Fifteen years ago, it was just one tiny room, with cracks in the walls and paint peeling off. There was a portrait of Durga seated on a tiger, in one corner of the room and pictures of Valmiki, Guru Nanak, Shiva and Krishna were placed around her. On holy days, families would visit the make-shift temple to seek the blessings of the deities. Next to the shrine, there was a vacant ground that was a part of the temple property, but it was being used as a garbage dumping area.

“There was no sense of ownership,” explains 35 year old Babar Raza, wearing a pink kurta and white shalwar. He has just returned home after an entire day of preparations for the final night of Navratri celebrations. His wife walks in carrying a black raw silk kurta, that he has to wear that night, and hangs it on a nail on the wall. She leaves without saying anything. Amog Lila, a 22 year old priest sits next to Raza. He is wearing a white kurta with a black dhoti. His forehead bears a vermillion mark and a yellow scarf, covered with Sanskrit text, is draped around his neck. He is one of the priests at the Durga Temple and part of the younger generation of the Hindu community here who are responsible for religious revivalism in this area.

Sitting cross legged, Raza taps his feet impatiently; he is eager to get back to the preparations. “I was about 20 at that time and used to study in college. All my Muslim friends were very passionate about their religion.” Raza is talking about the late eighties when the “Islamization” process of General Zia-ul-Haq (1978-88) was in full force. Curriculums of subjects were changed to accommodate the puritanical religiosity of the military ruler. As a new generation of Pakistanis fed on this religiously inclined education, the country took a turn towards Islamization. “I thought to myself that like the Muslims, we Hindus should also pay attention to our religion and practices. None of our elders knew anything about Hinduism at that time and that bothered me. I wanted to explore my roots and revive our religious traditions,” says Raza. As Raza’s friends in college explored their “Islamic roots”, Raza was inspired to trace his “Hindu roots”. Strangely, the Hinduization of Raza and other young people from the community was a by- product of the Islamization of the Pakistani Muslim youth. “I discussed the situation of the temple with my friends from the community and we decided that we should do something about its condition,” says Raza. He along with ten other boys spent the next few days clearing garbage from the premises. Once the temple property was clean, they went door to door asking for donations to renovate the shrine.

“A lot of people are sceptical when youngsters ask for money. ‘How can we trust you?’ they would question us with raised eyebrows. There were only a few who were supportive.” Raza and his friends used the little money they collected for the renovation of the shrine. They bought an idol of Durga from Karachi and placed it at the temple where it continues to reside. However, once other members of the community saw the sincerity with which the boys were working, donations started flowing in. “People started trusting us. We would get a lot of money,” recalls Raza, getting excited as he recalls those days.

Encouraged by the positive response of the people, Raza and his friends decided to organize the celebrations of Navratri – a festival dedicated to Durga – here at the temple. They called a band of musicians from Bahawalpur, an area with a considerable population of Hindus, about one hundred and sixty five kilometres from here. The band performed all night and it was a successful programme. This was the first time after partition that a Hindu religious festival had been celebrated on such a scale at the Akaliyan Mohalla, Bahawalnagar, a community dominated by over a hundred Hindu and Christian families. Prior to this festival, visits to the temple or celebrations of festivals remained a private affair, limited to prayers within the family. But now that was changing, the entire community was participating in the celebrations.


Akaliyan Mohalla literally means ‘Community of the Minorities.’ This is a pre-Partition settlement, though the name is post-partition, reflecting the changing demographics of the city. Compared to Central Punjab, Southern Punjab has been historically tolerant towards other non-Muslim faiths, which is why a significant Hindu population continues to live here. One of the major reasons for this is that violence here during the partition never scaled the heights it did in the other regions, therefore the resentments between communities that seeped in after 1947 were not that serious. Bahawal Nagar, a journey of about four hours by car from Lahore, is in Southern Punjab. Built during the colonial era, Bahawal Nagar became an important trading centre because of the railway station that was built here in the early half of the twentieth century. More than half a century after the departure of the British, the city still seems to be stuck in a time warp. It’s a sleepy town, with wide roads and several government buildings from the British era standing tall. It is a Muslim majority area, with a population of above two million, according to the last census conducted in 1998. The Hindu and Christian communities clustered in the Akaliyan Mohalla near the Bahawali Chowk make up a tiny proportion of the population of the city.

Akaliyan Mohalla is a well-kept area in comparison to the other areas of the city. The drainage system works effectively and the streets are clean. The houses are well built, some several storeys high. Most of the people living here are financially strong. Motor-cycles are parked in front of a number of houses. A couple of the residents even own cars. The majority of the people belong to business or trading backgrounds. A distinguishing feature of the houses here is the use of colourful paints, instead of the conventional white, grey, and the like. Here the houses are pink, purple, green, blue, cream and yellow. It seems that the use of colourful paints is a part of their religious duty. Muslim houses all over the country tend to be more sombrely painted.

At the time of a festival, the area is decorated according to the theme of the event. Since this is the festival of Navratri, the walls are covered with posters of the Devi. “Jai Mata Sheran wali Navratre,” reads one of them. Durga is also known as Sheranwali or the ‘One with the Tiger.’ This is because she rides a tiger. Another poster calls out to pilgrims for the annual pilgrimage to Hinglaj, where a Hindu temple honours an incarnation of Durga. Hinglaj is in Baluchistan, about two hundred and fifty kilometres from the coastal city of Karachi. Thousands of Hindu pilgrims go there every year in October, making it one of the largest Hindu festivals in the country. Next to the poster, a symbol of Om, cut out of red paper and bordered by silver glitter, is pasted on the wall. This is an important Hindu emblem, representing an eternal sound. On another wall a Swastika has been pasted, using purple chart paper and silver glitter. The symbol is believed to evoke shakti, or cosmic energy. Throughout the community, small multi- coloured paper flags, called jhandiyan in parlance, have been hung between the buildings. In some parts, colourful cloths have been tied across buildings, hanging over the streets. All these are the results of efforts made by the youngsters. The streets surrounding the community are narrow and allow for several entrances into the mohalla.


Raza gets up and changes his shirt as he continues speaking, “Ever since then we have made it a point to celebrate Navratri here. The festival has only gotten bigger over these years. Earlier it was only the people of the city who would participate, then of the neighboring areas, and now there are pilgrims pouring in from as far as Karachi. This is one of the largest Hindu gatherings in the country.” His other family members are still getting ready for the event as Raza leaves the house, located near the Bahawali Chowk.

It’s ten in the night and the date is 16th October 2010. The boys are busy preparing palanquins for Kunwaris or the virgins, since morning. Women are busy helping the three Kunwaris prepare for the occasion in different parts of the community. They are dressed up like brides on their wedding day. Wearing a red bridal dress, their hands are decorated with henna. Women apply makeup on them; thick layers of foundation, along with deep red lipstick and bright pink blush. This is a community affair, in which women from various households take part. These kunwari girls have been chosen specially for the occasion. They have to be young, not older than fourteen in this case. While they get dressed, a group of boys prepare the palanquins.

From Raza’s house, one has to walk around a corner and then enter an alley in order to get into the community. The city outside is asleep. Only a few hours ago, the same place was bustling with activity. The small restaurants having spread out their charpais on the road were serving their clients, next to a square, box-like tin dhaba selling cheap cigarettes and cold drinks. A nearby CD shop had been playing Indian music all day, only stopping to the call of the Muslim prayer, the azaan. Only a motorcycle workshop near the music shop is still open, while the rest of them shut early, at about eight. There are a couple of people sleeping on charpais, a few feet away from Raza’s house. These are the waiters of the small restaurants.

The world changes the minute one enters the alley. Here the night is just about beginning, everybody is wide awake. There are bright lights hanging above the streets. A dhol- wala stands near the edge playing loudly. A group of boys have gathered around him, dancing. Women peep through their balconies and over their rooftops. A vendor stands at the corner of the street, wrapping up business for the day. He has been here since morning, selling miniature idols and chunris (scarves). All of these idols have been brought from Karachi, where there are still a reasonable number of Hindus living or from India through illegal channels. The tradition of idol-making in Punjab died a natural death during the massacres of the partition. A man with an ice- cream cart stands next to him. He has been lured in by the sounds of the dhol and the lights. Throughout the day, devotees have been buying chunris from the vendor’s stall and presenting it to the idol of Durga inside the temple. One does this with the belief that Maa Durga (Mother Durga) would grant them their wishes. Presenting the chunri to the Devi is an important rite that the devotees observe at this festival.


Standing at the pavement of one of the houses and facing the stall, is 42 year old Charan Das. He leans forward and smiles. Das wears a red kurta with a white shalwar. He has a short beard and long hair. His feet are bare. There is a thick bangle around his ankle, and several around his wrist. “I am on my way to take it off,” he says, lifting his foot to signal towards the bangle. “Mata (Mother-deity) fulfilled my wish. Nobody ever returns disappointed from her abode.” he says. Das has been wearing the bangle for a year. He also hasn’t worn shoes in the meantime. Shiia Muslims in Pakistan also indulge in similar offerings to God, promising not to wear shoes or taking up bangles for a particular gift. Despite separate categorization of religious identities as distinct and often conflicting with each other, there are several religious rationale and practices such as this that transcends those boundaries. He lifts his feet up to show the underside. There is a thick layer of mud on them. Cracks have hardened at his heels. There are no blisters anymore. “I will wear shoes tonight,” he says.

Das is a peon at the DIG of Police Office in Multan, about two hundred kilometres from here. Last year he came to the shrine to present a chunri to the Devi and prayed for a job. He had been unemployed for a whole year. To prove his devotion to the goddess he promised that he wouldn’t wear shoes till the time of the next festival and would also wear a thick bangle around his ankle. If his wish was granted, he would cycle to the shrine. As soon as Das returned to Multan, he found a job.

“All sorts of miracles happen here,” he says, trying to explain the phenomenon once seated inside his house. “Women are bestowed with children. Girls get married. Disabled people start walking again,” he points towards his cousin who is sitting next to him in a white shalwar kameez. Mithin Das, 18, lifts his shalwar up to his knee, revealing one of his disabled legs. It is as thin as his arm. “He cycled with me. Mata gave him the power to do so,” declares Charan. It took them two days to get here. “Mata gives you the strength,” says Mithin. “On the way here, I kept on reciting, ‘Jai Mata di, Jai Mata di.’ Sometimes we would chant it out aloud in a group and sometimes I would say it quietly under my breath. It keeps you focused,” he says.

Charan has come to the shrine with another wish this time. He is praying for his brother’s job. However at the moment, his own job seems to be in jeopardy. Hindu festivals are not officially recognized in Pakistan, so Hindus working at offices have to ask for special holidays. When Charan asked for a five day leave, his boss rejected his application. Nonetheless, Charan, having made a promise to the deity, took off. “Mata takes care of everything,” he is confident.


The streets are teeming with pilgrims. There are more than two thousand pilgrims this year, according to Raza. Since the past five years, the festival of Navratri has emerged as the most popular event here. Pilgrims travel by foot, or cycle to present a chunri to the shrine. They believe that Mata will fulfill all their wishes if they observe this rite. A greater number come by buses and other modes of transportation. There are no separate arrangements made for sheltering the pilgrims. They end up sharing houses with the locals. Everyone is a distant relative of someone or the other, so the community becomes one huge family at the time of the festival. Charan is staying at his sister- in-law’s cousin’s house. The distinction between public and private space becomes unclear. During the night, the pilgrims can be seen roaming the streets. There are people everywhere.

Turning into the street of the temple, one comes across food being prepared for the pilgrims. Five cauldrons are being cooked in a line. Three men are looking after them. Behind them, on a charpai, three men are cutting vegetables. There are a few empty cauldrons placed next to them. “All the preparations for food are done by us,” says Raza. “The pilgrims give donations, which help us bear the expenses,” he says. A few years ago, they constructed a Langar hall inside the compound of the shrine, which can accommodate several hundred people at one time. Most pilgrims eat there.

There was only one small room at the time that Raza and his friends started looking after the temple. Now it is a complex, with two other temples and a langar hall. The complex is protected by a wall and one has to enter through a gate. Cloths of different colours are used to decorate the entrance. They are tied to buildings across the street. Upon entering the complex, there is a Peepal tree on the right; behind which is a shrine dedicated to Sri Valmiki, considered to be the original writer of the Hindu holy book, Ramayana. This tree is held sacred by the community. A small boundary has been made around the tree and the shrine. One is required to take one’s shoes off before entering this area.

The Sri Valmiki shrine rests in a single room, with a green dome on the top. The structure bears an uncanny similarity to small Muslim shrines dedicated to Sufi saints, dotting the length and breadth of the country. The Peepal tree at the entrance is also found near several Sufi shrines, raised to special spiritual status because of its association with Saints. The Peepal tree remains sacred in all the religious traditions of South Asia. If not for an Om mark and a bell at the entrance, which one has to ring before entering, this structure could have been easily confused for a Muslim shrine. There is small table at one end of the room containing pictures of several deities, including a picture of Lord Valmiki writing the Ramayana with a peacock feather. There is also a picture of Narasimha, tearing Hiranyakashipu apart. A picture of young Krishna, playing the flute standing in front of a cow, rests next to it. There is a small statue of Krishna in the same pose in front of the picture with a copy of Ramayana, covered in a red cloth next to it, not very different from how the holy book of Quran would be maintained. A small golden statue of Lord Shiva is placed next to the religious book.

There is another temple behind the shrine, bigger than this one. Its shiny tile work and fresh white paint on the inside are a testimony to the fact that this is a recent construction, a product of the religious revivalism that this community is experiencing currently. There is a big poster of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction, in the middle of the room, standing next to a river, with a trident in his hand and several Shiv-Lings behind him; his depiction similar to a superhero. There are pictures of other deities: one portraying Lord Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in one picture, the three Supreme Gods of the Hindu trinity. There is a picture next to it, with a symbol of Om in the centre and writing on the top that says, ‘Aum sweet Aum.’

A few devotees are present at the temple. One of them is 45 year old Deepak Rana. He is wearing a light green shalwar kameez and there is a red chunri, decorated with a golden thread, around his neck. He has a short moustache and there is a vertical vermillion mark on his forehead. He prostrates in front of Lord Shiva’s picture. His three year old son mimics him. Standing up, he lifts his son and positions him on his shoulders. “He is probably the youngest pilgrim here,” he says shaking his son playfully, who lets out a chuckle in response. Rana arrived in the city last night at about eight from a place called Haroonabad, forty five kilometres from here.

“I was leading a group of forty people. This included children, the elderly, women, men, boys, and girls. We left at about six in the morning and walked all day. Here we presented a chunri to the Mata’s shrine.” The shrine is across this building and can be seen through a window. A picture of baby Krishna has been pasted on the exterior wall. It is the desire of the devotee that his/her chunri be placed on the idol.However that is not possible given the number of visitors. Instead, the chunri is entrusted to the priests, who later make use of it.

“Our trip almost got sabotaged. I contacted the police officials of my area telling them that we are taking out this procession and we would need police security,” he says. Processions towards the shrine are easily identifiable as most of them wear the chunris purchased for Mata over their heads or put them around their necks. Some even bring flags along. They have vermillion marks on their foreheads and they chant or sing songs about Mata on the way. Yesterday a group of twelve boys entered the community on bicycles saying, ‘Ek do teen char, Mata Teri jai jai kar,’ ringing their bells alongside. All of them were wearing bright orange T-shirts, which read out ‘Jai Mata Ki’ in gold. They chanted this slogan throughout their journey, which started from Bahawalpur. Before entering, the group of boys circled around the community to make their presence felt. They must have been a rather odd group when travelling because one doesn’t expect to see Hindus parading their religiosity so openly. Onlookers probably went into a state of shock at the sight of this group challenging their notions of a uniform Muslim nationhood.

“We were told by the authorities to cancel our plan. They thought it was too dangerous given the present situation,” he says. The morning that they were supposed to leave, the authorities blocked all the leading ways out of the city. However, whereas Rana had informed them that they would leave at eight in the morning, they left at six instead. “Mata does not let anything happen to her devotees,” he says, giving his son a jerk while he continues to swing above his shoulders. They both smile at each other.


Most of the groups reached here last night, which was the eighth night of Navratri. All of them visited the shrine first, chanting, singing and clapping as they walked in. When Rana and his group came, they entered with four people holding the chunri from each side. Rana and another man held the front two corners, whereas two women held the back ones. The rest of the group shouted, “Jai Mata Ki.”

The complex was crowded last night. Hundreds of women sat facing the stage, which had a twenty feet tall figure of Durga Mata cut out of a cardboard, watching the proceedings. The image of the Devi which still stands is that of her riding a lion, holding ancient weapons in each of her several hands, including an arrow, a sword and a trident. On her head she is wearing a tiara, as the queen of the universe and she is decorated with jewellery, including gold earrings, nose pin, necklaces and bracelets. Her sari is pink and her blouse green. Unlike the goddess though, the women here wear shalwar kameez, modestly covering their heads, blending into the Pakistani society, instead of standing out by wearing a sari. Frequently worn earlier, the sari, sometime after the years of Islamization, became associated with Hindu women and no longer appreciated in a Muslim country. The proceedings last night included a welcome to the pilgrims by the administration and musical performances by several devotee musicians who have come to attend the festival. Others not interested in the show loitered around in the Langar Hall, also within this complex. The temple of the Devi is on the other side of the stage, so every time a pilgrim group arrived with their chunri offering, the women had to make way for them. The entire courtyard is covered with multicolored jhandiyan, whereas a web of lights is cast over the buildings.

The temple of the goddess, recently renovated, is a single storey white building. This was the original temple, while the rest of them were built after the renovations. The idol of the goddess rests within a colourful niche made out of cardboard. She was wearing a red dress yesterday, which was changed to a green one today. Every time her clothes are changed all the attendees and male priests are sent out and the doors and windows closed. There are three plates at her feet, which can be used to perform the aarti. The devotees stood in front of her, holding both their hands in front of their chests and read a silent prayer. This is followed by the performance of the aarti.

The room is painted white from the inside and decorated with Hindu motifs made of chart paper. Next to the idol, a priest sat tending to the fire which is lit at all times. He had a chunri tied around his forehead and another around his neck. A woman sat next to him, collecting chunris from the arriving pilgrims. They attended to some devotees by tying a protection thread around their wrists or marking their foreheads with vermillion. Taking a roll of red thread, the priest would cut out a little piece. Holding it with both the hands, he would place it on top of the fire, reciting a prayer under his breath. He would then tie the thread around the wrist of the devotee, still reciting something. The thread is supposed to protect a devotee from all harm. This is also tied to devotees visiting Muslim Sufi shrines, a tradition which clearly overlaps between Hindu and Muslim pilgrims. After this, the woman would take some vermillion from a paste in a golden utensil placed next to her and apply it on the forehead of the devotee. The woman would then ask for some money and the devotee would always oblige. Taking the money she would place it under her knee, as she sat squatting on the floor.


The courtyard is empty at the moment and the stage deserted; the instruments of the musicians rest on it, to be used later in the night. A DJ sitting next to the stage has put on a devotional song, dedicated to Kali Mata, an incarnation of Durga. The song extols people to refrain from sins; otherwise the goddess would kill them. “Kali Mata kat dalegii,” (The black goddess will kill) is the chorus. A group of young boys, in their early teens have flocked on to the stage. One of them, referred to as Mohammad Rafi (an iconic singer from the Indian film industry), is urged by his colleagues to dance to the bhajan. After some protest, he shows a few moves.

In the street next to the shrine, a group of boys are preparing the palanquin and this is where Raza is heading. “Everything alright?” he asks the boys upon arrival. “You have taken so long, Balram,” says one of the boys, wearing a cap, a black faded T-shirt and jeans. He is yet to get ready. They are already behind schedule. “My real name is Balram,” Raza explains. “I adopted the name Babar, when I joined college. It would have gotten me into unnecessary friction with my colleagues,” he says. A lot of Hindus in Punjab do this, passing off as Muslims or Christians by taking up non-Hindu names. This is a survival technique in a hostile environment.

Wooden boards are used to make a palanquin, with a chair at the center. The board is covered with chart paper, cloth and glitter paper. The space on the sides is covered with fills and festoons. Two logs have been joined at the base in order to lift up the palanquin. There is a bulb at the centre and its wire has been placed underneath the sheets, attached to a battery at the base. Only the front is uncovered, decorated with charts, making an arch. Hindu symbols are drawn inside, at the back of the palanquin.

At about eleven in the night the Kunwaris emerge, dressed up like brides. All the palanquins have been brought to one street. They would head in different directions from here, to meet inside the temple. The three girls take their seats inside the palanquins. Devotees throng to them, putting garlands on them. Some put money near their feet and ask for blessings. The girls have ceased to be girls which they were only a few minutes ago and have taken up the persona of the living goddess.

With a tiara on their heads, they sit with one hand resting on their thighs and the other raised, blessing people. They are wearing gold bangles, earrings and nose pins. Their hands are decorated with a mehndi design; a circle on the palm and bordered finger tips. Women come and perform artis, while others adjust their clothes. A young man holding a coconut kneels on the ground, raising it high with both his hands, he smashes it onto the ground. The crowd shouts, ‘Jai Mata Di.’ The coconut breaks and the ceremony begins. Breaking of the coconut before any important task is considered auspicious, explains Amog Lila, the priest from the Durga temple.

The boys pick up the palanquins and start the ceremony with a dhol-wala leading all of them. Groups of boys dance in front of it, while women move behind the palanquin. Devotees, who had earlier missed the opportunity to seek the blessings of the goddess, do so as the procession progresses. The goddesses look dead straight, unmoved by the attention they are getting. The women who had helped them get ready must have also taught them how to behave. The youngest out of the three girls is about ten years old and the oldest about fourteen.

Navratri, which literally means ‘Nine nights’ is a celebration associated with the worship of nine different incarnations of the goddess. Walking on the side of the palanquin, Amog Lila explains the mythology of Navratri. “The tradition comes from Ramayana. When Sita was abducted by Ravana and taken to Lanka, she prayed for nine nights straight to the different incarnations of Durga Mata, while Ravan and Rama (Sita’s husband) engaged in what seemed like an endless battle. On the tenth day, the goddess heard her plea and Ram was able to kill Ravana and thus won the war. The burning of Dushera (on the tenth day) is a remembrance of that victory. Now in remembrance of that event, every year we spend nine nights worshipping Durga. One of her incarnations is of an adolescent girl. The Kunwari pooja is a worshipping of that incarnation,” he explains.

On one particular instance the procession steps out of the community, where curious Muslim onlookers, surprised by a sudden burst of activity stop everything and stare at it in curiosity, a sight so unusual and alien to them. Cars slow down, while the motor cycles and bicycles come to a complete halt, waiting for the procession to enter the community once again. At about midnight, the three processions enter the temple at the same time, while the community follows them.

The goddesses are seated on the stage under the overpowering figure of the Devi Mata on her lion. The dance continues for a little while, after which more people approach the goddesses with supplications. This is the last rite of the festival. “We do not burn Dusshera here because of space issues. Maybe sometime in the future we will be able to revive that tradition as well,” says Raza, his voice pulsating with hope.

A White Trail: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan's Religious Minorities by Haroon Khalid, published by Westland Books.