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In 1892, a special souvenir booklet celebrated the 494th birthday of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, and the opening of the Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Nairobi, Kenya, on November 1, 1963. One chapter in this booklet tells the story of the first Sikhs who arrived in Kenya, marking a significant moment in the country's history.

Down the history lane 

In the opening chapter, the narrative unfolds on a ship packed with men, resembling sardines in a tin, as they journey across a vast ocean. Among this group of individuals, there was a small party of Sikhs who had embarked on the voyage. Leading this group was a man who carried a small cot upon which a big, richly draped book rested. Another man in the party waved an ornate fan over this book in a ceremonial manner.

The Sikhs were transporting their Holy Book, which served as the eternal embodiment of their faith. Despite the ship's overcrowded decks and the chaos of shouting and pushing among the passengers, there prevailed a serene atmosphere of reverence around this Holy Book, known as the Guru Granth Sahib. Travellers willingly accorded it a place of honour, showcasing the deep respect and veneration they held for this sacred text.

Sikhs migrating from India 

Sikhs, who arrived in 1892 as part of the first group of indentured labourers from India to construct the Uganda Railway, were a skilled bunch. Among them were carpenters, blacksmiths, and masons. Shortly after they arrived in Mombasa, they wasted no time in building a modest Gurdwara at Kilindini, using materials provided by the Railway authorities. This marked the birth of the first Sikh Gurdwara on the African continent.

In this very Gurdwara at Kilindini, it is believed that these Sikhs placed the first Guru Granth Sahib brought to Africa. Over time, it made its way to the Makindu Gurdwara and later reached Nairobi in 1972 before eventually finding a home in Kericho.

Fast forward to February 4’ 2010 

The train known as the Guru Express, adorned with vibrant Sikh colours of blue and yellow, along with the Sikh emblem, the Khanda, painted on its carriages, arrives at Makindu station. Inside, the last prayers are offered from the Guru Granth Sahib before it is gently closed and taken outside to the eagerly waiting crowd at the station, which includes not only Sikhs but also many Africans.

The excitement is palpable among everyone as they anticipate the return of the Guru Granth Sahib to Makindu Gurdwara, from Kericho via Kisumu, on board the Guru Express. It is believed to be the original one dating back to 1892. There's a profound sense of reverence in the air as the sacred book is carried outside, reminiscent of the scene from 1892. It is carefully placed on a specially prepared palanquin and carried on the shoulders of devoted individuals to a newly constructed gurdwara within the grounds of the Makindu Sikh Gurdwara, which stands as one of the most esteemed Sikh shrines in the world outside of Punjab and India.

Journey of Guru Granth Sahib from Kericho to Kisumu 

The book describes the five-day journey of the Holy Scripture, beginning in Kericho and progressing to Kisumu via road. The journey continues with the special train, stopping at Nakuru and Nairobi for collective prayers dedicated to Kenya's peace, prosperity, and unity, is dubbed the "Sacred Voyage for Peace, Prosperity, and Unity."This remarkable pilgrimage symbolizes a profound quest for harmony and growth within the nation.

The newly constructed gurdwara incorporates materials salvaged from an earlier gurdwara that dates back to 1926. Remarkably, the front two windows of the gurdwara bear witness to that era's legacy. As the brochure for the Asian African exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum states, "Labour, not trade, forms the cornerstone of the Asian African heritage in East Africa." The toil of railway labourers serves as the enduring foundation upon which subsequent endeavours have been built.

The 1963 souvenir edition reads,

 "As the railway pierced its way into the interior, the Sikhs built a temporary Gurdwara at every major camp and one of these, at Makindu, is now a permanent gurdwara right on the Mombasa road."

Many of those on the train are taking a nostalgic journey, descendants of the original labourers who arrived over a century ago with only their basic possessions and the Guru Granth Sahib.

The Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, addressed the 3rd and 4th generation Kenyans, the great-grandchildren of the builders, during this sentimental ride. He encouraged them to take pride in their forefathers, regardless of whether they were Kenyans of Indian or Sudanese origin, emphasizing that they were all part of the larger Kenyan community. He highlighted the need for more peacemakers like those on the Guru Express, considering the political turmoil that plagued Kenya from 1990 to the notorious post-election violence of 2007, culminating in the 2008 crisis. The Prime Minister stressed that Kenyans share a collective responsibility to reconcile and unite.

Makindu Station 

In the series of drawings created by the late Mohamed Sadiq Cockar, a Sufi and surveyor employed in the Public Works Department ("PWD") of the Kenya Colony in 1926, there is a sketch of Makindu Station. Sadiq Cockar, a skilled draughtsman and architect, turned each page of his work into a captivating story featuring various railway stations.

Within his depiction of Makindu, he showcases the Makindu Gurdwara, noting, "A spacious building with numerous rooms, the Sikh Temple offering free food and lodging." The illustration portrays a bustling railway station, complete with the Nairobi-Mombasa road, two imposing baobab trees standing between the mosque and the gurdwara, and PWD staff camped on the outskirts of the town, with giraffes and other wildlife nearby.

As the station thrived with activity, the Sikh community in Makindu saw growth, with men engaged in the railway workshop and the operation of trains.

On April 27, 1930, a new Gurdwara was inaugurated in Makindu, Kenya, in the presence of approximately 150 Sikhs from East Africa. This Gurdwara is often described as a splendid stone structure adorned with elegant arches at both its front and rear entrances, complemented by a charming garden. Surprisingly, the construction of this remarkable building cost just Ksh.15,000, which is equivalent to about $200 in today's currency exchange rates.

Regrettably, the railway system, which had once been instrumental in opening up the previously little-explored interior of Africa, experienced a decline after the 1980s. This railway had been crucial in connecting regions beyond the coastal areas, which had remained relatively isolated until that time.

Becoming the East African Railways after the Independence of the three countries in the 1960s - Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania - internal wrangling saw the amalgamation break.

Change in railway dynamics 

Rift Valley Railways, having assumed control of the troubled Kenya Railways Authority, has become a source of controversy. Thousands of railway employees have lost their jobs, and passenger services have become infrequent. It is a far cry from its previous glory days, when passengers revelled in luxurious dining aboard the train, complete with fine china and silverware.

Nonetheless, the Prime Minister addressed the audience, highlighting ongoing efforts to revamp the rail system. Plans are underway to modernize the network and extend it to Kampala in Uganda, as well as to establish a new rail line from Lamu, where a second seaport is under construction, to Juba in Southern Sudan. These developments promise to bring new opportunities and connectivity to the region.

Guru Granth Sahib gives much-needed hope 

Bhai Mohinder Singh, an esteemed Sikh scholar and leader of the Nishkam Sewak Jatha, recites the opening words of the Guru Granth Sahib as "Ik Oankaar." He represents a religious charity based in the United Kingdom, responsible for facilitating the return of the ancient Guru Granth Sahib manuscript to Makindu.

These words convey a profound message: "God is One, the Creator and Lord of all creation. Everything exists because of Him." This verse encapsulates the core message, with the subsequent verses providing further elaboration and insight into this fundamental belief.

Bhai Sahib continues: 

"According to the Sikh faith, we have a responsibility towards the entire creation. The Japji Sahib, which is the morning prayer, is about the environment. It mentions the elements - air, water and Mother Earth - which we must not pollute because we are interdependent. It means that we must tread carefully on Mother Earth. Without religion," he continues after a pause, "there is no environment."

Born in Uganda in 1939, Bhai Mohinder Singh grew up and received his education in Kenya, where his family moved frequently due to his father's work with the railways. After being trained as a structural engineer, he relocated to England in the 1960s. Today, he is a devoted follower of the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib and serves as the leader of the Nishkam, an organization committed to promoting Sikhism.

What is Nishkam?

Between 1995 and 1999, the Nishkam team, under their leadership, embarked on a significant restoration project for the Golden Temple, also known as Harmandar Sahib in Amritsar. The original gilding of this iconic structure was completed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who ruled and expanded the Sikh empire between 1803 and 1820. It took him 27 years to accomplish this remarkable feat while dealing with numerous battles. However, the Nishkam team managed to redo the gilding in just four years.

The process they employed is quite fascinating. They applied 24 layers of gold leaf onto copper plates, which were almost 99.9% pure copper. The gold leaf, made from small pieces of gold bars, was meticulously pounded by hand at a rate of 120 times per minute until it reached a thickness of 0.76 microns or one-thousandth of a millimetre. The sheer thinness of this gold leaf is astonishing, especially when compared to the original coating of the temple, which had only 12 layers but endured for nearly 177 years. This restoration project not only preserved the temple's historical beauty but also ensured its continued grandeur for generations to come.

Bhai Sahib had a clear goal when he decided to use 24 layers of gold leaf for the Golden Temple: to make it last for an impressive duration, nearly four centuries. This time-honoured craft, dating back 600 years in Punjab, has been closely safeguarded and passed down through generations. Although the Golden Temple had begun to deteriorate due to the presence of copper, Bhai Sahib was determined to restore it. Some crucial decisions, such as determining the gold leaf's thickness, remained uncharted waters. With an engineering background and residing in Birmingham, where the Industrial Revolution took flight, he transported an authentic gold plate to a research institution. The expert at the institute had never encountered hand-beaten gold leaf before, setting the stage for an extraordinary endeavour.

Guru Granth Sahib in Makindu 

The historical manuscript of The Guru Granth Sahib, now back in Makindu, is under the care of Bhai Mohinder Singh. He feels a deep connection to his Kenyan heritage. Before assuming leadership from Bhai Puran Singh of Kericho, the founder of Nishkam, he learned of the leader's wish to return the old Guru Granth Sahib to Makindu Gurdwara.

The story of the Guru Granth Sahib begins in 1972 when it was taken from Makindu Gurdwara. Joginder Kaur, a resident since her marriage to a railway worker in 1967, recalls the incident vividly. An accidental fire caused by a cat knocking over a candle holder reduced everything to ashes, except for the Guru Granth Sahib, which remained unharmed.

To ensure its safety, the Holy Book found a temporary home at Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Nairobi before eventually being relocated to the Kericho Gurdwara. Here, the organization established a new temple and a technical college, welcoming youth from all backgrounds without any discrimination.

Bhai Sahib, as he is affectionately known, remains curious about the Granth Sahib's version now at Makindu Sikh Temple. He describes it as a unique, hand-illuminated copy of the Granth Sahib, possibly one of its kind in the world. With his white cotton kurta, pyjamas, and the traditional "kilemba" (turban) of the "kalasinghas," as the Kenyan Sikhs are called, he keeps the treasured manuscript close to heart.

*Based on an article written by Rupy Mangat, published in Sikh Chic on 25th February 2010 


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