Standing at the entrance of his sister's home, 42-year-old Charan Das smiled at me. We were standing across from him, photographing the stall of Hindu deities. There was a poster of Goddess Durga (Durga Mata) sitting on a lion with both her legs to one side, reminiscent of Victorian morality where “ladies” sat “properly” on their horses (Muslim women in Pakistan still sit on motorbikes this way, putting their lives at risk).

There was a festive air about the place with the entire neighbourhood celebrating the final night of Navratri. There were bright lights everywhere. In one corner, men prepared food for the langar in cauldrons, while the women sat next to them cutting vegetables. The younger lot were busy readying the sound system and the stage for the night, while the children chased each other in the streets.

The atmosphere inside the neighbourhood was in sharp contrast to what lay outside. It was only 8pm and the city was already asleep. There was darkness everywhere as men slept on the charpoys outside their shops. With pitch darkness around it, the Akaliyan Mohalla (community of minorities) shone beautifully.

This was the scene six years ago, when a couple of friends and I had travelled to Bahawal Nagar, a small city in southern Punjab. Bordering Bahawalpur district, the place was nearly five hours away from Lahore.

An acquaintance in Lahore had told me about this festival, where hundreds of Hindus converge from all over the country for the festival of Navratri. We were greeted at the entrance by our friend and a flag of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a front for militant organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba.

I had heard reports that militant organisations were now focusing more on southern Punjab and Sindh to recruit their cadres. The flag at the entrance of the Akaliyan Mohalla was symbolic. The minorities might live on a small island and might even have religious freedom to celebrate their festivals, but the flag showed who was in control.

Similar sacrifices

“What are you photographing the murtis (idols) for?” asked Charan Das in his sleepy tone. His beard was overgrown while his hair also needed a trimming. There was a thick bangle on his foot and he wore no shoes. The bangle reminded me of a conversation I had with my young driver a few years ago. It was Muharram – the month of mourning in the Shia tradition, when Imam Hussain and his family were massacred on the fields of Karbala.

Every year, millions of Shias mark the event by mourning publicly. Young passionate devotees, such as my driver Tanveer, inflict heavy punishment on their bodies. For two months, he too wears a thick bangle on his foot.

One day, I asked him about the bangle’s significance. “They represent the shackles that the Imam wore when he was incarcerated,” he said. “The bangle in my hand represents the handcuff that the Imam wore. It is my way of showing fidelity to the Imam.”

For the first 10 days of Muharram, he does not wear any shoes either. “This is for a mannat [wish],” he said. “I will take off the bangle and wear shoes on the 11th day of Muharram.”

Such a long journey

Charan Das invited us into his sister's home. We sat on the floor in a small room. There was a picture of Goddess Durga riding a lion in one corner of the room, along with smaller pictures of other Hindu deities. There was also a picture of Guru Nanak and his sister.

Das’ younger cousins were also present in the room and had dressed for the occasion with tilaks across their foreheads, flags in their grasps, and were wearing their cleanest clothes.

“The bangle on my foot is for a mannat,” said Charan Das. “I am praying for my cousin’s job.”

Like Tanveer, Charan Das too hadn’t worn shoes for the past 10 days as part of his supplication. “We arrived earlier in the morning and went straight to the temple,” he said. “We cycled all the way from Multan to attend this festival.”

He then pointed to a young boy sitting next to him clad in a saffron shirt and pants. “This is my cousin. Look at his leg,” he said. The boy lifted his trouser leg to reveal a deformed limb. “He too rode with us,” said Das. “Mata [Durga] gave him strength. All kinds of miracles come true here at the abode of Mata.”

Multan is about 200-km from here. Throughout the day, several groups of boys and men had made their way to the mohalla travelling on foot or cycling from different parts of the country. This was their way of showing their devotion to the goddess, proving that they would overcome a difficult journey to reach her.

“We went straight to the temple once we got here,” said Charan Das. “We had gotten a special chunri [cloth] from Multan. There were long lines outside the temples as well, as devotees waited their turn to catch a glimpse of the Mata and present their offering."

In Maryamabad

About a year after my trip to Bahawal Nagar, I attended the Christian pilgrimage to Maryamabad, a small village about 100-km from Lahore. The shrine at this village is dedicated to Jesus’ mother Mary, after a passionate devotee claimed to have seen her here several years ago.

Later, a church was built on the spot to commemorate the event and every year, a group of devotees started visiting the shrine. Now, it is one of the largest Catholic gatherings in Pakistan, attracting thousands of devotees from all over the country.

The pilgrims make an arduous journey to the shrine, walking from faraway cities or riding a bike. Once at the shrine, they stand in a long queue to present their offering, a scarf to Mother Mary.

Sufi tradition

Chadars – green cloth inscribed with Quranic verses – is an ubiquitous gift at a Sufi shrine. It is considered inauspicious to visit the grave of a saint without an offering. There is a congested market at every Sufi shrine that sells chadars. Pilgrims stand in a long queue before presenting the cloth to the caretaker, who may or may not use it to cover the grave.

Like the Christians and the Hindus, passionate devotees of the Sufi saints undertake the journey on foot or bicycle, usually traveling in groups to attend the Urs celebration of a saint. They prefer bringing their own chadar, as opposed to buying one from the bazaar outside the shrine.

It is as if these three distinct religious traditions merge into one practice at their places of worship.

Freedom to celebrate

“I didn’t have a job for an entire year, so I made a pilgrimage to the Mata’s temple and the next day I got a job as a peon at the Deputy Inspector General’s office in Multan,” said Charan Das. “I promised Mata that I would return next year as well on a bicycle if I got the job, so here I am.”

“Do you get holidays for religious festivals?” I asked Charan Das.

“No,” he replied. “I asked for five days off to come to this pilgrimage but my supervisor rejected it.”

But he decided to make the trip anyway.

“What will happen to your job now,” I asked him.

“Mata takes care of everything,” he replied.

More than five years after my encounter with Charan Das, I was reminded of my conversation with him when Pakistan's National Assembly on March 15 adopted a resolution to take steps to declare Holi, Diwali and Easter as holidays for minorities. While Muslim festivals and Christmas are observed as national holidays, the same privileges had not been accorded to any Hindu festivals until now.

I did not keep in touch with Charan Das after our meeting. He probably lost his job when he got back. A Muslim travelling to an Urs would probably have received a more sympathetic response from a superior. But now that a law has been introduced for at least two major Hindu festivals, will Hindus in Pakistan have more freedom to celebrate their religious festivals?

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: A journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.