The pond at Ketas Raj (Chakwal) is sacred to Lord Shiva for it is believed that it was formed by his tears when he wept for his dead wife. This makes Ketas one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism. In 1985, I wrote that even though there were water works daily, drawing a few thousand gallons from the pond to supply nearby villages, the water never receded. Shiva, I concluded, was still weeping for his wife and his tears continuously replenishing the pond.
About the middle of the last decade, the Musharraf government okayed the building of five (or four?) cement factories within a radius of a few kilometres of Ketas. Someone as corrupt as the government was hired to prepare an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The modus operandi of this fraudster is to prostrate himself at the feet of the factory owner and pray for the demi-god to say what he wants written in the EIA. And so the document gets written: a piece of utter deception meant only to fatten some government file.
The writer of the EIA is corrupt all right, but he is not stupid. Nor indeed are the owners of the cement factories. All of them knew that cement being a water intensive industry, the factories would suck up the water from not just the soil but from all nearby water bodies. That is exactly what has happened.
On a visit to Ketas two months ago, I was horrified to see the pond shrunken to a mere fraction of the size as I have always known and as preserved in my book The Salt Range and the Potohar Plateau. In the 1920s, a civil servant wrote that the oval pond, measuring about 40 metres at the widest, was fed by submerged springs (besides rain water) and was sounded to a depth of 22 feet (6.7 metres). Local so-called historians told me in the 1980s and after that it was connected by a subterranean channel to Lake Mansarovar in Tibet! That was the reason the water never depleted, they said. They believed hogwash but would not credit Lord Shiva with shedding copious tears.
But the god, who wept inconsolably at the death of his wife, has at last found solace. He weeps no more. The pond is dying.
In a few years, there will be a deep pit where the pond now reflects the surrounding buildings. Ketas Raj, among the holiest shrines in the collective memory of the people of the subcontinent (regardless of our spurious claims of Arab origin), will lose its very reason of existence. And this will only be because predatory sub-humans with insatiable avarice for wealth found the nearby limestone hills an accessible quarry to turn into cement.
Ketas Raj and its gem of a pond will not be the only losers, however. Twenty kilometres to the northwest sits Kallar Kahar, a saline lake where migrating birds tarry on their great north-south transhumance twice a year. It was here that Babur, the founder of the Mughal empire, captivated by the natural beauty of these hills, tarried. Here he planted his garden called Bagh-e-Safa, of which the remnants can still be seen.
We began to kill Kallar Kahar first by planting the water-guzzling eucalyptus around its shores about three decades ago. Then most of us did not know that this Australian tree, alien to our good land, will eventually dry out the lake. The water that lapped the road along the western shore 30 years ago, is now a good ways away — the lake considerably shrunken from Babur’s time. But before the eucalyptus can suck up all the water, the ever-thirsty cement factories will have dried out the lake. Ditto all those very picturesque lakes created by damming seasonal streams.
Even in my lifetime, we will see the land turning to mountainous desert. Agriculture will die out because of the aridity, wells will run dry and without the water from Shiva’s tears, farming families will be forced to move away. The beautiful Kahun valley, as this part is known, will become a conglomerate of ghost towns. By the end of the current century, the ghostly hulks of abandoned cement plants will remain to remind us of the avarice of a few evil men.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2012.