In Shiva’s own country

In Shiva’s own country



The Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, written around 300 B.C., is of the most important works ever written. Attributed generally to the sage Vyasa, this epic is essentially the age-old story of good versus evil. According to the Mahabharata – which is about ten times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, making it the longest poem ever – it was a game of dice between the opposing Pandavas and Kauravas that formed the critical turning point of not just this story, but also of history. The eldest of the Pandavas, Yudhistar, loses everything in the game: his wealth, his throne, his brothers, himself and lastly his wife. He is forced to go into exile after intervention by the family elders, since the opposing parties are related. For more than thirteen years, the Pandavas wander around the varied terrain of ancient India. It is during their exile that a number of adventures are undertaken and various horizons expanded. It is said that the Pandavas spent a good four years of their total exile in the present Katas region; not only living in this peaceful abode but also leaving their mark on the place in the form of temples and relics.

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The Katas Raj complex is located near Choa Saidan Shah in the district of Chakwal. Katas, which covers about 25 acres, is a heritage site of immense importance. The easiest access to the site is via the Motorway, exiting at the Kallar Kahar interchange (where a signboard warmly welcomes you to the Katas Raj complex), and following the road to Choa Saidan Shah straight for about 40 kilometers, when the site reveals itself to you in all its nostalgic melancholy on the right side of the road. Nestled in the famed Salt Ranges, Katas is among a chain of historical places dotting the region. There’s Khewra, second largest salt mine in the world, supposedly discovered by Alexander the Great’s armies. There’s Rohtas Fort, having languidly cemented its standing among Pakistan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are valleys like Soan and lakes like Ucchali. Excavations in the Salt Ranges have yielded a number of important discoveries – some seemingly as old as the Indus Valley Civilization. Fossils found in the area provide incredible insight into the diverse flora and fauna of this region. For this and more, Pakistan’s ‘valley of Adam and Eve’ has a lot in store for the visitor, and Katas rises diligently to claim its position among the foremost. The Katas Raj complex is spread over a wide expanse and consists of a number of buildings, temples and other structures. Despite being a site of extreme reverence for the Hindus, legend states that the appeal of Katas extends far and beyond Hinduism. It was a pagan site of worship before falling to the Buddhists. The mighty Asoka had a stupa built here in the third century B.C. This is confirmed by the famed Chinese traveler Xuanzang, who spoke of a 200 feet Buddhist stupa and ten interconnected clean water ponds with fish in them. This stupa forms the oldest structure present in Katas Raj complex today. However it exists only as a shrubby platform now.

The original frescoes inside the Ramachandra temple, before renovation work began

It is said Shiva’s tears for his wife formed two pools – one is at Katas

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The oldest temple in the Katas Raj complex was built around the 6th century A.D. Numerous others have been added though the layers of history, most notably by Hindu Shahi kings, who ruled over the region from the seventh to eleventh centuries. The Satgraha (“seven temples”) complex holds an eminent position, since it is most often associated with the ancient myths. The temples at Katas are said to be constructed similar to Kashmiri temples of the Karkota and Varma dynasties, and most of these are built with soft sandstone. The temples have been built to worship a number of gods – they include the Shiva temple, Hanuman temple, Ramachandra temple, Lakshmi temple and Maharaja temple among others. However, it’s not the temples that catch your attention as you enter the complex. It’s the crystal clear water of the emerald pool that stands out immediately as a prime attraction. The pool, considered holy by Hindus, has been re-christened often during the ages. It was first called Vis-Kund (poison spring), then Amar Kund, followed by Chamar Kund and finally named Kataksh Kund. Many hold it to be the same pond that the Pandava brothers drank from, despite having been warned, and four of them died as a result of this transgression. The only surviving brother then had to indulge in a round of questioning with a supreme being to bring them back from the dead. But the most astounding, and by far the most popular story associated with this pond, is that of Lord Shiva. It is said that he was so aggrieved on the death of his wife Sati that a stream of tears flowed from his eyes at this tragic loss, and formed ponds where they landed on earth. Accordingly, the tears from Shiva the Destroyer’s right eye formed a pond in Pushkara near Ajmer in India, and those from the left one formed this magnificent pool at Katas. For this reason, Katas was formerly called Kataksha, derived from the Sanskrit ‘Ketaksham’, which is translated to either ‘tearful’ or ‘rainy’ eyes.

The remains of the Buddhist stupa associated with famed ruler Asoka

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The pool of the complex has had its fair share of problems lately. We live in Kalyug (the Age of Downfall in Sanskrit scriptures), after all, and even the association with a weeping deity wouldn’t be able to stand strong in the face of the challenge from commercialisation and human greed. One of the most important voices to bring this sorry tale before our national conscience was perhaps the travel writer par excellence, Salman Rashid. In an opinion piece for a private newspaper in 2012, sorrowfully titled “Shiva weeps no more”, Rashid bemoaned the conspicuous drying of the water body. This was because the then regime of General Musharraf had allowed the established of about four cement factories near Katas. Cement, being a water-intensive industry, was gradually eating up all the water bodies of the region, not just Katas. Rashid was devastated, he thought ‘this was it’ for Katas. However, months after the publication of this piece, Rashid received an e-mail from Omar Jahangir, the then Additional Deputy Commissioner of Chakwal. He invited Rashid to Katas, asking him to see the developments they had undertaken. Rashid complied, and was astounded to see that they had “worked a miracle” at Katas. In a subsequent blog that he wrote, the writer noted: “From a little puddle in March last year, they have enlarged it to a size greater than the original I had known since my first visit in 1967”. When I met Omar Jahangir, a family friend who isn’t serving in Chakwal anymore, he remembered it all well. He recalls that they elevated the level of water to about 20 feet, and smiled on recollecting how Rashid was eager to jump on his bike and come to Chakwal. It is among those things he is proud of having accomplished in his career as a civil servant. He and his teammates have not just renovated an ancient heritage site, but for all it’s worth, they have made Shiva weep again!

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A view of Katas - the pool and the Baradari and Shiva temples

it is difficult to separate fact from fiction in Katas

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When I first went to Katas, exhausted from driving all the way from Abbottabad, my first reaction was to marvel at the clear waters and the number of buildings in the complex. My first instinct was perhaps to take a selfie (which, I assure you, is not often) but I postponed it duly and when I eventually posted it online, a number of people commented asking about the place and complimented its beauty. In retrospect, I would say that others’ surprise and delight at seeing Katas actually constitutes a big chunk of my fondness of the place. The guards asked for my national ID card at the gate and offered the guide’s services. Access to the inside of the temples, we were told, was only possible with an official guide. Admittedly, I was rather wary of guides who are allegedly appointed by the government but with no fixed fees. In the event, I had to give in. As we took to our visit of the temples, clicking away pictures on the go, the shooting of a music song was in progress in the Ramachandra temple. It was all rather amusing to me – the song, the actors and being told to get out of their frames. The frescoes inside the temples were beautiful, and our guide brought to our attention the stark contrast between the original and the renovated works. We were also taken to the top of the Satgraha temple, with its clustered, narrow staircases and jet darkness. There is a havelinear the Hanuman temple in the complex – which belonged to Sardar Hari Singh Nalwa, commander-in-chief of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s armies when they took over the region in 1809. It is closed to the public currently, but apparently the government is planning on turning it into a museum. Every step you take in Katas comes with a story half-told and a fable half-forgotten!

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The top of the Hanuman temple

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At times it is difficult, bordering on impossible, to separate fact from fiction in Katas. The place is shrouded in mystery, full of contradictions. One often feels there is no real space for an objective assessment. Some devout Hindus hold the depth of the pool to be limitless, while the Punjab Archaeology Department insists it to be 150 feet. Katas is also held by some to be the birthplace of Shiva, as well as where his nuptials took place. Some go a step further, and courting controversy, avow that it may have been the birth place of Ram as well. Then there are some who tell you that the foundation of one of the temples was laid by Krishna himself. And you might catch the flying rumour in Katas that the Rig Veda was written here. Those more interested in academic pursuits might tell you that Katas was once a great seat of learning, with scholars mastering mathematics, astronomy, algebra, Sanskrit, music, fine arts and politics. So reputed was this ‘university’ that not only students from the subcontinent but people from Pharaonic Egypt would come here to quench their educational thirst. Al-Beruni is also said to have stayed here at Katas, at the library that stands across from the pool. It was in Katas, supposedly, that he not only wrote his universally acclaimed, ‘Kitab-ul-Hind’ but also worked out the radius of the Earth! In Katas, in this abode of the faithful, you can always choose what to believe!

The haveli of Hari Singh Nalwa

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Reportedly, Al-Beruni calculated the radius of the Earth at Katas

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Pakistan has had a complicated relationship with Katas – but then that is true for most of our heritage and religious sites. After 1947, much of the Hindu population of Choa Saidan Shah and adjoining areas left for India, and it was then that the first blow to the temples at Katas came. Though activity resumed in the temples during the initial years after Partition, when Hindus from India would still manage to visit, this was brought to an end by the wars fought between the two countries. Katas was practically deserted for decades to come. Looters and plunderers did the rest, and the complex was reduced to something of a wasteland. In the 1980s, however, cross-border activity resumed again, albeit slowly. It was only in Musharraf’s tenure, however, that a proper effort went into the renovation of the complex. Millions poured in and in 2005, BJP leader L.K. Advani was invited for something like an inauguration of the work. A Pakistani team of archaeologists and workers visited numerous Indian temples, from where they brought impressions of Hindu frescoes and images of Hindu deities to re-decorate the place with. The first major round of renovation was completed in 2013, and it was a revival worthy of appreciation. Even though there still is space for improvement – the temples do not contain any idols of Hindu deities, and the worshippers bring them along on occasions of religious significance – the place is maintained well. For some time, Katas was declared shut for all, including Pakistani Hindus, and was open only to Hindu visitors from India. This, thankfully, has been rectified and the complex is open for all citizens now. The government of Pakistan plans to propose Katas Raj for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. And every year now, during the festival of Shivratri, Katas is seen to be brimming with people from all over. It is truly a sight to behold on those days – standing on holy land where the people pray and Shiva weeps!

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