As one of South Asia’s most ancient cities, Peshawar boasts a rich cultural and religious heritage that stretches back to more than 2,000 years. If the Khyber-Pass served as the historic gateway into South Asia for visitors from lands west, then the present day capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was the first stop on their journey to spice rich lands of the Subcontinent. In the process developed a unique mix of art, culture and architecture inspired by the ever-evolving syncretistic religious traditions of the region.
Among the many historic structures Peshawar once boasted of were the various Hindu temples that dotted the city. With a history that spanned decades if not centuries, these once served as nuclei for local Hindu communities. They could also, in line with the present government’s ambition, served as attractions for religious tourism – that is if they were preserved. Against the unrestrained onslaught of commercialisation and the ‘property development machine’, Peshawar’s famed heritage is slowly being lost to the sands of time.
“The temple was more than 82 years old. It was built back in 1948, shortly after Pakistan became an independent country,” shared Pandit J Gopa. “Instead of being preserved, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Department for Archaeology and Museums first gave it on lease and then it was completely demolished,” he said while reflecting on the tragic day for his community. “Now a three-story commercial plaza stands in its place.”
Gopa is just one of the many members of Peshawar’s Hindu community who had to watch the bulldozing in silence. He blames the Evacuees Trust Property Board (ETPB) for neglecting their responsibility to look after the religious places and properties of the Hindus and other minorities who stayed behind or moved to Pakistan once it was established as an independent state.
“It was the responsibility of ETPB to look after our temples and the properties of Hindus and other minorities,” said Gopa. ““There were thousands of religious sites, especially of the Hindu faith, whose control should have been given to the Archeology Department for conservation in line with the international guidelines for protected monuments.”
According to the documents received from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Archeology and Museums Department, around 3,000 to 4,000 residential and worship sites of the religious minorities in different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were officially listed at the time of the British Raj. But these days, a majority of those locations show no signs of the original structures, having been converted to business spots or family parks. Ones that remain are closed to public and in dilapidated condition.
Presently in Peshawar, only two Hindu temples are open to the public - one of them is the Kalibari Mandir located in Peshawar Cantt while the second one is the Dargah Pir Ratan Nath at Jhanda Bazaar. Five other minority worship places - Shiv Mandir, Balmiki temple, Gorakh Nath temple, Gurdwara Bhai Joga Singh, and Nandi Mandir - have been closed for years.
Two more have been replaced by commercial or public developments. “The Panj Tirath temple in Hashtnagri has been converted into the Chacha Younis Family Park,” said Pandit J Gopa. The Wangri Gran temple, as mentioned before, has been replaced by a commercial plaza.
Gopa pointed out that Peshawar is not the lone victim of this erosion of religious heritage. He explained that in Dera Ismail Khan’s Kali Bari area, the spacious temple of Garur Bhagwan, which once had between 30 to 35 rooms, has now been converted into a hotel.
B J Sharma, a Hindu Community leader in Peshawar shared that Peshawar city was once a hub of historical sites in the region. “There was a time when all religious communities could hold and enjoy their religious events and practices here,” he recalled. “But militancy and the long waves of terrorism in the country disturbed every aspect of our lives.”
According to Sharma, most of Peshawar’s Hindu families have migrated away, either to India or to other parts of the world. “Those who remain behind in Peshawar are now very few in number,” he said. This trend, Sharma pointed out, was a major reason behind the erosion of Peshawar’s Hindu heritage. “The two temples that remain are enough for the few families that now live in Peshawar. This is why we cannot raise our voice and stop the government from selling or leasing away the other temples,” he lamented.
Parkash, another member of Peshawar’s Hindu community, explained the significance of the city’s once famed Panj Tirath temple. “The name Panj Tirath is derived from the five pools of water present here. Our elders tell us that the entire facility – which spanned about 14 kanals and 10 marlas - was a place of utmost respect and spiritual significance,” he said.
“This was once a prestigious place for the local Hindu community but now it used for public enjoyment,” Parkash said while expressing disappointment in the government. “Even though it was declared a heritage site, the district government leased a major part of the complex to the owner of the Chacha Younis Family Park.”
“Much of the area around the temple structure now serves as the park premises while the buildings are used as godowns by the park authorities,” he added. “The government and authorities need to realise the importance such sites hold for us. They need to understand and empathise with how we feel when we see our holy places being used by people for recreation and restore them too their previous status.”
Echoing Sharma’s views Besma Bibi from the minority community residing in Peshawar, said that once upon a time they used to celebrate Holi and other religious events freely but now the situation has taken a turn for the worse. Expressing fawning adoration for the past, the 70-year-old shared how they could easily offer prayers in all of Peshawar’s temples in the past. “There were no differences between Hindus and Muslims. We lived together freely in Peshawar, but now we fear for our safety,” she said. “Meanwhile, most of our temples have been closed.”
Bibi, like Parkash, urged the government to restore their temples in their respective areas that they can easily offered their worship and other activities freely.
The Express Tribune learned that in all of K-P, only 21 temples are operational out of which a few are centuries old and a majority of them were built before the partition era. “The Hindu community has a long history here in the province but unfortunately the land grabbers in connivance with the concerned department have occupied the historic and archeological religious sites to use for their own interests,” said rights activist Haroon Sarab Diyal. He also shared a commercialisation story of another Hindu place of worship in Bannu, which now houses a bakery in the Teri area of Karak District. Diyal added that similarly, the city temple in Kohat was converted into a school, Gorakh Diggi another holy place is now a park, and the complex of five temples in Asamai Gate in Peshawar has been leased out to the families migrating from Kashmir.
Diyal mentioned that the law declares that only spaces other than those specified for worship can be leased out and that Section 31 of the Pakistan Administration of Evacuee Property Act, 1957 clearly states that any person who willfully causes damage, misappropriates any evacuee property or unlawfully converts it to his own use shall be punishable as per the law. He said that according to Pakistan Hindu Council statistics around eight million Hindus currently reside in different parts of Pakistan and they have the right to worship freely but still their places of worship are a target for commercialization.
Diyal also condemned the illegal construction at the Shiva temple in Nowshera and demanded the district administration to stop work on it. He suggested that the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government should instead develop Hindu religious sites in the province for tourism to help the economy.
Muhammad Assad Khan, a student of Archeology Department at University of Peshawar agreeing with Diyal’s opinion on developing religious sites for tourism, told the Express Tribune that K-P can earn millions of rupees by preserving the worship places of Hindus and Buddhists as these sites will attract religious tourists from countries like India, Japan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Thailand.
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Archeology and Museums Department Director Dr Abdul Samad reflecting on K-P’s centuries old religious sites said that the department works hard to preserve these archeologically significant sites in different parts of the province so that they do not perish and tourism can be promoted.