuscript that is a collection of teachings and writings by Guru Nanak and his successors.

Although it was Jind Kaur who placed handwritten copies of the Guru Granth Sahib in a few Valley gurdwaras, the first Guru Granth Sahib was consecrated in Nepal by Sri Chand, Guru Nanak’s son, to create a landmark that would recall the night his father spent in the jungles of Balaju while travelling to Tibet, according to hagiographic accounts of the founder of Sikhism. The jungle, which then spread across 1,200 ropanis of land, has now shrunk to just 32 ropanis and houses the Prachin Udasin Shri Guru Nanak Muth, near Balaju in Naya Bazaar. It was damaged in the 2015 earthquakes, and is currently led by Naiyam Muni Udasin, a follower of the Udasi sect of Sikhism founded by Sri Chand. The 65-year-old Naiyam Muni, originally from Gagalphedi above Sundarijal, is the 31st Udasi of the Muth and was appointed by the Nepal government’s Guthi Sansthan.

The history of the Sikhs in Nepal thus dates back centuries, possibly to the late 15th-early 16th centuries, if the Sikh hagiographies are to be believed. More reliable historical reports, however, account for Jind Kaur as the first prominent Sikh in Nepal, who paved the way for the entry of others a hundred years later...

...Still, there just aren’t as many Sikhs as there used to be. Sikhs running Punjabi restaurants along the Bagmati bridge have sold their restaurants and left.

“When I was here, Kupondole was packed with Sikhs. Every rented home had a Sikh family, but now there could just be 30 to 40 families in total here,” says Zorawar.

After Harpal ‘Paali’ Singh’s restaurant was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake, the only remaining Sikh running an authentic Punjabi restaurant is Pyara Singh, whose restaurant Punjabi Dhaba is located in Soaltee Mode.

For Pritam, life has slowed down. After bringing in a fleet of 600 vehicles in 1990, Pritam has let go of the transport business and finds himself more often in the gurdwara than inside a truck. The school he helped found, Modern Indian School in Chobhar, is flourishing. His sister-in-law Rupinder Singh operates another successful school, Rupy’s International, in Baphal.

“We may not have been granted Nepali citizenship, but we live peacefully here,” says Pritam. “And we will help the country prosper as long as we are here.”

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