Lessons of Islam in a Temple

Some Hindu temples in Pakistan are now Islamic schools. PHOTO: Rida Arif

Some Hindu temples in Pakistan are now Islamic schools. PHOTO: Rida Arif

Given the volatile relationships between India and Pakistan, any sentence that involves the two nations is fraught with speculation and scrutiny. Talking of a temple and a mosque in the same breath spells secularism in a liberal setting but portends unrest in another quarter. And when you do hear of goodwill where these worlds meet amicably, it’s a story worth sharing. Like this one about how ancient temples in Pakistan have turned into centers of Islamic teaching.

We stood at the entrance of the temple, not sure if we would be allowed to go inside.

It was a double-storey structure with a small round balcony. The door was made of wood with intricate patterns on it, while there were fading remnants of frescoes on the wall. Judging by the entrance, I could only imagine how beautiful this structure must be from the inside. The only problem was that this temple was not vacant. It wasn’t even taken over by an individual family, as has happened in many other cases. In that situation, I could have requested them to allow me to see the temple from inside. But this was now controlled by the women’s wing of an Islamic religious organisation called Minhaj-ul-Quran, founded by the famous preacher-turned-politician Tahir-ul-Qadri.

I rang the bell, still not sure. A young boy emerged at the entrance. After listening to our request, he disappeared into the house. He returned after a little while, saying that they would not allow the men to enter the temple, but the ladies with us could be allowed in. We implored, but the response was final. There was a dars, a lesson of the Quran, under way in the courtyard, attended only by women. My friend Rida with her camera, and my wife Anam, disappeared into the temple, now an Islamic school.

We were at the historical city of Malka Hans, about 200 kilometres from Lahore, to visit the historical mosque of Waris Shah in the city. Shah is a celebrated Punjabi poet known for re-composing the folk tale of Heer Ranjha. With his rendition, he managed to leave such a stamp on it that all former versions are forgotten and the story is now known as Heer Waris. Shah is believed to have written this story in the basement of the mosque at Malka Hans where he used to work as an Imaam.

Entrance to the temple at Malka Hans.(Rida Arif)

The temple was across the street from the mosque. In Shah’s time in the 18th century, it was not unusual to find a mosque and a temple sharing a wall. Today, of course, that is an anomaly. There are several stories about this relationship between the mosque and the temple, about Shah and his Hindu beloved who, it is believed, used to come to this temple regularly. The temple belonged to the sect of devotees of Chajju Bhagat, a 17th century Hindu saint from Lahore.

There were old houses located in this street, which must have once belonged to Hindu families living here. I wondered in what condition they must have left their homes in 1947, temporarily locking their doors, perhaps burying their precious belongings, hoping to return one day. They never returned, but perhaps they told their loved ones about their homes they left behind and this temple? Perhaps their survivors have fragments of memories of stories they heard about this temple?

Rida and Anam returned after a little while, ecstatic. “It was a surreal feeling,” said Rida. “There were wooden figures all around the temple, perhaps angels, and sitting under them were these women clad in burqa, reciting the Quran. There were pictures of Hindu deities on the wall while these women talked about the unity of God. No harm had been done to any of these idols or figures on the wall.” These women saw no contradiction in studying Islam in a Hindu temple.

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