At first glance, the tiny eastern Georgian hamlet of Tsnori seems like an unlikely location for the country’s largest community of Sikh Indians.
But despite the sleepy town center and 114-km-distance from capital Tbilisi, Tsnori has quietly become a second home for an estimated 45 Sikhs.
Sikhs, a religious group that originated in India’s Punjabi region, were first invited to move to Georgia to help restart the struggling agriculture sector in 2010. Over the past 12 years, Sikhs have settled across the country, including small communities in Tbilisi, Gardabani, Gurjaani, Rustavi and Samegrelo region. Most, however, landed in Tsnori in 2012, where there were reportedly as many as 100 at the high point of migration.
One local Sikh farmer, Bajva, explained they were attracted to Georgia because it can be difficult to buy farmland in India.
“I come from a family of farmers. Almost every member of the family is engaged in agriculture,” he said. “This is the profession of our ancestors and my hobby as well. It’s not difficult to farm in India, however there is an upper limit to how much land one can own.”
“For centuries, we, the Punjabis, have pursued agriculture. We are very hardworking and honest people,” notes one local Sikh farmer, Gurpreet Singh Brar. Gurpreet and others have taken pains to integrate into their adopted community: he goes by a Georgian nickname, Gogi, and his compatriot hired 40 local Georgian farmhands to help run the local mill after he bought it.
Despite their efforts, however, tensions remain. About half of the community left after changes in the government led to stricter immigration and land-ownership laws. In addition, while they have converted a private house into a temple, Gurdwara Sahib, they do not feel safe celebrating Sikh holidays in public.
“Maybe, we don’t have the right to celebrate the holidays in the city,” notes Gurpreet. “In Tbilisi, some people celebrate Diwali and Lakshmi publicly. It’s possible in the big city, but here, people may not like it.”
Tamta Mikeladze, cofounder of the Social Justice Center, noted that sensitivity about land ownership, coupled with the fact that Sikhs are a new ethnic group for Georgians, can make acceptance difficult.
“Our people really have challenges concerning land. During the redistribution of land, villagers were given small plots. These lands are scattered from each other, which makes the cultivation process difficult. The feeling of unjust distribution of land is objective, but often these fears are converted into cultural fears of Turks, Chinese and other foreigners by conservative groups,” she said.
“Sikhism and Sikhs are new to Georgians, therefore cultural alienation naturally exists, but when the state makes such decisions, it’s important to measure whether the locals in a particular region have enough land to avoid cultural conflicts, and some work is needed to overcome cultural alienation. When the state does not interfere, of course, this has a severe impact on relations.”
Sikhs, in particular, are seen as “dangerous” due to their appearance. Traditionally, Sikh men are expected to grow out their hair and beards and wear a turban. In fact, some locals confuse them with Muslims, a group that is traditionally viewed with suspicion due to Georgia’s history of fighting off Muslim armies.
“When our relatives saw the picture of my Sikh son-in-law with a long beard and hat [turban], they immediately remarked, that he must have been a terrorist. But now [after getting to know him] they prefer him to everyone else,” notes one local woman whose granddaughter married a Sikh and lives in Tsnori.
In fact, some Sikh have dropped their traditional dress and long beards in an attempt to fit in. “Since I’m here, I must look like others do,” one, who declined to give his name, said.
“Georgians fear us,” explained Bajva. But he said they take pains to address those fears. “We are not going to take this land to India,” he said. “Some people are asking funny questions, like: ‘Are you taking khorbali [wheat] to India? If so, then grow it in your country!’ We are growing it for you!”
Some locals have grown to accept their new neighbors, noting closer links between the two communities. “We even invite each other to birthday parties,” a Georgian who works with the Sikhs said.
“They have never done anything wrong; I haven’t even seen them look at us funny. I trust them. They aren’t stealing anything; they never do any harm. On the contrary, it’s the Georgians who deceive them while selling the lands to them [at high prices].”
Erekle*, a local young man who was quick to befriend the Sikhs when they arrived, has adopted their religion over the years. Today he has not been formally baptized, but he speaks Punjabi well and wears a turban and a long beard. While he is an enthusiastic mediator between the two cultures, he has not told his family that he is a practicing Sikh.
“If they find out, they will give me hell. Well, maybe, not that much, but I still have not announced it. You don’t have it written on your forehead, do you? If you do a Muslim man’s job – you will be a Muslim, if you do a Sikh man’s job – you will be Sikh,” he said.
The biggest challenge to the community may be the changes in the law, however. After encouraging Sikh farmers to migrate to Georgia, the policy changed and now some struggle to receive the resident permits they need to stay here.
For those who have been able to settle in the country, unemployment and the language barrier continue to make life difficult, in particular, for women, who aren’t involved in farming. But despite the challenges, many, like Tony Benipal, plan to stay.
Tony moved from Birmingham to Tsnori in 2012. “Here there are not many Indian women - only six of us. There are no jobs for us here, we are sitting at home. Jobs are only in shops, but we don’t know the proper language. Even if there were jobs, it would be difficult to work, as I have two small kids,” she said. “But I’m happy, anyway.”
Her 12-year-old daughter, Searati, feels more at home in Tsnori than her native land.
Completely fluent in Georgian and a top student at the local school, Searati helps both communities understand each other. Even as she preserves her family’s traditions and beliefs, she is adapting to her new homeland. “I prefer to live here,” she says.
Chai Khana is using a pseudonym at his request due to security concerns.
This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.