The shrine of Shah Rukn-e-Alam is a sight to behold. Standing atop a mound in Multan, one of the oldest living cities of South Asia, it is a shining example of traditional Multani tile-work – a splash of bright blue on light brown, in a city known for its heat and dust. It is one of the many shrines that earned Multan its “City of Saints” tag. Just behind this is the shrine of Bahauddin Zakariya, Shah Rukn-e-Alam’s grandfather.

At the base of the mound is the shrine of rebel saint Shamsuddin Sabzwari. Perhaps it is this challenge to religious dogma that attracted Guru Nanak, another rebel, to the shrine, more than 200 years after Sabzawari’s death.

Every day, several hundred people pay homage to these shrines.

There are dozens more such shrines in Multan, some of saints who, like Sabzwari, revolted against the religious establishment, and others of those who were a part of it. The monuments are spread throughout the city, in its streets and in its mohallas, most of them well looked after and visited hundreds of pilgrims every day.

In these mohallas also stand a few temples, oblivious to their surroundings. Most of them are now residential spaces and only upon close investigation does their real identity become apparent.

The contrasting conditions of these two kinds of religious spaces in close proximity – Muslim and Hindu – are a testimony to the rupture in history caused by Partition. In this milieu, Muslim and Hindu, it seems, cannot be placed side by side, except to describe their animosity.

For my elders, who witnessed a time when Hindu and Muslim shared more than just animosity, a shrine and a temple sharing a wall would have not been an unusual sight. For me, though, born and raised in a different world, it was unimaginable.

Parhlada Bhagat Mandir next to the shrine of Bahauddin Zakariya in Multan. Credit: Alie Imran

Standing ground

Defying this contemporary antagonist framework and complicated past, the boundary wall of the Prahalada Bhagat temple caresses the shrine of Bahauddin Zakariya. For decades after Partition, its turret gazed into the courtyard of the Sufi shrine, remembering a time when its premises too overflowed with pilgrims. After visiting the temple, devotees, exhausted by the heat of city, slept in the temple’s courtyard, the structure shielding them with its ever-lengthening shadow.

Almost overnight, the delicate and colourful fabric of the city was torn asunder. After Partition, Multan became a part of the new country of Pakistan and its Hindu population migrated in large numbers to India.

Some years later, someone decided the temple premises should be put to use and a madrassah was established within its premises. Where songs of devotion were once sung in honour of the Hindu pantheon, the drone of children memorising the message of monotheism found home. Scribbles testifying the divinity of an invisible almighty, beyond the scope of any physical representation, replaced icons of Hindu deities. Soon, even the temple forgot it was once dedicated to another religion.

Across the border and in other parts of the world, as the Hindu community celebrated Holi year after year with great fanfare, the temple where the festival of colours was believed to have originated seemed to have lost memory of it. What hundreds of years of civilisation, with its invasions and changing dynasties could not achieve was achieved by a few years of Partition – the mythological tale of Prahlada, the child-saint who defeated his father, the tyrannical king of the city, Hiranyakashipu, were never repeated in this temple or the city.

Colourful memories

There was a time when this temple hosted the grandest Holi celebrations in the city. Every year, as a pyre was lit on the eve of the festival, mothers told their children the legend of Holika, the evil sister of Hiranyakashipu who was given the boon of being immune to fire.

After having tried but failed to kill his son repeatedly, Hiranyakashipu asked Holika to step into the fire with the child. Confident about her gift, she entered the fire with Prahlada on her lap, however through divine intervention, the child survived but Holika was devoured by the flames. The burning pyre of fire on the eve of Holi became a symbolic of the triumph of good over evil.

Hiranyakashipu was also later killed by Narasimha, a man-lion incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who had to intercede to protect his true devotee, Bhakt Prahalada. Finally freed from the tyrannical rule of this monster king, the people of the city, constructed a temple in honour of Prahlada on an abandoned ancient mound and for the first time, Holi was celebrated here.

These stories came to life just one more time at the temple. Like flashes of a suppressed past, they passed through its eyes as a mob of hundreds gathered outside the temple to avenge the destruction of Babri Masjid across the border in in Ayodhya in 1992. As little madrassah kids with their skull caps scuttled past the exit of the temple, it was reminded it had been a Hindu temple all this while, even when pretending to be a madrassah.

The temple was reduced to rubble. It remains in this state, still caressing the wall of the shrine. The stories of Prahlada Bhagat, Hiranyakashipu, Holika, Narasimha and Holi have been scattered from here. However, every Spring, as the first spell of warm breeze flows through the plains of Punjab, on a silent dark night, one can hear in its howls the cries of Holika, the roar of Narasimha and the glee of the people of Multan as they celebrate Holi to mark Hiranyakashipu’s end – only if you listen carefully.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak.