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.