Celebrating the white

January 14, 2018

As travel plans are being made at the start of a new year, here is an exploration of the cultural and religious diversity of Pakistan through the eyes of two authors who have written books on the subject

Celebrating the white

Pakistan isn’t quite the first destination that comes to mind when thinking of religious diversity. In this country born in the name of religion there has been a systematic decline in minorities over the decades, thanks to the spectre of blasphemy, forced conversions and general bigotry being an everyday part of the lives of its non-Muslim citizens. Despite this majoritarianism there are pockets where Christians, Sikhs, Hindus and those of diverse faiths still manage to survive and practice freely.

The News on Sunday talked to two authors who have travelled widely around the country documenting its range and diversity, preserving as well as propagating the ‘white’ in the flag. Haroon Khalid is the author of A White Trail, a travelogue about Pakistan’s lesser-known destinations where non-Muslim minorities still flourish and practice their faiths. Mobeen Ansari has just recently released his second book called The White in the Flag, a visual documentation of different religions and sub-cultures across Pakistan.

The News on Sunday (TNS): What are your top 5 travel destinations in Pakistan in terms of diversity? What is it that makes them different and interesting?

Haroon Khalid: Nankana Sahib -- every time I am there I can imagine Guru Nanak walking the streets of the city with his Muslim companion Bhai Mardana. There are several gurdwaras around the city that capture some event associated with the life of the Guru

Baba Bulleh Shah’s shrine in Kasur -- his poetry transcends me to a different space. There is nothing like listening to his poetry being sung by performers at his shrine.

Multan - there is a sacred space wherever one looks: Sufi shrines, ancient Hindu and Jain temples, Sikh gurdwaras.

There is a tendency to see travelogues as not serious research books, which I disagree with. A lot of research has gone into my books and I believe they do add value to the subject of religious minorities in the country.

Katas Raj -- the most beautiful temple I have ever seen, as old as time that encapsulates the religious history of South Asia with its Buddhist stupa, Hindu temples, Nanak’s gurdwara, and Al-Beruni’s story.

Peshawar - one of the oldest cities in the world. The old city of Peshawar still retains its architectural charm. A considerable Hindu and Sikh population in the city ensures that Diwali and Baisakhi are also celebrated with much fanfare here.

Mobeen Ansari (MA):  My favourite list of places would be:

Nagar District, Hunza -- a separate district not located very far from Hunza and Gojal districts, but its landscape is entirely different, almost out of a fairytale. Whether it’s spring or autumn, it boasts incredible colours and diversity of landscape. What attracts me to it is that it is relatively unexplored compared to other places. Not only this, but it is the gateway to the famous Rush lake and famous peaks like Spantik peak and Golden peak.

Mariabat, Quetta -- this place provides a breathtaking view of Quetta especially at night. You can see the cityscape cradled in rocky mountains.

Mithi, Sindh -- what I love about Mithi is that it is peaceful and in the middle of a desert. The religious harmony is very heartening to see and the Sindhi hospitality is incredible.

Khairpur, Sindh -- this place is full of vibrant history. From the vivid blue Sachal Sarmast shrine, to the enormous Kot Diji fort, being in this place is like travelling back in time. While having many beautiful spots and pieces of history in one place are not unheard of, I found Khairpur to be very diverse. It would be unfair to not mention Sukkur as that itself has a lot of landscape diversity and is the gateway to Khairpur.

Birmoglasht, Chitral-- this is where the Chitral royal family’s summer palace is located. Although that is no longer in use, the landscape is truly incredible, boasting sights of lone trees of different colours, against backdrops of mountains. It made me feel like I was flying amongst the peaks of the mountains. Its landscape changes radically within yards.

TNS: Within the big cities (Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad), what are your favourite spots for religious and cultural diversity?

HK: There are many within Lahore -- the shrine of Shah Hussain, where he is accompanied by Madhu Lal, a Hindu boy, who he fell in love with. The Badshahi masjid area with the smadhi of Ranjit Singh and Guru Arjan in its shadow is also quite remarkable. The Neela Gumbad Mandir in Anarkali is also a little island of syncretism in the city where Hindu, Christians, and sometimes even Muslims get together to celebrate different religious festivals.

MA: Although Peshawar has a lot of religious and cultural diversity, Karachi has the most so that holds most of my favourite spots. Most of my photography for my book was done there as well. My most favourite spot is the Karachi Parsi Institute. As the name implies, it is where all Parsi festivals are held and I’ve had the privilege of photographing Nauroz, Navjote and other events there. I especially enjoy being in Saddar and surroundings (like Pakistan Chowk, etc.) as you can see Agyaris (Parsi fire temple), Mandirs and Churches side by side, and neighborhoods belonging to people from different faiths.

TNS: Give our readers an account of a cultural, local or religious festival celebrated in Pakistan that is particularly striking for you?
HK: One particular religious festival that stayed with me was the celebration of Navratri in Bahawalnagar, Punjab, a Hindu festival where pilgrims from different parts of the country converge with a chunri for the goddess. One finds parallels of this tradition at the Catholic Christian festival at Maryamabad, Sheikhupura, where devotees undertake long journeys to offer mother Mary a scarf on September 8 every year. In the Muslim tradition, the devotees of a saint bring to his or her grave a chaddar offering on the occasion of his or her urs.

MA: Chowmos (winter festival) in Kalash valley is a very interesting one. It is the most sacred festival for the community and also the longest. There are many rituals and ceremonies performed, but what I enjoy most is the Sarazari ritual. It involves girls making a big fire -- as it is believed that the bigger the fire, the more your blessings, after which boys and girls go door to door, singing for the prosperity of each person they go to and collecting dry fruits at each house. This goes on all night till the break of dawn.

TNS: Would you classify your book under the travel genre? What has been the best response to your book you have received so far?

HK: I consider all my books to be travelogues. The colonial culture of travelogues where a writer would note down everything he or she observes has disappeared. All travelogues are focused, research books, taking up a particular subject, which is what I have done. There is also a tendency to see travelogues as not serious research books, which I disagree with. A lot of research has gone into my books and I believe they do add value to the subject of religious minorities in the country. The most interesting response that I got was for my second book, In Search of Shiva, when a reviewer called me an elitist writer, not much different from colonial writers.

MA: Although photography for my book was done all over Pakistan, I think it is more anthropological in nature, as its emphasis is on the lives, festivities, and places of worship of religious minorities more than on the locations. The book has been garnering a lot of positive response, but the one I found most interesting was the PTI’s official page re-uploading a video of Imran Khan endorsing the book. Days later, the government of Pakistan tweeted about the book on social media. I see this as unifying everyone on this subject matter!

TNS: Who was your favourite subject in your book? Why?

HK: In my first book, A White Trail, I enjoyed researching and writing about the Sikhs the most. Firstly, because with their concentration in Nankana Sahib it was quite easy for me to undertake sustained research, besides I had a fascination with Sikh history which I wanted to explore further.

MA: Each community I photographed had their own beauty and sense of spirituality and each imparted different lessons for me. It would be hard to choose a favourite.

Celebrating the white