Gurdyal Singh appears no different from any other Afghan man, complete with his black-as-coal beard and an immaculately tied scarlet turban.

But the 40-year-old father-of-four chuckles as he clears up the mistaken belief that he is a Muslim.

"I am Sikh but I think of myself as being Afghan," he says as he tends to a Sikh temple in the Karta Pawan district of the capital.

The Guru Nanak Durbar Gurdwara, tucked away in a quiet corner of central Kabul for the last 25 years, is one of around 43 Sikh and Hindu temples in Afghanistan.

"We speak [the north Indian language] Punjabi at home but we can speak [the Afghan languages of] Dari and Pashtun."

A caretaker at the gurdwara, or temple, Gurdyal is one of a handful of Sikhs who has remained after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Afghanistan, he says, is the country of his birth and the home where his family has lived for generations.

Historic ties

Sikhs have lived in Afghanistan for centuries, with the majority originally migrating westwards to the central Asian country from India and what is now Pakistan.

About 80% of Afghans are Sunni Muslim, 19% are Shia and 1% are listed as "other"

Source: US State Department

A small minority of Sikhs were Afghan Muslims who converted, according to historians in Kabul.

Nilab Rahimi, chief of Kabul library, explains that Afghanistan's near-porous border with India until the advent of the British Raj helped the free flow of people and culture between the two nations.

"Before, we had lots of Sikhs and Buddhists. We had very open contact with India, for centuries. Some [Afghans] converted to Sikhism," he told Aljazeera.net.

Exodus of minorities

But since 1979, when the Soviets invaded the country to support a government allied with Moscow, Sikhs have been leaving in large numbers.

The exodus increased in 1992, when the Soviet-backed government collapsed, and again in 1996, when the repressive Taliban theocracy ruled the country.

"Before the Taliban there were around 500,000 Sikhs in Afghanistan ... now there are few," said Rahimi.

Minority religions in Afghanistan suffered under Taliban rule, as the destruction of the 1,500-year-old statues of Buddha in Bamiyan province five years ago showed.

With Muslims accounting for 99% of the Afghanistan's 30 million people, the country's new sharia-based constitution recognises Islam as a sacred religion.

But Afghan law, drafted after the fall of the Taliban, also guarantees freedom of religion to the nation's small Sikh, Hindu, Jewish and Christian communities.

Despite the recent imprisonment of Abdur Rahman, an Afghan who converted from Islam to Christianity, many religious minorities now experience little or no religious persecution in the country.

The Taliban

It was a different story under the Taliban, when men in Sikh and Hindu communities were forced to wear yellow turbans and yellow salwar kameez [long tunic-like shirt and baggy trousers] while women were made to wear burqas.

Sikh women who did not adhere to this stringent dress code were as susceptible to street beatings by Taliban police as other Afghan women.

The Taliban destroyed Buddha
statues in Bamiyan valley in 2001

But the Taliban, perhaps surprisingly, did not close down the Guru Nanak Durbar Gurdwara. Sikh Afghan leaders are at a loss to explain why.

"The Taliban never bothered us. We were always okay. The Taliban did not close the gurdwara, they let us be," Gurdyal explains as two Muslim women clad in blue burqas enter the gurdwara grounds, removing their shoes at the gate, to seek blessings to heal their sick children.

Gurdyal carefully guides one young mother carrying a small boy in her arms.

"It is better now than it was before [under the Taliban]," Gurdyal says, explaining that Sikhs are relieved they no longer have to abide by repressive codes.

However, while Gurdyal and the rest of Afghanistan's Sikh community have endured civil war and repressive governments over the years, a new force threatens to further reduce their already dwindling numbers - economic hardship.

Economic instability

Sikhs who left Afghanistan since the Taliban was deposed by a US invasion in 2001 cite economic instability and lawlessness - not the threat of communal violence - as reasons for their departure.

Official figures estimate that the country is beleaguered by up to 50% unemployment while around 80% of the population is illiterate.

 

Lawlessness has contributed to
the exodus of Sikhs

The British Department for International Development says as many as 40% of rural Afghans are malnourished.

Despite the Afghan government and UN agencies making tentative inroads in establishing schools and health clinics throughout the country's 34 provinces, 70% of Afghans continue to live on less than $2 a day.

Enormous aid packages promised by the international community have failed to materialise for ordinary Afghans, with many feeling little effect of the billions of dollars earmarked for reconstruction and rehabilitation.

According to the US Agency for International Development (USAID), 70% of Afghans rely on agriculture as a means of income, but the country is still reeling from particularly harsh drought seasons in the past four years leaving many impoverished.

Vanishing affluence

Afghanistan's persistent poverty levels, few economic prospects and increasing levels of violence by a resurgent Taliban have hit the Sikhs, as well as the Muslim majority, community hard.

Sikhs have always prided themselves as influential members of the commercial community in Afghanistan, particularly in the clothing and currency exchange business.

Many shops and general stores were owned by Sikhs before the upheaval of the 1990s. Since then many have fled to India and the West in search of better lives.

After the fall of the Taliban, some returned only to find their homes, shops and property destroyed by war.

With few economic prospects and a resurgent Taliban threat, many Sikhs chose to leave Afghanistan opting for India, their spiritual homeland and where they still have ties.

Minorities dwindling

Manjeet Kalra, 48, left Kabul five years ago with husband Swaran Singh, 52, daughter Sanya, 16, and son Daman, 15, hoping to escape rampant crime, slow economic growth and unemployment.

Sikhs have been influential in the 
currency exchange business

But they were forced to return to Afghanistan recently after almost four-and-half-years in the West after both the British and Dutch governments denied their refugee applications.

"Afghanistan is no good. I don't want to be here. We don't have anything here in Afghanistan," she told Aljazeera.net.

"I don't think us Sikhs will have a good future here in Afghanistan. There are no schools; it's the same future Muslims have in Afghanistan," she added.

Sikh leaders say that no more than 2000 Sikhs currently live in Kabul, Ghazni in the east and Jalalabad near the Pakistan border.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says 88% of India's 9700 Afghan refugees are Sikhs and Hindu.

Some Afghan Sikhs who left Afghanistan in the late 1990s have decided to remain permanently in India and become naturalised citizens. Twelve Sikh and Hindu families were granted citizenship this year.

According to UNHCR, dozens of Sikh refugees apply for Indian citizenship every month, with the peak reaching 57 applications in February 2006.

As the Muslim women leave the temple grounds, Gurdyal considers whether he would leave Afghanistan for a better life elsewhere.

"Afghanistan is poorer than India. I have never been to India, I would love to go there [but] we don't have money".