Sign of the changing times?

Ambitious: Pakistan hopes to attract a million pilgrims from India to the Ketas temple complex.   | Photo Credit: Photos: Punjab Archaeology Department, Pakistan


The Pakistan Government's involvement in the renovation of Hindu temples at Ketas sends out a positive signal.

"We want to make Ketas Raj a major tourist attraction. Two million people go to Pushkar every year. We want to bring a million pilgrims from India to Ketas. If not a million, at least 5,00,000," said PAD Director-General Orya Maqbool Jan Abbasi.

STRETCHING from the Jhelum in the east to the Indus in the west, and running across northern Punjab in Pakistan are the Salt Range Mountains. The range is famous for several landmarks the world's second largest salt mines at Khewra; the Khabbiki and Uchchali salt water lakes; the16th century Rohtas Fort of Sher Shah Suri on the banks of the Jhelum; the Kalabagh dam on the Indus. A complex of Hindu temples called Ketas (or Katas, also Katas Raj), the earliest dating back to 6th century A.D, is now poised to take its place as yet another important landmark among these mountains of rock-salt deposits. The government of Pakistan is pouring in millions of rupees into the conservation, restoration and renovation of Ketas and, in the process, aims to attract "a million pilgrims" from India every year.

Grand project

Call it part of President Musharraf's grand project of building a new image for Pakistan as a modern Islamic state that provides space for all religions, including Hinduism. Or, as some will have it, a reflection of his desire to reach out and make peace with the "Hindu nation" across the border. Work on the project commenced in June 2006 but, significantly, Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Krishna Advani was invited to inaugurate the conservation project a year earlier, during his Pakistan visit in June 2005. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain, the leader of Pakistan's ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), on whose invitation Advani went to Pakistan, said to him: "We will try to develop this sacred site for Hindus as a living monument, and we hope you will do the same for Muslims with the Babri Masjid."Located some 120 km from Islamabad and 30 km from Chakwal off the Islamabad-Lahore motorway, Ketas, which is spread over 25 acres, is the most significant of a string of ancient Hindu temples whose ruins dot the Salt Range. The complex includes several temples and a tank fed by an artesian well. However, far more interesting is the legend about the tank, which has it when Sati died, tear drops from the eyes of Shiva, her grieving husband, turned into two lakes on earth one at Pushkar in Rajasthan, and the other at Ketas. The name Ketas is traced to the Sanskirt kataksham (tearful eyes). The site is also associated with the Mahabharata, as the place where four of the Pandava brothers died after drinking water from a pond against the orders of a yaksha. The eldest brother, Yudhishtra, had to answer a series of questions from the yaksha to bring them back to life. Going by the remains of the oldest structure in Ketas, the first construction at the site was possibly in the declining days of Buddhism in the Gandhara kingdom, with additions during the reign of the Hindu Shahi kings who ruled parts of eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir from the seventh century to the 11th century. The most recent constructions include a Shiva temple and a Hanuman temple in the 19th century, and three havelis that the Sikh warrior Hari Singh Nalwa, the commander-in-chief of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's army, built during his military campaigns in the region between 1807 and 1837.

Pilgrim destination

Despite the vandalism and official neglect, Ketas remained a destination for Hindu pilgrims from Pakistan even after Partition. In 1974, it was among the shrines that India and Pakistan agreed to allow each other's pilgrims to visit. After a long interruption in the 1990s, the Ketas pilgrimage sprang back to life with the start of the peace process in 2004. That year, a small group of Indians visited the temple on Maha Shivaratri, returning the next two years as well. But this year, the Lahore-based Punjab Archaeology Department has thrown itself into the February 16 Maha Shivratri celebrations in a big way. As you read this, the planned three day-festivities, complete with rituals and bhajans, should be winding to an end.

Tourist attraction

"We want to make Ketas Raj a major tourist attraction. Two million people go to Pushkar every year. We want to bring a million pilgrims from India to Ketas. If not a million, at least 5,00,000," said PAD Director-General Orya Maqbool Jan Abbasi.That will certainly have to await a more liberal visa policy between India and Pakistan than the 30-year-old agreement that still rules travel between these two countries. Both governments have promised that changes are in the pipeline and may be finalised as early as March 2007.For this Shivratri, a modest number of 250 pilgrims were expected from India. The Amrut Kund, as the pond is called, was cleaned up. The 50 new changing rooms planned will take another three months to construct but, for this year's pilgrims, the government spruced up existing bathrooms that were part of the Archaeology Department's on site office. That "eyesore", as Abbasi described it, was removed and is to be relocated at a more suitable spot in the complex.While the celebrations have caught media attention, the real work of the PAD is yet to come. According to the plan, over the next three years, archaeologists must work on restoring the three Nalwa havelis, one is to be converted into a museum. Repairs on three 150-year-old temples, an old library building, a fortification wall and landscaping the entire area are all in the pipeline. The most ambitious and challenging aspect is the conservation and preservation of the oldest structures at the site, the Satgarha, a group of seven temples that are more or less in ruins. There are also plans to undertake excavations at the site for earlier Buddhist remains. The Punjab government has committed Rs. 100 million, approximately $1.5 million, for the three-year programme. In the first year, the PAD plans to complete work on one haveli, the Shiva temple and another small temple adjacent to it; develop the Ketas tank so that it becomes safe and convenient for pilgrims, including two long walkways leading to it, and steps leading down to the water. A proper road to the site from the highway needs to be built.

Help from India

In a sign of how much times have changed, Pakistan has looked to India for help with the project. When it was still only an idea in 2005, M.K. Ponacha, a senior official of the Archaeological Survey of India, visited and studied the site for a week and helped chalk out the plan that the PAD is planning to execute. And last month, Abbasi and two of his colleagues visited three major sites in India Ajmer, Varanasi and the Ajanata-Ellora caves at Aurangabad."We wanted to get a feel of a `living temple' because we do not have a proper idea of this in Pakistan, and we wanted first-hand knowledge of temple architecture," said Abbasi, who described the roller-coaster trip around India as "very educative". The inclusion of Aurangabad in the visit was to give the team an idea of conservation techniques that have been used to preserve the paintings in the caves.

Training craftspeople

He noted that, over the last few decades, Pakistani fresco artists, inlay craftsmen and stone sculptors had "become single-track people, with knowledge of only calligraphy". The team brought back with them pictures of various Hindu gods, and will use these images to train fresco painters and sculptors to decorate the temples at Ketas. Certainly, the restoration of Ketas is a big step for Pakistan, and lends weight to President Musharraf's repeated assertion that he is taking the country on the path of roshan khayali or enlightened moderation. For the Hindu population of Pakistan, which sees itself as a persecuted minority, the ongoing work at Ketas, and the restoration of smaller temples in many parts of the country, including in Islamabad, are major confidence-building measures. It should also provide some reassurance to Hindus in India. But it is also clear that Ketas itself cannot carry the entire burden of the "pluralistic and tolerant" credentials that Pakistan is trying to build. Minorities, who include Hindus, Christians and Parsis, want the government to take substantive steps that will reassure them of its even-handedness towards all citizens. One such demand is the repeal of the much misused blasphemy law under which a person can be jailed on an accusation from anyone that he or she denigrated Islam. It is plain for any right-thinking person to see that the law encourages bigotry and religious intolerance. President Musharraf promised to do away with it but backed down after Islamic parties took to the streets against the decision. Another step that the Musharraf regime almost took, but retreated from, was eliminating the religion column in passports.

Positive signal

In a country where the influence of religious extremists propagating an extreme form of Islam is on the rise, and the "Talibanisation" that even President Musharraf recently admitted was taking hold of large swathes in the North-West, the ongoing work at Ketas doubtless sends out a positive signal. But the question is: can Ketas hold a meaning that is greater than the sum of its parts?