Raj Kumari takes me to a quiet and dark room in one corner of her double-storey house. There is a single bed on one side, while a few utensils decorate the niches of the walls. In another corner of the house is a small temple.

Located in the middle of a congested area in the outskirts of Lahore, Raj Kumari’s house is several kilometers away from one of only two functional Hindu temples in the city. The journey becomes even more arduous if one takes into account the roughly two-km walk to the nearest public transport system. So she only goes to Krishna Mandir in the city’s Ravi Road area during religious festivals.

On other days, amid competing calls for prayer, or the azaan, from multiple mosques in the area, she tries to find some quiet time with her deities at this temple she has created in her house.

With her hands clasped together and her eyes shut, she prays to images of goddesses Kali and Durga and a few other Hindu deities, as I stand beside her and observe.

Raj Kumari was only six when India was divided and Pakistan was born, in 1947. Residents of Lahore, her family decided to hide their Hindu identity to adjust to the changed circumstances. All traditional Hindu festivals, visits to the temple, and other expressions of religion were jettisoned for survival.

“How did you learn traditional prayers then?” I asked her.

“I didn’t,” she said. “After the death of my husband, I started working at a Christian missionary school. I picked up traditional Christian hymns from there. I now use these hymns while praying to Hindu deities.”

In the courtyard of her house, I interviewed another widow, Mary. During Partition, Mary was living close to the iconic canal in Lahore that runs through the middle of the city.

“I remember watching as bodies floating in the water as a child,” she said. “One night, as we returned home, our mother put the cross around our necks.” Overnight, Mary and her family became Christians from Hindus.

The stories of Hindus who manage the second temple in Lahore, dedicated to Valmiki, in Anarkali bazaar area, are similar. On the wall next to the temple, there is a mural depicting lord Valmiki teaching his most famous students, Luv and Kush.

The wall facing this one bears a cross and the two walls together highlight the religious identities of the members of this temple. Most people I interviewed here called themselves Hindus as well as Christians. Every year, they celebrate Janmashtami – lord Krishna’s birth – and Christmas with similar fanfare. Many of them have two names, one Hindu, and the representing their Christian identity. On official papers and in former census reports, they have been identified as Christians, but they hold their Hindu identity equally dear.

The Valmiki temple in Lahore
The Valmiki temple in Lahore

Where the past is present

Towards the southern side of Lahore, on the outskirts is the small village of Maraka, which, during Partition, was a predominantly Sikh area.

During the communal riots surrounding Partition, as Sikh landlords from the village fled to the safety of East Punjab (which eventually went to India), they left behind their servants to look after their properties till the violence dies down and the rightful owners return. Most of these servants were Mazhabi Sikhs, a title given to low-caste Hindus who had converted to Sikhism.

As the fire of Partition violence reached this village, these Sikhs removed their turbans, cut their hair and became Christians to protect themselves – an identity that they retained. Most of the Christians of this village were formerly Mazhabi Sikhs.

At the centre of this village is a shrine held sacred by Christians here. This was dedicated to a Sikh personality in pre-Partition days but turned Christian just like its devotees in the new country.

The story of the Christians living in the village of Bedian on the eastern outskirts of the city is also similar. It is believed that this village was established on the land allotted by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire, to Sahib Singh Bedi, a prominent member of from the Bedi clan that traces its lineage back to Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikkhism. This too was a predominantly Sikh village that was abandoned during Partition. The Christian population of the village today are also descendants of Mazhabi Sikhs who were left behind to look after the properties of their landlords.

Balancing worlds

These were identities that were thrust upon people by external circumstances. But there are also several examples of communities that willfully adopt dual religious identities.

The Sikh shrine at the village of Hardo Sahari
The Sikh shrine at the village of Hardo Sahari

A pre-Partition Sikh shrine in the village of Hardo Sahari, outside the city of Kasur, is an example of such a amalgamated religious identity. The shrine was held sacred by Hindu as well as Muslim devotees of the saint to whom the shrine was dedicated. After Partition, as Hindus and Sikhs migrated out of the village, the Muslims continued regarding this shrine as sacred, aware of its non-Muslim identity. The temple of Ram Thamman a few km away was a Hindu shrine which Muslim devotees continued to visit even after Partition.

The temple of Ram Thamman
The temple of Ram Thamman

What the numbers don't tell

All of these examples represent a unique religious identity that cannot be neatly captured in a compartmentalised census report that the government of Pakistan is bound to produce every decade but has failed to do since 1998.

As a social researcher focusing on religious identities of communities in Pakistan, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of census reports. For almost two decades now, writers and researchers have been estimating population sizes of different communities and cities to embellish their research. A systemised study, on the other hand, would present us with a more complete picture, allowing us to understand the complexity of this country.

However, while such reports are imperative, one also needs to bear in mind their limitations in capturing complex social realities, which are reduced to preconceived compartments.

For instance, a census report would identify Raj Kumari, Mary and those who run the Valmiki temple as either Christian or Hindu, therefore doing injustice to their unique religious identity that balances the two worlds. Similarly, the erstwhile Mazhabi Sikhs would be identified as Christians, obscuring their complex ties to their Sikh identity that has, in some ways, been kept alive through stories and legends.

The Muslims devotees of Ram Thamman and Hardo Sahari would also be only identified as Muslims, completely disregarding their devotion to Hindu and Sikh saints.

It is these unique religious identities of South Asia that census reports in our parts of the world fail to capture. Deployed as a colonial tool, the census reports imported a western world view and applied it to our distinct society. This, along with education and other state institutions, played an important role in colonising our minds, forcing us to see ourselves the way our colonial masters did.

Unfortunately, even 69 years after the creation of two independent countries, Indians and Pakistanis continue using the same colonial mechanisms to study our societies, creating divisions and distinctions that might have not necessarily existed.

When the Pakistani government undertakes the much-needed task of completing its census report that has been due for nearly a decade, it should take into account the traces that Partition has left in the intricate nature of our societies, that more than a century of census reports could not destroy.

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