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HERITAGE: THE LONELY LITTLE TEMPLE

January 14, 2018

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Lahore has a rich and varied, albeit rather obscure, history. There is no consensus on when the city was established, with estimates ranging between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago. Over the millennia the city has also been known by different names. In the second century work Geographia — a compilation of the geographical knowledge of the Roman Empire at the time — the Greek philosopher Ptolemy mentions a “great and grand city” known as “Labokla”, which later historians have identified as a reference to Lahore.

Other names include Lohawar, Loh Kot and Lavpur, all of which are references to Lava (or Loh), the son of Lord Rama and the central character of the Hindu epic Ramayana, one of the most revered scriptures in Hinduism.

Spanning nearly 24,000 verses divided into seven sections, the Ramayana chronicles the adventures of Lord Rama, the son of King Dasharatha of Ayodhya. Here is how the story goes:

Following a palace intrigue, Rama is banished from his father’s kingdom for a period of 14 years, and takes refuge in a forest with his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana. During the 13th year of exile, Sita is kidnapped by the demon-king Ravana, who takes her to the capital of his kingdom, Lanka, and demands that she marry him. Sita resolutely rejects his advances, while Rama and Lakshmana set out to bring her back.

Tucked away in a room in the Lahore Fort, is the Lava temple — dedicated to the son of a Hindu deity. Its origins remain shrouded in mystery

The next few sections of the Ramayana describe in great detail their numerous adventures as they attempt to rescue Sita, culminating in their epic clash with the demon-king himself, in which Ravana is killed. Sita is recovered, and subsequently undergoes the Agni Pariksha, an ordeal of fire, to prove that she had remained faithful to Rama during her captivity. The following year, Rama’s term of exile expires, and he returns with Sita and Lakshmana to Ayodhya, where he is crowned king.

The final section, believed to be a later addition to the original Ramayana, covers the events following Rama’s coronation. After a time, Sita becomes pregnant, and Rama finds that, despite the result of the Agni Pariksha, his subjects still question her chastity. He consequently banishes her to the forest, causing her to take refuge with the sage Valmiki. It is at Valmiki’s ashram, or hermitage, that Sita gives birth to twin sons, Lava and Kusha, who are later reunited with their father. However, Sita is whisked away by Bhumi, the Hindu goddess who represents Mother Earth and bears the weight of billions of beings on herself and suffers in silence, freeing Sita from her troubled life.

According to the legend, of Sita’s twin sons, Kusha found Kasur, while Lava founded Lahore.

Lahore’s famous landmark, Lahore Fort, located at the northern end of the Walled City, houses 21 different structures from various periods in the city’s history, but in order to control the flow of people in and out of the Fort, some of these monuments have been made inaccessible to the general public. One such structure located at a short distance from the stately Alamgiri Gate is the Lava Temple, dedicated to Lava.

After a very extensive tour of the various monuments that make up the Fort — including the usually off-limits Summer Palace — my guide led me past the Alamgiri Gate and introduced me to two Rangers comfortably seated in front of a row of iron grills that clearly indicated that one would normally not be allowed beyond this point. After the introductions were made, a Rangers’ personnel moved one of the grills aside to allow me to pass, and my guide led me through a narrow passage into a small windowless square chamber with an open roof. The entire space was suffused with an eerie green light, but looking up I realised it was only the sunlight filtering through a shade netting that had been stretched across the top of the chamber, the emerald hue making it impossible for me to determine the natural colours of my surroundings.

Lahore’s famous landmark, Lahore Fort, located at the northern end of the Walled City, houses 21 different structures from various periods in the city’s history, but in order to control the flow of people in and out of the Fort, some of these monuments have been made inaccessible to the general public. One such structure, located at a short distance from the stately Alamgiri Gate, is the Lava Temple, dedicated to Lava.

There in front of me stood the vacant temple, a hexagonal brick structure topped with a dome. On the floor, in front of the temple, was an empty bottle of mineral water, while on the temple itself some graffiti was visible — testaments to the disrespect that the temple had experienced. But even the defacement I witnessed was minor compared to how extensive it has been in the past — in old photographs of the temple one can see it covered with phone numbers and the kind of romantic couplets one would expect to see in a public lavatory.

A painting depicting Sita with her twin sons Lava and Kusha
A painting depicting Sita with her twin sons Lava and Kusha

The style of construction and the fact that the Temple is on the same level as the ground outside led the early 20th century Punjab administrator Sir Edward MacLagan to conclude in his work Lahore and some of its Historical Monuments that this was not a pre-historic temple, but rather was constructed at some later date, most likely during the Sikh occupation of Lahore Fort. This view is echoed by Nazir Ahmed Chaudhry in his book Lahore Fort: A Witness to History. But both historians seem to be unable to offer an exact date for the temple’s construction.

Even the origins of the Fort itself are shrouded in mystery. While the Fort owes its present structure to Mughal Emperor Akbar and his successors, there is evidence that it has been around for much longer. The Unesco World Heritage Centre states that the site has been occupied for “several millennia” but does not mention a specific date. Chaudhry also states that historians believe there was a fort in Lahore before the Muslim invasions of India, but they cannot agree on the specific location of the fort, or, for that matter, the site of the city itself. The difficulty of dating the fort is due to the paucity of reliable records from the Hindu period. Chaudhry is certain, however, that there was a fort at the time of Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasions of India in the 11th century AD. The fort has been subsequently destroyed and reconstructed multiple times, and passed on from one dynasty to another.

Who built the Lava Temple? When? What was housed inside the Temple? Were any acts of worship ever performed there? These and many other questions remain unanswered, and we can only speculate. Unfortunately, little investigative work has been done on the Temple, and it sits in a lonely spot, ignored by the bustling world outside.

The author is a freelance writer

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 14th, 2018

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