Around December 2017, the Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo moto cognizance i.e. took notice of media reports that the sacred pond of a 7th century CE Hindu temple cluster known as the Katas Raj was drying up. Built by the Hindushahi kings of Punjab, the sacred pond around the temple is significant because it is believed that the pond was formed from the tears of Lord Shiva, weeping after he lost his wife Sati. Calling it a part of 'National Heritage', Saqib Nisar, the Chief Justice of Pakistan had asked the Pakistan government to intervene, observing:
– Katas Raj is an important Hindu pilgrimage site in the Punjab province of Pakistan
The story of Katas Raj and the pressures it faces today, thanks to urbanisation and development, is a familiar one. But what is the history of this temple complex and why is it important to save it?
Built by the Hindushahi kings of Punjab and located in the Potohar Plateau region of the Punjab province of Pakistan, Katas Raj is an important pilgrimage site for Pakistani Hindus and is shrouded in myths and legends.
The name ‘Katas Raj’ comes from kataksha which means tearful eyes in Sanskrit. According to local Hindu belief, Lord Shiva was so distraught by the death of his beloved wife Sati that he wept inconsolably. His tears which fell to the earth formed the ponds at Katas Raj. Interestingly this area is also connected to the story of the epic Mahabharata. It is believed that the Pandavas spent four of their fourteen year exile, here.
The earliest historical reference to the region is in the works of Chinese travellers and pilgrims Fa Hien (4th century CE) and Hiuen Tsang (7th century CE) who visited the Katas Raj area and wrote about the existence of a Buddhist stupa here. In his memoirs, Hiuen Tsang wrote that the stupa at Katas Raj was 200 ft in height and it had 10 interconnected ponds around it. He further wrote that the stupa had been built by Ashoka. The remains of this stupa can still be seen today.
The temple complex comprises a group of seven temples known as Sat-Garha dedicated to different Hindu deities such as Shiva, Ram and Hanuman. These seven temples are built in a style very similar to the Kashmiri style of temple architecture. The temples were said to have been built by the Hindushahi kings of Punjab, who ruled the region from the 7th to the 11th century CE, before being displaced by invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni. Later, Katas Raj was also visited by Al-Biruni (973- 1048 CE), the Persian mathematician and polymath, who mentioned it in his book Kitab-ul-Hind, written in the 11th century CE.
– Till 1947 large religious fairs were organized annually at Katas Raj during the festival of Navratri
Katas Raj was also an important site for the Sikhs as Guru Nanak visited it several times. The Sikh ruler Ranjit Singh also regularly made pilgrimages here. He visited the temple complex in 1806, 1818 and 1824. General Hari Singh Nalwa (1791–1837), one of the most important generals of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s army built a large haveli and fort next to the temple complex, which can be seen even today.
Till the partition of India in 1947, the Katas Raj temples were considered to be the second most important Hindu religious shrine in undivided Punjab, after the Jwalamukhi temple near Kangra (now in present-day Himachal Pradesh). Every year, a large fair would be held here during Navratri, attracting thousands of pilgrims. However, after the traumatic events of 1947 and the partition, most of the local Hindus left for India and the temples fell into a state of disrepair. After the Babri Masjid agitation in India in 1991, even the idols of Lord Ram and Hanuman were removed from their respective temples, to protect them from vandalism. For the longest period, it was in a state of great disrepair.
However despite the fact that these temples fell in Pakistan's territory post-1947, pilgrims from India have continued to make their way there, as part of the ‘Katas Raj Yatra’ or pilgrimage. This of course was dependent on the ever volatile relations between the two countries . In 2006, the Government of Pakistan undertook its restoration and in January 2017, shikharas were added to the temples.
– The matter of drying up of sacred Katas Raj pond was taken to the Supreme Court of Pakistan
However,the increase in the number of cement factories around the region has meant that the water in the sacred pond is being depleted at an alarming rate. In addition, the absence of regular water supply has meant that the local villages are also drawing water from the pond. Seeing the threat to the pond, local heritage activists approached the Pakistani courts, taking matters to the Supreme Court of Pakistan. It is hoped that heritage activism will be able to save this unique religious shrine.
At a time when we are quick to cry foul and mistrust each other in the name of faith, the story of Katas Raj and the efforts being made to protect it are important reminders of the shared heritage the people of Pakistan and India share and the ability of history to connect and nurture ties. Sadly, we use it more to hurt each other.
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