Photo: Ahsan Shah
grandfather’s face was anguished, his thick white eyebrows raised, when he saw
the tiny statuette of the goddess Durga that I had taken from his friend’s
house. “My god, Annie, what have you done?” I had no answer, but even as a five
year old I knew I had done something terribly wrong; I had pocketed a deity
from a sacred place of worship.
my grandparents used to take us to Uncle Devraj’s house in Karachi where
together we celebrated the annual full moon sighting, known as Diwali. Devraj
was Hindu, and my grandfather was Muslim, but they both spoke Sindhi and shared
familial roots. Theirs was not a unique story. Unlike in Punjab, where
partition brought bloodshed on an unprecedented scale, the Sindh province to
the south saw little or no communal violence. The Hindus of Sindh largely
stayed behind. Muslim and Hindu families shared bonds that reached back
generations; a sense of respect for community prevailed. My grandfather even
had his own collection of Hindu icons in his study. Perhaps I’d taken the Durga
from Devraj’s house thinking it would be equally at home with him.
the years, things slowly began to change. General Muhamad Zia-ul-Haq, who
served as president from 1978 until his death in 1988, instituted an era of
Islamisation that was defined by militants and increasing violence. A series of
targeted attacks began on religious minorities. Hindus, Sikhs, Shia Muslims,
and Ahmedis, another sect that follows the Quran but is considered non-Muslim
in Pakistan, became prime targets. Throughout the 1990s, newspapers regularly
carried stories of “sectarian violence.” After Devraj’s death, his family
decided to move to Bombay. They came to see my grandmother one last time before
leaving. “Things are not the same anymore,” his wife told her. After my grandfather’s
death, none of his children claimed the Hindu figures he kept in his office. My
grandmother gave away the Durga from his study shelf to an antiques dealer.
memories, long forgotten, came flooding back when I decided to make a trip to
the Hinglaj—a Hindu holy site located half a day’s journey from Karachi, in the
troubled neighbouring province of Balochistan. Since partition, Balochistan has
seen a number of insurrections against the government, followed by military
reprisals. The province makes up a major portion of Pakistan’s coastal belt and
has vast natural resources. Yet it remains the poorest province in the country.
In recent decades, it has also become a centre of Islamic militancy. When I
learned that a revered Hindu site was located there, it came as some surprise.
It seems that borders and political unrest have done little to dissuade
pilgrims from Pakistan and India from tracing an ancient pathway to the resting
place of the goddess Durga.
temple is located in a cave in the Hingol mountains. It is where the goddess
Sati’s head (one of the forms of Durga) is said to have fallen from the sky
after her body was cut into 51 pieces by Vishnu. “The Hinglaj is to us as the
Ka’abah is to you,” said my local Hindu guide, Danesh Kumar, referring to the
shrine in Mecca toward which all Muslims direct their daily prayers. Kumar was
a local politician and a member of the representative committee of the Hinglaj
temple. Clad in a white shalwar kamiz, he fit the bill of both reverent pilgrim
and veteran politician. A journalist friend had introduced me to Kumar. He was
on his way to pay his respects at Hinglaj and had offered to take me along for
We were in
Kumar’s Hilux, a massive Japanese-made silver truck. Kumar and his family
hailed from Las Bela. The district covers the area from the southern town of
Hub, where Sindh ends and Balochistan begins. Kumar had lived in Las Bela until
a few years ago, when he moved to Karachi for the sake of his son’s education.
His son, Vansh Kumar, a precocious ten-year-old, sat patiently in the backseat
playing a game on his tablet. “People go to Hingol for vacation, but they
should try and learn a little about its history,” the boy told me.
Hilux, we moved comfortably along the highway leading out of Karachi. With one
hand on the steering wheel, Kumar called the private car tracking company where
his vehicle was registered, informing them he was soon going to cross into
Balochistan. After placing the call, Kumar remembered that this was the first
time I was travelling to the province, a fact I had mentioned to him over the
phone. He turned to me in the rear-view mirror. “People are very afraid to go
into Balochistan,” he said. “You are very brave to go, which is why I decided
to take you there myself.”
into Balochistan was risky. The local English language dailies had quoted
military commanders as saying there was no insurgency in the province, just a
“few misled militants.” But there were rumours of a full-fledged insurgency in
Awaran and other areas not far from our route. Members of media were completely
blocked from entering the province, and intimidated when they tried to write
about the conflict there. A few months ago, Sabeen Mahmud, a Karachi-based
activist and the owner of a local community space called The Second Floor, was
shot and killed while driving back after hosting a talk on the disappeared in
Balochistan. She had invited two of the most prominent activists campaigning on
the issue. Mahmud’s murder sent a clear message to journalists and activists
alike: Stay away from Balochistan.
encountered a checkpoint as soon as we entered Balochistan. Soldiers in
fatigues were positioned on either side of the road. One approached the window;
Kumar rolled it halfway down. “We are on our way to Hingol,” he said briskly.
The young soldier’s expression abruptly changed and he nodded and waved us
through. Apart from being a reliable off-road vehicle, the Hilux also serves
another purpose: In the land of VIP culture, the luxury SUV gives the
impression that someone important is inside, someone who might be offended for
being stopped. Kumar played the role perfectly with his dismissive manner.
after crossing the checkpoint, we reached Hub, a dusty industrial town that
served as a rest stop for travellers passing through. Now, because of Muharram,
an important holy month in the Islamic calendar, there were buses carrying
passengers to Iran for a month of religious observance. But the route is always
heavy with the traffic of trucks carrying goods from Iran and Afghanistan. A
major import from Iran is smuggled petrol.
main road, Hub looked like a nondescript commuter town. Small hotels dotted
both sides of the road. At the end of the road, was a squat structure,
incongruously massive. The Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) had built this large
mosque some years ago. A few blocks from the mosque, on the other end of the
road, was another marker of the Jamiat’s presence. Next to the sign reading
Mundra—the name of the road in Sanskrit—the Jamiat had erected another
identical sign with the Arabic name Seerat, which they found to be more
acceptable to their orthodox sensibilities. The JUI, presided over by Maulana
Fazlur Rehman, has been attributed with creating the Taliban. Rehman was called
“the West’s worst nightmare” by The Guardian.
distance away, the JUI presence was even stronger. The walls along an entire
stretch were full of graffiti praising Fazal-ur-Rehman. Across the road was an
old cemetery that contained the graves of Baloch fighters of the Kalamati
tribe, said to have fought alongside Mohammad Bin Qasim. The Arab conqueror had
led the armies of Islam in the 7th century to the Lower Indus Valley and sowed
the first seeds of the faith in India.
On a hill
at the back of the cemetery, a massive sign on the face of a hill read, Jamia
Qasim-Ul-Uloom (“The Congregation of the Students of Qasim”), the name of a
nearby madrasa. A lesser known fact about Bin Qasim is that he is said to have
not only murdered Raja Dahir, the Hindu ruler of Sindh, but to also have raped
the ruler’s daughters.
other side of a low boundary wall, at the edge of the old cemetery, there was a
relatively new row of graves. Though newer, they were poorly made and many were
cracked and crumbling. We saw two men packing earth on a muddy grave. They were
brothers who belonged to the local area, they told me. The grave was their
father’s, who had died two years ago. The brothers had dug his grave and buried
him. Since then, they came every year during Muharram to build on it. Last year
they added a tombstone and this year they brought the thin bricks that would
form the boundary. It was a stark contrast between the glorious legend of Qasim
being celebrated by the JUI and the poverty being experienced by the people
living in this place.
the brothers luck and Kumar suggested we get back on the road. Minutes later
were back on the highway again. Driving through Sonmiani, we passed a military
firing range. “All the missile tests are carried out here,” said Kumar, as we
passed the barracks covered in barbed wire. I spotted few locals along the way,
their homes fragile next to the enormous military installations. A herd of
goats slowed us down and then a young camel trotted past.
Every so often
the sea became visible from the highway, a glimpse of azure as rich as the
expanse of sky above. Then, just as quickly, it dipped away behind the rocky
landscape. In the town of Winder, Kumar stopped to pick up clay bowls of yogurt
for the temple. A small boy selling boiled eggs arranged along the rim of an
aluminium tray walked past as we waited, calling out with a voice that boomed
improbably out of his skinny frame.
road, a lone Hindu pilgrim sat on the pavement. He had an intense face, black
shining eyes, a sharp nose on a weathered face, framed by a thick hennaed
beard. He could have been wandering the coastline for months or thousands of
years. He was a Jogi, Kumar explained. The Jogis are the oldest pilgrims to the
Hinglaj, their journeys immortalized in the poetry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai,
which nearly every Pakistani knows. They belong to a special tribe of people,
mendicants who band together and wander the land in search of spiritual
knowledge. Once, they were respected and revered by the people, who offered
them food and sometimes money in support of their lifestyle. But today, they
get by giving camel rides at the beach or touring the streets with trained
Latif Bhitai was one of the most famous pilgrims to the Hinglaj. According to
local lore, his father, Shah Habib, once came across a group of Jogis. Habib
asked where they were headed. They were on their way to pay respects to the
Hinglaj, they told him. The journey from Thatta to Hinglaj was arduous, a route
that took days, even weeks, and passed through scorching desert and dense
jungles, with bandits along the way.
Habib repeated the encounter to his son, Latif. “The Jogis are dishonest, and
dishonest is their quest,” said Shah Habib. “When enlightenment can be found
within oneself, why do the Jogis pretend the pilgrimage all the way to
Hinglaj?” Latif listened to his father and responded: “They are honest, and
honest is their quest, for I myself have been to meet the Mata”—the Mother.
Sorley, a British Imperial Officer, was posted in the Lower Indus in the 1800s,
he was immediately enchanted with the life and work of the poet who had lived a
century before. Sorley found Latif to be “contemplative and thoughtful, fond of
loneliness and loved to wander by himself.” Latif, Sorley wrote, “found
pleasure in passing time with holy men and fakirs in an effort to understand
the ideals which they strove to interpret.” The most stunning visual in Latif’s
poetry is that of a Jogi, his hair loose around his shoulders, standing on top
of the mountain of Hinglaj.
Back on the
highway, I watched the vistas passing outside the window. They felt unfamiliar.
Here and there were cliffs with sandy slopes. The earth looked silvery pale. To
our left were marshes and low trees, Tamarisk and Baboor, ancient small trees
with twined trunks, surrounded by the swirl of fine dust. Back in the times
when the pilgrims made the journey on foot, they were said to carry funeral
shrouds with them, for the path ahead was long and arduous and the chances of
coming back alive live were slim. If they died on the way, it was not uncommon
for their bodies to be buried—and not cremated, even if they were Hindu—and for
a tomb to be erected at the site, so they too could be revered for their
One of the
first rituals in the pilgrimage was a climb up a volcano for a prayer to Shiv,
the great ascetic god of the Hindus. In the distance, beyond the marshy plains,
we could see the silver peak of the Chandar Goop, a barren volcano with a long,
sloped face dotted with human forms. “There are many pilgrims here,” said Kumar
as we pulled in beside several parked buses in a sandy makeshift lot.
There was a
group setting off from their bus, barefoot men wrapped in white cloth on their
way to join a much larger group, already on the summit. I sat in the car
contemplating whether or not to go up. It was a blistering 104 degrees
Fahrenheit outside. “People are known to faint while climbing,” Kumar said, “so
on special festival occasions when there are large crowds, we arrange for
ambulances.” I hesitated, but curiosity won and I decided to climb to the top.
was a mushy clay that gave little traction. Along the way, there were wooden
pegs in the ground every few steps for support. The going was slower than I had
expected and we soon fell behind the group who had just set out. Halfway up, I
began to feel lightheaded and had serious doubts about my decision, but my
pride was at stake now. I pushed on. The group of pilgrims at the top, now
about thirty people, were seated along the rim of the mouth of the volcano and
smiling at us as we approached, seemingly amused at my struggle. Finally, we
made it to the top and settled on a spot along the rim.
summit was a shallow basin of mud that was bubbling in places. The pilgrims
performed a series of prayers and sang Bhajans, Hindu devotional songs. In the
wet clay at the edge of the rim, devotees had sculpted lingams. They smeared
their bodies with the sacred ash prayed to the clay forms to protect them as
they traversed the last phase of their journey towards the temple. They had
travelled three days and were finally ready to continue on to their
destination, Hinglaj. We descended the volcano with them, and again I found
myself falling behind the barefooted men, stumbling in my sneakers that were
now full of ashy mud.
smaller volcano close to Chandar Goop, devotees have built lingums in the soil
by the water. Photo: Ahsan Shah
into the Hilux, feeling guilty as I tracked mud onto the pristine mats inside,
despite Kumar’s assurance that it would be easy to clean. “We should get
moving,” he said, “it’s getting late. I didn’t think you would climb all the
way to the top.”
soon on our way to Hinglaj, and our trusty vehicle quickly pulled out far ahead
of the heavily loaded buses carrying pilgrims. Mountains of sand now gave way
to sharp stony hills. The foliage here was thicker. Hingol is perhaps the most
lush patch of greenery between Hub and Jiwani near the Iranian border. It’s a
landscape of mountains intertwined with gorges cut by the Hingol river. We were
driving alongside it as we made our way to the mountain where the temple was
located. “There are giant crocodiles here,” Kumar told us. “But they come out
when it gets a bit cooler.”
river, the Hilux made its way across a massive bridge. Built very recently, the
bridge had eased the passage for the pilgrims. Up until five or six years ago,
I was told, there had been no bridge. The pilgrims often spent several days
sleeping on the cliff, waiting for the water levels to go down before they
could cross to the temple.
ended in a gravel parking lot at the base of a sloping hill where a number of
buses were parked. I tried to spot the group of pilgrims we had met at Chandra
Goop, but I couldn’t find them. Just below the entrance to the cave, a stretch
of open ground on the slope was home to a small rest-stop built for weary travelers,
complete with rooms to rent, a communal food area, and solar power for basic
electricity needs. The whole atmosphere here was festive and relaxed.