Imagining Lahore, page 26
It was around the time of the celebration of this festival that the true identity of the temple and its significance to its devotees became clear to me. Many of the devotees were Muslims and Christians. Around this time, I met Azad Chowdry and his children, Yashwa and Teresa. While Azad played the tabla, his twelve-year-old son, Yashwa, played the harmonium and sang. Occasionally he was accompanied by Teresa. They were a Christian family but here they were, at a Valmiki Hindu temple, singing bhajans and preparing for Valmiki Jayanti.
Sitting next to them and listening attentively was a professional flautist, Musharraf Ali, a Muslim. He was not a regular visitor to the temple but he would make it a point to attend on Valmiki Jayanti. Despite his religion he also identified as a Valmiki, similar to Azad and his family who were Christian Valmikis.
The religious identity of most of the devotees who visit the temple reflects a certain degree of fluidity, impossible to imagine in a post-Partition environment. Most of them identified as Christian on official documents yet retained their Valmiki association. Many had ‘Muslim’ names that further complicated their religious identity. Only a handful of them could be identified as Hindu by name.
One of them was Bhagat Lal Khokhar, the priest and the man responsible for the primary functioning of the temple. I had the opportunity to interview him over several sessions, each spanning at least a couple of hours. The priest came across as a prudent man who knew that in order to survive in present-day Lahore, the majority community needed to be appeased. On the occasion of several festivals, Muslim religious leaders and scholars were also invited, and often treated as chief guests. I attended one such festival in 2011 when the priest reached out to invite me for an iftar party at the temple.
There were about a dozen Muslims sitting in the temple’s courtyard breaking fasts with traditional items such as dates, pakoras and Rooh Afza that young Valmiki boys served. The event corresponded with Janmashtami, which was celebrated later in the evening once most of the Muslim guests left.
During other religious festivals, when bhajans resonate from the speakers placed in the courtyard, the pandit and other members of the organizing committee ensure that the celebrations do not last late into the night. One needs to be sensitive to one’s neighbours, a sensibility that is always expected from a minority religious group, almost never from the majority.
It took several hours of conversations with the priest to peel off the layers of his diplomatic language. Following hours of reiteration of patriotism, the priest finally felt comfortable to talk about discrimination. He told me how the temple’s property, which included several shops in its vicinity, belonged to the Valmiki community but had been taken over by the ETPB after Partition and rented out. The rent went to the government as opposed to the Valmiki community. Bhagat Lal argued that the temple was never abandoned by the community and hence rightfully belonged to them.
Even if the community had not physically abandoned the temple during the riots of Partition, it had disappeared, if only temporarily. Deep within the community of Shahdara, on the western side of the Ravi, I interviewed an old widowed woman, Mary. At the time of Partition, she was a little girl living close to the canal. She was a Hindu Valmiki, named Vidya by her parents. She told me how, when they were playing on the banks of the canal, they saw a dead body floating in the water. She immediately ran to her mother to tell her what she had witnessed. Her mother purchased a cross, put a thread through it and hung it around her neck. In that one gesture, she had ceased to be Vidya and became Mary, an identity that she clung to ever since.
Living on the ground floor of the same house was Kamla Kumari, another old widow, who unlike Mary had retained her pre-Partition name but like hundreds of other Valmiki Hindus, changed her religion. Such was the fear of this dual life that the family entirely gave up its religious traditions in the new city. Kamla eventually joined a Christian missionary school in Lahore, where she learned hymns and other forms of Christian prayer, the only prayer she knew. In her home, in one corner of the room she had set up a small mandir with pictures of Hindu deities. Every day she would stand in front of the gods and recite Christian hymns under her breath.
These dual religious identities are in evidence at the Neela Gumbad Mandir where there is a mural of Valmiki on one wall and Jesus Christ and Mary on the other. While Valmiki Jayanti and Janmashtami are celebrated by hundreds of devotees, Christmas and Easter witness an equal number of devotees. The temple of Valmiki swiftly becomes the temple of Christ whenever required.
What brought together these different threads of religious identity at the temple was one common caste identity. Valmiki Hindus are part of the Dalit community, which has experienced social exclusion for generations. At the temple, I interviewed Khem Chand, an old man in his eighties, who had changed his name to Shams Gill after Partition following his conversion to Christianity. He told me how upper-caste Hindus would go out of their way to prevent even the shadow of Valmikis from falling over the well at Anarkali Bazaar. During his youth Khem Chand was a pehelwan, a wrestler; however, due to his caste no akhara would allow him to practise. Thus, eventually, they set up a small akhara in the vicinity of this temple.
The social exclusion continued after Partition, even though Khem Chand officially became Shams Gill and all the upper-class Hindus from Punjab migrated to India. During our conversations, various stories of untouchability flowed from him. Once, when he, along with several other members of the community, was having a cup of tea at a little dhaba outside Lahore, the Muslim vendor of the stall forced them to pay for the cups as well when he found out about their identities, for they had been rendered impure and would have to be thrown away.
The Muslim converts did not fare much better. Low-caste Hindus who converted to Islam are known as ‘Musali’ or ‘Deendar’ in Punjab and are in many ways still treated as untouchable. Many households where they work keep a separate set of utensils for them. While religious identity changed for many of them, their caste identity continued to shade their existence, even as they manoeuvred through a changed environment. I believe that in this context, Valmiki and his temple acquired a particular significance for them. It became an expression of self-identity, a reaction to years and generations of social discrimination.
In the years following Partition when, particularly in Punjab, notions of patriotism were at their peak, any association with a Hindu past was taboo. Dual names and a jettisoning of their religious practices, culture and festivals were the only ways to survive. Bhagat Lal told me how, for years, religious festivals such as Holi and Diwali, which were now much larger affairs celebrated in the courtyard with music and lights, were marked by a brief ritualistic prayer within the confines of the room.
Pakistan’s antagonistic relationship with India over the years made the situation even worse. Various Hindus and Sikhs all over the country had to hide their identity or disappear temporarily during the 1965 and 1971 wars. In 1992, as a reaction to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, hundreds of temples were ransacked, including this one. The pre-Partition idol of Valmiki and Lord Krishna were destroyed and the temple set on fire. The handful of Valmiki Hindus who were part of the administrative team responsible for the maintenance of the temple could only look on, overwhelmed by a mob of hundreds.
With the arrival of Pervez Musharraf and his ‘Enlightened Moderation’ at the start of the millennium, the situation began to change. Pakistan found itself at the centre of the storm of religious extremism and violence and the state, an ally in the ‘war on terror’, was desperate to project a softer image of the country. It is around this time that Hindus in many cities across Punjab who had hidden their identities for decades began reclaiming their original names. Religious festivals that had not been observed at a communal level since Partition once again came to be celebrated. The Valmiki temple at Neela Gumbad was also witness to this transition. Many Muslim and Christian Valmikis who had repudiated their connections with it were back, picking up the thread of
Sage Valmiki, unlike any other Hindu deity, held a particular significance for them. For, more than any other, he was the deity of the Dalits, irrespective of their new religious identity. He himself was a Dalit who defied his caste when he became a sage. He became the most important sage, the adi-kavi or the first poet, who composed the Ramayana—its first ever written rendition. Not just that, he challenged caste hierarchy when, in his 24,000 verses of poetry, he described how Sita found refuge in his ashram after she was exiled by her husband. Thus Valmiki mounted an important challenge to caste hierarchy, which attributed only a particular set of activities to each caste and looked down upon the intermingling of castes.
But how could Valmiki, on the one hand, through his own actions as the first author of the Ramayana challenge caste hierarchies, but also, on the other, reinforce the very same system he defied? At one point in the Ramayana of Valmiki, Ram kills Shambuka, a Shudra ascetic, who, challenging the caste hierarchy—dharma—was engaged in performing penance.2 How could Valmiki be the ultimate symbol for Shudras, and at the same time promote this kind of dharma?
Many Ramayana scholars have pointed out that Valmiki’s version cannot be attributed to one author. It was a product of several centuries, beginning around the third or second century BCE and going all the way to second or third century CE.3 Different poets added their own verses to the text, bringing with them their own interpretation of dharma. It has also been established that Valmiki himself was not the original author. The Ramayana had been recited for a few centuries before it was finally put in writing by the sage around the third or second century BCE.
It is argued that in the original text, Ram was not the divine incarnation that he was to become in the later version.4 Other evidence suggests that in the later traditions, when Ram does begin to acquire divine attributes, it is not Vishnu but rather Indra whose incarnation he is seen as.5 There are also, as a matter of fact, Buddhist versions of the Ramayana in which Ram is a Bodhisattva.6 In Jain versions, Ram is a non-violent adherent of the teachings of Mahavira and it is not he who slays Ravana but his brother, Laxman.7 However, in the beginning of the fourth century CE, under the patronage of the Gupta dynasty, the Ramayana increasingly became associated with Hinduism, thus overshadowing its other variants. Ram became an incarnation of Vishnu, the upholder of dharma, which included caste duties and hierarchy, while Sita became his obedient wife.
With the changing interpretation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, there was now a need to address the issue of Valmiki’s caste. A new reading was added that Valmiki was originally a Brahmin priest raised by a Shudra couple. This is also the narrative that was told to me by Bhagat Lal.
Valmiki’s original caste still remains a contested issue. In the beginning of 2016, a fourteen-member committee was formed in Karnataka to determine the origins of Valmiki, after it was argued by a Kannada writer that Valmiki was a Brahmin, a claim contested by the Dalit community.8
To the Muslim, Christian and Hindu devotees of Valmiki, however, who gather at the Neela Gumbad Mandir, discussions of his origins or the various extrapolations into the Ramayana are not part of their everyday lived experience. Valmiki for them represents a rebellion against caste hierarchy which continues to haunt them despite conversion. United by their shared experience of untouchability, hundreds of Christians, Muslims and Hindus continue to revere Valmiki, making this little temple in the heart of Lahore a unique symbol of almost a forced religious syncretism. While today it might come across as an anomaly in an increasingly monolithic city once hailed for its metropolitan nature, it is in fact one of the last reminders of what the social fabric of the city used to be before it was ripped apart by the riots of Partition.
Chauburji seen beyond pillars being constructed for the Orange Line metro track
This structure is believed to be the tomb of Zeb-un-Nissa
The remains of Jain Mandir next to Chauburji
Entrance to the enclosure where Habib Jalib is buried
Ahmadiyya Buildings now rechristened Muhammadiyya Buildings. The old name is visible on the side.
Protest at Bhagat Singh Chowk on 23 March 2011
Rehmat Ali’s grandchildren holding his photograph
The smadh of Ganga Ram
Entrance to the haveli of Jawala Singh at Padhana
The grave of Bamba Sutherland at the Gora Qabristan
The smadh of Jawahir Singh
The smadh of Ranjit Singh, with the minaret of Badshahi Masjid in the background
The mausoleum of Mian Mir
The mausoleum of Nadira Begum next to the shrine of Mian Mir
The mausoleum of Empress Nur Jahan
The mausoleum of Asaf Khan
The grave of Shah Hussain next to that of his beloved Madho Lal
The grave of Dulla Bhatti at Miani Sahib
The mausoleum of Qutb al-Din Aibak
The tomb of Malik Ayaz at Shahalami Bazaar
Azad Chowdry and his son, Yashwa, at the Valmiki Neela Gumbad Mandir
Chapter 1: A Contested City
1. Habib, ‘Shahbaz the Super CM Who Heads 18 Ministries’, Pakistan Today.
2. ‘“People Fed Up with ‘Takht-e-Lahore’,” says Imran Khan’, Geo News.
3. Ahmed, ‘Our Goal at the Moment Is to Mobilise the People’, The News on Sunday.
4. There is a couplet at the structure that records the name Zebinda Begum at the end. Historians such as Syed Muhammad Latif have asserted that this was another name for Princess Zeb-un-Nissa, thus giving birth to the theory that she was the person responsible for the structure.
5. Muhammad (ed.), ‘Naqoosh Lahore Number’, Idara Farogh-e-Urdu, pp. 113–15.
6. Waris, Tarikh Shehar Lahore, pp. 113–15.
7. Safvi, ‘Princess Zeb un Nisa or the Concealed One’, Ranasafvi.com.
8. Waris, Tarikh Shehar Lahore, p. 89.
10. Mukherjee, Royal Mughal Ladies and Their Contributions, p. 156.
11. University of Alberta, ‘Zeb-un-Nisa’s Tomb’.
12. Asher, Architecture of Mughal India, p. 349.
13. Khan, ‘How Not to Build a Transport System’, Dawn.
16. Miraj, ‘Shaheed and Shahdara’, Dawn Blogs.
17. Miraj, ‘Shaheed and Shahdara—II’, Dawn Blogs.
19. Unknown, ‘The True Story of Boota Singh’.
20. Qaiser, Ujray Daran De Darshan.
21. Ibid., p. 72.
22. Ibid., p. 158.
23. Ibid., p. 161.
24. Lal, Tareekh-i-Lahore, p. 233.
25. Griffin, Punjab Chiefs, pp. 633, 643.
26. Lal, Tareekh-i-Lahore, p. 232.
27. Personal visit and interview of locals.
28. Talbot and Kamran, Lahore in the Time of the Raj, p. 19.
29. ‘Imran Khan’s “Tsunami” Sweeps Lahore’, Express Tribune.
30. Sheikh, ‘Final Destruction of the Historical Minto Park’, Dawn.
33. Mujahid, ‘Lahore Resolution and the Question of Provincial Autonomy’, Business Recorder
Chapter 2: A City of Dissent
1. Khan and Bhatty, ‘Lahore Building Collapse Kills 14’, Express Tribune.
2. British India Revenue Department, ‘Shajra Nasab Khadak’.
3. Narodin, ‘Habib Jalib’, Bodhi Commons.
8. ‘Shahbaz Sharif Reciting Habib Jalib Poem (Main Nahi Manta)’.
9. Narodin, ‘Habib Jalib’, Bodhi Commons.
13. Translation of Habib Jalib’s poem, ‘Jaag Mere Punjab’.
14. ‘Aisy Dastoor ko Mien Nahi Manta’, Dunyan
15. Shah, ‘Sufi Shrines under Attack in Pakistan—A Chronology’, The News.
18. Alikuzai, A Concise History of Afghanistan in 25 Volumes, p. 137.
19. Fauq, Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh, p. 131.
20. Shah, Bhutto, Zia and Islam, p. 136.
21. Awan et al., ‘History of Mosque Architecture in Lahore’, Journal of Islamic Thought and Civilization, p. 32.
22. Three PPP workers, Parvaiz Yaqoob Khokhar, Aziz Malik and Abdul Rasheed, lost their lives while others who had immolated themselves along with them in Lahore, protesting for the release of Bhutto, were saved in time. This incident is recorded in the Pakistan Chronicle Encyclopedia, under the date 15 September 1978.
23. Paracha, ‘Bleeding Green’, Dawn.
24. Bhutto, Daughter of the East, p. 322.
26. Raja, ‘Villains of Habib Jalib’, The Friday Times.
27. Wolpert, Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan, pp. 305–06.
28. Ibid., p. 301.
29. Ibid., p. 280.
30. Ibid., p. 240.
31. Ibid., p. 146.
32. Lyon, Conflict between India and Pakistan, p. 130.
33. Wolpert, Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan, p. 89.
34. Ibid., p. 267.
35. Ibid., p. 301.
37. Bhutto, My Dearest Daughter, Bhutto.org.
38. Qaiser, Historical Sikh Shrines in Pakistan, p. 286.