In their journeys across Pakistan to document old Hindu shrines, writer Reema Abbasi and photographer Madiha Aijaz find belief battling bigotry.
The Kalibari in Peshawar has a regular devotee who toggles between two identities. At home, up north in the Kurram Tribal Agency, she is Maria Salamat.
But here in the temples dedicated to Kali and Balmiki, she becomes Mala Kumari. She will not be allowed into the sanctum as Maria, and back home she cannot survive as Mala.
Reema Abbasi’s just-released compendium of Pakistan’s historic temples, is full of such stories where belief, minority identity, secular faith, bigotry and extremism criss-cross all the time. These are mostly ancient Shiva and Shakti temples: some date back 1,500 years and others, a few centuries. But like all shrines, they’re not just stone and sculpture, their lives are deeply intertwined with society and politics. There is treacherous Balochistan, which despite its image mostly ensures communal harmony, prosperous Punjab where minorities live in fear and temples are shorn of icons, and Sindh which stays true to its Sufi and pluralist traditions.
“It started as a guerilla project, I and Madiha just heading out on our own to all kinds of territory. But this book had to be done to make a difference to how the two countries see each,” says Abbasi of her work, Historic Temples of Pakistan.
There are over 70 lakh Hindus in Pakistan, mostly in the borderland deserts of the south and in Sindh. The numbers are dwindling (last year 500 fled in the face of extremist threat). But these ancient temples – over 40 of them – are places of worship for them and for pilgrims from India and elsewhere too. Contrary to what most tend to believe, they are also muchloved shrines for many Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in Pakistan. In Thatta, Sindh, recent efforts by land-grabbers to swallow temples was opposed by not just the Hindus but also Muslims and Christians.
“I am proud of this solidarity – people didn’t wait for the government to take the step. When the establishment saw the public response it stepped in to protect the temple,” points out Abbasi.
Many of the temples that feature in the collection are hauntingly beautiful, set in the midst of mountains, caves and one along the seashore. Hinglaj Mata temple, held sacred by Durga worshippers, is located in inhospitable Baloch terrain. (Durga here doubles as Bibi Nani for Muslims.) Katas Raj, decaying yet majestic, stands at
2,000 feet in Salt Range hills of Punjab. Gor Khattree, the splendid shrine to Gorakhnath in Peshawar, that left even Babur stunned was attacked by the Taliban recently . Fear, says Abbasi, still doesn’t allow worshippers to return to the temple. “Hardliners in Pakistan have attacked more mosques than temples. They have no religion, they are just antipeople,” says the author.
One shrine that pulls people of all faiths is the serene Sadhu Bela in Sukkur, Sindh. Set in a lush island in Indus, it is a seat of ascetics. It was attacked by mobs after the Babri Masjid demolition in India so the isolated temple is forever on guard. Believers say the shrine `protected’ them during the 1965 and 1971 wars between the neighbours.
Punjab was one province that saw a lot of mob rage against tem ples in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid attack. “I was taken aback that the city was bent on rewriting the history of its communities. The answer to one wrong wasn’t to reply with another,” says Abbasi.
Hindu shrines are a popular destination for people looking to fulfil a mannat.
Since security is tight at the venues, Muslim worshippers have a tough time visiting. “We have to beg to be allowed in. In fact to get into the Swaminarayan temple in Pakistan we had to put on a bindi to pass the guards,” says Abbasi. The book was not an easy journey for Abbasi and Aijaz.
“In Balochistan going to the Hinglaj Mata shrine, the headlight of our car was the only light shining off the jagged peaks. And a bomb once went off behind us as we stepped out of a Peshawar temple,” recalls Abbasi.
But most of all the book is about human faith. About Delhi priest Nareshbhan Goswami who comes on a pilgrimage to the Kalka cave in Sindh.
Sculptor Fakira who fashions icons of deities for temples and churches. And Londoner Amna who comes to Ratneshwar Mahadev temple in Karachi every year to thank Durga for the gift of a child.