Under the shadow of the Alamgiri gate constructed by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb that opens towards the iconic Badshahi mosque and is now used as the principal entry into the Lahore Fort, is a small temple, a modest structure with a small dome on the top, a typical Mughal structure.
The city of Luv
Known as the temple of Lava, or Luv, the current structure is believed to have been constructed on the top of an ancient temple that was built here to honour Prince Luv, the son of Lord Ram.
Stories about the origin of Lahore state that when Sita, the wife of Ram was banished from Ayodhya after being rescued from Ravana, she found herself in the ashram of a hermit called Valmiki, where she gave birth to her twin sons Luv and Kush.
Legends narrate that Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, was living on the banks of the river Ravi, not far from the present-day city of Lahore. In fact, it is believed that Luv founded the city of Lahore, while Kush founded Lahore’s twin city, Kasur, about 50-odd km away.
Therefore it was present-day Pakistan where the first Ramayana was written and the twin sons of Ram were born.
The land of Prahlad
About 350 km from Lahore, is another ancient city, Multan. The city slowly developed around a mound where now lie the Sufi shrines of Bahauddin Zakariya and Shah Rukn-e-Alam, the patron saints of the city.
Next to the shrine of Bahauddin Zakariya are the remains of one of the most ancient temples in the subcontinent that once served as the focal point of the city.
The temple of Prahlad Bhagat commemorates the victory of the child saint over his tyrant father, Hiranyakashipu, who is once believed to have ruled this ancient city. Legends narrate that it was also at the city of Multan that Holi – one of the most prominent festivals of India originated.
Prahlad Bhagat deceived and managed to kill his paternal aunt Holika, who attempted to kill him at the behest of his father. Holi is the celebration of victory of righteousness over evil, of Prahlad over Holika.
The tears of Shiva
On the north-western side of the country, in the foothills of Himalayas, within the embrace of the hills, is an ancient pool around which the Katasraj temples are constructed.
It is believed that this sacred pond was created out of the teardrop of Shiva, which dropped at this location while he was flying above it carrying the dead body of his consort, Parvati.
Regarded as one of the holiest sites in ancient India, this temple complex was once the site of a major university, and visited regularly by students of Hinduism and spiritualism. The temple complex and the pond have remained sacred through the long history of this land.
Relics of the Buddha
There is a partially-excavated Buddhist stupa here dating back to the third century BCE. Next to it are temples dedicated to Shiva constructed around the seventh and eighth century CE.
It is narrated that the Pandava brothers constructed these temples during their long exile. Adjacent to it is the Ram temple constructed during the tenure of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Next to this temple is a gurdwara dedicated to the visit of Guru Nanak to this pilgrimage site.
Across the mountain, on the top of a mount, is the spot where Al-Beruni, the famed Arab scholar, spent several years studying the “religion of the Indians” and calculating the radius of the world.
Further west, on the banks of the Indus, located on the top of rugged mountains, are the ancient stone forts of Kafir Kot and Bilot, containing some of the earliest temples in this region. Like the temples in Katasraj, they too are believed to be made by the Pandava brothers during their exile.
Not far from here, in the embrace of the Margalla Hills, are the remains of the splendid Buddhist cities, temples and university dating back to the fifth and sixth century BCE.
One of the most prominent archaeological sites here is Dharmarajika, established by Emperor Ashoka in the third century BCE, as a major Buddhist monastery.
The monastery was constructed around a stupa, one of the many stupas that contain relics of Buddha. In Peshawar and Swat, other stupas were also found that contain relics of the Buddha.
Where Mahavir preached
While much has been written about Hindu and Buddhist sites of Pakistan, one of the most neglected aspects of Pakistan’s history is its connection with Jainism.
Scattered all over the country are several ancient Jain shrines constructed in the memory of several Jain acharyas.
Perhaps one of the most prominent priests in recent history is Acharya Vijayanandsuri, also referred to as Atmaramji of Gujranwala. His smadh still stands in the heart of Gujranwala, one of the most populous cities of Pakistan.
Ancient Jain scriptures identify that during his lifetime, Mahavir, the 24th and last Jain tirthankara, undertook an extensive tour of Punjab.
Many of the names of those ancient cites have been lost, but it is likely that the Jain heritage scattered all over Punjab in Pakistan, in the cities of Kasur, Lahore, Multan, Sialkot, Bhera and Jhelum, were raised by his devotees to commemorate his visit to those places.
Any mention of the non-Muslim heritage of Pakistan would be incomplete without a mention of its Sikh heritage. There are several hundred Sikh gurdwaras all over the country, most of which are associated with the Sikh gurus.
Birthplace of Guru Nanak
One of the most prolific gurus in this regard is Guru Nanak, the first guru of Sikhism, who traveled extensively. His devotees constructed commemorative shrines at many places he visited.
Two of the most prominent ones are Gurdwara Janamasthan in Nankana Sahib, where he was born, and Gurdwara Darbar Sahib at Kartarpur, where he passed away.
Pakistan, which is today solely associated with Islam, is in fact the birthplace of several prominent religious movements that today influence a large part of the world.
It is easy to view Pakistan stripped of its historical context, which makes it easy to call it hell, as the Indian Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, recently declared.
However if Pakistan is hell, then are all these religious pilgrimage spots counted above also part of this hell?
How can followers of Ram say that Lahore is hell, given that this city is believed to be founded by his son?
How can devotees of Shiva accept this statement when one of the holiest Shiva sites is located in Pakistan?
Can readers of the Mahabharata and the Vedas also accept that Pakistan is hell given that this land features prominently in these sacred texts?
How can Buddhists accept that Pakistan is hell, a land which contains Buddha’s relics?
Would the devotees of Mahavir not be offended by anyone calling Pakistan hell, a land that was made sacred by the blessed feet of this tirthankara?
Would any Sikh ever call Pakistan hell, a land where Guru Nanak was born and preached his first message of peace and unity?
In this regard therefore Parrikar’s remarks are not only offensive to Pakistanis but also Hindus, Buddhist, Jains and Sikhs living in India and other parts of the world whose religions developed in the land which is today known as Pakistan.
This piece originally appeared on Scroll.in and has been reproduced with permission.