The turquoise dome of a mausoleum rises from the middle of a congested market in Lahore, its octagonal white building lost among the cycle and cloth shops. This is the shrine of the 16th century Sufi saint Sheikh Abdul Razzaq. Not far from here is the final resting place of Qutb al-Din Aibak, who was sold as a slave but went on to found the Mamluk Dynasty and rule the Delhi Sultanate in medieval India.

Aibak’s mausoleum is a modest structure, a small building at the centre of which is the grave of the king. Across the turquoise dome are the remnants of colonial Lahore – the King Edward Medical University and the Mayo Hospital, named after Lord Mayo who was the Viceroy of India from 1869 to 1872 – in what is known as the Mall area. On the other side of the road are two premium Pakistani universities, also set up by the British: Punjab University and National College of Arts, earlier known as the Mayo School of Industrial Arts.

Qutb al-Din Aibak's mausoleum, via Wikimedia Commons

Almost prophetically, at the centre of these colonial symbols is the recently renovated Pak Tea House, once the hub of intellectual and Leftist activists in the city. Even before Pakistan was partitioned from India in 1947, the cafeteria used to entertain intellectuals and activists from surrounding universities. Liberal and progressive ideas, critical of the colonial state, were discussed here.

After Partition, as the State began clamping down on cultural and political activities in the name of nation-building, the meeting place, now re-christened Pak Tea House, once again became the forefront of anti-authoritarianism. But with the decline of Lahore’s opposition to hegemony and of intellectual and cultural activities in the city, the tea house too began to fade away. Brought by a car tyre wholesaler and stuffed with tyres, it was salvaged in 2013 after the intervention of the Punjab Government, renovated, and opened to people.

Temple in the midst

A few km from here is the mausoleum of Anarkali, from where an intriguing story emerges. Believed to be a concubine of Emperor Akbar, Anarkali fell in love with Prince Salim. Legend has it that she was buried alive in a wall when the emperor found out about her trespass. Later, when the prince became Emperor Jahangir, he constructed a splendid mausoleum to honour his beloved. It is a typical Mughal mausoleum, octagonal with a large dome on the top. The grave, which is surprisingly not at the centre but at one end of the complex, has geometrical patterns carved into it.

Wikimedia Commons

The area surrounding the tomb also came to be called Anarkali. The Anarkali bazaar here is one of the largest and oldest markets in the city. Next to this is the Neela Gumbad market (or blue dome market), which is seen as an extension of the Anarkali bazaar. This part of the market is dominated by cloth, bicycle and car-tyre vendors. Thousands of people converge here every day, making it one of the busiest areas of the city. The name of this market comes from the turquoise dome of the Sufi saint Sheikh Abdul Razzaq.

It’s almost impossible to find in this hubbub, but this market is home to one of only two Hindu functional temples in the city. The Neela Gumbad Valmiki Mandir is located in a small alley next to a big tyre shop. Its small metal door is like that of any other house in the area. The small saffron flag hoisted at the entrance is the only thing that marks it out.

The inside of the temple as well is like that of a house, with a vast courtyard, at one end of which are two rooms, one dedicated to Lord Valmiki and the second to other Hindu deities. In the verandah outside the temple is a large mural of Lord Valmiki, with his disciples Lava and Kush, a snapshot of the mythological origins of Lahore. It is believed that Lava, the son of Lord Rama and the disciple of Valmiki, who is believed to have written the Ramayana, founded Lahore while Kush founded the twin city of Kasur.

A cross on the opposite wall reflects the relatively recent syncretic nature of this temple, one it it had to unwittingly adopt after Partition. Many followers of Lord Valmiki converted to Christianity following Partition to avoid the discrimination that Hindus were subjected to in the newly created country. Most of them, however, retained retained their Valmiki identity along with a new Christian identity, adopting two names – one Hindu and the other Christian. They also started celebrating Christian festivals, along with traditional Hindu festivals.

In October end, as the Hindu festival of Diwali went nearly unnoticed in Pakistan, a few 100 devotees gathered at the courtyard of this temple to light lamps and sing bhajans celebrating the return of Lord Ram and Sita to their Kingdom of Ayodhya after 14 years in exile. In a few days from now, this courtyard will be lit up once again, this time celebrating the birth of Jesus on Christmas. A cradle will be placed in the verandah and female devotees will dote over on baby Jesus, in a tradition reminiscent of Krishna Janmashtami, or the birth of Lord Krishna, which too is celebrated at this temple. Incidentally, the same cradle is used for both celebrations.

Even as Pakistan continues its sprint towards religious fundamentalism, this small temple at the heart of conservative Lahore continues to serve as an example of religious tolerance. All year round, dozens of religious festivals are celebrated at this temple, some events going on into the night.

Tenuous peace

There have been quite a few examples of hostile neighbors turning against religious minorities in their midst, particularly the Ahmadiyya community. Just last week, a mob besieged an Ahmadi place of worship (it would be illegal to call it a mosque according to the laws of Pakistan, as Ahmadis are not recognised as Muslims), to try and bring it down. Similarly a few years ago, another mob gathered outside another Ahmadi place of worship in Rawalpindi, demanding that it be shut down. And in May 2010, close to 100 people were killed after two Ahmadi places of worship in Lahore were attacked during Friday prayers. In most of these cases, the state sides with the mob, leaving the persecuted minorities in the wilderness.

But at Neela Gumbad, for many years now, there has not been a single untoward incident. It is for this reason that the Valmiki community of the city feels empowered. Religious festivals which were jettisoned after Partition have once again been adopted by the community, as it feels that those around it have become more tolerant towards their practices.

However, this was not always the case. In 1992, a day after the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, was demolished by Hindu Kar Sevaks on December 6, a mob broke into the temple. While some attacked the, others destroyed idols of Valmiki and Krishna. Even personal items of the devotees were not spared. After taking out valuable items from the temple, and allowing the handful of Valmiki devotees to leave the premises, the temple was set on fire.

For almost six months after the attack, the temple remained desolate as Valmiki devotees remained hidden in their homes, afraid of what might happen next. Gradually, the community got together and rebuilt the temple of their ancestors. More than 24 years since that fateful day, both communities at Neela Gumbad have moved on. However, peace is always fragile as far as India and Pakistan are concerned. Any act of intolerance across the border will be retaliated against here. And so, the Valmikis of Lahore know their peaceful and neighbours can once again become hostile in the blink of eye.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail