Research for her book, Remnants of a Separation, took author Aanchal Malhotra to a temple complex in Pakistan that not only holds significance to the Hindus in the country, but also represents a lost syncretism. By Aanchal Malhotra
“Aap Hindu hain?” our guide asked, his eyebrows knit together. ‘Are you Hindu?’
“Ji haan,” I responded. ‘I am.’ “Phir toh aap apne hi ghar aayi hain,” he said with a wide smile. ‘Then you have come home.’
I looked around the exquisite landscape of ochre yellow buildings and blue-green waters. The poignancy of his words was not lost on me, since we stood at one of the most sacred sites of Hindu pilgrimage, the Katas Raj temple complex, situated in a lush embrace of the salt ranges of Kallar Kahar in Punjab, Pakistan. I was visiting the country as a part of my book research, recording the oral histories of the generation who witnessed Partition. This was, of course, a few years ago—at a time when tensions weren’t so flared between the two neighbouring countries. Having never seen the temples, I, along with two friends, set out to visit the site, arriving after a nearly four-hour car journey from Lahore.
Upon entering the Katas complex, the first thing one notices, amongst the cluster of temples and ruins, is the iridescent aqua-blue pool of water in the centre, a chashma. According to the Puranas, the pool was created from a teardrop of the inconsolable Lord Shiva, as he flew across the sky carrying the body of his beloved wife, Sati. The tears resulted in the creation of two magnificent pools on Earth. One, falling in Katas, Punjab, Pakistan, and the other—as if foretelling the Partition of the subcontinent—falling in Pushkar, India. This pool of water is regarded as sacred, even magical; our guide claimed that the heavenly green colour is a “kudrat ka karishma”, a miracle of nature. He told us that the word katas is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word ketaksha, which literally means ‘raining eyes’.
But it would be unfair to call Katas Raj, or Qila Katas, merely a site of Hindu pilgrimage, for it is a multicultural, multi-religious conglomeration of monuments that, in totality, serve as a destination for pilgrims from all over the world. It is difficult to gauge the age of Qila Katas, for it is rumoured to cover a cultural period of over 1,500 years.
The most important structures in the complex are the Satgarha Temples, a collection of seven ancient mandirs that sit at the highest point of the site. It is said that the five Pandava brothers stayed here for four years out of their 13 years of exile. The epic Mahabharata states that once the Pandavas came across a lake and were eager to quench their thirst, when a Yaksha, the protector of the lake, appeared disguised as a crane and claimed that only he who could answer the Yaksha’s questions would be allowed to drink from the lake. Without a satisfactory answer, the water would turn to poison. The younger four brothers, in their arrogance, paid no heed to these words, and upon drinking the clear water, fell like lifeless logs upon the ground. It was only Yudhishthira, the oldest and wisest, who was able to answer the Yaksha’s questions, thus reviving his brothers. The temples dedicated to the Pandavas are built with white chuna, as the area is rich in limestone and salt. Their architecture echoes the decorative style of the Kashmiri temples of the Karkota and Varma dynasties, who ruled from 625 CE to 939 CE. Though the entrance to some of these temples is through open arches decorated with recently restored floral motifs, most of the wooden doors to the temples were locked. Our guide opened each door carefully, instructing us to remove our shoes and cover our heads—as was customary.
Next to the Satgarha Temples can be seen the haveli of Hari Singh Nalwa (1791-1837), the most famous Sikh General in Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army. It is rumoured that the Maharaja also made regular pilgrimages here, and according to our guide, a madrassa was now being run within its confines.
Situated to the east of the haveli is the Ramchandra Mandir, identifiable by its large onion-shaped dome and an inverted lotus on top. Coiled along the sides of the dome are the bodies of cobras, invoking Lord Shiva. There is a single room on the top of this temple, and our guide was happy to take us through the exceedingly dark and narrow staircase that led up to it. On the bottom floor were other rooms, also dark, save for the single burst of illumination that fell inside through taaq-like arches high up in the wall. These arches, slanting into the room, were built for the dual purposes of illumination and ventilation throughout the ground floor of the building.
Right next to the temple is an old library building as well as a Hanuman Mandir, with rows of beautiful open stone arches leading to its entrance. Also behind Hari Singh Nalwa’s haveli are seen the partially excavated remains of a Buddhist stupa, built originally during the Buddhist reign of the subcontinent under Emperor Ashoka. The texts of Alexander Cunningham, the first Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1872-73, tell us that this stupa was once over 60 metres high. The Chinese traveller and pilgrim Xuanzang, who visited the region in the seventh century, verified this account.
After the Partition of India in 1947, while the ancient Buddhist sites were excavated, researched, preserved, and promoted as a part of the country’s diverse history, the Hindu temples lay abandoned to time and weather, ignored likely as a painful reminder of the communal divide. However, in 2005, the first large-scale renovations took place in the temple complex. When I visited, the ceilings of the various rooms and halls were slowly being restored to their original, vibrant state. The jali patterns on some of these, particularly the higher floors where open arches flood in the natural light, are mesmerising.
Though several of the stories about Qila Katas are recorded on the official boards and plaques placed around the site, many of the monuments are still shrouded in mystery, their stories merely passed down through the traditions of oral history, folklore, and mythology. However, not many realise the enormous multi-religious, pedagogical significance of the complex, believing it to be a cluster of Hindu temples. In fact, for long years, Katas has been an abode of education and contemplation for mystics, scholars, and ascetics.
For instance, a short distance away from the sacred pool is an abandoned gurudwara where Guru Nanak is said to have stayed in the 1800s. He set foot on the site on the first day of Vaisakh, the second month of the Nanakshahi calendar. The gurudwara, thus, came to be known as Nanaknawas.
Embroidered into the rich tapestry of ethnicities and religions that made Katas their home are Muslims too. This was once home to the Muslim scholar Al-Biruni, one of the finest astronomers and a part of Mahmud of Ghaznavi’s court in the 11th century. It was here that he conducted extensive research on the movement of planets, which ultimately resulted in the calculation of Earth’s circumference. Also the first Muslim scholar to immerse himself in the study of Hinduism, Al-Biruni mentions the temples in his book, Kitab-ul-Hind, as well as the foundation of a small Hindu University, which now exists merely as a mound of earth.
Sadly, given the present-day nature of political rhetoric all over the world, the Katas Raj temple complex has been confined to a nomenclature of religious minority and stripped of the dynamism and diversity it was once obviously imbued with. It is important to remember that it is not just a monument of historical significance, but living proof of the syncretic nature of the erstwhile Undivided Hindustan.