Hindus consisted of 80 percent of the population of India in 2001. Naturally one would expect the same percentage to be present, wherever the Indian diaspora is considered. But in the Middle East (based on USA Government data), the number of Hindus in the following Middle East nations is as follows: Bahrain (44286) United Arab Emirates (944352), Oman (96147), Kuwait (300667) Saudi Arabia (165606) and Qatar (65328). Hindus number only 1.6 million out of the total Middle East Indian diaspora of 3.3 million, namely 50 percent.
Different political/religious/social reasons have ensured, that the percentage of Hindus compared to the local nationals, varies from a plain point six percent (.6) in Saudi Arabia to 21.25% in UAE. For example in Saudi Arabia, the labour department insists on only Muslims being recruited for working in the country and as such the proportion of Hindus in the NRI labour forces is barely, a mere ten percent of the 1.5 million NRIs in Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, in Dubai capital of the UAE, the Hindu community is now even able to openly celebrate traditionally “loud” festivals like Holi and Divali and hence numbers as much as, 60 percent of the NRI population of 1.5 million.
The best countries for the Hindu diaspora in the Middle East are Bahrain, Oman and Dubai, not necessarily in the same order.
Of these Oman has the best record, for the Sultans, the traditional rulers Oman, have great regard for India and know its customs and vagaries. Sultan Taimur, the present Sultan’s grandfather, spent more than 30 years in Mumbai till his death in 1965, after his abdication; he is buried there. Sultan Said, the present Sultan’s father, studied in India. Oman’s current ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, personally granted support to the building of two temples in the country. Jayant Vyas, the second priest at the Krishna Temple, Muscat, is all praise for the Sultan and adds : “During the Babri Masjid riots in India, the Sultan personally ordered his guard to protect the temple. He told us not to fear any attacks and to continue with our pujas.”
Hinduism first came to Muscat in 1507 from Sindh. Indeed, four Hindu temples existed in Muscat ca. 1760. The number of Hindus had declined in the 20th century, although it is now stable The historical Hindu Quarters of al-Waljat and al-Banyan are no longer occupied by Hindus. Today Oman is be the only country in the Middle East which has an indigenous Hindu minority. It is the only Arab country, where irrespective of his or her religion, any person who has lived in the country for at least 20 years, is eligible to apply for citizenship, which almost a thousand Indians have so far been accorded so far.
Hindu temples once located in Ma’bad al Banyan and Bayt al Pir, no longer exist. The only active Hindu temples today are the Muthishwar temple located in Al-Hawshin Muscat, the Shiva temple located in Muttrah, and the Krishna temple located in Darsait. The only Hindu crematorium is located in Sohar, northwest of Muscat.
The most prominent indigenous Hindu is Kanaksi Khimji. The great consideration Oman has towards Hindus in Oman, is largely due to the Khimjis – a powerful business family, that has great say in the various ministries of the country. In fact the world’s only Hindu Sheikh is Kanaksi Khimji, the head of Khimji Ramdas Group of Companies, as the title was granted by the Sultan of Muscat to him. His grandfather came to Oman in 1870 and since then the Khimjis have prospered.
The present head of the family happens to be an uncompromising vegetarian, his devotion is anchored to Lord Shreenathji, and though his admired entrepreneurship branches out across the globe, his roots lie in Gujarat. His business acumen is so well recognized, that, the Sultan of Oman gave hisÿ yacht Lo’Lo’ to this person of Indian origing, for developing tourism business in the Sultanate. Dressed in a flowing full-length robe and wearing the kaffiyeh, the cloth that covers the head, Khimji easily passes off as an Omani. When he married in 1960, Khimji was presented with a silver jug by Sultan Said Taimur Bin Faisal. The queen mother, Bibi Mahezun, had given him two of her photographs, a privilege accorded to only a few. His firm is a leading corporate house in Oman. It represents over 100 global brands in a wide spectrum of businesses and services in that Gulf nation. Thanks to the pioneering spirit of Kanaksi Khimji in education, there are now 14 Indian schools in Oman, with 17,000 NRI students pursuing their education.
When it comes to UAE, The bilateral contacts between the UAE and India date back to the early 19th century when pearls and dates from the former and spices, provisions and clothing from the latter, were energetically traded to their mutual advantage. Although some Indian trading families began settling down in places like Dubai, Sharjah and Fujairah around that time, it was only after World War-I that their numbers started increasing exponentially. The local government’s relatively liberal policy towards religions other than Islam, has enabled the NRIs to build Krishna Temple (Srinathji) and a Shiv temple + Gurudwara. They have also been allowed to set up a number of cremation grounds, one of which has even been built at government expense, for the benefit of persons who are not permitted by their religion to bury their dead. The Hindus also respect these signal concessions and during Ramadan fasting period, the prasad in these temples is distributed only after the Iftar time (breaking fast).
With a population of 643,000 and a total area of 691 sq.kms., Bahrain is the smallest of the Middle East States. Indians are known to have gone to Bahrain in pursuit of trade as early as 3000 BC when their ships plied from the Harappan settlements to Oman and Bahrain, on their way to Mesopotamia. In fact Bahrain was under the British Government in India, prior to Indian Independence in 1947, like the other princely Indian states. During that era, the prime ministers to the Emir (king) of Bahrain were the Hindu Bhatias and their family temple was and is in the centre of the town.
Bahrain’s distinguishing features have been an enlightened and modern education policy and a moderate policy towards non-Islamic religions. Religious freedom is prevailing really well in Bahrain. There are four temples, a Krishna temple, Durga temple, an Ayyappan temple, ISKON temple and three gurdwaras for the Sikh community. Though several Indian families have been residing in Bahrain for many decades, only a few of them have been granted local citizenship.
To be sure, life for the Hindu, in these largely Muslim states ranges widely, from religiously intolerant Saudi Arabia, through a laid-back existence in easy-going Oman, to the relative excess of Dubai. But even in Dubai, it is hard to forget, that you are in an Islamic country, and this, mixed with mutual stereotyping, and expat-unfriendly residence laws, makes the Hindu in the Middle East always a little nervous, but more prosperous than he would be in India.
written By Antony Kuriakose