Inside Mardan’s Hindu Guides Infantry Temple, more commonly known as the Chawni (cantonment) Temple, there is little that sets it apart from an unkempt quarter. Furnished with a charpoy and a rundown table, the only thing that gives the temple away are two framed pictures of deities draped in a royal red fabric. The pre-Partition temple, which was built in the first decade of the 20th century and once frequented by a community of over 600 Hindus, now stands in complete silence.
The Guides Infantry Temple was built in the first decade of the 20th century. PHOTO: HAMID HUSSAIN
One of the framed pictures of a Hindu diety at the Guides Infantry Temple in Mardan. PHOTO: HAMID HUSSAIN
Unlike other surrounding buildings, the temple has no supply of water and gas. Things started looking down in 1992 after the attack on Babri mosque in India, says the temple’s 35-year-old pundit, Nirish Kumar. Many Hindu temples in the country were shut down as a result and others have been illegally occupied, including a temple in Hoti area which now houses its caretakers. The case of the Hindu Guides Infantry Temple is similar. The policemen deployed to protect the structure — for reasons still unknown — have turned it into their personal quarters. “The Hindu community just wants the temple to be restored to its former glory,” says Kumar.
His plea is echoed by a local Muslim resident, Bakht Muhammad, who adds that his Hindu friends and acquaintances haven’t celebrated a religious festival at the temple since 1992. While until a few years back, the community could celebrate their festivals out in the open, they are now restricted to celebrating indoors. Although the government has allotted funds for a Hindu graveyard and a temple in Babu mohalla, Mardan, along with a local pre-Partition church and British-made Guides Memorial Mardan, little heed is being paid to one of their oldest temples, he says.
In the absence of Mardan Arts Council, a semi-autonomous institution, the work of preservation and maintenance of such structures is considerably slow. The Non-Muslim Evacuee Trust responsible for the upkeep of temples and gurdwaras has failed miserably, says Haroon Sarbadyal, president of All Pakistan Hindu Rights Movement. “It should have been reopened much earlier, but the people responsible don’t really care,” he says, adding that perhaps the restoration of places of worship should be left to the individual communities themselves.
The policeman assigned with the task of protecting the temple have turned it into their living quarters. PHOTO: HAMID HUSSAIN
The pre-Partition Guides Infantry temple is one of the oldest Hindu temples in the region. PHOTO: HAMID HUSSAIN
But the decision to reopen the temple lies solely in the hands of the provincial government, says head of the District Evacuee Trust Mardan, Liaqat Khan. Only once the department gets an approval from the government, will the temple be renovated, he says. Head of the Mardan Foundation and archeologist, Usman Mardanvi has suggested that the community should forward a formal request to the provincial Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to take up the matter on an urgent basis. He too will push the matter from his end, Mardanvi assures, adding that since there is no faith-based conflict between Muslims and Hindus in the area, reopening the temple should not be such a difficult decision.
While no visible efforts have yet been made to begin renovation, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) minister for minorities, Sardar Suran Singh, assures that a budget of Rs2 million has already been set aside for the project. Over time, the provincial government has taken several steps to ensure the welfare of minorities in the region and the problem of occupancy will also be resolved, he adds.
In stark contrast to what is seen and heard on the news, the Hindus in Mardan appear to be living in harmony. “The community has never been harassed,” says Kumar, adding that even Christians and Sikhs in the region have not reported any acts of violence. This is probably because the area is protected by the Punjab regiment, a police headquarters and other official buildings, he says. According to Sarbadyal, who says his closest friends are all Muslims, many want K-P to be the first province to promulgate a Hindu marriages act which will allow couples from the Hindu community to register their marriage at Union Council level and introduce a Hindu inheritance act. But while these two proposals might take time to materialise, the Guides Infantry Temple needs immediate attention.
Hamid Hussain is an Islamabad-based journalist. He tweets @Hamidlawangeen
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 23rd, 2014.