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If you ever happen to read Plutarch’s ‘Life of Alexander’, you will enjoy his description of the Greek king’s encounter with ten ‘gymnosophists’ on the banks of the Indus. Who were these strange men which the dictionary describes as ‘naked sages’?

The ‘naked sages’ description was enough bait for me to continue to explore, and as I continued to dig deeper it surprised me that the ‘gymnosophists’ were Jains of Punjab, and that the ten ‘naked’ sages that Alexander met belonged to both the Shwetambar and Digambar sects of Jainism. Plutarch, as well as other scholars, clearly state that the original religion of Punjab was Jainism. Naturally, my concern was that did they live and rule over Lahore.

It is clear that the original rulers of Lahore were Jain, who were followed for a short period by Buddhist rulers, and mind you after a considerable bloodshed, who were again displaced by Hindu rulers, again after bloodshed, only to be toppled by foreign Muslim invaders, again after bloodshed, who ruled till 1799 when the Sikhs took over for 50 years. The rest the reader knows well. Power and bloodshed invariably go hand in hand.

But in Punjab which people were, or still are, Jain? The majority of Jains in Punjab belonged to Bhabra, a town few miles north-west of Kot Momin near the River Chenab. The people of Bhabra were, and still remain, a merchant class, just as do the ‘khatri’ caste of nearby of Bhera. These people in days of old converted to Jainism, and till this day remain deeply in respect of this ‘non-violent’ religion. A majority of them migrated in 1947 eastwards, yet in Punjab there is still, thankfully, a small Jain community.

My own contact with the Jains of Lahore came when the late Sheikh Mubarak Ali of Tehsil Bazaar showed me his original ‘claim house’ - the Jain Manzil of Tehsil Bazaar. Today it has been taken over by Gujjars who keep buffaloes where once the Jains of Lahore prayed. For a Jain that might not be such a pleasant sight. But these believers of ‘non-violence’ and toleration of all living matters, even ants and bugs, still do come, touch the walls silently, and move on.

So I took up the name Bhabra and recollected how old women of the walled city once used to sing the song: “Bhabray toon andi ik muttayyar nachdi”. This has been taken from the ‘vaar’ of Bhai Gurdas (1550-1620) which at one point goes like this: “kaytarhiaan hee baaneeay kitarhay Bhaabhariaan suniaaray”, meaning that the people of Bhabra were traders and goldsmiths. So this took me to the Suha Bazaar of the old walled city and to my utter amazement shopkeepers informed me that the origin of a majority of them was Bhabra. There are, even today, two Jain jewellery traders, and both with impeccable credentials, which speaks very highly of this original Punjabi caste. But then let us digress towards their remaining temples in Lahore. To my mind they constitute precious heritage, not that these days our rulers care much about.

We all know that their most magnificent temple was the famous Jain Mandir of Old Anarkali, which our Islamic zealots knocked down in 1992 after the Babri Mosque episode in Ajodhya. In the temple base room an Islamic school of sorts operates, though the ‘claimant’ states that it is not a ‘madressah’. The Orange Train project promises to erase even that. This Jain temple was a Digambar Temple with Shikar. The word ‘shikar’ has Sanskrit origins meaning a ‘mountain tower’. A ‘shikar’ temple has a tower-like beehive construction and is typical of the Digambar temple style. It was a beautiful gesture by the traders of Suha Bazaar when they volunteered to rebuild this temple themselves, an offer our ‘scared and terrified’ bureaucracy refused to take up.

Outside the walled city one of the most important, and active, Jain temple is at Guru Mangat, Gulberg, and this is a Jain Shwetambar temple. One relic which makes this temple stand out from all others is the foot imprint in a rock stone. Just where did this rock come from? One legend has it that the footprints in rock, allegedly, belong to Mahavira, the last of the 24 Jain prophets. This would make this rock with foot imprints at least 2,500 years old. But then legends and folk tales have their own ‘mind-boggling’ uses. My own opinion is that this claim needs to be investigated scientifically, because Mahavera was born 300 years before Buddha. Another well-known imprint in rock is at Hasan Abad with a hand imprint of Guru Nanak.

Then there are two small temples within the old walled city. One is the rather inconspicuous Jain Shwetambar Mandir built in ‘shikar’ style in Mohallah Thari Bhabrian. One has to go through a rather narrow ‘gali’ to reach this place, and as the old ‘minder’ is a much respected person, he is well looked after by his neighbours. The people of the old walled city have an amazing respect for each other’s beliefs, which is one redeeming feature of this neglected city of heritage and culture.

Then there is in Gali Bhabrian a Jain Digambar temple, which can be seen on the walled city skyline. Thankfully it survived the madness that followed the 1992 Babri Mosque reaction, and that happened because the youth of the old walled city blocked all access to this temple given that it exists within very narrow lanes. The invading crazed zealots did make an attempt, but they were beaten off. Such incidents give hope that all is not lost.

The highest concentration of Bhabrians is in Sialkot, where once a lot of temples existed. There is a Bhabra Jain temple in Multan, and then there is a Bhabra Bazaar in Rawalpindi. But the most temples of Jains that are functional in Pakistan are in the Thar Desert, as also one or two in almost every major Punjab city. But the finest was in Lahore that fell victim to the rage of a reaction in 1992. To my mind the Guru Mangat Jain temple is our finest now, and one wishes it remains so.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2015