Diwali being celebrated at the Valmiki Mandir in New Anarkali. The temple is not only a worship place but also home to Lahore’s poverty-stricken Valmiki community.—Arif Ali / White Star
At the corner of the narrow Bheem Street in New Anarkali, Lahore, an orange temple flag is waving in the breeze. But the vendors at this place, which is brimming with small shops and dhabas, are either unaware of or prejudiced against the Valmiki Temple nearby. Besides Krishna Temple, Valmiki Temple is the only functional temple in Lahore.
Near Nila Gumbad, the temple unites people from all faiths to celebrate festivals. While much of the city’s Hindu community celebrates Diwali at the old, dilapidated Krishna Temple located in the suburbs, the rest gather for the festival of lights at Valmiki Mandir. This year, women of all ages, wearing bindis and vibrant silk saris or shalwar kameez, are there with men in kurta pyjamas.
Also read: Spectacular fireworks display marks Diwali
Bhagat Laal, the priest, tells me that “we will first perform pujapaat and then more diyas and candles will be lit. Langar prasad will also be distributed among the worshippers.”
The old building, which has survived several attacks by angry mobs and land-grab attempts, is decorated with small clay lamps while candles have been lit and placed all around the space. The cracked walls, painted in red and white, seem to be narrating the forgotten tales of the misery of the Valmikis — the temple is not only a place of worship but also home to Lahore’s poverty-stricken Valmiki community.
Back in 1992, in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid attack in India, an angry mob wielding weapons stormed into the Valmiki Temple. It smashed the idols of Krishna and Valmiki, broke utensils and crockery in the kitchen and seized the gold with which the statues were embellished. The temple was demolished to rubble and the building was set on fire. The shops in the neighbourhood also caught fire and it took days for the authorities to extinguish the flames.
Currently, the hand-held sparklers, spinning fireworks, anaar bombs and whistling rockets are bursting everywhere, marking the festival. Crowds enjoy music, perform devotional songs and dance along. “We buy new clothes, decorate our homes and give each other gifts and sweets on Diwali,” says Sakshi.
People slip off their shoes to enter the puja area where prayers are offered to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, Lord Ganesh and Valmiki. A wooden board hung over the main door has the Om symbol inscribed on it. Under that, a phrase written in Urdu reads “Insaf ka mandir hai yeh Bhagwan ka ghar hai [This is the house of Bhagwan, the temple of justice].”
Inside the sparse room of worship, decorations adorn the crumbling plaster. Garlands of fresh flowers garnish the Valmiki idol and the colours brighten up the entire area. A low, tiny table placed near the idols stores the puja samagri and other items. A variety of indoor and outdoor potted plants spruce up the exterior of the room of worship, while streamers and paper decorations liven up the cramped space. A group of devotees are seated on the floor singing bhajans. The pandit recites mantras and performs special puja to mark the occasion.
Powdered colour has been poured on the floor to create alluring designs called rangoli. Women and girls, all dressed up and with their hands decorated with henna, liven up the place further.
In a brief conversation with the temple’s caretakers Pandit Bhagat Laal and Faryad Khokhar, I’m told that half of the temple’s space has been grabbed by the Evacuee Trust Property Board. “We just want the ETPB to spare the temple,” they tell me.
“Claiming the property to be its own, the ETPB asks us to pay a monthly rent,” says Khokhar, showing me the receipts of the funds they collect from the public to pay the rent. “We don’t ask for funds from the government. We raise the money on our own.”
“For the Diwali festival this year we managed to raise Rs20,000 to organise a function for our brothers,” adds Bhagat Laal.
As the Diwali ceremony concludes, people gather together to share a plentiful feast. They dine on a variety of dishes accompanied by rice, chapattis, curd and pickle followed by desserts such as halwa puri and kheer.
Valmiki is a Hindu caste centred on the sage Valmiki. He is believed to have been an avatar of God and his works, the Ramayana and the Yoga Vasistha, are considered holy scriptures.
In pre-partition India, the Valmikis were persecuted and subjugated at the hands of upper-caste Hindus. Over six decades later, the Valmiki community still suffers threats and humiliation.
“Our forefathers have owned this temple for the past 700 years,” says one person. “Some of us converted after the partition of the subcontinent as our children were not accepted in schools and we would not find work. However, the majority of us are still Valmikis.”