The building is dilapidated and has a narrow, dark stairway. The three-storey structure should be declared uninhabitable, and yet, it is home to several families. On the first floor, I notice a huge crack that runs across the ground, into the wall and then the roof. I hesitantly step on to the other side of the crack – surprisingly, the ground does not give way.
A room on this floor houses a madrassah. Its wooden door is painted green, with the words Madrassah Noor-ul-Quran scribbled at the top. The entrance has a big lock. It is a Sunday and the madrassah is shut. Unlike the building, the calligraphy at the madrassah follows a perfect symmetry. But ironically, it is at this spot that the structure is most tilted.
Following the winding staircase, we reach the roof. Using pieces of cloth, this spacious area has been divided between three families. The kitchen, bathroom and bedroom are out in the open, under the warmth of the winter sun. I have no idea what these families do during the summer or monsoon. The small turret of a temple is in front of us – its top was demolished well over two decades ago.
“There was nothing we could do,” said an old woman who lives on this roof. “The students of the madrassah downstairs were leading the attack.” I cannot wrap my head around this. This structure was earlier a temple, now be used as a residential area. All that remains of the temple is the broken turret at the top. These students had been using this temple as their madrassah, but when the Babri mosque in Ayodhya by Hindu karsevaks on December 6, 1992, sparking communal riots in India, they wanted to destroy the very building where they studied.
Not only that, they continued using one of the rooms of this temple as their madrassah as the inflamed passions in the aftermath of the riots started to die out. “The qari of the madrassah led his students,” the woman said. “This temple was allotted to the qari’s family after Partition. He later sold different rooms and portions of this temple to other families. We have bought our portion of this roof for Rs 60,000.”
I find it impossible to understand the crazed obsession of the qari and his students to destroy this temple, their home, on that fateful day of December 1992.
This was the historical Shitala Mandir, flanked by two of Lahore’s historical gateways into the walled city, Shahalami and Lohari. During my interviews with old members of the Hindu community of Lahore who had seen a city untainted by Partition and the communal divisions that followed, many spoke of this temple.
A visit here was like a recreational tour for members of the community and even Muslim women would come here. The deity, an incarnation of Hindu goddess Durga Devi, was considered particularly effective in curing poxes and sores. There was a vast pool facing the temple, now converted into a public park. Young Hindu and Muslim mothers used to bring their children here to ward off poxes before the era of vaccination.
I was particularly interested in visiting this temple because of its association with Durga Devi. I had documented a few Hindu temples around Lahore and Punjab, but presiding deity of most was male.
In and around
The Shitala Temple was one of the last remnants of Shaktism in Lahore, a Hindu tradition that centres around the female deity. Growing up in an environment in which religious symbols were hijacked by men, I was drawn towards Shaktism, which provided an alternate approach to religion. I knew that such an interpretation of female-centric temples and rituals were more of my own romanticism of a pre-patriarchal religion rather than a reflection of the reality. However I was still drawn like a magnet towards the last remains of Shaktism in the city.
About 10 km from here, in the middle of the locality of Niaz Baig – a historical town that has now been incorporated into Lahore – are the remains of Bhadrakali Mandi. The temple seems like a rude awakening in the middle of this congested locality. Only the hollow structure of this place of worship, dedicated to goddess Bhadrakali remains. There are a frescoes on its wall of the temple and there used to be a huge pole facing it, the traces of which have now been covered by wild grass.
In pre-Partition Lahore, this temple used to host one of the largest festivals of the city, flocked to by Hindus and Muslims alike from faraway places. Now only the structure remains, while other buildings connected with the complex have been taken over by refugees of Partition from the other side of the border. There was a time when Bhadrakali saved the world from Lord Shiva’s dance of destruction, but today no one can save her temple from being dilapidation.
The village of Totala is on the Multan Road, in the outskirts of Lahore. The name of the village is derived from the Totala Mandir at the centre. It is a modest temple, a single octagonal structure with a dome on the top, reminiscent of a Sufi shrine in some ways.
Totala is an incarnation of Kali Devi, believed to be in a state of inebriation, which makes her totala, meaning she starts lisping. The tongue of Devi Mata used to be worshipped at this temple. I stand at the entrance of the temple, which now serves as a residential quarter for a refugee family from across the border. A scion of the family emerges and tells me that I cannot be allowed inside as the womenfolk of the temple are there. Decorum is to be maintained and I would have to come another day to pay homage to Totala Devi.
Haroon Khalid is the author of the books Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.