Pilgrimages are meant to test faith, and this one is no exception. Families from the dusty towns of eastern Punjab and Haryana, striving every year to celebrate Shivratri at the Katas Raj temple complex, brave visa glitches, a border crossing, and uncertain weather—political weather, that is. For decades after Partition, the Bajaj family, refugees from this region who resettled in Yamunanagar in Haryana, battered at the doors of Indian and Pakistani officialdom to get this important pre-Partition pilgrimage site reopened. In 1982, the pilgrimage was restarted, but got derailed whenever Indo-Pak tensions ran high. When the pilgrims did make it, it was to a desolate place. Grass grew, cattle grazed, roofs and doors vanished. Madeeha Gauhar, a Pakistani theatre personality, recalls visiting Katas in the '90s to find that Afghan refugees resettled in this sparsely populated area had tethered their donkeys inside the temples.
But the gods have clearly decided to make the test easier, for politics is finally on the pilgrims' side.
The sacred temple pond, Pushkar's kin So the pilgrims came back this year to a marble-floored Shiv temple, improved walkways and easier access to the sacred pond. And the welcome news that the Punjab government intends to lavish 109 million Pakistani rupees (Rs 8 crore-odd) on conserving temples, installing idols, landscaping, a museum of Hindus deities, pilgrim facilities and much else. Officials promised with alacrity to hunt for a missing yoni that pilgrims insist is embedded in the hillside, or, if it could not be found, get a new one to accompany the lingam in the Shiv temple.
And then, finally there was a heady dose of VIP attention, with Shujaat driving down in a bus to Katas the day after Mahashivratri with a bunch of grandees from Islamabad, including three federal ministers and leaders from his PML(Q). For the first time, the pilgrims were treated to a full-scale political tamasha. Schoolchildren strewing rose petals, paeans being delivered to inter-faith and Indo-Pak harmony, and Punjab archaeology officials holding forth on Hindu gods and legends. Not to be outdone, a suited-and-booted NRI representing the World Hindu Council spouted Urdu shairi on the sidelines, and promised diaspora dollars for Katas. The event was also a rare day in the limelight for Pakistani Punjab's minuscule Hindu population, like the Malhotras from Lahore, who came dressed in wedding finery for the jamboree, and petitioned officials for the restoration of dilapidated temples in Lahore. And finally, the VIP hosts joined the guests in that rarest of rare events in Pakistan—a shuddh vegetarian lunch.
An Urdu banner for Shivratri celebrations
Temple diplomacy is clearly a gesture of cultural accommodation on the margins of the Indo-Pak peace process, with veggie lunches and sacred lingams replacing jhappis and pappis. However, Babri Masjid is a subtext here: interlaced with the exquisite tributes to inter-faith dialogue was also a message that mosques and temples should function side by side. As a speaker poetically put it: "Azaan ki awaaz buland ho aur puja ke geet gaye jayein." (Let the muezzin's call and temple prayers sound in harmony.)
Secondly, temple diplomacy is also an extension of the growing bonhomie between the two Punjabs, and is fuelled by hopes that scenically located Katas might become a hotspot for religious tourism into Pakistani Punjab, of which Shujaat's brother, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, is the chief minister. The figure bandied about last week was two million Indian tourists—a staggering leap from the current 200—on the calculation that Pushkar, twinned with Katas in Hindu legends, gets that number. (One tear of Shiva on the death of his wife, Sati, is said to have created the holy pond at Katas, which means 'weeping eye' in Sanskrit, and another the one at Pushkar.)
Pre-eminently, however, temple talk seems to be about presenting a softer face of Islam not just to India but the world, and is in sync with a range of state-sponsored efforts to demonstrate the success of "enlightened moderation", the policy articulated by Musharraf in the aftermath of 9/11; for instance, encouraging women to enter professions like the armed forces, attempts to reform textbooks, calling a new airport Gandhara, vigorous state sponsorship of drama, dance, music and other activities that extremists think are un-Islamic. The patron of the recently-formed Sufi Council is Musharraf, and the vice-chairman is none other than Chaudhry Shujaat. All impeccably liberal stuff, but the policy is controversial, even among liberals, for various reasons—that it is West-dictated, tokenist, or is contradicted by the same government's appeasement of the religious right.
"This is not for local consumption, it is for international consumption," says I.A. Rehman, director, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, of the Katas project. "It's aimed at answering the Western criticism that minorities are not well-treated in Pakistan." It is also, adds Rehman, a kind of "flanking movement" against international criticism of Pakistan for promoting fundamentalism. "If one can't do anything about the mullahs, do something on the fringe that makes a deviation from the fundamentalist creed."
Yet, he added, "it is a good thing. Even if it's eyewash, it's one of the better eyewashes". Other liberals agree, and conservationists too welcome the spotlight on the archaeological heritage. "Archaeology has been a dormant department, there is not much expertise; and archaeological sites, whether Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, have been neglected," points out Prof Abdul Rehman, a Lahore architecture professor and conservator. As for the Indian pilgrims raising slogans of "Chaudhry Shujaat ki jai", they certainly had no quarrels with temple diplomacy when they left Katas for Lahore. But less than 36 hours later came the Samjhauta bomb blasts—a brutal reminder that there is far more to peace-making than a pilgrim's progress.
Anjali Puri in Katas, Pakistan