People celebrating Holi, the festival of colours; women wearing vermilion powder in their hair; kaleidoscopic saris hanging from washing lines; the night sky bright with fireworks – all this seems like any other Indian collage of images until one spies a Pakistani flag fluttering in the background.
These images depict Hindus, a minority in Pakistan, scattered all over the country and living in small pockets of communities that celebrate Indian festivals with as much fervour as their counterparts on the other side of the border.
The writer Reema Abbasi has documented all this in her book Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience (Niyogi Books), for which she travelled far and wide – “guerrilla-style” – with the photographer Madiha Aijaz to places such as Balochistan, Thar, Nagarparkar, Karachi, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab and Sindh.
“We hope this is the first step for starting a discourse through a secular prism. The perception of Pakistan in the outside world and the Pakistani people within it are two different worlds,” said Abbasi at the book’s launch last month. “The book provides an insight into the little-known world of Hindus living in Pakistan and their places of religious importance.”
Lending the photographic element to the book is Aijaz, who said the journey to distant lands and into unknown territory gave her a “wonderful perspective”.
“I had studied Hindu mythology during school, but Reema had thorough knowledge of the subject. In a way we complemented each other,” Aijaz said. “My primary concern was to capture the architectural value and the diversity of the communities who visit. There are Sindhis, there are Maharashtrians, there are Balochis, there’s all kinds of different communities visiting. To be able to show that cross-section required multiple visits.”
The 296-page book might evoke nostalgia for those who were familiar with these sites before the 1947 Partition, but for many it is a window into another world, offering glimpses of Pakistani Hindus going about their lives and celebrating festivals such as Diwali, Ganesh Chaturthi, Janamashtami and Holi, among others.
Although Abbasi promotes secularism in her work, recent events have lent the book a greater urgency. Earlier this year, a temple in Sindh was burnt down by extremists. Last year, more than 500 Hindus fled the country. In this atmosphere of communal discord, the temples documented in the book stand as a sobering reminder of the pluralistic heritage of Pakistan. “Not only are they vestiges of ancient lore in Hindu mythology, they also stand like warriors of time; pitted testaments of a peaceful, pluralistic past,” the author writes.
“The book seeks a journey towards pluralism, preservation of some of the most ancient places in history, tolerance and participation and empowerment of a community that is facing a major onslaught of hardliners towards the north,” Abbasi said. “We are highlighting aspects that often go unreported – such as harmony among the people – and it is hoped that it will be a window to the people in India,” she added.
The book also chronicles various pilgrimage sites, such as Hinglaj, the abode of the female deity Durga in Balochistan; the Katas Raj temple in Punjab, one of the holiest in Hinduism for providing refuge to the Pandava brothers from the Hindu epic Mahabharata; the Kalka cave temple in Sindh; the Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir in Karachi, among others.
“We have to respect and preserve and take forward a society that answers all calls to prayer and gives them the same kind of importance,” says Abbasi. “Basically, I am talking about the supremacy of all faiths and not a single faith.”