Footprints: Home of hope

Published August 9, 2016
A work of exceptional craftsmanship, the prime sanctum of the 1,500-year-old Panchhmukhi Hanuman Mandir, Karachi. —Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
A work of exceptional craftsmanship, the prime sanctum of the 1,500-year-old Panchhmukhi Hanuman Mandir, Karachi. —Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

IT may be trite but cannot be said enough: we celebrate God but let man-made laws kill His children.

Late last month, Pakistan lost another young son, Satish Kumar, 18, in Mirpur Mathelo, to assailants who sought to avenge an alleged blasphemy act committed elsewhere earlier that day.

A rightfully enraged community erupted in strikes and protests. However, last weekend, one of the country’s oldest Hindu temples, the Panchhmukhi Hanuman Mandir in Karachi, celebrated the monsoon festival of Teej or Naag Panchhmi. And the most celebrated priest of the community, Ram Nath Maharaj, the temple keeper, conducted special prayers for this beleaguered land.

The 1,500-year-old Panchhmukhi Hanuman Mandir nestles in a nook of Soldier Bazar and is Karachi’s oldest living edifice. However, bygone epochs are not the reason for its timelessness — Hindus see it as Hanuman’s only home on the globe with his ‘non-man-made’ image.

Legend has it that an ancient priest, Panchamdas Guru Maharaj, performed years of prayers here and when the earth was removed from his seating place, this idol emerged on a Tuesday.

The womb chamber, where the blue and white eight-foot statue stands, marks the ancient spot where this image is believed to have been unearthed.

According to Ram Nath Maharaj, this temple and Shiva’s Kataas Raj are mentioned in Al Biruni’s Kitab-ul-Hind.

By the bustling main road, an older rock archway, darkened by decay, hangs over a narrow passage of doorways and stalls laden with prasad, mangalsutras, bindis, sindoors, brassware and religious posters.

In the same row resides a small, sombre alcove — the oldest spot in the temple’s original plot. It is safeguarded by a grille and is a store of condiments for daily rituals. An ancient brick pit sits in its centre with a time-worn trishul — this was the site of havans before the temple was built and is still lit on days devoted to the god.

It is a Saturday, the day of Hanuman; the lane, homes and temple are iridescent with festivity and the rituals of Teej.

Upon entrance one is struck by the intricately carved yellow stone sanctum in the centre — an epicentre of lyrical buzz, crammed with over 700 devotees.

“Parvati mata had prayed to Shiva for her longings; for her suhaag and his health and life. She wanted to marry Shiva. He then granted all her wishes and they were married on Shivratri. So this ceremony is to honour her devotion,” explains Ram Nath.

The sanctum’s lofty tower is a marvel of craftsmanship — carved in fine Jodhpur stone masonry, it has Hanuman figurines on corners, each different from the other.

It is believed that 108 rounds of the chamber have the power to change lives; cleanse all evil and adversity, making this temple a citadel of healing.

The sanctum’s doors, in carved silver framed in brass, are coated with silver deco paint for safety.

In the back corner is an 800-year-old shivling; a nandi in Rajasthani stone sits before it. This shivling is testimony to the origins of this shrine — it was once atop a mud hill amid water, which people frequented in boats.

As the golden hues of the sunset cast their shadows on its majestic stupa, devotees begin to pour in. Cascades of jasmine and marigolds are draped on stands alongside other religious offerings; diyas quiver in crevices, Lata’s Teri Jai Siya Ram blares from loudspeakers and Ram Nath Maharaj comes into view in saffron for a grand Saturday aarti.

A sinewy, long-haired man blows the conch shell; the pandit performs a long ritual inside — theatre that sets senses alight.

Women glisten in ornate garments and red and green bangles, as they perform seven rounds of the ancient tree; vermillion smears on its bark and their foreheads, milk, sweets, and bequests of sola singhar laid out with oil lamps.

“It’s a festival of 16 Mondays where the women fast for their husbands and pray for freedom from all evil,” says Ram Nath.

Despite the spate of recent adversities, he not only lays special emphasis on praying for Pakistan, but also explains that he along with his nephew, is setting out to consign the ashes of unknown persons to the waters of the Ganges in India.

“We want to spread goodwill here and with our neighbours,” he says.

Small wonder then, that as hope triumphs over travesty, Panchhmukhi Hanuman Mandir is where folklore and mysticism will only intensify as time goes by.

The writer is a journalist and author

Twitter: @ReemaAbbasi

Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2016

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