Chakwal can generate religious tourism through the mystically wonderful Katas Raj, a holy destination for Hindus around the world.
In Chakwal, Punjab, bells and chimes ring around the corridors of the temple complex, Katas Raj. There are tears too: pilgrims from India have the privilege of celebrating Shivaratri — a festival celebrated in reverence of Lord Shiva — at the “home” of Lord Shiva. And then there is Rajshari Jain, diligently scribbling away in her little notebook:
Eid Ho Har Din Hamara
Diwali Har Rat Ho
Dil Ko Dil Se Jeet Len Ham
Nahin Dil Ki Mat Ho
(Every day should be Eid,
Every night Diwali
Let’s win the battle of hearts
Without defeating any heart)
Jain is part of the 157-member pilgrim party who made the journey from India to Chakwal this February for Shivaratri. She has but one complaint: “I want to visit all of Pakistan, but my visa restricts me.”
Pilgrims who arrive for Shivaratri at Katas Raj are typically allowed very strict visa terms: Lahore, Chakwal and back. This isn’t ideal for for pilgrims such as Bhagwandas Sehtia, who had arrived with a desire to walk the streets of Bahawalpur again, where he spent his childhood. In fact, the pilgrims’ annual arrival heralds the time of the year when Katas Raj is open to public. The rest of the year, the temple complex remains shut.
In reality, Chakwal loses out when the mystically wonderful Katas Raj is shut: the heritage site is sacred for millions of Hindus around the world. As such, it is the type of international holy destination that can drive a booming religious tourism economy in the Chakwal district of Punjab. “Katas Raj is as sacred for Hindus as the Holy Kaaba is for Muslims,” explains Dr Ramesh Kumar, president of the Pakistan Hindus Council (PHC).
Situated about 40 kilometres south of Chakwal city, on Kallar Kahar-Choa Saidan Shah Road, Katas Raj is popularly known as Sat Garha. The temple complex now houses seven temples, a stupa of the Buddhist Era, the Hari Singh Haveli, ruins of some other temples, and a police picket — all constructed around a ‘Holy Pond’.
Legend has it that the pond was formed when Lord Shiva shed two tears at the sudden demise of his beloved wife, Sati. As the teardrops landed, they gave birth to two ponds, one in Chakwal and the other at Pushkar in Ajmer, India. For this very reason, 19th century British archaeologist, Sir Alexander Cunningham, found that the original name of today’s Katas Raj was “Kataksha” — a Sanskrit word which means rainy eyes.
Hindu pilgrims bathe in the Holy Pond (“Ishnan”) to have their sins pardoned and to attain salvation. They worship the Linga Stone (a symbolical phallus of Lord Shiva) to seek the end of their sufferings and the fulfilment of their longstanding desires. Women and men with conception problems bow before the Linga Stone, with a firm belief that their infertility will be reversed.
The history and the legend of Katas Raj are as revered as they are enduring: as per the Mahabharata (written around 300BC), renowned warriors, Pandava brothers, spent four years out of their 14 in exile here. Most temples are constructed on quadrangular platforms. The elevation of the sub-shrines seems to form a series of cornices, with small rows of pillars that are crowned by a corrugated dome.
In undivided India, Katas Raj was a place of lively activity and everyday bustle. The partition of the subcontinent in 1947 and the ensuing acrimony between the governments of Pakistan and India brought a deserted look to “The Home of Lord Shiva”. This continued till 1982, after which Hindu pilgrims from India were permitted to visit Katas Raj, albeit in small numbers and travelling as part of pilgrim caravans.
“Thousands of Hindus want to visit Katas Raj but visa restrictions are a major impediment,” argues Shiv Partab Bajaj, who has been leading the caravan of pilgrims for last many years.
But Katas Raj isn’t just a holy place for Hindu pilgrims from India; Pakistan too has a sizeable Hindu population. Local representatives of the community argue that Pakistani Hindus are denied their right to worship not only on Shivaratri but also the rest of the year: the temple complex is only open to public on the occasion of Shivaratri, but locals are barred from going on the pretext of “security”.
“Many pilgrims from Pakistan are left dejected on Shivratri every year. We are told that we can’t enter Katas Raj, as pilgrims from India are worshipping there and the government needs to provide security to them,” says Amarnath Randhawa, president of Hindu Sudhar Sabha (HSS) in Lahore. “Pilgrims from Sindh and other areas want to visit Katas Raj, but the temples are locked the rest of the year.”
Among Hindu representative groups, a pervasive sentiment is that they have no say in running Katas Raj, neither during the festival nor during the year. This is a state of affairs that has caused confusion, disappointment and despair.
“According to the Liaquat–Nehru Pact that was signed in 1950, the chairperson of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) was to be a Hindu, since the trust was formed to look after the sacred properties of Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan. The current chairman is a Muslim,” moans Dr Kumar.
“The incumbent ETPB chairman only visits Katas Raj whenever a Hindu dignitary or pilgrims from India arrive. The site wears a deserted look the rest of the year and the temples all remain shut,” alleges Dr Kumar. “How can a Muslim look after a place of Hindu worship in the same way as a Hindu would do?”
The treatment meted out to Katas Raj under the current regime means that perennial issues around upkeep, maintenance, boarding and lodging all remain unresolved.
“The duration of the festival is a day and a night. The Great Night of Shiva is very significant for us, as we have to worship during the night, but there are no boarding and lodging facilities to accommodate Hindus pilgrims from Pakistan,” claims Randhawa.
“The Shiva complex needs to be widened, a dining hall must be built, there needs be some filtration mechanism for potable water, washrooms need to be built — the span and scale of development work that needs to be carried out is immense,” Randhawa argues.
Last summer, the sacred pond inside the Katas Raj complex dried up, but due to the efforts of the Punjab government, water was restored to the pond. Some restoration work has also been carried out. Back in November 2012, visiting dignitary Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of the Indian state of Bihar, was clearly impressed with what he saw. He reaffirmed hope in the “desire to restore that spirit of cultural oneness” and “strengthening cross-cultural relations between the two countries”.
Meanwhile, people like Sehtia can only pray. “The governments of India and Pakisan should take some urgent steps, at least for old people like me, who are still being haunted by memories of Partition. We want to visit our homeland, just once more,” craves Sehtia.
For now, Lord Shiva continues to shed his tears for peace, but his teardrops are yet to reach the rulers of Pakistan and India.