It was a bright afternoon this December — the sun was more than welcome. Slowly, the Buddhist stupas of Katas Raj appeared on the horizon, miles before the rest of the Hindu-Buddhist temple complex. The very first sight of the stupas excited me. Emperor Ashoka had apparently seen them. Buddhist monks and travelers from ancient China had paid their respects. Al Biruni, the astronomer and polymath had also been there. Guru Nanak had visited them. And so must have some of my ancestors.
Today’s neglect of Katas Raj seems symbolic of spirituality’s fate in what is now Pakistan. Located on the Potohar Plateau, just two hours from Islamabad, this was once a prestigious and enchanting spot but is now desolate and empty — empty of both deities and pilgrims. The ancient temples have existed for many centuries; some were first made even before the birth of Christ.
As a student in school or even college, I had no idea that Pakistan had Hindu temples of any historical significance. I became increasingly conscious of this heritage, thanks to some friends and journalists.
The Katas Raj temples are majestic. They are the stuff folklore are made of. The sacred structures are built of old stones, huddled around an emerald pond of clean water, fuelled by the mountain springs close by. Most Pakistanis should feel fortunate to have this gem amongst us. It was a place of worship and pilgrimage for locals for millennia and is now again being revived, although halfheartedly.
Most Pakistanis remain unaware. A few who know about them do visit as a tourist spot. School children come, as do groups of young men and women, but the magical touch of a living place of worship with actual supplicants is missing. The majority of Pakistan’s Hindu population lives in faraway Sindh, or smaller pockets in the north-west. Most Sikhs also live in these areas. Baisakhi and Shivratri festivals are organised here but called off when the security situation becomes a challenge.
The complex had a mini-turnaround of fate when India’s former deputy prime minister L K Advani visited the place in 2005 and requested the Pakistan government to fix the temple. Auqaf, the body that governs the upkeep of heritage sites, including temples in Pakistan, set up an office nearby. One of the temples became functional; some others were refurbished. Some murtis (idols) of Hindu gods were placed in the temples, at the cost of around five crore Pakistani rupees. A three-member team visited India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal to collect murtis of various Hindu gods from different parts of South Asia.
Katas Raj has a beautiful, sacred pond said to be formed from Shiva’s tears — the pond may have been meant for ablution and holy bathing. Unfortunately, it dried up in 2012 due to some cement factories upstream. The pond was restored, but cement factories have choked it again. This time around it won’t be easier to restore because groundwater is being used up fast by illegally dug tubewells. Right now the pond is being filled by turbines, but this isn’t a sustainable solution necessarily.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif visited the place some years ago (and even celebrated Holi in Karachi). The People’s Party (PPP) also relatively favours the Hindu community, but it is clear the situation shows how hollow actual support can be. This is partly because this support isn’t based on political compulsions or electoral realities but is ad hoc and personality-dependent. The Supreme Court of Pakistan took notice recently and asked for water to be restored in the pond and the murtis renovated as well. But here at Katas Raj, it is as if the statues never existed. The renovation project that started in 2005 still needs completion and the temples await their rescuing.
The sky was a clear blue when I visited, and it was very windy too. Far from the foggy and chilly plains of the rest of Punjab that day. The sky is said to be bright and starlit at night and Al Biruni who traveled to India with Mahmud Ghaznavi apparently used this spot to calculate the circumference of the earth. Indeed, it seems like a very good place for meditation. Escape from the world in the midst of mountains next to an azure pond (when it existed in all its glory) is more than enough for personal rejuvenation and self-introspection. There is nothing exclusive about this cluster of temples. It is owned by Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and indeed Muslims too — we just need to have the right attitude and mindset. One can drive back into our spiritual past and history here.
But back from meditation to mundane realities. Katas Raj today has three main challenges. The cement factories, as mentioned above, have choked the sacred pond of water. The statues of gods that were placed there but not accounted for are now missing. And lastly, the original renovation that was planned in 2005 was never completed. Parts of the Ramchandra temple and Hanuman Temple remain especially endangered.
This will take community action and national will. Hopefully, young Pakistanis will appreciate the spiritual and historical significance of this place and force their government to expend some effort in the right direction. As my car moved further away from the temples and the light brown stupas began to disappear, my heart sank right into the pit of my stomach. I wondered why, as a people we have allowed the corrosion of a symbiotic union of nature, art, and religion that existed for centuries. If Pakistan ends up losing this thread of history, it will be a spiritual, ecological and aesthetic tragedy, among other things.
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