At the beginning – Makindu and the iconic Sikh Temple

Above: Makindu gurdwara lit at night. Courtesy Raju Mangat

Published: Saturday Nation media 13 May 2022

Gold-painted domes dazzle twixt the Chyulus and the Yatta Plateau, announcing that one is approaching Makindu on the busy Mombasa-Nairobi highway where trucks and trains ply the route 24/7. While others may drive or speed by on the new express train, the iconic Sikh Temple at Makindu is for the Sikhs of East Africa – and by extension Indians whose ancestors constructed the Uganda Railway between 1896 and 1901, an integral part of their heritage in Africa.

The facade of Makindu Sikh Temple April 2022. Courtesy Stephanie Jaeger

The story starts in the beginning. The 1890s.

The coolies have passed Voi. They now face the inhospitable and waterless stretch of the Taru desert full of thorn scrub followed by Tsavo at Mile 133 that’s teeming with wildlife and flowing rivers. This tenacious land stretching from Mazeras to Makindu severely tested the endurance, courage, expertise and skills of the construction teams and administration. The pace of work between Tsavo and Makindu was slow and dreary. The hands and feet of the men had cuts and burns made by handling rocks and iron sleepers heated to burning point by the scorching sun. In addition, they had to tackle the infamous man-eating lions of Tsavo who developed a taste for the men intruding their territory. Ungan Singh was the first victim in December 1897.

It’s readings from Race, Rail & Society – Roots of Modern Kenya by Neera Kent-Kapila (Kenway Publications 2009/2010), and literature from the Kenya Railways archives.

Century-old railway line near Makindu driving to Emale village. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The Uganda Railway reached Makindu in late 1898. It’s named for its final destination – Uganda.

Despite the swamps being infested by mosquitoes, crocodiles and hippos, Makindu at Mile 209 was a much-needed respite after crossing the inhospitable and waterless Taru desert and the lion-filled Tsavo. River Makindu fed by the underground springs carrying cool fresh waters from Mount Kilimanjaro and the Chyulu Hills became a lifeline for the men labouring under the scorching sun. The Indians were also fascinated by the seemingly docile animals they called ‘water cows’. But after a few disastrous encounters with the hippos, the men learned to keep their distance.

Makindu Station on the banks of the Makindu River opened on 21 September 1898. It became the second changing station for engines, drivers and guards on the Voi-Makindu run.

By February 1900, Makindu had a post office and a police station, plus employee living quarters. The hospital from Kibwezi moved to Makindu, and Makindu soon grew into a major railhead and a trading center, until Nairobi took over.

Makindu had its fair share of terror. Lions occupied the station verandahs, forcing everyone to scramble for shelter.

Nevertheless, the Railway Sikhs requested permission from the Railway officials to build a temple. The request was accepted and a plot of land granted. In 1908, the Sikhs with their Hindu colleagues built a small Gurdwara – ‘the house of God’ in the Punjabi language – to place the ‘Guru Granth Sahib’ the holy book, akin to the living guru.

The corrugated iron sheets and timber for the simple structure were supplied by the Uganda Railway. In keeping with the Sikh tradition, the 30-foot-square prayer hall had four doors on each of the four walls. The significance of the four doors is to welcome all, irrespective of creed or colour from all four points of the compass.

By the 1920s, Makindu was a robust and bustling town despite the lions and the famous ‘red’ elephants of Tsavo.

Century-old Uganda Railway quarters at Makindu. Copyright Rupi Mangat

A 1926 sketch shows Makindu Station in a series of sketches drawn by the late Mohamed Sadiq Cockar a trained draughtsman, architect and a surveyor in the Public Works Department (P.W.D.) Kenya Colony. Cockar writes, “Big space with many rooms the Sikh Temple for free food and accommodation”. It shows two baobab trees between the mosque and the temple, giraffes and other game in the vicinity. The baobabs still watch sentinel.

Fast forward to Sunday 27th April 1930, a new prayer hall was opened in the presence of some 150 Sikhs from East Africa. The article in a souvenir booklet of the newly constructed Siri Guru Singh Sabha Nairobi in 1963 reads, “The Temple (Makindu), where Sikh religious services are held is a magnificent stone building with fine arches at the front and back. A beautiful garden is also attached to the building. The building has cost the few promoters Sh15,000, for which splendid effort, the community is to be congratulated. Within a few minutes of the opening ceremony done by Teja Singh, Guard of the Kenya and Uganda Railways, donations from the audience amounted to Sh3,250. A free grant of land was made by the Railway Administration, for which the community is grateful.”

Today, the iconic temple stands with new prayer halls and run on donations. Any person is welcome to share a simple meal and spend time in prayer.

Fact File

Makindu is 170 kms south-west of Nairobi enroute to Mombasa. It’s easy to do day trips to Tsavo West and the countryside from Makindu. Makindu River is now a seasonal stream with no hippos.

Leopard on side of the road near Finch Hattons in Tsavo West in March 2022. Copyright Rupi Mangat