Holi at Krishna Mandir showed that accepting diversity is key to peaceful coexistence
Having lived abroad for the first few years of my life, I had the opportunity to meet people from diverse cultures and beliefs. I got to attend nearly all sorts of religious festivals without any bias or prejudice, and was always warmly welcomed. These events enabled me to be more empathetic towards other communities. However, after moving to Lahore, the city that is fabled for its rich culture and history, we came to know that it had lost some of its charm.
At school I longed to meet and befriend students from other beliefs but unfortunately the environment was different. No festivals were celebrated; in fact, there were clear ‘divisions’ which meant that we got no exposure to or insight into our religious minority communities.
When I joined the journalism profession, I came to know that there were a handful of Hindus residing in Lahore and that they mostly remained within their communities. In other words, they had limited space to engage with people belonging to the mainstream.
Punjab, unlike Sindh, has very few Hindus. This is partly a reason for their lack of visibility. According to the Census of Pakistan 2017, there are 749 Hindus in Lahore division and 198,251 in the Punjab. Sindh, by comparison has 3,345,424 Hindus. For the past few years, the government has tried to hold events for the religious minorities in order to bring them into the social mainstream.
This year, a friend belonging to the Hindu community, invited me over for Holi, a Hindu festival known to celebrate colours and welcome spring. This year, Shab-i-Barat, a Muslim religious event, and Holi happened to fall on the same day. After a 45 minutes’ drive, I reached Krishna Mandir on Ravi Road. Earlier, it was known as Kali Das Mandir. It has existed since before the Partition. (It was rechristened Krishna Mandir, circa 1960.) In those days, there was a shamshanghat (where the Hindus cremate their dead) and a gao shala (where they keep their cows and bathe them). But today, only a building is left where the faithful worship.
Arun Kumar, a rights activist, was of the view that due to religious extremism the minorities had been pushed against the wall. “The government is not cognizant of the issues we face on a daily basis,” he said.
As soon as I entered the parking area, we heard Rang barsay, a very popular Bollywood film song, playing. I was eager to enter the place but the security team deployed at the gates had other plans. After a thorough body search and frisking of our bags, they let us in.
The patio outside the mandir was full of faces and clothes smeared with bright colours. Men and women of all ages were dancing to the songs playing on a music system. After weaving my way through the crowd, I reached the mandir door. It was blocked by worshippers, but I could hear the ghanta (bell) being hit every time a worshipper approached the icon placed on the mantle.
While we were awaiting our turn to enter the mandir, I got asked by a couple of people whether I was a Muslim. I said I was and they gave me a welcoming smile and actually made way for me.
I saw people hitting the bell hanging from above, and then enter the rather small room where the deities rested. (Hitting the bell is synonymous with purifying oneself.) After they had completed their rituals, they played with powdered colours, throwing these at each other and dancing in joy — all of what Holi stands for.
Dr Munawar Chand, the chairman of Pakistan Hindu Welfare Council, was also attending the event. Talking to me, he praised Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah for his stance on how everyone is free to practice their religious beliefs in Pakistan.
I also had a word with Pujari Kashi Ram who said that such events helped create peace and harmony in the society.
Arun Kumar, a rights activist, was of the view that religious extremism had pushed the minorities against the wall. “The government is not cognizant of the issues we face on a daily basis,” he said. He was quick to add that the government was “trying to undo the damage by holding such events that serve to raise awareness and engage people of different beliefs in peaceful activities.”
All said, it is the duty of the government to create a safe and tolerant society for all religious and ethnic communities so that they can co-exist peacefully. Besides, the minorities should be able to practice their beliefs without any fear or the need for elaborate security. Those who have witnessed the Lahore before the 1970s, when seeds of extremism were apparently sown, tell stories one can only dream about.
The writer is a freelance journalist