May Issue 2015
The Way We Were
In the month of April, thousands of Hindu devotees travelling from across the country and neigbouring states pour into Balochistan to take part in the annual congregation and three-day festival at Hinglaj Mandir, a sacred Hindu temple on the bank of the Hangol River at the Singlaj Mountains in Lasbela. The temple is located at a distance of 157 kilometres from Uthal, the main town in the district, and it takes almost five hours to reach, from Karachi, if one traverses the RCD and Mekran Coastal Highways.
“Every year registers an increase in the numbers of visitors to the site. This year it was estimated that around 100,000 pilgrims came,” says a local journalist. “The numbers marked a phenomenal rise, when the Mekran Coastal Highway was built during General Pervez Musharraf’s tenure. Before this, the road was broken and in very poor condition. So visitors had to travel for several days to get to the temple,” he continues.
While the shrine has visitors throughout the year, especially during the two Eids and in the 10 days of Ashura, come April and the place comes alive. There are huge gatherings, assorted festivities and many age-old rituals observed. All this despite the difficult mountainous terrain. Interestingly, the temple just like many other religious places in Sindh and other parts is equally revered by both Hindus and Muslims. For Hindus, it is a shrine for Kali Mata, which owes its name and dedication to various ancient legends that are still narrated by the locals and which have become part of the area’s folklore. The Muslims call the temple ‘Nani Ka Mandir.’
Some people contend that Sindh’s great Sufi saint, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, also visited the temple and offered prayers there at a nearby cave, which is marked with his name and venerated by devotees.
Making their way to the annual April celebrations, a large number of pilgrims travel on foot from various districts of Sindh and Balochistan as part of the yatra (pilgrimage), arriving a few days before the festival at another sacred site, Chandargup, which lies at a distance of 35 kilometres from the temple. Here the pilgrims make vows and pray, while throwing a nariyal (coconut) forcefully into the water. If it makes a sound, it is seen as a sign that their wishes have been fulfilled. Then the pilgrims head towards the temple.
There, in addition to offering more prayers and practicing a series of rituals, people dip in the river waters accumulated in a huge tank on the premises, believing that it will purify them of their sins. All the while, orchestrating events and rituals is the master priest at the temple, joined by thousands of devotees as he chants mantras to appease the Mata.
According to lore, the temple has existed for a 1,000 or 10,000 years, and pilgrimages to it have been made since then, but the annual festival and congregation really took root in 1985.
“Before this, devotees would come throughout the year and participate in various rituals at the temple,” says Chaila Ram Laasi, a 70-year-old member of the Hinglaj Seva Mandali, a body constituted to make arrangements at the temple for events and visitors.
The Hinglaj Seva Mandali has 185 members, including its head. On the eve of the annual festival, it constitutes a Jatha, a large committee comprising men, women and children, numbering around 5,000, picked from among the visitors of different regions — both Hindu and Muslim — dressed in orange caps and shrouds, carrying flags and banners of Hinglaj. They serve the devotees during the three days of the festival.
“Every visitor has to pay 250 rupees to the committee as a fee, which covers the expenses of accommodation and food for the three days,” says Chaila Ram.
Security arrangements during the festival are handed over to the Levies force, and monitored by the deputy commissioner, Lasbela. Visitors and organisers alike express appreciation for the arrangements made by the DC Lasbela, Fawad Ghaffar.
Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz veteran and Chairman Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB), Siddiq-ul-Farooq, also visited the festival this year, and in his meetings with the organisers promised that all requisite measures would be taken to protect the site. Alongside, he vowed that visitors would be facilitated, parking lots would be constructed, several thousand trees would be planted, the problem of access to potable water would be resolved, and a solar power system would be provided for efficient electricity supply. Only time will tell if Farooq makes good on his promises.
Considered the biggest Hindu festival in Pakistan, it is conjectured that the numbers would have been much higher if the country’s law and order situation, especially in Balochistan, had not been so precarious as to prevent people from travelling to the site. Foreigners particularly, such as those of Hindu origin coming from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, South Africa, Malaysia and Singapore, and tourists from western nations are hesitant to visit Pakistan, now rated among the world’s most dangerous countries.
In 2012, just a few days before the festival had started, Ganga Ram Motiyani, a Hindu trader, then chairman of the Hinglaj Seva Mandali and an active member of the Bela Hindu Panchayat, was kidnapped from his store. He was recovered 72 days later, only after his family paid the kidnappers a hefty ransom.
That was not the only case. Since the warring gangs of Lyari made the district a refuge for criminals who operate in Karachi from here, several cases of kidnapping have taken place and local traders have been receiving extortion calls and threats.
To make matters even worse, for the last couple of years, the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ), a sectarian organisation known for anti-Shia and anti-minority violence in Karachi and Punjab, has also increased its activities in Lasbela. ASWJ flags can be seen at local bazars and its graffiti is visible on the walls. The organisation’s presence has given rise to concern among the locals — most of whom are of a Sufi bent of mind.
Festivals like those at the Hinglaj temple symbolise the environment of religious harmony which has been woven into the very fabric of the community over centuries.
But, says a local, “The plague of religious extremism has now arrived at our doorstep in Lasbela, and it is feared that it may have the same consequences as it has had in the rest of the country.”
The Stuff of Legend
Legend has it that goddess Satti or Parvati married Lord Shiva against the wishes of her father, and his anger and humiliating attitude towards her husband led to Parvati immolating herself. This infuriated Lord Shiva and he started spreading havoc, first by killing his father-in-law, and then proceeding to destroy everything around. At this Lord Vishnu attempted to appease him. He took the body of the goddess, dismembered it and scattered the pieces across Hindustan in 52 different places. Each such place was called a ‘shakti-peeth’ (the seat of spiritual power). One such peeth is said to be Hinglaj, where the head of Devi, embellished on the forehead with a vermillion mark, had fallen. And so according to the myth, this locale has been venerated since the past millennium as one of Hinduism’s holiest pilgrimage sites.
Hinglaj is equally revered by Muslim Sufi saints and their followers. Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai visited the temple, offered prayers there and euologised the jogis at Hinglaj in Sur Ramkali in his compendium of poetry Shah Jo Risalo.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.
Raja Shoukat Ali is General Secretary, Uthal Press Club, District Lasbela.
Raja Shaukat Ali is General Secretary, Uthal Press Club, District Lasbela.