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2 April 2020, Gateway House

Afghan Hindus & Sikhs under attack

The 25 March 2020 attack on a Sikh gurudwara in Kabul focused world attention on the plight of Afghanistan’s indigenous Sikh and Hindu minorities, the target of both local lawless elements and religious fundamentalists. They once were a significant part of Afghanistan’s principally Muslim population and a mark of its cultural syncretism and religious pluralism

Bombay History Fellow

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In the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s population of 36 million,[1] 300 Afghan Hindu and Sikh families[2] are the invisible minorities: the 25 March attack on Gurdwara Har Rai in Kabul’s Shor Bazaar, by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),cast the spotlight on them once again.

Local Afghans and the Afghan government condemned it as an attack on their brethren, specifically ‘Lalas’ (lit. big brothers), the term by which indigenous Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are addressed. There was an outcry when the last major attack on the Sikh community on 1 July 2018 in Jalalabad happened, their leader Avatar Singh Khalsa and other prominent Sikhs were ambushed by a suicide bomber, leaving 19 dead (including Khalsa).[3] The solidarity shown by Afghans the world over at that time, and the subsequent condolence visit by President Ashraf Ghani to meet both communities at the historic Gurdwara Karte Parwan (Kabul), have ever since been green shoots of hope for its few remaining members. The fact that the Afghan people stood shoulder to shoulder with their minorities, has helped weaken the narrative perpetuated by religious fundamentalists that Afghan Hindus and Sikhs are Indian because their faiths[4] originate in the Indian sub-continent.

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A Granthi (priest) leading prayers at Gurdwara Karte Parwan, Kabul. Photo courtesy: Lovneet Bhatt.

This falsehood redacts centuries of Afghan Hindu and Sikh history and their unique cultural-religious identity, forged in a rugged, landlocked South-Central Asian country. These minority communities (like the Afghan Jews and Christians) lived in relative peace till as recently as 1970s, in an Afghanistan known for its moderate Islam, religious syncretism and pluralistic culture under its Amirs.

Nearly 70 functioning gurdwaras (or dharamsaals)[5] and scores of ancient temples in the 1970s point to the significant presence of these communities. Today many are damaged or locked, or usurped, when their congregations began fleeing abroad to Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Pakistan and India[6] to escape the Civil War between the Communist government in Kabul and the Mujahideen. This coincided with Soviet troop withdrawals in 1989.

While retracing how Hinduism and Sikhism took root in Afghanistan, it is important to note that both predated the nation of Afghanistan as we know it today, which came into being only in 1747 when Amir Ahmed Shah Durrani (Abdali) unified the Pashtun tribes to establish an Afghan Kingdom.[7] [8]

The 9th-Century Hindu Shahis

Islam as a religion became predominant in South Central Asia almost two or three centuries after its founding by the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. Numerous religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Shamanism,[9] Animism and Islam–coexisted in this region and travelled through it along the southern branch of the Old Silk Road, which was milestoned by oasis towns such as Samarkand, Bukhara, Merv (the first two are in Uzbekistan and the last in Turkmenistan), Balkh, Kabul, Ghazni (in present-day east Afghanistan) and Herat (to its west).

A Hindu Shahi dynasty ruled Peshawar, Kabul and Gandhara, in the late 9th century, but could not withstand the onslaught of the Ghaznavids and disappeared by 1021 A.D. (Mahmud of Ghazni made the first of 10 incursions into the Indian subcontinent in 1001 A.D.)Having conquered the regions to the north of Ghazni, Mahmud’s son shifted his capital to Kabul.

Kabul city has the Koh-i-Asamai mountain, which has been a hub of worship by Afghan Hindus, Sikhs, and even followers of other faiths. The mountain is home to the Old Asamai Temple and the new one near its peak.[10] Even those who fled abroad built temples to Asamai (asha, meaning hope, and mai goddess).[11] [12]

The one in Kabul is regarded to be 4,000 years old, says Sumeer Bhasin, entrepreneur and independent geopolitical analyst who has lived in Afghanistan since 2002. But he thinks tracing the history of trade between the regions offers a more reliable indication of the beginnings of Hindu presence in Afghanistan.

The Baburnama(on the life of Emperor Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty in India), for example, refers to caravans from Hindustan and Kabul being Hindustan’s own market.[13] Emperor Akbar, grandson of Babur, who is considered the founder of Peshawar in the Pashtun heartland, was known to encourage both Hindus and Muslims to settle there.

Hindu traders, like the Multanis (from West Punjab), and (after the 18th century) the Shikarpuris (from Sindh), were astute bankers, money changers, moneylenders and traders, and were indispensable to the economy of the Central Asian Silk Road, much like the Jews in early modern Iraq.[14] Only the menfolk among the Multanis and Shikarpuris traversed these routes, never their families, thus becoming an important addition to the already resident Hindu populations in Kandahar, Ghazni, Kabul, Jalalabad, Sultanpur, Mazhar-i-Sharif, and Herat.[15]

In Guru Nanak’s footsteps

The arrival of the Afghan Sikhs roughly datesback to two events. One, the travels of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder of the Sikh faith, with his companions, who, while on their way home from Mecca, Medina and Baghdad, stopped in Kabul and Kandahar, before crossing over into the Punjab via the Kurram Pass. Nanak’s travels are recorded in the much revered Janamsakhis, which do not contain any dates, but Sikh pilgrimage sites, like the Tohri Bala stream outside Jalalabad (Sultanpur), are testimony to his visits. Also, his preaching of the new faith among locals resulted in many Hindus becoming his followers. In Kabul city, a prominent Hindu, Maan Chand, became a follower,and subsequently, an important preacher of Sikhism in the region.[16]

Sikh girls and ladies at Gurdwara Karte Parwan. Notice the wood-fired heater in the foreground. Photo courtesy: Loveneet Bhatt.
Sikh girls and ladies at Gurdwara Karte Parwan. Notice the wood-fired heater in the foreground. Photo courtesy: Lovneet Bhatt.

Secondly, “Even during the Dardar Khalsa’s[17], and later, during Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s time there was buoyant trade with the Afghan Kingdom because the Sikh Empire came right up to Jamrud, which is now in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPP), Pakistan. These families have been living here for 400 years or more,” says Lovneet Bhatt, a documentary filmmaker who is working on a project on Afghan Hindus and Sikhs.

Pertinent also is the fact that the Sikhs – whether Keshdharis (turbaned), Sahajdharis (shaven) or Udasis (followers of Guru Nanak’s son, Sri Chand[18] –speak a syncretic dialect, Hindko, a mix of Punjabi, Pushto, Urdu and Persian. Hindko is chiefly spoken in KPP, its cities of Peshawar and Abbottabad, and the fringes of western Punjab, which suggests that the bulk of this community, which is mostly Khatri, hails from this region.(See Part 2) [19] Like most Afghans, both Hindus and Sikhs are multilingual communities, additionally speaking both Pushto and Dari, the official languages of Afghanistan.

Their unique identity is based most visibly on language and religion, but also, that they are predominantly practitioners of Unani medicine. The few Afghan Sikhs who remain enjoy a clientele that cuts across all ethnicities within Afghan society.

Today, the two communities are no longer financially influential the way they were before the large dried fruit and cloth traders, informal bankers and moneylenders departed. Many small traders continue to run grocery and cloth shops and pharmacies, but live in the gurdwaras and temples because their properties have been illegally occupied. They face not only daily rowdyism on the streets (just like other Afghans), but religious persecution and sporadic violence as well, like last week’s attack on Gurdwara Har Rai. (They need police protection when cremating their dead.) Yet, the communities have two representatives[20] in the Afghan parliament, vindication that in spite of being almost invisible there is a good chance that their rights and historic legacy in Afghanistan will be protected.

Sifra Lentin is Bombay History Fellow, Gateway House.

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[1] Central Intelligence Agency, ‘Population & Religion’, Government of United States, (Accessed on 29 March 2020). See the subheadings Population and Religion.

[2] According to estimates in the 1980s there were about 2,20,000 Sikhs and Hindus in the country. By the 1990s, the communities had shrunk to about 60,000. Almost continuous migration abroad has occurred since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 because of the ensuing civil war. After the NATO forces came in 2001-02, a few Sikh and Hindu families did return to resume their businesses.

[3] The convoy of Awtar Singh Khalsa (an Afghan Sikh politician from Jalalabad and head of the Afghan Sikh & Hindu Council), was on its way to meet President Ashraf Ghani, who was going to speak in the governor’s residence in Jalalabad. Avtar Singh Khalsa was about to be elected unopposed for the lower house of Afghanistan’s Parliament in the then forthcoming election (October 2018).Among the dead were activist Ravail Singh, Sikh community spokesman Iqbal Singh, and peace activist Anup Singh.

[4] Interview dated 16 March 2020 with Documentary Film-maker Loveneet Bhatt. Bhatt is making a documentary on Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, which will explore multiple identities – ethnic, cultural, political, linguistic– of these indigenous communities in the larger sphere of Dharmic Faiths (i.e. the shared precepts of  Dhamma, whether in a polytheistic faith like Hinduism or monotheistic one like Sikhism) vis-a-vis the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Afghanistan.

[5] The root of the word Dharamsaal comes from Dharamshala (pilgrims’ guesthouse), an obvious reference to Gurdwaras having lodging facilities for pilgrims. Gurdwaras are well known the world over for providing langar meals from the community kitchen attached to a Gurdwara. This free meal is served to all the visitors, without distinction of religion, caste, gender, economic status or ethnicity. The free meal is always vegetarian. People sit on the floor and eat together, and the kitchen is maintained and run by the local Sikh community.

[6] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ‘India’, United Nations, According to UNHCR Table 5 on page 28, in their Statistical Yearbook 2016 (published in 2018), at the beginning of 2016 there were 10,196 Afghan refugees registered with them, which includes Hindus, Sikhs, Christian and Muslims. By end-2016, Additionally, 1380 arrived in 2016, By end 2016, 7693 refugees were registered with them. (Accessed on 2 April 2020).

[7] Ahmed Shah Durrani’s  (Abdali) 18th century Afghan Kingdom extended from the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus River) to the Indian Ocean and from Khorasan (south eastern Iran) into Kashmir, the Punjab (briefly), and Sindh. Durrani invaded India nine times between 1747 to 1769.In the 1760s he made four attempts to crush the Sikhs, but his own kingdom was restive with serious revolts, and he eventually lost control of the Punjab to them.

Ahmad Shah was one of the famous Afghan generals of the Persian Afsarid Emperor Nadir Shah. After Nadir Shah’s murder in June 1747, and the disintegration of the Afsarid Empire, Ahmad Shah established his own Afghan Kingdom after the Abdali Tribes held a Jirga and appointed him as their ruler.

[8] The current borders of Afghanistan were created during the Great Game, a term coined by Rudyard Kipling, when Great Britain and Imperial Russia were competing for geo-strategic-political spheres of influence across Central Asia.  The British diplomat Sir Mortimer Durand, with the consent of Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman Khan, delineated the Durand Line border in 1893, which was to create a buffer zone between British North West India and the Russians, by dividing the Pashtun homeland. This is the current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.Likewise, Afghanistan’s northern border, along with the boundaries of all of today’s Central Asian Republics, were drawn by Josef Stalin. Formalized in the “Settlement of 1922,” a series of treaties between the Soviet Union and its southern neighbors. Like the British, Stalin too was keen to create his own buffer zone against the Pashtuns (and the Raj) by stranding sizeable Tajik and Uzbek populations in what thenceforth became northern Afghanistan.

[9] Shamanism is a religious phenomenon centered on a shaman, a person believed to
achieve various powers through trance or ecstatic religious experience.Although shamans’ repertoires vary from one culture to the next, they are typically thought to have the ability to heal the sick, to communicate with the otherworld, and often to escort the souls of the dead to that otherworld.

[10] There are two Asamai temples on this mountain.Permission to build a Temple near the foot of the mountain, was given to the community by Amir Abdul Rehman Khan (reign 1880-1901), this is today referred to as the Old Asamai Temple. The New Temple was built in 2006 near the top of the mountain.

[11] Asamai temples have been built by the dispersed Afghan Hindu community in New York, London, Faridabad, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.

[12] Interview dated 16 March 2020 with Sumeer Bhasin.

[13] The goods imported from the Subcontinent comprised cotton piece goods, household items, slaves, sugar candy, sugar and aromatic roots.

[14] Here the reference is only to the Hindu Multani and Shikarpuri merchants. The Multani network and Shikarpuri network overlap, however the Multani network predates the Shikarpuri one. Of note is that Shikarpur rose to prominence in 1830 not so much as a centre of trade but of finance as the Shikarpuri Hundi financed the caravan trade, internal trade, and sometimes even the needs of rulers of various kingdoms.

Markovits Claude, The Global World Of Indian Merchants 1750-1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 64-65 & 67-69.

[15] The Multanis and Shikarpuris augmented the Hindu resident population across the length and breadth of the Old Silk Road, not just in South Central Asia, Central Asia, Persia and the Gulf Region.

[16] Singh, Inderjeet, Afghan Hindus and Sikhs: History Of A Thousand Years (New Delhi, Readomania Publishing, 2019), pp. 62-63.

[17] The Dardar Khalsa or the Sikh Confederacy of 1709-1799, was made up of regional Sikh rulers who commanded their own armies. They grouped together to fight a common enemy. This was before the founding of a Sikh Kingdom by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

[18] The Udasis are a religious sect of ascetic sadhus centered in North India. They are followers of the teachings of Sri Chand, the son of Guru Nanak. The Udasis are considered key interpreters of Sikh philosophy and used to once be the custodians of important Sikh shrines.

[19] A significant influx of Sikhs into Afghanistan happened on the Partition of India in 1947, as those closer to the Afghan border found it easier to seek refuge in Afghanistan.

[20] The communities are represented in the Wolesi Jirga or Lower House by Narinder Singh Khalsa, and in the Meshrano Jirga or Senate by Dr. Anarkali Honaryar. Another indication of how intrinsic they are to Afghanistan’s polity, society, and culture, is highlighted in the fact that the current Afghan Ambassador to Canada.