Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Baloch is a unique Muslim who serves as caretaker of Hindu cremation ground and graveyard, depicting harmonious coexistence in a heavily stereotyped country like Pakistan.
Gujjar Hindu Cremation Ground, around 150-year-old burial-and-cremation facility for Sindhi Hindus located in Pakistan’s southern-most metropolis Karachi, is significant for half-million followers of the religion here.
Just inside huge main entrance gate, Murad has been watching the dead Hindus pouring in to the ground for a quarter of his life.
Located in thickly populated Lyari town, the stronghold of late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, which she had chosen for her wedding party, Baloch is not only looking after this 22-acre graveyard and cremation ground but also arranging woods and other items required for cremation since 1990.
He passionately cleans and maintains statues lying in small temples inside the premises. He also lights up lamps inside the temple, an important religious rites.
“It’s pleasure to serve the alive and the dead,” he says, adding, “Islam teaches me co-existence and peace.”
With 3 million population as per 1998 national census, Hindus are the biggest religious minority of Pakistan.
Majority of Pakistani Hindus are living in Karachi, Mirpurkhas and Sukkur regions of southern Sindh province. Majority of them belong to lower castes, they work as landless peasants, ironsmiths or construction labour.
Besides looking after the arrangements, Baloch guards this prime land in the heart of the city. Like other Asian urban centers, Karachi is a rapidly growing city where land grab for high-rise buildings is the biggest challenge.
‘Targeted killings’ claimed thousands in recent years, some of them fell prey to land grabbers. Sprawling land of Gujjar Hindu Cremation Ground remains seriously vulnerable.
He smilingly remarks, “The Balochs known to be warriors and even before Pakistan’s creation, we have served the Hindus for decades in Karachi.”
Once Karachi was a Hindu dominated city and most businesses belonged to them.
In creation of Pakistan and modern day India in 1947, most of these Hindus migrated to the Hindu majority cities in Maharashtra state across the newly-carved border.
According to official data, today Karachi is home to over half a million Hindus. Except a few, Hindus mostly are poor and belong so-called lower castes. The poor ones bury their dead, while the rich and upper-caste Hindus cremate their deceased dear ones.
Besides performing a role of traditional pundit (religious leader) in the temple, guarding the land and taking care of other religious rites, Baloch also serves warden for ashes, which were kept in this graveyard.
Hindus burn their dead and preserve the ashes in a cremation ground. Each of 130 earthen pots or plastic jars here is tied with red-and-white cloth, wrapped in flower wreaths and tags carry various identification details in Sindhi, Urdu, Hindi or English language.
The facility is not exclusive to the Hindus as Buddhists, Japanese and Chinese communities also preserve ashes of their dead here.
Ironically, when family members of the deceased wanted to take their ashes to immerse them in holy water of Ganges in India, the Pakistani Hindus were denied such religious rites across the border after 1971.
After India actively patronized Pakistan’s Bengali to break from the country, bitterness soared to the highest point. Both India and Pakistan tightened visa procedures for each other.
Only recently, the Pakistani Hindus won this right from India and ashes Baloch had been guarding for the last 21 year were taken there to immerse in the holy Ganges.
While talking to this correspondent, he was continuously directing some men to keep an eye on the workers, as construction was underway in the cremation ground.
When he was a child, his family lived near the historical cremation ground where people used to spend their evening as there were not many public parks around back then.
As a child, Baloch witnessed several bodies being cremated in the ground.
“I used to wonder why Hindus burn their dead,” his elders used to tell him that it is an important rite of Hindu religion.
He still remembers image of Maharaj Durga Bharati, a Hindu pundit and caretaker of the cremation ground, who used to perform religious rituals during the funerals.
“Bharati was a nice man who distributed candies and toffees among the children and greeted everyone, even Muslims in this Hindu graveyard-cum-cremation,” recalls Baloch.
Nostalgic Baloch says those were good times when nobody discriminated on the basis of religion. People were indentified with their respective profession.
He doesn’t have any problem working here, thus he wants his son Ayaz Baloch to succeed him.
Dr Govind Ram Dheerani, secretary general of Pakistan Hindu Foundation, says, “I am happy to find Baloch as caretaker of the graveyard as only a Muslim can work properly here in a country like Pakistan.”
Though religious extremism is on the rise in Pakistan, since the partition in 1947, inter-communal relations in Sindh remained generally peaceful, and the province has never witnessed any major anti-Hindu violence. Knee-jerk reaction to extremist Hindus’ demolition of Babri Masjid in Indian city of Ayodhya in 1992 is the only incident of its kind.
The Hindus and Muslims of Sindh enjoy a shared cultural heritage besides common Sufi influences.
Though in recent years some of Pakistani Hindus migrated to different countries, but rarely Sindhi Hindus have left the country as majority of Sindhi Hindus still enjoy living in Pakistan.
(NOTE : Amar Guriro is a staff reporter for daily Pakistan Today, in Karachi, Pakistan. He is also a media fellow of the UK-based NGO Water-Aid-Pakistan’s media fellowship program since 2009. He specializes in reporting on environment, health, conflicts and religious minorities. Amar has reported for Himal South Asian (Nepal), Daily Times (Pakistan) and The News on Sunday (Pakistan). He maintains his blog at www.amarguriro.com)