West indian culture

In the Pakistani province of Sindh, Hindu culture contradicts predictions


SUKKUR, Pakistan – On the sandy banks of the Indus River, which crosses Pakistan from top to bottom and empties into its southern province of Sindh, Hindus waited for brightly colored boats to ferry them to a peaceful island that is home to a temple for almost 200 years.

Cheers echoed across the water as the marble and sandalwood temple complex of Sadhu Bela rose. “Long live Sadhu Bela!” cried the passengers of the boat.

The temple attracts tens of thousands of Hindus from Muslim-majority Pakistan every year for festivals and rituals, including the recent celebrations of Diwali, an important Hindu holiday.

The island was gifted to the Hindu community by wealthy Sindh Muslim landlords two centuries ago. This would have been an unthinkable act in modern Pakistan, where Hindus are often marginalized, persecuted and even killed.

About 4 million Hindus live in Pakistan, about 1.9% of the country’s population, and 1.4 million are in Sindh.

There is no ban on Hindu worship in Pakistan, but Hindus say practicing the faith openly is not a matter of routine. Decades of political hostility between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan present a challenge for the minority community, as many in Pakistan equate Hindus with India. The opposite exists in India where Muslims complain of discrimination.

But the landscape of Pakistan, and Sind in particular, retains their imprint. It has temples, although their number has dropped. There are Hindu-run businesses as well as educational and health institutions, many of which were established before the country was established in 1947. They are part of Pakistan’s heritage, although Hindus are forced into the shadow .

As Sadhu Bela came to life with the delight of devotees exploring the courtyards and gardens, Dewan Chand Chawla, a local politician and Secretary General of the Pakistan Hindu Temple Management Committee, spoke proudly about the temple’s origins and features. The shrine, which celebrates its bicentenary in 2023, was built by craftsmen from the Indian city of Jodhpur and reflects the architectural style of the Taj Mahal.

“A large part of the Hindu population migrated to India after the establishment of Pakistan, but those who remained here are happy and prosperous,” Chawla said, keen to underline the harmonious relationship between the Muslim majority and the Hindu minority. “I am grateful to the Muslim community in Pakistan, who fully support us at all times. We abide by the law and are supported by the government.”

His assertion of a happy and prosperous Hindu community, however, is not the majority opinion. Rights groups have long argued that Pakistan is not doing enough to protect Hindus’ freedom of religion and belief. They cite desecrations of temples, attacks on businesses, homes and individuals and the abduction, forced conversion and forced marriage of young Hindu women.

Chawla is not the only politician to push an image of religious coexistence in Pakistan. “Most of the Hindu people in the country are living in Sindh province satisfactorily, peacefully and free from any fear or threat,” said Waqar Mahdi, Senior Adviser to the Chief Minister of Sindh.

Mahdi said provincial officials have prioritized protecting the rights of minorities like Hindus and Christians.

But Zahida Rehman Jatt, professor of anthropology and social sciences at the University of Sindh, said there had been an increase in discrimination and marginalization of Hindus due to the rise of extremism and fundamentalism in the country. This intolerance risks undermining Pakistan’s ties to its Hindu heritage, she said.

“It’s sad because their contribution (of Hindus) is huge in Pakistan,” she said. “Most Pakistanis are unaware of the importance of Hindu heritage or the contribution that Hindus – and Sikhs – have made to the betterment of Pakistani society.”

Some institutions founded by Hindus changed their names after the establishment of Pakistan, she said, citing Hyderabad’s Kundan Mal Girls’ School as an example. It was founded in 1914 by Hindu philanthropist Saith Kundan Mal, but is now known as Jamia Arabia Girls School. These changes are one of the reasons Pakistanis are unaware of the contribution of minority religions, she said.

Other institutions still bear the names of their Hindu benefactors, including a red-brick college and two hospitals in the town of Shikarpur, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Sukkur.

On the first night of Diwali, one of Hinduism’s most important festivals, clay lamps subtly illuminated doorways and window sills in Shikarpur. But there were no elaborate light displays or street festivities, and the traditional Diwali firecracker entertainment took place away from the public eye.

The city of around 200,000 inhabitants has a rich history and Hindu traditions, which are gradually fading.

One of the guardians in this story is in a large courtyard next to a side road. Recently, at the end of October, the owner of a confectionery, Dewan Narain Das, 67, took advantage of the fresh air. Vats of food were bubbling, children were running and playing outside, and people were gathering to exchange Diwali gifts and good wishes on the holy occasion.

His family has owned a business in Shikarpur since the late 19th century. It started as a soft drink store and after partition became a confectionery. It is famous in the city for falooda, an ice cream dessert with noodles. Das is so well known in the city that it is easy to find him just by asking “Dewan Sahib, who owns the falooda shop”.

“People who have lived here a long time say the taste they enjoyed 20 years ago is still there in our products,” Das said.

He said Shikarpur once had a large Hindu community and dozens of temples, a number that has since dwindled. “Wealthy people used to have picnics on the Indus River,” he said. “They used to live here, but their businesses expanded to Singapore, Hong Kong and Mumbai.”

Many Hindus left after partition and their properties were taken over by a government trust. Today, Pakistan has some 225 million people.

Jatt, the scholar, said the properties were allotted to refugees coming from India to the newly established Pakistan. Most tenants paid minimal rent and were often unable to take care of the properties. “They (residents) are very poor and these properties are grand, they were previously owned by wealthy Hindus,” Jatt said.

After partition, politicians trying to forge a Pakistani narrative emphasized Muslim heritage, downplaying contributions from other communities, Jatt said.

“I don’t think we will see that kind of legacy or contribution from Hindus again, the opportunities are on the wane,” she said. “There may be individual cases of philanthropy, but the scale of construction and philanthropy will decrease.”

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