Saturday, January 30, 2016

Born of clay, fading into the sands of time

 It is possible that soon, pottery-making will be nothing more than part of a curriculum restricted to art schools.

In this part of the world, where the remains of Moenjedaro and Harappa provide the world with glimpses of centuries-old craftsmanship, the tradition of pottery is still deeply rooted. However, the market for clay items, while it does exist, is not large enough to accommodate potters, leaving traditional pottery-making to wither into a dying art.

It is possible that soon, pottery-making will be nothing more than part of a curriculum restricted to art schools.

Amidst the old quarters of Rawalpindi in Gawalmandi, surrounded by auto repair shops, there is a small market colloquially known as “kumhaaron ki gali”, or Potters’ Street, which specialises in items made of clay. Historically inhabited by non-Muslims, Muslim immigrants from Eastern Punjab moved to the area after the Partition, replacing the existing Hindu and Sikh population.

“We migrated from Amritsar, and pottery has been our family business for several generations,” Mohammad Ishaq Butt, who owns a pottery shop in the market, said. He explained that following the Partition, several potters’ families settled in the area and resumed their old trade.

Along Potters’ Street, a customer can find household items and crockery fashioned out of play. The items range from water tumblers, to water coolers, oil lamps, piggy banks and gardening pots, amongst many others.

However, despite the existing market, and the centuries’ old tradition, several shop owners say pottery is a lost art.

“Traditional pottery is long gone,” one shop owner and clay artisan said. He added that clay pots now are manufactured in factories in Lahore, Gujranwala, and other industrial sites in the country. The pots are then brought here and sold.

The shop owner’s father, who was present at the shop quipped, “We haven’t made pottery for the last three decades – now we just sit here.”

According to many vendors, the present generation has abandoned the profession entirely, choosing instead to purchase factory-made clay items and sell them. However, there are still some items that are made locally. Amongst them is the traditional clay oven – the tandoor, or huqqa.

Potters' street, Rawalpindi
These tandoors, which are made from a mixture of black clay and sheep hair, cost between Rs200 and Rs1,500. He said despite gas loadshedding facing many households and restaurants, no one is interested in buying these ovens.

In Rawalpindi, there are still some spots where one can witness pottery in its traditional form.

Hasan Ali is a craftsman who still uses traditional methods to make his clay huqqa, in a small compound in Gawalmandi. Ali explained that he learnt the art of pottery from his forefathers. “The art is dying, but we cannot do much,” he added.

A VIEW of one of the few clay workshops at the Potters’ Street in Rawalpindi.

According to Shahid Waheed, Associate Professor at the National College of Arts (NCA) Ceramics’ Department, “The reason behind the decline of traditional pottery is that many potters are not educated, and have limited exposure to the commercial market.”

Waheed said that since demand in the market has changed, new techniques more suited to meet the new demand, have evolved, leaving little space for traditional potters and their art.

“The survival of traditional pottery-making and its craftsmen will be difficult without the government’s support.”

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

'Jab We Met' Again in Rawalpindi

Maijnjit Singh Ahluwalia and Haji Gul Zaman in Rawalpindi
This is the voice of Rawalpindi – a city which has a lot to tell about its history and heritage— but only to those who commit themselves to the listening to the tales of this old city.
And I am one of those lucky souls of this city.

Mainjit Singh Ahluwalia and Haji Gul Zaman standing at the top of an old haveli somewhere in a narrow street of Bhabhra bazaar, Rawalpindi. But this is the climax of the story.
Mainjit Singh was just three at the time of partition. He visited his ancestral house and city 30 years ago and he is visiting his ancestral house once again.

We started out journey from Saidpuri gate, moving towards Chan bazaar and then Bhabhra bazaar. Maihnjit Singh randomly asked me how much is the distance from Saidpuri gate to Bhabhra bazaar. I said 'quite a distance' and he replied "aewein marda minnu pata" and started quickly moving towards the bazaar.

He kept on moving, taking quick steps. People were amused to see a Sardar ji with blue turban moving around like a kid in the streets. Whoever asked him "kidhar jana Sardar ji?' and he replied "apnay kaar jaana" and then started explaining him his family history..."Koocha Tara Singh ch kar ae, Parchhatti alli galli ch, kithay ae?"

And it happened again and again. Finally near Sujan Singh Haveli, a middle aged lady helped us. She was so nice and I am really thankful to her. She knew where we really wanted to go. She not only told the way but walked with us around 500 meter till the corner of the street.

In a street of Bhabhra bazaar area, Rawalpindi
As we enter entered narrow lanes, which were so complex I lost contact with Mainjit Singh, he was moving so fast. Now my quest began to relocate him as he didn't has any contact number or mobile. I asked people in street about Sardar ji and each person told me he went this way, he went that way... and finally a man on bike told me that he dropped him at the haveli with a parchatti, connecting both parts of haveli with a bridge.

At the gate of haveli I asked the man did you see him and man told that 'he is sitting inside", I mean what?

When I went upstairs Haji Gul Zaman and Mainjit Singh were gossiping like school fellows. Amazing!

Words are not enough to explain the feelings. They laughed, cried and hugged.

They went on the roof and here they were pointing at different areas and buildings, who were who and who lived where. "Eh Koocha Tara Singh, Eh Boota Singh da kaar, Eh Bhagat Chand da, Eh oh, Ethay oh" etc etc.

And then Haji Gul Zaman presented a brick of haveli to Mainjit Singh Ahluwalia and I believed this brick is not just a piece of stone.
Mainjit Singh Ahluwalia and Haji Gul Zaman

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Vachhowali: This narrow lane has many tales to tell

Interior view of the temple complex

To be fair, it was not the first time when my hands shook while clicking a photograph.

I was roaming around in the walled city of Lahore with Sohail Abid, the dark and narrow lanes, the busy bazaars and a lot of noise. That's what I like about the walled city. Then, we came across a street, a bazaar, known as Vachhowali bazaar. It’s one of the several streets that connect Rang Mahal to Lohari Gate area.

The bazaar's width is not more than 4 feet. It has jewelry shops, embroidery and wedding dresses and some other stuff like plastic materials used in furnishing houses.

While walking down the Vachhowali street, Sohail pointed out a sign board, a marble plaque erected at the top of a huge wooden gate, "Sanatana Dharma Sabha, Lahore" was the text, in Devanagari and English.

The marble plaque "Sanatan Dharm Sabha, Lahore"
It was fascinating to see such a huge gate, around 12 feet in such a narrow bazaar, it was surely a huge complex I assumed. We did Salam/Dua to the persons sitting just inside the gate; they were tailors if I remember correctly.  We exchanged some words:

"Eh mandir aey?" [Is this a temple?]
"Haan ji" [Yes]
"Kithay hai mandir?" [Where is the temple?]
"Idher, hun muk gya, karr ae hun" [Here, now finished, it’s a home now]

I moved towards the courtyard of the complex, which is no more a courtyard now, the residents of this place have built new rooms here, those newly constructed walls were also in dilapidated condition. It appeared like that there are several families living inside this complex and had made divisions to adjust, accordingly.

The huge wooden gate of the temple
While Sohail was chatting with the guys at the gate, I was looking for the architecture of temple, a dome or any sign.

Then I saw at my right side, it was this narrow lane, and just at the end of lane there was a temple standing there, hidden among the walls, around twenty feet tall dome, I took out the camera and focused the architecture. But I couldn't press the button. I tried once again. It was just matter of a click. I didn't take the picture. I don't know what was stopping me from taking the picture of this old temple. The situation became disturbing for me. I shook my head. Took a deep breath. Waited for few seconds. Then a little kid appeared from this door and I took this picture promptly. And we left the place.

Stepping out of this complex, I was satisfied. It made me feel that I didn't break someone's trust. Don't know whose and why.

Vachhowali. The narrow lane. From Lohari Gate to Rang Mahal.

Now let’s see what does history say about this area. Kanhiya Lal Hindi, the historian, writes about it. In his book "History of Lahore" (Published 1884), he has mentioned four huge Hindu temples in Vachhowali bazaar and Mohallah Vachhowali. These are "Thakurdwara Jawala Dai", "Makaan Ram Dawara", "Bhero Ji ka Sthan" and "Mandir Bawa Mahr Das"

There were several other temples too in the area constructed later. One famous temple was Krishna Mandir which has been demolished recently.

Vachhowali bazaar, a portion of bazaar which is relatively wide. 
Three of these old temples were located in streets of Mohalla Vachhowali, but one temple, according to Kanhiya Lal Hindi, was located in the Main Bazaar of Vachhowali and that was "Thakurdawara Jawala Daii". The description he mentioned is his book is quite similar to what we saw at Sanatana Dharma Sabha complex. The huge gate, the high doorsteps and the huge complex.

I am not sure if it is the same temple. The Sanatana Dharma movement was started in 1921, almost 40 years after this book was published.

It's an interesting fact that Vachhowali area was also home of migrant Kashmiri Pandits who settled here in mid-1800s. Among prominent figures, the first Indian Judge of Lahore Chiefs Court, Justice Pandit Ram Narain Dar was born in 1849 in his ancestral house in this area.

It is clear that it was a Hindu dominated area before the partition and surely this temple or complex at Vachhowali had a vital role. I haven't heard or read anything about Vachhowali, but now this is a new chapter I want to explore. A chapter, which remained ignored and abandoned for many years, just like this temple.

This temple of Vachhowali has many stories to tell of several generations. The Hindu generations who lived here and the Muslim generations who are living here now. The stories of love, hate, violence and survival...

us gali ne ye sun ke sabr kiya
jane wale yahan ke thay hee nahi
[Jaun Eliya]

Do our hands also shiver while writing the stories of the past?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Dina... Waiting for Gulzar

Gulzar at Dina Railway Station. Picture Courtesy: Mirza Baig

About a hundred kilometers from the capital city of Islamabad in Pakistan, by the G.T.Road, in district Jhelum, sits the historic town of Dina.

The same Dina, on whom Gulzar penned his immortal lines:

Zikr Jhelum ka, baat ho Dine ki. 
Chand Pukhraj ka, raat Pashminey ki

Dina is the birthplace of renowned south Asian poet Sampooran Singh Kalra. Popularly known as Gulzar, he was born in Kurla, a village some 3 kilometers away from Dina, on the 18th of August in the year 1936. Gulzar’s father Makkhan Singh, set up his business and home in the main market of Dina and settled here with his family.

The house where Gulzar spent most of his childhood and the shop attached to it still stands as a witness to history. Here in Dina, the square on which Gulzar’s home is located and once called Purana Dakkhana Chowk, is known today as Pakistani Chowk.

The Return Home

Gulzar was born in Dina, of Jhelum, Pakistan

Last year, when Gulzar returned to visit his birthplace, for the first time after the Partition, he could not hold back his tears on seeing the home he had left many years ago, and broke down. The ancestral home of Gulzar now belongs to one Sheikh family and the members of this family say that they were tenants of the Kalra’s before Partition and was allotted the house post Partition.

An elderly member of the Sheikh family, advocate Sheikh Abdul Qayum, who is of the same age as the poet was Gulzar’s childhood friend as well. He reminisces, “our homes stood side by side and we went to the same school”.  Sheikh Abdul Qayum further adds “when Gulzar came down here, I suggested this lane be named as Gulzar Street, to which Gulzar responded that it would be really great if that did happen!”

According to Sheikh Abdul Qayum, this lane has remained unchanged for the last seventy years and a part of the Kalras’ house still remained in its original condition. This is where Gulzar’s father Makkhan Singh had once set up his textile shop.

This is where Gulzar started his primary education. The school has a block named after him too.
The ancestral home is located in a lane about 4 feet wide.  In the other part of this house, new buildings have been constructed. Residents of Dina comment that when Gulzar came visiting, there was a suggestion to buy this building and turn it into a library, but in the long run, nothing could be done about it. However, after his visit, this street is addressed as Gulzar Street nowadays.

The government run high school, where Gulzar received his primary education is located in Miyan Mohallah of Dina. Unfortunately, his classroom no longer exists! Javed Ahmed, the current headmaster of the school informs that the part of the old structure which housed Gulzar’s classroom no longer exists. However, he adds that there is a new school block built on what was earlier(during the time Gulzar studied here) the school playground and has been named Gulzar Kalra Block.

He says “we wish Gulzar to visit again and spend more time with us at the school.” Stating that the school is proud that a student from this institution has won such accolades all over South Asia, Javed goes on to add “the academic records of this school have always been superb but at the same time students from the school have also excelled in the fields of Literature, Art and Sports at the district level.”

The Good Old School Days

This lane, the location of Gulzar’s ancestral home, is now known as Gulzar Street
The Government High School of Dina had initially started off as a primary school in 1921. It was later converted into a middle school in 1941. It was during this time that Gulzar studied here. Finally, in 1989, the school was awarded the status of a high school.

Sheikh Abdul fondly remembers that during his Pakistan Yatra(tour), while Gulzar went visiting his alma mater with some of his friends, he was in very high spirits and led the way. To Abdul Qayum, he seemed almost like a little boy happily trotting off to his school. Qayum quipped “ I told him you forgot to carry something, and when Gulzar asked “what?” I replied “your satchel”, to which he smiled ”

The relation between Gulzar and Dina is a well-known fact today. But it is also equally true that the literary heritage of Dina and the district Jhelum goes a long way back in history. Speaking of the literary scholars, poet Shahzad Qamar from Dina told me that this area had gifted us with some of the most amazingly talented writers and the specialty of these authors lied in the literature of resistance.

The Literature of Resistance

Starting from the revolutionary poet and trade union leader Darshan Singh Awara to contemporary poets like Tanveer Sapra, Iqbal Kausar and other writers, the literary style is that of resistance. Through their works, they had always raised their voices against all forms of injustice.

In Qamar’s view, even today, many a poet and writer from Dina are still related to the literature of resistance. When asked about Gulzar’s popularity in Dina, poet Siddique Suraj replied that though everybody knew about Gulzar, his connection to Dina has came into light only after his recent visit to the town.

In naming a school block and a street after her famous son, Dina and her people express their love for Gulzar. The people of Dina look forward to another trip from the poet, sometime soon. With hope in their hearts and a fervent wish, they eagerly wait for Gulzar!

This article was originally published in  BBC Hindi and BBC Urdu

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Banni Mai Veero and Muhammad Ishaq: “No I don’t want to visit Ambala”

Muhammad Ishaq

The history of Rawalpindi is a scattered one spread across a vast area. To draw a complete picture of our history, one has to collect the scattered pieces and put them together. No doubt it’s quite a difficult task and takes time and patience.

Most of us know that Rawalpindi was used as a convenient route by the invaders coming from North Western regions and later British Army used the city as one of the most important cantonments in North Western region of British India in the days of The Great Game.

Before the Partition, Rawalpindi was an urban center mainly populated with Hindus and Sikhs. Even today, one can see the old remnants of their existence in the old areas of the city in the form of houses, abandoned temples and gurdwaras.

However, during the last 60 years post partition, the city has undergone a lot of changes. The Hindu and Sikh population migrated to India in 1947 and the city provided shelter to the Muslim migrants from Punjab, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

The city of Rawalpindi, home to several Hindu temples and Sikh Gurdwaras, was also renowned for some other historic landmarks, be a Dhobi Ghaat, a Haveli or a public space. With the passage of time and the increase in population the demography of the city changed gradually. Most of the old and historic places fell victim to the advent of modernization and gave way to countless commercial buildings, markets and concrete matchbox structures.

Mai Veero di Banni (The Abode of Lady Veero) is one such victim.

Video Market where there was a pool.
Video Market where there was a pool
It is said that Mai Veero was an aged Hindu lady, who was saintly in her behavior others and respected among the masses. Banni Mai Veero was built by her, for the benefit of the people where they could bathe, swim and rest and freshen up. It was a sort of a gathering spot, much like the Greek Agora, for the public in the very heart of the city. The water source of the pool was from a clean water stream nearby (an area on the opposite side known as Kartarpura).

Some old residents of Rawalpindi say that the area around Banni Mai Veero was densely populated by Khatri Hindus.

Marks of a stream between Kartarpura and Emanabad Mohallah
While hunting for Banni Mai Veero I managed to reach the exact spot where the pool once had been. Today, it is a market housing video shops. I met the president of the market who, on my request introduced me to the oldest living person of the area.

That is how I met Muhammad Ishaq, popular in the area as Bhiyya ji, a Fruit-Chaat seller in this market.
Born in Ambala Cantonment area (now in Indian Punjab) in 1936, Muahmmad Ishaq migrated to Rawalpindi in 1947 along with his family.

“I remember it very clearly; there was a pool here, I used to take bath and swim in it” says Ishaq.

“When we came from Ambala we lived in Bazaar Talwaraan, near Raja Bazaar” he added. He goes on to further narrate that one of his elder brothers was a government employee working in the Railways and other had a shop of shoes in Ambala.

“I also worked for the Pakistan Railways as porter after partition, for some 20 years” Muhammad Ishaq tells me while showing his old employee’s identity card.

Railways Identity Card of Muhammad Ishaq

Muhammad Ishaq in his good old days
Initially, Ishaq started his Fruit Chaat business in Raja bazaar, as a part time engagement later shifting his shop to the newly built market where the government allotted stalls to the street vendors. This market, he adds, was built in 1980s right on the same spot where the pool of Banni Mai Veero’s once had been.

Needless to say, today there are no traces of any pool anywhere near the market that was built in 1982 and inaugurated on May 5, 1982.  The market has more than one hundred shops, most of them selling CDs and DVDs and a few repairing shops for electronic appliances.

So, what happened to the pool? Muhammad Ishaq recalls confidently that back when the pool did exist, the water had been clean and fresh, there had been stairs on all sides of the pool. People used to take bath and women washed clothes there. There were even fresh water fish in water!

Unfortunately people eventually started polluting it. The link to the stream that was the source of the water to the pool was cut off; new houses were built and the pool slowly dried up. It did not take much time for the locals to turn the place into a garbage dump.

Probably that was how Mai Veero di Banni made a silent exit from the history of Rawalpindi.

Much later, the city district government planned to use this place for commercial purposes and built the market in 1982. But the businesses that initially set up shop here didn’t really flourish. It was only in the late 80’s when the VCR culture was “exported” to Pakistan (mostly by the overseas Pakistanis in Middle East) the market gradually became the hub for VCR and video films, as there was a huge demand for VCR and Indian film VCD rentals.

The main square outside the “video market” still goes by the name of “Banni chowk”, though some people tried their best to change its name to “Sunni Chowk” (Why Sunni Chowk? Because the main procession of Ashura Juloos ends here with Zanjeer-zani: hope you will get the hint).

Banni chowk, Rawalpindi

Flowers shops out side Video Market (or Mai Veero's pool)

Once, there used to be a Tonga stand outside the market at Saidpur Road, which is now turned into a Qingqi (Motorcycle Rickshaw) stand. Added to this crowd are numerous shops selling flowers and materials for wedding decorations. This area is also known for its desi food culture.

Muhammad Ishaq looks back at the past and reminisces that he has seen the changing demographics of the city. “The city wasn’t this noisy, but now it’s traffic and people everywhere”, he almost laments.

When I asked him why his family chose to settle down in Rawalpindi and not in any other city, he replied that they had some relatives in Rawalpindi, so they came here.

“Do you want to see Ambala once again?” I asked him as I was preparing to leave.

No, I don’t want to go to Ambala. Everything has changed. We have some relatives in Delhi and some other cities in India, but the elders have all passed away and their children don’t know us”, he answered ruefully.

“But there would be no Visa issue for you, you know that… “

“I know visa restrictions are relaxed for senior citizens (above 65), but why would I go there? Nobody knows me there. That was in the past and that time has passed” he replied this time, almost matter-of-factly.

Then I hugged and thanked him and walked away, promising to meet him again, very soon. 
Current map: Source Google Maps
Pre-partition map. Source: The Survey of Pakistan

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Punjab, Punjabi and the contradiction within

A rare sight: A shop displays sign board in Punjabi "Billay di Hatti" [Shop of Billa] in Raja Bazaar, Rawalpindi. 

Over the last few weeks, I have been meeting children from different parts of Punjab. They were between 3 to 5 years of age, and included the children of my friends and extended family. I was pleasantly shocked to hear these kids speakin Punjabi.  “Kithay chalay o”, “aa ki aey”, “ki karde paye o” are some of the Punjabi phrases I recall having heard.

Punjabi is the most widely spoken language across Pakistan. However, most of the people in Punjab, especially in urban centers, do not encourage their children to speak their mother tongue, Punjabi.

But “kids will be kids” and they will always find ways to learn new things. So, through methods best known to children, they quickly pick up the language, continuously learning (mimicking to be more precise) from various people around them and their parents, as the adults speak in Punjabi among themselves regularly. The end result is that the children learn Punjabi quite effortlessly; such is the beauty of mother tongue.

Incidentally, in your average Pakistani school, a child goes through the experience of learning two new languages, English and Urdu. As reading Quran and prayers are also considered as mandatory teachings in the Pakistani society, he / she learns Arabic as well. So, a 3-5 year old child in Punjab starts to learn almost four languages at this stage. Other than this, the teaching of all other subjects is also via the medium of Urdu or English.

However, as far as the effectiveness of learning is concerned, it is in the best interest of any child that primary education be imparted in mother tongue. Children learn more efficiently and quickly if he / she start learning various subjects in his / her mother tongue instead of learning a completely new language first. This is the reason when a 3 year old enrolls in a nursery class he / she naturally reads “Meem Kukri” instead of “Meem Murghi” (which is enforced on him / her) because he / she already knows and relates to the picture of a hen as a “Kukri”.

However, in Pakistan, it is a popular practice to label a child as an “illiterate” and “uncivilized” if he / she speaks in Punjabi. This is why parents try their best to refrain from speaking in Punjabi with their kids. Somehow, one cannot blame the parents as the harsh reality is when a 3 or 4 year old kid enrolls in school and begins to speak in Punjabi with the other children or teachers, he / she is promptly tagged as “illiterate”. Needless to say, it’s quite depressing for young minds. Naturally, the parents want to prevent this from happening. Hence, the mother tongue is sacrificed.

In addition to this, there are strong arguments that “talking about ‘people not encouraging their children to speak Punjabi or their mother tongue is like dishonoring their mother’ is just a hollow slogan”. This line of argument strongly believes that it is common knowledge that in real life knowing Punjabi is not of any use and learning Urdu and English are more important for education and a career. When I look at the current scenario, I realize that for all practical purposes this line of thinking is not entirely wrong. One has to get a job after all! Again, Punjabi is forced out.

Frankly speaking, discrimination against the Punjabi language is nothing new in our society. It started during the British period with the end of Sikh rule in Punjab. Later, it was somewhat obtusely assumed that Urdu is the language of Muslims, Hindi,of Hindus and Punjabi, of Sikhs. By this oversimplified formula not only our land divided on the basis of religion but languages were also divided on the same basis. Today, in Indian Punjab one observes the regular usage of Punjabi everywhere – signage on the highways, in schools, colleges, universities and in public offices. This is exactly why Mian Shehbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Pakistani Punjab, while visiting the Indian counterpart delivered a speech in Punjabi to win their hearts!

But I am afraid I have rarely heard the Chief Minister of Punjab or any other leaders delivering a speech in Punjabi in Gujranwala, Faisalabad or any other city of the Pakistani Punjab. This is what I call the inferiority complex of us Punjabis in Pakistan.

It is obvious that Punjabis are living in some kind of confusion. It is a bitter truth that Punjabis have gradually destroyed their own language, as we never confidently owned it. Inspite of being the largest spoken language in Pakistan it is not taught in any schools! You wouldn’t find any sign boards in Punjabi anywhere in Punjab (except “Billay di Hatti” shops in various cities).  As I see it, the future of Punjabi in Pakistan is not bright.

Strangely, quite contradictory to this phenomenon of our self-denial, there is this interesting practice of Punjabi being popularized all across, without Punjabis even wanting it to! And the reason behind this is the televised musical program, Coke Studio – Pakistan.

I am sure, you would have heard on countless episodes of Coke Studio, numerous Kalams of Baba Bulleh Shah or Sultan Bahoo being performed by the participants. Be it Bulleh Shah or any other Sufi poet of Punjab, it is becoming quite a fashion to be associated with their music as an enthusiast. Don’t we simply love to listen to them and share Punjabi music by whatever means available to us and feel good that they project the secular and moderate culture of Punjab? Many people were introduced to Baba Bulleh Shah or Punjabi Sufis after the launch of Coke Studio. I feel, it is quite ironic that today we actually rely on a corporate giant and thankful to them for introducing Punjabi to the world because at the same time, we hate this language too!

This contradiction in our behavior baffles me completely.

However, I see rays of hope, coming from completely unexpected quarters though. Recently, a friend who shifted from Karachi to Lahore, complained “why the hell everyone speaks Punjabi here? I spoke to Rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers and a few other people and everyone replied to me in Punjabi!” It was a welcome realization that Punjabis have not completely given up on their mother tongue, at least not yet. It was a relief that at least a visitor to Punjab has realized that Punjabi is the language of Punjab. Deep inside, that made me immensely happy.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The other side of the city: Parsi Cemetery in Rawalpindi

“I am working here for more than 20 years and during this time none of the elders or even a kid spoke harshly to me” – the 70 year old man told me, while clipping the grass at the lawn of the Parsi Place of Worship. 

“I am their employee and they are always so polite to their workers”, he added.

I guess Baba realized I wanted to know more, and this encouraged him to look back and reminisce. “Once some leaders from the community visited while I was having my lunch. I was about to leave it halfway and get up, in order to serve them. They simply asked me to finish my lunch, take rest and only then come and serve them. That’s how they were, always!” He fondly remembered.

My journey to this amazing place kick-started when a couple of months back my friend told me about the existence of a Parsi Place of Worship somewhere at Murree Road, Rawalpindi.  As I have a keen interest in heritage buildings and old architecture, I kept on searching for this place. I asked around, spoke to people residing in the area but none of them had any idea about such a place!

The irony of the situation is that most of the people living in Rawalpindi (or may be in other cities as well) are too busy with their own lives and do not have the time to look around or know much about their own locality, even if it is right next door. No wonder, this sheer neglect and indifference is turningour historic landmarks into ruins, right in front of our eyes.

Anyway, after many such visits around the city, I finally managed to find out the exact location of the place and one fine Sunday morning I went out to visit the place.

As it is, Murree Road is the commercial hub of Rawalpindi city. Moreover, near the Benazir Bhutto Hospital there is a sprawling jewelry market and one cannot even imagine that amidst this congested area there could exist a historic landmark!

However, it is a fact that hidden behind these lavish jewelry shops, there is indeed the Parsi Worship Place that I had been looking for. I already knew that such a place, according to Parsi traditions, would be called a “Fire Temple” and I was excited that finally I had my chance to explore it in detail.

As I reached the area, close to the location, I came across a commercial place, and took the lane behind it.
My earlier experience with several old Temples and Gurdwaras had prepared me well and I was expecting to walk into an old building in ruins, its architecture in shambles, its walls crumbling and the ever-present foul smell of garbage rising from its grounds.

And here came a pleasant surprise as I came face to face with a completely different scene! A red-bricked single story building stands there. Neat, clean and well-maintained. The path below was shadowed and lined with rows of tall trees of Evergreen and Dates variety. It was a treat for the eye and I was taken by surprise, almost awestruck.

One the right hand side there stood an old colonial style building and in front there was a gate to the Parsi Graveyard. A lush green lawn surrounded the building and an old man was busy with his gardening tools, digging the clay and cutting the grass. It was a peaceful scene.
The stone plate at the gate of read:

“This cemetery
together with the buildings well and compound wall was erected to perpetuate the memory of the late Set Jahangiriji Framji Jussawala
Set Jamasji Hormasji Bogha
both of the Rawalpindi Parsi merchants  
by their respective grandsons
Set Dorabji Cowasji Jussawala
Set Nasarwanji Jehangiriji Bogha
Shahshai month Tir 1367, January 1898”

The graveyard was also very calm and clean. 

I asked the old man(the gardener)if the Place of Worship was still functional.
“Yes” he nodded, “There are some 30 to 40 Parsi families in Rawalpindi and whenever someone passes away in their community they perform funeral and religious rituals here”

A member of Rawalpindi's Parsi community Feroze Bhandara tells that "It is not a Parsi temple. There is none in Rawalpindi. However this bungli is part of our Parsi graveyard and is used for the purpose of washing the dead bodies and saying last rites."  Mr. Bhandara is currently based in Houston, United States and his brother Minno Bhandara of Rawalpindi is buried here.

 Mr. Bhandara says that "About ten years ago the frontage along Murree Road for our Parsi grave yard was illegally taken over by developers who have built shops along Murree Road and literally blocked off access into the grave yard. Proceeding in this case are pending in the local courts."

Given that we all know that there was a Parsi community (mostly merchants) in Rawalpindi, some hundred years ago, it was indeed news for me that they still live in Rawalpindi in present day and time!

The old gardener also informed me that this place belongs to the owner of a famous brewery company and they often visit this place to pay homage to their elders buried at this graveyard.

I also noticed that the doors to the building are kept locked and the whole premises is well taken care of.
While walking back,what I felt was immense joy and relief that a place of worship, which belongs to a minority community of Pakistan, is well managed and looked after.

All I can wish for is to see our tolerance towards the other religious minorities in Pakistan and that we live along with each other in harmony, peace and prosperity. 

Text and Photos by: Shiraz Hassan