Originally published in The Friday Times. 8th April, 2016.
Moomal, 25, eagerly takes her sandals off at the base of the staircase. Her mother Nirmal follows suit, and both start mounting the steps to join the male members of the family; already praying in the temple. The family’s from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city – lying about 250 kilometres west of the temple. “We come here often”, offers Nirmal, evidently catching her breath as I ask her. “It’s about two-three times per month. Even my parents were devotees to the Hinglaj Mata, but traveling here in those days was difficult. It would take you days to come here from Karachi. But since the completion of the road, things have changed. It’s been four years we’ve been paying regular visits to the Mata.” She stops for a minute, and declares emphatically before entering the temple, “Ab tou aik khaas rishta ho gaya hai mata kay sath!” (Now we’ve formed a special bond with the Mother!)
The Hinglaj Mata is believed to be a very powerful deity – among the most revered in the Hindu tradition. The legend goes that after goddess Sati committed suicide by jumping into fire (the basis of the practice with the very name), her aggrieved husband Shiva waded through the universe; clinging on to her corpse. Lord Vishnu then dismembered the corpse into 52 pieces, and the head of the Sati is said to have fallen at Hinglaj. Smeared with vermilion, the Hindus hold that the head of the goddess isn’t manmade, but has continued in its original shape for all these centuries (some claim the temple to be 0.4 million years old). Hinglaj is said to be the most important temple of the deity, others being in Gujarat and Rajhasthan, and a number of people from around the globe make voyage to this holy Shakti Peeth (site of cosmic power). The other story, way simpler in appeal, relates to the area being governed by a cruel ruler, Hingol. The people prayed to the goddess to free them of the throes of his tyranny and the goddess complied. Before killing Hingol though, she is said to have granted him his last wish – that of the area being named after him. The idol of the goddess is the prime attraction of this ancient place of worship. There are numerous others as well, including those of Shiva, Kali, Sheranwali; but they’ve been added through the layers of history by Hindu rulers or people of influence. A mandap is set up in the open, where fire would be lighted and Hindu couples would encircle seven times to seal their matrimonial procedures. “It’s just like in Indian movies”, proclaims a tourist excitedly before others give her the looks.
Hindus hold that the head of the goddess isn’t manmade but remained as it was – for all these centuries
Maharaj Gopal sits calmly before the idol of the goddess. Bearded, slim and dressed in the quintessential orange of Hindu pundits, he leads the pooja(worship) for all those who’ve come for the purpose; patiently answering questions of tourists while at it. Speaking impeccable Urdu with a constraint that’s atypical of religious leaders, the Maharaj is sensitive in his choice of words, even cautious. But he starts with a casual garb intended at us, “I’ll tell you everything you ask. But the moment you Muslims walk out of this place, you’re going to tell everyone how the Maharaj is a blatant liar!” We stifle a grin, but he joins us. This sets the tone for the ensuing conversation. The Maharaj reiterates the standard story associated with the temple, embellishing his narration with ample mention of all the Abrahamic prophets. His research on the subject matter, along with his oratory skills, make for an interesting session. The Maharaj then tells us an astounding story about Shah Abdul Latin Bhittai of Sindh. Some Sufi traditions hold that among the three Qalandars (the most revered Sufi saints), Shah constitutes about one-and-a-half. It is said that the saint once took on the arduous journey to pay tribute to the goddess Hinglaj, and made his way to the supreme idol, ignoring the many others that dot the temple complex. He offered milk to the goddess (she allegedly came to life then), and in return; she had had a tunnel appear for him – mitigating the ordeals of the return to his hometown in Sindh. Overwhelmed by the story and only half-believing it (as the Maharaj had complained we would), we take to taking pictures of the various deities in the room, Sheranwali being most prominent. While we continue, a group of devotees approach the priest and engage in pooja. Taking turns, they implore the Maharaj for his aashirwaad (blessings). We join in the process, and get a coconut as prasaad. As we descend the staircase afterwards, Moomal calls us back, her mother by her side. “We don’t normally do this for tourists, but since the Maharaj told you the story – we thought it would be appropriate.” She takes us inside a small room to the left. “Here’s the tunnel he was talking about”. Beneath the canopy of rocks, there actually is a space; a small picture of Shah Abdul Latif adorning the entrance. I proceed to see inside, but it’s nothing but stark darkness. “You won’t be able to see anything”, hints Nirmal. “We need someone from the National Geographic to come and explore where it goes”, she smiles.
The first time this Nani Mandir came to my knowledge – and arguably to most Pakistanis’ notice – was when the outrage directed at the construction of a dam in its vicinity got appreciable airtime on our channels. The plans for the dam probably got stalled, but the publicity worked out in favour of the temple – cementing its position among Pakistan’s most important religious and heritage sites. Located in Hingol National Park (which the Maharaja doesn’t take kindly to: “Calling it part of a park is reducing its impressive position”) in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest national park, it is located to the west of the River Hingol, off the sleek Makran Coastal Highway. The park itself comprises swathes of land, stroked by rocky mountains, mud volcanoes, crocodiles, ibex and reptiles of various species. You’ve got to see it to believe its beauty, and it’s only fitting then that a place of such spiritual significance would be nestled cosily in the same. The Highway, completed in 2004 after work of a period of two years, has greatly enhanced not just tourism but also the convenience of devotees arriving in droves at the temple, most notably in the month of April annually during the Teerath Yaatra. Hindu temples in Pakistan, especially those in cities, often bar the entry of Muslims. As we got to the main gate of the temple complex, replete with a board of instructions that included covering heads while entering, the guard inquired of us being Muslims, and was a bit reluctant to let us in – getting our affirmation of all the odd twenty people being so. He gave in eventually, owing to our persuasion. Rooms for the devotees, washrooms and shops selling essentials greeted us first. The temple complex is spread over a wide area, smaller temples and deities of other Hindu gods accompanying the whole trek to the main temple. Construction is minimal, most of the idols being housed in nature’s own workings; hence also known as the ‘cave temples’. Innumerable strips of clothes are to be found – on the trees, on the railings, on the mountains – basically everywhere; an emblem of the thousands who come in every year to ask for the Mata’s favours. Water ponds and springs teem with aquatic life, but could do well with a clean-up. However, it’s not just the Hindus who come here. Muslims are just as avid pilgrims to the temple, holding the goddess at the position of a supreme saint, Bibi Nani and re-christening the annual four-day pilgrimage as Nani ka Haj. This, a typical practice in places of religious diversity, is another example of the peaceful co-existence of various faiths.
Before an enormous poster of the goddess Kali, a group of Hindu youth breaks into a show of singing and dancing just inside the main gate. Most wearing red bands around their heads with writings in the Sanskrit language, the dancing is unsynchronised but passionate. The women refrain from the dance part, but join the men in singing bhajans at will. Despite its location in Balochistan, most of the bhajans turn out to be in Sindhi. And so are most of the attendees, inclusive of Maharaj Gopal, who hails from the city of Thatta in Sindh. The 1998 census puts the Hindu population of Pakistan to stand somewhere around 3 million, with the majority being in Sindh. Temples are a common sight in the towns and hamlets of Sindh, which is in stark contrast to most areas of the northern provinces. But of late, Sindh, proudly claimed to be the land of Sufis and accordingly of peace and love, has seen a shift in the paradigm. With some attacks on minority places of worship, many among the Pakistani population jumped at ringing the alarm – for preserving Sindh’s religious diversity. Here, in Balochistan, however, the religious minorities claim they haven’t faced any difficulties. “The Mata protects us alright. There once were talks of some threats from the Taliban, but nothing happened. It’s a safe place.” This is a bit rich considering it comes from a province that has been wracked by violence for a considerable period time since Independence. Friends who’ve been to other parts of the province tell the same, that the province’s places of worship for the minorities remain excessively safe. Despite having shifted to this province, however, many among the temple’s staff who now live here aren’t willing to let go of the fables about their home-towns anytime soon. Shankar, the introverted vendor who’s set up a stall in the compound selling posters of Hindu gods and goddesses, red chunners and badges of sacred words among other things, proudly tells me he’s from Umerkot in Sindh. “You know it’s the birth-place of Mughal Emperor Akbar, the tolerant one!”, he lights up for the first time since I’ve come to his stall. “And you know Umerkot is among the very rare towns of Pakistan to have a Hindu majority?”, he continues. I smile, the truth of his statement being open to contest (you can always get away with a lot when you haven’t had a census in your country for seventeen years). But for many in Hinglaj, home is not a place. It’s more of an idea – and this temple here constitutes a big part of that.
Here, in Balochistan, the Hindus claim they haven’t faced any violence
Jaswant Singh, India’s former minister of finance and an ex member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, paid homage to the Mata on his visit to Pakistan in 2006. And it’s not just him – a number of Indians tend to get though the painful visa policies the neighbouring countries have for each other, and come for the pilgrimage at Hinglaj. With no mobile connectivity and the natural ambience, the devotees get caught up in the swirl of divinity. They pray in abundance, shower the gods and goddesses with flowers and sheets of the most shimmering colours, practise the rituals and sing religious songs. It’s a haven on the outskirts of normal life. On our way out, we stop at Shankar’s and go though the items on display. On the side are some stickers of Gandhi with the Indian flag, which is a bit disconcerting yet surprising given the traditional enmity between the countries. Having skimmed through the posters of Hindu deities, I try to blow a shanka. Shankas are white conch shells of a specific species and are used regularly in Hindu and Buddhist rituals as trumpets. Being a failure in my attempts (and envying Shankar’s ability to produce music with each) I buy one. It’s been weeks since I visited Hinglaj, and though I haven’t yet mastered the art of blowing shankas, partially on part of my lack of practice and partially on that of talent; but every time I look at the shell, it reminds me of the beauty of Hinglaj. It is definitely one of the finest souvenirs I have!