Documenting Hindu temples of Pakistan

March 24, 2024

Revisiting Hindu temples of Pakistan in an age of misrepresented pasts, falsified information and media saturation

Documenting Hindu temples of Pakistan


n April 2020, a photo of Mohan Temple dedicated to Lord Ganesh or Ganpati, located in Lunda Bazaar of Rawalpindi, went viral on social media. In the viral photo, the temple was framed alongside a mosque and typified as a symbol of “religious harmony”—a Hindu temple and mosque side by side. It was evident from the photo that the mosque shown was built later.

After its wide circulation, the idea of pluralism associated with this photo of two places of worship was misunderstood. Apart from the lack of any comprehensive study on the social history, architectural, archaeological and cultural landscape of these Hindu temples to narrate stories like this one and many temples in Pothwar specifically, and in Pakistan generally, questions for history buffs about the role of these Hindu temples in the past and why they were built remained unanswered. In the past few years, Hindu temples in Pakistan have been viewed as sites of reasoning in the surge of Hindu right politics in India and considered as pilgrimage and tourist attractions.

“Functional” and “opened” are indeed two different words with distinct meanings, yet when discussing the Hindu temples of Pakistan, these terms have sometimes been used interchangeably in a context suggesting that Hindu temples were either forcibly shut down earlier or deliberately restricted to Hindu pilgrims. This has led to confusion and a broad perception of restrictions on religious freedom, complicating the effort to trace the histories of these temples, which have been targets of retaliation during episodes of religiously motivated violence. For instance, in Rawalpindi’s Purana Qila neighbourhood, there is a temple known as Mata Mandir, which was recently made functional again for the Hindu population of Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

The temple remained open and was repurposed for commercial space. However, functionalisation can be referred to as bringing back the temple for religious purposes, like its function as a worship place, its cleaning and care, making it accessible for pilgrims and worshippers and bringing it back to life. In Sialkot, Shivala Teja Singh was subject to similar misconception. It was described as reopening, although the temple was actually re-functionalised. Many temples have remained open and been functionalised since 1947. Some have been renovated in recent years.

As there was no Hindu population in these cities, ultimately, they were abandoned. In the case of Rawalpindi, there had been a sizeable Hindu population similar to Lahore and Karachi. To understand the social and cultural histories of Hindu temples in Pakistan, oral histories took a central role.

The heritage mapping projects and celebrating the past of the city, which appeared in cultural products like TV dramas depicting downtown, highlighted these temples on TV screens. The orality of Partition histories during the past two decades has provided significant material to historians for the nameless and unseen Hindu temples, narrated by citizens who once lived near these temples and were part of the community that would look after them. Historian Eric J Hobsbawm writes, “While oral history represents an egalitarian view of the past from a democratic perspective, it has limited potential in providing counterarguments to the dominant ideas within public discourse.”

No doubt, for many historians, oral history is one of the most important tools for working on social and cultural histories. In the present post-truth era, falsified information and media saturation have misrepresented the past for political interests. Some of the online journalistic material on Hindu temples in Pakistan is a subscription to Hindutva’s version of history, striving to prove false claims of ancientness.

Historical investigations have been missing. Some academics have developed the idea of re-imagining cities as “Hindu cities” because of the large Hindu populations that lived there before the creation of Pakistan. These re-imaginings of cities, however, only slightly touch on the most powerful symbol of Hinduism: the mandir, or Hindu temple. In the 2000s and 2010s, technological advancements highlighted these architectures through photography, filming, and, in more academic terms, visual ethnography. These attempts and new technological grounds became alternative spaces to the jobs of historians. The architectural aesthetics of these temples were archived. The challenge this approach faced, and still faces, is that these photographers and videographers took the position of authoritative voices in these temples without any understanding of history.

Documenting Hindu temples of Pakistan

While Hindu temples are central to Hinduism, the production of knowledge on Hindu temples in Pakistan misses the new historical work on Hindu nationalism by academics and is more receptive to Hindutva’s agendas.

In 2014, Reema Abbasi and Madiha Aijaz co-authored Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience, which lays out the case for Hindu temples as a collective conscience during the years when Pakistan was plunged into terrorism. To visualise places of worship, the book features vivid images of Hindu temples, glimmering with ideas and concepts of rites and rituals. It highlights the vibrancy and dynamism of Hindu temples in different locales of Pakistan and studies the active participation of Pakistani Hindus in their establishment, maintenance, survival and continuation of these practices in the temples.

In an attempt to document the Hindu temples of Pakistan, in 2008, Shaikh Khurshid Hasan published a survey of Hindu temples titled Pakistan: Its Ancient Hindu Temples and Shrines, which includes Hindu temples from different eras. It also covers Hindu shrines and Jain temples of Nangarparker in Pakistan with an archaeological approach. Such academic approaches have shaped the incorrect public impression that any old worship architectures that do not belong to Islam must be related to Hinduism.

Art Historian Michael W Meister, in Temples of the Indus: Studies in the Hindu Architecture of Ancient Pakistan, covers temples built between the 6th and 11th Centuries CE in the Salt Range area and along the Indus River. This work provides details of a less-known chapter in the evolution of Hindu temples in South Asia and links the temples in a broad South Asian context. Meister’s study is significant because it reveals how these Hindu temple architectures borrow elements from the Buddhist architectures of Gandhara, with the Nagara tower formulated in the early post-Gupta period. These epistemological paradigms for the study of specific Hindu temples of Pakistan, based on ancientness, archaeological richness and the division into pre-Ghaznavid and post-Ghaznavid periods, continue to dominate the architectural discourse of Hindu temples in Pakistan, which became the prominent structures of more elaborate versions and the translation of theological concepts into architectural form over time.

As most of these temples in Pakistan had undocumented histories, the gaps in their pasts were later filled with Hindutva agendas of history writing. The most notable narratives include Aurangzeb as the destroyer of every temple, a Hindu king fighting with Muslim invaders and Muslims as colonisers in India. The victimhood of Hindus during ethnic violence in recent history, adopted by Hindutva ideologues, was foolishly borrowed and narrated about some Hindu temples in Pakistan. Academics in North American universities have faced online harassment from such groups. In recent years, Aurangzeb: the Man and the Myth by Historian Audrey Truschke is a seminal work that debunks such Hindutva factories of false histories through historical evidence. The uproar of Hindu nationalists around the destruction of some Hindu temples by Aurangzeb for political ends in modern history also validates that he patronised many Hindu and Jain temples. As Hindu temples in Pakistan are imagined in conventional versions of national histories, like Somanath Ka Mandir and Mahmud of Ghazni’s military expeditions to India, a mandir‘s place finds a consequence of religious win and Islam’s victory over Hinduism. Such “victories” continued to be celebrated by gunfire on temples and damaging their architecture, especially in the 1980s. The main brass shikhara of many temples were plucked, thinking they were made of gold.

Somnath became a site of Hindu religious nationalism that constantly utilises the conventional version of this history. An authoritative work, Somanatha by Historian Romila Thapar, reconstructs the past of the Somnath temple and challenges colonial historiographies. Her work cites not only Turko-Persian histories that supported colonial historians but also closely studies other sources like local Sanskrit inscriptions, accounts of merchants of that period, court histories and epics.

Measuring the age of a Hindu temple in terms like “4,000 years old temple,” “1,200 years old temple,” and “10,000 years old temple” has dominated the articulation of the histories of temples. The most sacred temple has been a contested space. Many temples in Pakistan are regarded as the ‘most sacred’ Hindu temple without explaining what makes a temple the most sacred. From Chakwal’s Katas Raj to Lasbela’s Hinglaj Mata, Nagarparkar’s Sardharo Dham, Panchmukhi Hanuman Temple, to the Surya Kund in Multan, these temples are portrayed to oppose the generalised ideas of single religious dominance and to present Hinduism as native to the land. Hindu temples in Pakistan have remained limited just as material proof of Hinduism’s presence in the country as an entry point to debunk the dominant idea of Pakistan as a Muslim-majority country and positioning Hinduism as foreign.

Lacking any historiographical surveys of Hindu temples in Pakistan, in-depth analyses and case studies to understand their materiality, many temples remain nameless. While Hindu temples are central to Hinduism, the production of knowledge on Hindu temples in Pakistan misses the new historical work on Hindu nationalism by academics and is more receptive to Hindutva’s agendas.

The writer is a historian, travel writer and translator. He has extensively written on the non-Muslim history and heritage of Pakistan

Documenting Hindu temples of Pakistan