Ten Hindu families are said to migrate every year from Pakistan to India. But what of the poor Pakistani Hindus who don’t have the means to escape? Saad Sarfraz Sheikh attends a poignant Holi ceremony in one of the last living temples in Pakistan
Pandit Bhagat Lal Khokar shivers as he tightly clutches his little sack of timber and carefully siphons kerosene. He squats on the dark courtyard and prepares a large bonfire for Holika, the night before Holi. Amid the struggle, the old man informs me, “Bonfires purify the air of evil spirits.”
Loh’s Lahore has hosted Panditjee’s family for six generations. Priesthood is inherited, and today, Bhagat Lal Khokhar is the pandit of the Valmik Mandir situated in Old Anarkali. His generation may be the last one here, as his children find solace in regular jobs and not temple duties. Living in a land obsessed with Islam, he’s had to run the temple and his house without any government support by doing odd roadside jobs.
Hindus whispering in the temple are distracted by the sight and sound of Bhagat striking a match against the ancient brick floor. As the fire towers high, we follow him into the temple.
The main room of the dimly lit temple is preserved for the worship of Baba Guru Valmik Swami (Valmiki), the supreme ‘Untouchable’ deity, and the author of the Ramayana. The other houses a prayer room with mini statues and posters.
Excited Hindu children worship the statue amid squeals of innocent cheer and laughter. Once done prostrating, they crawl and rest against the wall. Anu, a 6-year old, starts reciting a naat she said she heard at school. The pandit’s wife rushes in and silences her, warning her of dire consequences and unforgivable punishment if the Maharaaj (Panditjee) finds out. But the maharaaj is busy, immersed in praying and blessing everyone.
As the pooja ends, we exit the room and surround the bonfire. All ears turn towards Panditjee as he explains the origin of Holi. His frail hands tremble in the evening breeze as he tells the story of Holika and Prahalad.
According to Ratnaval, a 7th century Hindu drama, Holika was a female demon and the sister of Hiranyakashyap, the demon king. Hiranyakashyap considered himself ruler of the Universe, and higher than all the gods.
The demon king hated his son Prahalad because he was a faithful devotee of Lord Vishnu. One day the king asked him, “Who is the greatest, God or I?” “God is,” said the son, “you are only a king.” The king was furious and decided to murder his son. But the king’s attempts at murder went in vain. Prahalad survived being trampled by elephants, being thrown over a cliff, bitten by snakes, and attacked by soldiers.
Hiranyakashyap consulted his demon sister, Holika, for help in killing Prahalad. Holika made Prahalad sit in her lap as she settled in the middle of a fire. Holika’s magical robe made her immune to fire, so she thought Prahalad would burn to death while she remained safe. But because Holika was indulging in evil, the divine powers made a fierce wind blow across the land, blowing both Pralahad and the magical robe away. Holika’s immunity vanished and she was burned to ashes. Prahalad stayed true to his God Vishnu, who had protected him, and survived.
Later, Vishnu killed King Hiranyakashyap, and Prahalad ruled as a wise king in his father’s palace. To celebrate this story, Hindus ignite large bonfires a day before Holi, often burning a dummy of Holika. The story established the moral that good always wins over evil, and those who seek to torment the faithful will be destroyed.
That moral now seems as remote as the 7th century itself. Today, evil wins over good and the faithful are destroyed and tormented.
How is it that the minorities of Pakistan, despite being promised equal rights by the founding father, continue to be reviled and tortured in the name of faith? Pandit Bhagat Lal Khokar’s face reflects the sad reality and screams a thousand stories of discrimination and regret.
He remembers a painful childhood filled with stories of how Muslim traders in his neighbourhood always fussed about sharing utensils with his family, yet never minding the money they gave them.
Almost every Hindu at the temple has a similar story of persecution to tell. To avoid dampening our spirits, Pandit Bhagat Lal resumes the rituals and starts running around the towering fire, singing Vedic chants and screaming ‘Holika’, his people following him in unison.
As Muslims, we elevate Arabic, an alien language, to unattainable heights of reverence. And yet witnessing the ancient Vedic texts of our land come to life in this way also stirs up emotions. The majority of Muslims in Pakistan are Muslims by birth, not by choice. Most of our ancestors were Hindus. Can it be so easy to kill the Hindu inside you?
How do I explain this feeling to Pandit Bhagat Lal Khokar?
It is only when a trusted mutual friend refers me to him that Panditjee agrees to meet me. While the temple is nestled in Anarkali, one of Lahore’s most densely populated places, it is difficult to find. When I ask the Muslim shopkeepers for directions to the temple, they misguide me. Some want to know the reason for my ‘visit’. When I inform them of my intention to photograph the temple and interview Hindus over there, they recommend me not to “waste my time”. A call to the Panditjee reveals that the entrance is in a passageway, once called the Valmiki Street, neatly camouflaged behind a cart selling old clothes.
The Valmiki Mandir lacks the common statues found in most Hindu temples, and December 7, 1992, a day after the Babri Mosque was “martyred”, explains everything.
On that fateful day, Bhagat Lal Khokhar and other Hindus prepared for the worst at the temple.
The ancient temple was attacked by men with sticks and hammers. Valmik’s jewel-encrusted pre-Partition statue, built by a student of Punjab University, was destroyed. A white marble statue of Krishna was also destroyed. Surprisingly, no Hindus were harmed. The temple collapsed within minutes and the entire structure was set on fire.
Bhagat Lal Khokhar hid for fear of his life and many assumed that he had fled to India. Six months later, he reopened the temple and resumed his duties amid the rubble.
The authorities were kind enough to allot them money for reconstruction. The remaining money came from members of the community. A part of a wall from the original construction as a reminder of what had happened has been preserved. A new Valmiki statue has replaced the original, whereas framed pictures continue to represent the idol of Krishna.
Panditjee is reluctant to talk about “forced conversions”, but sums it up by saying that they’ve been taking place ever since Muhammad Bin Qasim and his men brought “Islam” upon the people of this land.
A Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) report from 2010 informs us that at least 25 Hindu girls are abducted and converted by force in Pakistan every month. According to the report, the percentage of Hindus in Pakistan has dropped from 16 percent in 1947 (after Partition and the exodus of non-Muslims) to 2 percent in 2010. Yet three million Hindus continue to be the largest religious minority in Pakistan. The report states how in 1947, there were 428 functioning temples in the country, and now there are only 26. According to Indian sources, around ten rich Hindu families migrate from Pakistan to India every month. But for poorer Hindus like Bhagat Lal Khokar, escaping reality seems like a distant dream.
Saad Sarfraz Sheikh studies Global Journalism at the University of Sheffield and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in The Friday Times : http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta3/tft/article.php?issue=20120406&page=16