February issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Published 15 years ago

This time when I visited Saidpur, I did not see Nauman. In 2005, the first time a friend had brought me to this picturesque hamlet nestled on the gentle slopes of the blue-green hills, a few minutes drive off Margalla Road, Islamabad, Nauman had followed us around the village, keeping a discrete distance. We were inspecting the odd assortment of buildings in the temple complex — a double-domed gurdwara with a round stone plaque embedded over its entrance; one mandir topped by a pyramidal spire, and with a hand-painted ‘Home Eco LAB’ wooden sign hanging incongruously over its door; and an adjoining two-storied dharamshala with Jinnah’s slogan ‘Unity, Faith, Discipline’ painted in blue on the white-washed walls — where the little boy had approached and asked me pointedly in Urdu: “Aap Hindu hain (Are you Hindu)?”

Bold, observant, a tuft of hair on his forehead bleached and dyed golden, Nauman had appeared smart. He had surprised me with his knowledge of the four kunds (ponds) named after the characters of the Ramayana — Ram, Lakshman, Hanuman and Sita. The ponds had existed at the time when the Hindus used to live in Saidpur; the worshippers would first wash themselves in a pond before visiting the temple; the women would use the Sita kund. When I inquired how he knew all this, Nauman had pointed to an old man — his grand uncle — squatting in front of a house on the other side of the spring that runs by the temple complex.

I met Nauman again in January 2008. Ghulam Nabi, one of the village elders, had recounted colourful tales of the multicultural history of Saidpur. One that had made a special impression on me was of how the Hindus of the village had carried the peetal (brass) idol of the Goddess Kali barefoot all the way from the railway station. The idol had been brought from far-off Kolkata — the city where I received seven years of high school, college and university education. This link, however tenuous, was enough for me take an interest in the fate of the temples of Saidpur.

Plans were afoot to renovate the temple complex. Set against the backdrop of the Margallas, it lent a mystic charm to Saidpur; it was to be the cynosure of the model village envisaged by Kamran Lashari, then chairman of the Capital Development Authority (CDA) and now chief commissioner. Lashari’s original plan was to convert the temple complex into a restaurant. Thankfully, he was dissuaded from following through with this ignominious idea; the sanctity of the temples would not be violated; they would be restored and preserved as historical monuments.

Sceptical, I had gone to see how the project was coming along. That is when I met Nauman again, near the locked gates of the temple complex. He used to attend the double-shift school morning girls, afternoon boys — that the temple complex was being used for since 1947. But the school had been transferred to a new building elsewhere. Nauman was loitering with a group of youngsters; his slender form had filled out, but I recognised him; he still sported the golden tuft. However, the voluble boy had grown into a reticent teenager; he bid me Allah hafiz without meeting my eyes.

This January, when I visited Saidpur, I did not see Nauman. Even if he had been there, I doubt I would have been able to spot him among the weekend drove of visitors at the fabulously refurbished art and craft village of Saidpur. The Pueblo-style portal, reminiscent of New Mexico-Arizona, through which we passed to enter the village was sign enough that Saidpur had been reinvented rather than resurrected. Climbing the short flight of stairs from the terrace of the old dharamshala in the temple complex to the newly opened outlet of the popular The Hot Spot (THS) Café and Grill, browsing through their Rs 50-a-scoop ice cream menu, and glancing over the shalwar kameez clad lusty woman brandishing an AK-47 on a wall-poster titled ‘Honour Kill This Baby,’ my misgivings were confirmed. I stood pensive at the THS open-air café; my gaze lingered nostalgically over the ridged domes and lotus-painted pinnacles of the temple glowing a rich ochre in the evening light; it brushed past the two-tiered terrace cut from the rising slope of the hills; it slipped over the people strolling along the paved promenades alongside the spring and extended beyond to the flat-roofed huts, some with facades painted a rusty red, some with straw-thatched balconies, some with blue water cisterns halting the sweep of the eye.

I sighed. This was not the village I had owned. From here it resembled a film set complete with human props. Any time now the action would start: one or more men standing on the open terraces of those face-lifted dwellings would leap over to the promenade, gunshots would shatter the tranquil scene, someone would run across the pool bridging the spring to the other side, a chase would begin, a few of the carefully arranged earthenware pitchers decorating the shop-fronts would roll down the broad-walk and crack into smithereens over one of the boulders artfully landscaped into the grassy edge of the spring.

Only a short stretch of the spring had been beautified. Beyond the recreational area that included the temple complex, the tiered hillside terraces, the pottery shops, boutiques, and cafés overlooking the terraces, the spring was little more than a sewer; its thin trickle of water was gagged with polythene bags and refuse. Children jumped frivolously across the unhygienic muck. Of the four hundred million sanctioned for the development of Saidpur into a model village, precious little seems to have been spent on refreshing the spring, vital for the health of the village.

Where the CDA has done less than is necessary for the spring, it has done much more than was required for the restoration of the temple complex. The outer wall of the hall facing the raised black and white checkered courtyard of the dharamshala has been sectioned into panels for murals; geometric designs grace them. Similar geometric patterns beautify the originally lime-plastered ceiling of the mandir. On an earlier visit, I had met the mural artist that the CDA had employed for this project. He had shown me his collection of photographs of fresco designs taken mainly from the Katasraj temples, a pilgrimage centre for Hindus in the Chakwal district of Punjab. Some of these photographs had included human figures. However, the designs that have been used for the Saidpur temple complex exclude the depiction of any human form. This feature, along with the intricate, elaborate geometry of the vegetal and floral patterns employed in the murals, make them more Islamic in character than Hindu. Therefore, they strike a discordant note in the temple complex.

The dharamshala hall itself houses an exhibition of photographs about the history of Islamabad. Wouldn’t something about the history of the village, its folklore, the myths surrounding the Zinda Pir’s Bethak higher up in the hills beyond the temple complex, the art of unglazed pottery that had flourished in Saidpur, have been more appropriate subjects?
Speaking of the inappropriateness of choices, a CDA-cap wearing musician seated beside the old jamun tree with a hollow in its trunk, was playing a rubab, an instrument of Persian origin and the traditional musical instrument of Afghanistan.

I would not have dwelled on these details had I not crossed over to one side of the checkered courtyard to visit the gurdwara and spotted something painted in green below the round, stone plaque embedded over its entrance: Allah.
Ever since I had first seen the stone plaque over the entrance to the two-domed building in the temple complex, I had been curious to know what was engraved on it. From the photographs that I had sent to them, a couple of historian friends had confirmed that the engraving was in a version of Devnagari and that the word ‘Sri Rama’ is clearly legible in the middle of the first line of the engraving (although many individual letters were recognisable, they were unable to decipher the whole text).

My first response to seeing Allah written below the ‘Sri Rama’ plaque was incredulity. Then outrage. It was difficult not to conclude that the temple complex had been covertly appropriated. But then a bhajan that we often sang at assembly time in school began to sing itself in my head:

Raghupati Raaghava Raaja Raam,
Patita paavana Siita Raam,
Siita Raam, Siita Raam,
Bhaj pyaare tu Siita Raam,
Ishwara Allah Teero Naam,
Sab ko Sanmati de Bhagavaan.
[Lord Rama, chief of the house of Raghu,
Uplifters of those who have fallen, (O divine couple) Sita and Rama,
Beloved, praise Sita and Rama,
Ishwar or Allah is Your name (the Supreme One has several names),
Lord, bless everyone with this wisdom].