Reema Abbasi and a glimpse of Pakistan’s Hindu past
“Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience” is a book-length attempt to record in pictures the history of an Islamic country’s Hindu past, especially as extremist activity mounts against Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, including Ahmadis, Christians, Sikhs and Shia Muslims.
Reema Abbasi, the book’s author, travelled the country to write this narrative of about 40 old religious sites, including Hindu temples in the jagged terrain of the western state of Balochistan. She also visited the Thar desert and the Indus River valley in the state of Sindh, as well as Karachi, Lahore, Punjab and dangerous stretches of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, along the border with Afghanistan.
Born a Pakistani in the Netherlands, she went to school in England, college in Karachi, and then worked as a journalist. A self-described “spiritual Muslim,” she has aspects of most religions in her home, such as an idol of Sai Baba, the cross and quranic verses.
“In the last 10 years, I have been focusing on socio-political [reporting] and then the whole hardliner issues here, and sectarianism. Not in the cities, but in upper north where there are pockets of extremists and terrorists. Given that climate, the kind of issues that were arising at the time and what I was writing about – I think that was the part towards this [book].
“[The shrines] were spellbinding. For me some of the structures were imbued with so much energy. … These places continue to bring so much together and serve multiple functions in their own capacity — their shelters, their inscriptions, their half-way houses for travelers, they provide relief to homeless. So in their very being they are doing so much. I think that’s the beauty of all ancient faith. Mosques do that, churches do that. That’s where all ancient faiths merge. It is very important to celebrate that kind of unity in diversity, rather than deny it,” Abbasi told India Insight in a telephone interview from Karachi.
“This book concentrates on Pakistan’s fraying social order and the sad prospect of it bringing about its own destruction by documenting Hindu places of worship, major festivals, prominent orders of priesthood…,” she writes in the book’s introduction, which is dotted with Urdu poetry on faith and identity.
Pakistan’s Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis and Shi’ite Muslims make up about less than 5 percent of the nation’s 180 million people. In a recent report, the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom said the government failed to adequately protect minorities.
Parts of the book mirror this anxiety, like a visit to the Balmiki Temple located in a nondescript street in Lahore, the capital of Punjab.
Hindus, Christians and Sikhs congregate at the shrine of Balmiki, deity of the untouchable caste. The devotees come together in the belief that renders their respective religions “irrelevant to humanity”. Muslims also join them on important festivals. A cross is also seen inside the temple.
The utopia turns out to be a facade when Abbasi writes that the Hindu residents are expected to adopt Muslim names or Christianity to “avoid upheaval”. Followers of Balmiki, the author adds, consume chicken and fish to avoid being “conspicuous”.
In her travels, Abbasi stopped at shrines that faced backlash from Muslims because of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in India by a Hindu group.
She contrasts stories of desecration of temples, whether due to a backlash or land disputes or commercial gain, with visits to shrines that represent a fusion of faiths, untouched by social disturbances.
One of the reasons why minorities are worried is because of Pakistani blasphemy laws. The Ahmadis, for example, are not recognized as Muslims in Pakistan. The Supreme Court has ordered the government to look after the minorities, and its human rights panel says conditions are worsening.
In far-flung Balochistan rests an idol that is revered by Hindus and Muslims. Umerkot, the birthplace of Emperor Akbar, becomes the symbol of a “confluence” of Hindu god Shiva and an important part of Mughal history. In the central chamber of a colourful temple is pictured a stone shivling, believed to be present during a visit by Humayun, father of Akbar. The shrine attracts many Muslims for “curative purposes or to ask for a child”.
And close to Umerkot is the only Ram temple in Pakistan, situated in a Hindu-majority town. In a Sunni Muslim town, more than 200 km from Karachi, Dalit Hindus and Muslims worship a Hindu saint who embraced Islam to embody Hindu-Muslim brotherhood.
Such instances of the fluidity and opaqueness of faith abound in this book. Particularly striking is the image of Muslim men in skull caps worshipping Kali inside the Kalka cave in Sindh, which attracts Hindus, Muslims and Christians from all over the subcontinent.