Across the border

Pakistan’s ancient Shiva temple at Katas Raj has a rich non-Hindu heritage, now lost forever

Astronomer Al-Biruni did some of his greatest work here while Guru Nanak was also a visitor.

It was as if silver dust had been sprinkled on jet black cloth. I could not pull myself away from the stars. It was a clear night. A short spell of rain had settled the air. Nothing was between the earth and the planets above. It felt as if this was the centre of the universe. As if the entire cosmos rotated on its axis. Soon, though, the feeling evaporated and from being at the centre of the universe, I became a minuscule object attached to a speck of dust floating in infinity. I needed something to hold on to.

I was standing on top of a lone mound under the gazing stars. Suspended on a thin thread in the darkness were the lights of the nearest village. The ancient temple at the foot of the mound, too, was engulfed in darkness. Darkness had obliterated the distance between sacred and profane spaces. Only a little while ago, pilgrims had been praying at the temple of Shiva. The echo of bhajans had reverberated through the complex, while the light of the jyoti (lamp) had scattered everywhere. Now, there was a deep silence and a blinding darkness. It was just me and the stars.

The Al-Biruni connect

Al-Biruni, too, must have spent numerous nights sitting atop this mound, staring at the sky. One of the finest astronomers ever, he made numerous contributions to the field, including coming up with a methodology to calculate the radius of the world. Born in Central Asia, Al-Biruni became Mahmud Ghaznvi’s court astrologer in the early half of the 11th century. He accompanied his king during one of his invasions of India and decided to stay here for a while. He spent more than a decade between these two ancient sites, Katas Raj and Nandana, in the embrace of the Salt Range, close to the Jhelum river. It was during his time here that he conducted intensive research of the planets, which eventually resulted in the calculation of the radius of the world.

However, staring at the stars was not all he did in his decade-long stay in India. There was once an ancient Hindu university on top of the mound I had been standing on. Only its traces remain today, a faded staircase no longer usable. Here, Al-Biruni immersed himself in Hindu philosophy and theology. He was the first Muslim scholar to do so, making him the founder of Indology. His labour of love, a product of his learning, Al-Hind, is a remarkable book that presents India and Hinduism to the Muslim and Western world in a way it had never been done before. Devoid of prejudice, the book is an empathic study of Indian philosophy. In its essence, Al-Biruni argues, Hinduism is a monotheistic religion (one that believes in only one god), an extraordinary claim that implies Hindus have the same status in Islamic tradition as Christians and Jews.

Situated around a natural pool of water, believed to have been created from Shiva’s teardrop, the Katas Raj complex is one of the oldest temples in the region. There are several Hindu mythological stories that explain its origin, one of which is that these temples were constructed by the Pandava brothers during their 12 years in exile. Several of these stories are recorded on official boards placed around the site.

However, what is usually missing from the historical discussion on Katas Raj is its non-Hindu heritage. In its long history, the temple has been host to people of all denominations and religions who have left their mark on its heritage. Given the religious significance of the temple in Hinduism, most of these stories are either ignored or glossed over.

Gurdwara dedicated to Guru Nanak

On one of my several trips to the temple complex, I asked a guide, a young man appointed by the government, if he knew where the gurdwara of Guru Nanak was. He had never heard of it. The entire complex for him was just a collection of Hindu temples. But located on one side of the complex, a short distance from the pond, is an abandoned building that was once a gurdwara associated with the founder of Sikhism.

During his travels that spanned well over two decades, Guru Nanak visited several pilgrim sites where he challenged the religious rituals of devotees. On one such travel, he landed at Katas Raj, one of the most important Hindu pilgrimages north of Talwindi, his hometown. As was his habit, here too he must have challenged the dogmatic faith of pilgrims and priests. Years later, as his followers gained affluence, a gurdwara was constructed to commemorate his visit. While the guides and official boards identify other buildings around the temple, little is known about the history of this gurdwara.

Perhaps the most well known non-Hindu religious site at the Katas Raj complex is a partially excavated Buddhist stupa not far from the sacred pond. It was part of the Gandharan civilisation with its centre at Taxila, about 170 km from here. The remains of the stupa show this was a sacred space in Buddhist tradition as well. Perhaps like the Hindus, there must also have been a story of the sacred pond with a Buddhist origin, now lost.

Multi-religious heritage

This is a phenomenon not unique to the Katas Raj complex. In a multi-religious society like India, religious spaces were contested. Sometimes, these interactions were peaceful, and temples and shrines of several religious traditions existed together, like in Katas Raj. However, others were violent and assertive, as in the case of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, which karsevaks demolished in 1992 claiming it stood exactly on the spot where Ram was born. The demolition sparked riots across the country that left over 2,000 people dead.

Such varying interactions represent the complexity of relationships between religions in the long history of India. However, today it seems as if we have lost the ability to understand these dynamic relationships in their complexity. Katas Raj has become an ancient Hindu temple in the popular imagination, robbed of its multi-religious past. It is such a simplistic understanding of history that chauvinistic nationalists, who would like to remove the minorities from their midst, thrive on.

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

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content  BY 

Harvard Business School’s HBX brings the future of business education to India with online programs

HBX is not only offering courses online, but also connecting students to the power of its network.

The classic design of the physical Harvard Business School (HBS) classroom was once a big innovation – precisely designed teaching amphitheaters laid out for every student to participate from his or her seat with a “pit” in the center of the room from which professors orchestrate discussions analyzing business cases like a symphony lead. When it came to designing the online experience of HBX—the school’s digital learning initiative—HBS faculty worked tirelessly to blend these tenets of the HBS classroom pedagogy with the power of new technology. With real-world problem solving, active learning, and social learning as its foundation, HBX offers immersive and challenging self-paced learning experiences through its interactive online learning platform.

Reimagining digital education, breaking the virtual learning mold

Typically, online courses follow a one-way broadcast mode – lectures are video recorded and reading material is shared – and students learn alone and are individually tested. Moving away from the passive learning model, HBX has developed an online platform that leverages the HBS ‘case-based pedagogy’ and audio-visual and interaction tools to make learning engaging.

HBX courses are rarely taught through theory. Instead, students learn through real-world problem-solving. Students start by grappling with a business problem – with real world data and the complexity in which a business leader would have to make a decision – and learn the theory inductively. Thus even as mathematical theories are applied to business situations, students come away with a greater sense of clarity and perspective, whether it is reading a financial report, understanding why a brand’s approach to a random sample population study may or may not work, or how pricing works.

HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program
HBX Platform | Courses offered in the HBX CORe program

“Learning about concepts through real-life cases was my favorite part of the program. The cases really helped transform abstract concepts into observable situations one could learn from. Furthermore, it really helped me understand how to identify situations in which I could use the tools that HBX equipped me with,” says Anindita Ravikumar, a past HBX participant. India’s premier B-school IIM-Ahmedabad has borrowed the very same pedagogy from Harvard. Learning in this manner is far more engaging, relatable, and memorable.

Most lessons start with a short 2-3 minute video of a manager talking about the business problem at hand. Students are then asked to respond on how they would handle the issue. Questions can be in the form of either a poll or reflections. Everyone’s answers are then visible to the ‘classroom’. In the words of Professor Bharat Anand, Faculty Chair, HBX, “This turns out to be a really important distinction. The answers are being updated in real-time. You can see the distribution of answers, but you can also see what any other individual has answered, which means that you’re not anonymous.” Students have real profiles and get to know their ‘classmates’ and learn from each other.

HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort
HBX Interface | Students can view profiles of other students in their cohort

Professor Anand also says, “We have what we call the three-minute rule. Roughly every three minutes, you are doing something different on the platform. Everyone is on the edge of their seats. Anyone could be called on to participate at any time. It’s a very lean forward mode of learning”. Students get ‘cold-called’ – a concept borrowed from the classroom – where every now and then individuals will be unexpectedly prompted to answer a question on the platform and their response will be shared with other members of the cohort. It keeps students engaged and encourages preparedness. While HBX courses are self-paced, participants are encouraged to get through a certain amount of content each week, which helps keep the cohort together and enables the social elements of the learning experience.

More than digital learning

The HBS campus experience is valued by alumni not just for the academic experience but also for the diverse network of peers they meet. HBX programs similarly encourage student interactions and opportunities for in-person networking. All HBXers who successfully complete their programs and are awarded a credential or certificate from HBX and Harvard Business School are invited to the annual on-campus HBX ConneXt event to meet peers from around the world, hear from faculty and business executives, and also experience the HBS campus near Cambridge.

HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand
HBXers at ConneXt, with Prof. Bharat Anand

Programs offered today

HBX offers a range of programs that appeal to different audiences.

To help college students and recent graduates prepare for the business world, HBX CORe (Credential of Readiness) integrates business essentials such as analytics, economics, and financial accounting. HBX CORe is also great for those interested in an MBA looking to strengthen their application and brush up their skills to be prepared for day one. For working professionals, HBX CORe and additional courses like Disruptive Strategy, Leading with Finance, and Negotiation Mastery, can help deepen understanding of essential business concepts in order to add value to their organizations and advance their careers.

Course durations range from 6 to 17 weeks depending on the program. All interested candidates must submit a free, 10-15 minute application that is reviewed by the HBX admissions team by the deadlines noted on the HBX website.

For more information, please review the HBX website.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of HBX and not by the Scroll editorial team.