The spatial politics of Lahore's Hindu temples

The Lahore that is now marked by huge infrastructure conceals the Lahore that exists in historical imaginations.
Updated Sep 11, 2019 04:17pm

Lahore was currently dealing with the aftermath of a heavy downpour; the price for a cool July day was having to walk through a muddy Ravi Road.

We turned down a dim alleyway that was bordered by one of the numerous Sufi shrines that dot the city. In front of us loomed a tall building made of ashy white marble and shrouded by electric wires. On the same road was a cluster of shops, indistinguishable from any other neighbourhood market in inner-city Lahore.

We combed through each alley looking for signs that might guide us towards one of the last few functioning Hindu temples in Lahore; an orange flag, a spire on top of a building, a placard, anything. Instead, there were only more shops and dead ends.

A boy who had been watching us for some time asked what we were looking for. Krishna Mandir, we told him. He pointed in the direction of the white building, the one we had taken to be an office building.

A closer look revealed little else about the building. The gate was locked, and the windows were blacked out; the only way to see inside was a side entrance that was half covered by a curtain. Our only indication that this was a temple at all was the mellow scent of incense that surrounded the structure and a gold finial on the roof, visible only from several metres away.

Almost everything that complements the presence of a Hindu temple was divorced from this building. With the gates locked and windows darkened, it was as if the place had isolated itself from the busy bazaar that once facilitated its Diwali celebrations in the past. The mandir’s presence felt unwelcome in the neighbourhood, as if there was a conscious attempt to blend it into the surroundings.

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According to the city’s Hindus, the inside of the Krishna Mandir feels equally unwelcoming. Raj Kumari, who has lived in Lahore since birth, says that the temple has no sitting room at all, save for a place to eat food and a latrine. “It is only a small two-story building with idols inside,” she says.

Despite being granted nominal religious freedom by Pakistan’s Constitution, Hindus like Raj Kumari still face extreme obstacles in being able to practise their faith. In a city of 11 million people that covers almost 2,000 square kilometres, only two publicly-functioning Hindu temples remain.

One is this Krishna Mandir of Ravi Road, while the other is the Valmiki Mandir, located in New Anarkali. “We’re not allowed to abandon our religion,” Raj Kumari says. But living in Lahore has severely impacted their visibility and how they practise their faith in public spaces.

In order to fully appreciate how the Krishna and Valmiki Mandirs operate today, one must understand them within the greater context of Lahore and its spatial politics, whose complex history dates back long before the state of Pakistan was established.

The foundation of Lahore and Pakistan at large – namely, the Two-Nation Theory – depends on an exclusive definition of space, ultimately leading to social cleansing and contestation over control of spatial politics and architectural language in Lahore.

Communal violence

Lahore, as the already-developed political capital of several empires, was economically buttressed by the British Raj, becoming one of the largest and most advanced cities in the Indian subcontinent after the ascendance of the British Empire. In 1947, it was at the frontier of the Partition of India, a centuries-old union undone by years of communal violence underpinned by the Two-Nation Theory.

The urban ecology of Lahore was defined by its spatial, religious and ethnic multiplicity. Lahore’s 1941 census highlights that Hindus and Sikhs comprised nearly 40 per cent of the city’s population, forming the backbone of Lahore’s merchant class.

Reflecting this demographic diversity, Lahore was replete with mandirs and gurdwaras that hosted the city’s minority populations. Model Town, the first modern suburb built for the elite class in Lahore, was spearheaded by wealthy Hindu merchants.

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However, the onset of Partition changed Lahore fundamentally as millions of people migrated across the newly formed Indo-Pak border in 1947. The consequences for Lahore being demarcated as a part of Muslim Pakistan were colossal; thousands of Hindus and Sikhs fled their homes for India as Muslim rioters ravaged their properties and took their lives.

The Shah Alami Market, a bustling hub for Hindu traders and business elites, was captured entirely by a Muslim mob that had trapped its residents inside by setting the gate on fire. Bhagat Labha was 12 years old when he witnessed Shah Alami, the biggest market of Lahore, go up in flames. He recalls, “there were properties being burnt everywhere. None of us were allowed to go outside.” He narrowly escaped a Muslim mob during the communal unrest.

Vidya, also known as Mary, was living on Jail Road during Partition. “We used to come to the canal and play as kids,” she said. “We would see the dead bodies of massacred people there.” At the time, all of Vidya’s relatives were travelling to Lahore from India; none of them survived the journey.

Simultaneously, hundreds of Muslim refugees who faced identical violence in India were arriving into the city on a regular basis, filling in the gaps left empty by Hindu residents, all of whom had either left or had been murdered. The demographics of Lahore changed rapidly as its Muslim population grew and its Hindu and Sikh population declined. Today, Hindus and Sikhs constitute only 1pc of Lahore’s population.

Transforming Lahore

A city-goer's perception of Lahore is often dominated by its most well-known landmarks: the Badshahi Mosque, Liberty Market, Minar-i-Pakistan, Packages Mall, all conveniently located near the recently developed Metro stations.

Amidst the novelty and fluctuating styles of architecture, it is easy to forget the presence of a heterogeneous society that continues to take residence within this same vicinity.

As the Muslim population continues to grow exponentially, the city takes the form of a monolithic space, all the while curbing traces of other religions. In this process, a Lahore that was once home to rich cultural and ethnic diversity quickly becomes a thing of the past. As per anthropologist Haroon Khalid, the Lahore that is now marked by huge infrastructure and everyday hustle that stretches beyond midnight conceals the Lahore that exists in historical imaginations.

In contemporary Lahore, the Krishna and Valmiki Mandirs are remains of the imagined city and its multiplicities. To understand the current dynamics of Lahore’s spatial politics and the extent of their deviation from the city’s indigenous foundations, one must dive back into the past and try to conceptualise this Lahore.

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Today, just as we see Muslims heading to the Data Darbar on a Thursday evening, Hindus would visit the Seetla Mandir in Shah Alami for pooja. The stairs of the Lahore Fort casting its shadow on Hazuri Bagh, was the centre of Dussehra Jaloos that later spread to other parts of the city.

Looking at the rusty buildings and restaurants that are settled around the Lakshmi Chowk, the same neighbourhood was once drowned in colour as the centre of Holi. The high-spirited celebrations of Diwali were visible in the city’s temples, with decorations extending to Hindu neighbourhoods in the narrow streets of Anarkali.

Such festivals and religious practices were characterised by popular participation from all walks of life. Presently, however, these traditions are now secluded within the boundaries of homes instead of temples, resulting in dramatically fewer public displays of faith. The diminishing presence of Hindu spaces is key to how Lahore has fundamentally redefined itself since Pakistan’s independence.

The current state of Hindu temples and their significance within the city’s greater context hinges on the destruction and isolation of Hindu spatial expression that arose during Partition and continues to endure, reaching its zenith with the response to the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992.

Aftershocks of Babri Masjid

Hindu-Muslim differences crescendoed in Ayodhya in 1992, after decades of modern nation-building in India and Pakistan in light of the Two-Nation Theory – that Hindus and Muslims were indeed two different, irreconcilable nations.

Believed to be the birthplace of Ram, Ayodhya is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus all over the world. Until 1992, the town was also home to the famed Babri Masjid, a mosque whose construction is said to have been ordered by the Mughal Emperor Babur.

Ayodhya, with its rich Hindu and Muslim heritage, could have been a site for religious multiplicity but ultimately fell victim to communal hatred. Hindu nationalists claim that the Babri Masjid was built on the site where Ram was born and where a temple previously stood.

Calls to liberate Ram Janam Bhoomi, or Ram’s birthplace, from the ownership of Indian Muslims arose in the 1850s and culminated on December 6th 1992, when a group of Hindu nationalists led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishva Hindu Parishad demolished the mosque brick by brick.

The Babri Masjid demolition became the epicentre for a wider communal response, whose far-reaching consequences included the deaths of over 2,000 people in riots all over India, the majority of whom were Muslims. Consequently, parallel violence stretched across Indian borders into Pakistan and Bangladesh, where Muslim rioters razed dozens of Hindu and Jain temples to the ground in retaliation.

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Tara Chand, a Hindu resident in Lahore, recalls being at work at the Valmiki Mandir one morning when a man rushed into the temple to warn him that he was in danger. “I ran outside to the street, and they all came with daggers, knives and guns, and set everything on fire,” says Tara Chand. “They took off the fans, they broke the idols...they left doing a lot of other damage.” The fire that consumed the Valmiki Mandir continued to rage for three days afterwards.

Shams Gill, who keeps his real Hindu name a secret in order to blend in, was attending a gathering at Mall Road that morning, protesting the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India along with other Muslim residents. Gill remembers hearing about numerous attacks on Hindu places of worship all over Pakistan. “Many temples in Lahore were destroyed,” he recalls, “including the temples in Ichra and the Jain temple near the university ground. They used tankers to run these to the ground.”

The destruction of the Babri Masjid and of temples all over Pakistan and Bangladesh is a demonstration of hostage theory, described by Abdul Kalam Azad as a means to assert minority rights: whatever treatment was given to Muslims in India would also be given to Hindus in Pakistan. This would keep “hostages” safe; the danger that could befall one’s religious brethren in the other country would be too great to ever risk hurting minorities in one's own country.

But the founders never took into account that nation-building can also require the ethnic cleansing of the Other, regardless of one’s intention to protect a different country’s minorities. Ultimately, the episode only further exemplified the Two-Nation Theory and how spaces belonging to the Hindu or Muslim Other cannot be tolerated in the exclusive workings of the modern nation-state. Despite having a rich Hindu heritage that has existed long before Pakistan, it becomes essential to limit Hindu spaces as much as possible in order to reinforce the nation-state’s monolithic self-definition.

Destroying the mandirs was still not enough; all evidence of Hindu structures had to be erased and assimilated within Pakistan’s visibly Islamic landscape. The Seetla Mandir, a defunct site that had already been torn down during Partition riots, faced renewed violence, fueled by the same energy that tarnished it in the first place. A minaret was situated atop the Valmiki Mandir in a conscious effort to convert the building into a Muslim space.

The Krishna and Valmiki Mandirs were both eventually reconstructed after the aftershocks of the Babri Masjid demolition. Although they have been rebuilt as Hindu temples, they have not been rearticulated as such. Bhagat Lal Khokar is Valmiki Mandir’s long-time priest, whose family and associates have been the custodians of this land and temple for generations on end.

The Valmikis are considered to be untouchables in Pakistan, marginalising them within the Hindu community and within Pakistan. Many of them convert to Christianity and take Christian names but are still loyal to the Valmiki Mandir, compelling it to become a more syncretic space.

He describes the present state of the Valmiki Mandir to be modelled like classrooms adjoining an open space or offices at any ordinary plaza. “This is not what our temples look like,” he claims. The process of restoring both temples only further exemplifies the conscious effort to model these spaces as architecturally conformist, indistinguishable from any other building in the city, indeed for safety’s sake, but also as an easily assimilable and copyable architectural form that does not require unorthodox difference.

“All of Lahore’s gurdwaras look like gurdwaras, its churches look like churches, and its mosques look like mosques. Why doesn’t our temple look like a temple?” he asks us.

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Tucked in a narrow street close to the famous bicycle shops of New Anarkali, the Valmiki Mandir presently looks like an abandoned house with khokhas and shops clustered along its outer boundary wall. The congestion of these shops and businesses leaves only a narrow space in between to be used as a door to the mandir. It can initially be recognised by the saffron coloured flag from a distance, standing side by side with the Pakistani flag at the entrance.

Once inside, you see an open space with a weathered brick floor and a semi-carpeted sitting area at one corner to accommodate visitors. The inner chambers of the temple are restricted to two small rooms, prone to flooding with even the slightest amount of rainfall. Inside the rooms, the garbhagriha occupies a central position, with the saffron coloured flag taped to it at the forefront and the Pakistani flag again by its side.

“We did not put up the Pakistani flag as a form of protection,” Khokar says. “If anyone ever comes to try and disturb our temple again, the flag serves as a reminder that this space belongs to Pakistan just as any other building does. If they harm our land, then they should know that they are also harming Pakistan.”

John, another congregant of the Valmiki temple, disagrees. “Why should we put up the Pakistani flag?” he asks us. “If we are so welcome in this place, then why do we need to constantly display our Pakistani identity? Mosques don’t even think about having Pakistani flags in their musalla. Why is the flag on our shrine itself?”

Capitalism and developing the nation-state

Next to the grand lotus-petal Alamgiri Gate of the Lahore Fort rest the scattered ruins of the Lava Mandir, accidentally exhumed while the royal kitchen above the temple was being excavated. Hindu legend narrates that Sita and Ram’s son, Prince Lava, or Loh, founded the ancient city of Lavapur. The city would also be referred to by the prince’s latter name, Loh, becoming Loh-awar, eventually giving rise to the modern city of Lahore.

The abandoned temple has no congregation; only Hindu yatrees from across the border visit and worship at the Lava Mandir. The small room remains barricaded to Pakistanis and is easy to miss under the majesty of the Lahore Fort. Faded frescoes and well-worn arches surround the central shrine. The garbhagriha itself, comprised of an ancient stone pavilion topped with a lotus-adorned cupola, notably lacks any murtis in its hollowed-out middle. Instead, subdued garlands and burnt-out incense sticks mark the ephemeral visits that the temple hosts.

The dilapidated site of the Loh Mandir is a manifestation of the lack of public Pakistani investment in Hindu heritage sites, especially in Lahore. The durability of Hindu spaces in the city is not judged by their utility to the indigenous Hindu population, but rather their viability within a complex nexus of international relations and capitalist development.

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The Kartarpur Corridor, for example, is the culmination of decades of Sikh diaspora activism to convince leaders on both sides of the border to open up a visa-free thoroughfare for Sikh pilgrims to visit Guru Nanak’s place of death. The brick-laying ceremony was attended by the prime minister of Pakistan and multiple ministers from India, both parties eager to co-opt the opening to soften India-Pakistan relations. Videos produced from the Kartarpur Corridor showcase large developments, an expansive highway and future plans for five-star hotels and world-star cuisine descending upon the space of this small ascetic gurdwara.

Similar arrangements for the repair of Lahore’s flagship gurdwara, Gurdwara Dera Sahib, were financed and organised by wealthy Sikh diaspora, rather than by the government agencies responsible for the upkeep of religious custodianship in Punjab, the Auqaf Department and the Evacuee Trustee Property Board.

While the government does facilitate the arrival of a few thousand Hindu and Sikh yatrees from across the border every year, it is particularly negligent and even exploitative of the precarious position of Pakistani Hindus living inside Lahore. At the Valmiki Mandir, John asserts that his fealty to the land runs deeper than both India or Pakistan. Bhagat Lal Khokar, the priest, tells us about how during and after Partition, the elders at the temple adamantly decided to stay in Lahore and care for their ancestral temple, even giving up portions of the large mandir complex to Muslim refugees coming in from India.

Those refugees never gave that property back. The temple’s land became increasingly encroached on by shops and khokas in the busy market, the rent from which was initially collected by the mandir. The Auqaf had started a Jinnah Fund for minority communities in the 1950s, and when they came to the Valmiki Mandir for contributions, the elders decided to give the rent from these khokas towards the Jinnah Fund.

However, the Jinnah Fund abruptly ended, yet the Auqaf did not remand revenue back to the mandir. Some congregants demanded that the dilapidated and encroached-upon mandir needed significant work, especially after the Babri Masjid demolition. This February, after decades of struggle, the Valmiki Mandir has finally filed a court case to regain revenue rights from their own property.

“We never ask the Auqaf Department for anything,” says Bhagat Lal Khokar, “All our festivals and celebrations we organise and finance ourselves for our brothers.”

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Meanwhile, at the Krishna Mandir, the only other public functioning Hindu temple in the city, Diwali and other festivals are celebrated with huge fanfare with the economic support of the Auqaf, but with little substance as the entire road is barricaded and the Muslim community around the temple is prohibited from visiting.

That Muslims are not allowed to ring in festivals with the Hindu community further stratifies their religious identities, demarcating them at a point of difference. The Ministry of Religious Affairs visits the festival every year to take ceremonial photos, capitalising on the image of “inter-faith harmony,” but failing to account for the deteriorating state of the mandir.

This contestation of space hinges on the role of neoliberal capitalism in nation-state building. Not only do the Hindu temples fall under the coercive purview of the governmental departments with no other option, but they are also expected to accept and use these funds in a manner that suits the Pakistani ideology.

The specific deployment of Pakistan’s religious minorities is in service of Pakistani statehood as a benevolent caretaker. An image of “harmony” only holds insofar as it is relevant to the respective countries’ nation-state ideologies, but never for the sake of safeguarding minorities and their religious freedom.

Nation-building is inextricably linked to capitalist development in Pakistan. The only mode of “developing” property under capitalism is in the name of profit, and government agencies follow suit. In the case of the Valmiki Mandir and its outlying khokhas, these Muslim-led agencies take coercive control of the mandir’s property and benefit from their rented shops.

Meanwhile, in the case of the Kartarpur Corridor, the framework for free market profit has already been laid around the epicentre of the gurdwara. The opportunity to benefit from unorthodox religious spaces is ripe under Pakistan’s neoliberal regime, as Islamic nationalism is upheld and development grows at the expense of further limiting Hindu spaces to the point of social cleansing. Therefore, these unorthodox, non-Muslim religious spaces only become relevant in the context of profit.

Understanding spatial politics

“In Pakistan, the Hindus have never been persecuted,” says Shams Gill, “but the anger against us has been vented on our temples.” Gill has reached the crux of the issue: Pakistani Hindus, a term that many consider to be an oxymoron, are represented through physical space.

Now, there are only a few traces of Hindu visibility in Lahore, such as the building once known as the Hanuman Basuli Mandir. Its shikhara peaks through the newly constructed plazas and old heritage buildings of the Anarkali Bazaar. This mandir, now a residence to numerous families, is easily distinguishable from its surroundings. It stands out with its antique Hindu architectural language, sculptures of deities whose faces have been scratched out and Sanskrit wall engravings that the city has grown to neglect over time.

The mere presence of the mandir in the midst of the crowded bazaar exemplifies the extent of capitalist development that continues to dictate the marginalisation of Hindu temples and sacred spaces within Lahore. After so many attempts to remove evidence of Hindu visibility in Lahore, the Hanuman Basuli Mandir, no longer functioning as a temple, remains the sole survivor of these efforts.

However, the building’s future remains precarious in the contemporary political climate. History tends to repeat itself, and there is no certainty regarding the fate of Lahore’s unorthodox religious spaces.

Written with the generosity of the Citizen’s Archive of Pakistan


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