During a recent visit to Pakistan, I saw facets of the country that I’d
missed on earlier visits as India’s foreign secretary more than a decade
ago. Islamabad retains its air of officialdom and India-Pakistan
encounters inevitably carry the flavor of affinity laced with antipathy.
The capital city retains its geometric and uncluttered elegance, with
the expanding chaos of adjacent Rawalpindi kept successfully at bay
for the time being. The Serena Hotel remains the upmarket watering
hole for the city’s elite and rich foreigners, but it is now heavily fortified, as are other important landmarks in the city.
Perhaps the recent terrorist attack at Bacha Khan University in
Charsadda has led to heightened anxiety. But an evening spent at the
city’s most popular restaurant, the Monal in the Margalla hills, spread
out like a vast terrace overlooking the bright lights of the capital, had
an air of relaxed celebration. Entire families, young and old, were
busy tucking into vast quantities of food, taking pictures with their
smartphones or iPads, and engaged in animated conversations.
Charcoal braziers kept the winter cold at bay. There was loud pop
music playing in the background, so conversations had to be a few
decibels louder. If there were hijabs and burqas in evidence, so were
open hairstyles and the ubiquitous denims. This was a fun-loving
crowd, enjoying an evening in the hills.
To get to Lahore, our next stop, we drove along the Islamabad- Lahore motorway, Nawaz Sharif’s gift to the nation during his
earlier incarnation as the country’s prime minister. This is genuinely
an express highway, its 233-mile stretch uninterrupted by crossings.
No three-wheelers, bullock carts or horse carts are permitted on it,
and it is well policed. One can drive safely at high speeds.
The countryside that we traversed seemed sparsely populated and no
new settlements have come up near the highway itself. This would
appear strange in India, where a new highway is soon surrounded by
densely populated settlements, which require yet another bypass.
Halfway to Lahore, we took a detour to Choa Saidan Shah, where the
ancient Hindu temples of Katas Raj are located. This is an enormous
complex of temples, with a history stretching back to the sixth century,
but embellished with legends of a more distant past. There were originally seven temples here, known as Satghara, but only three survived.
The main temple complex opens onto an emerald pool. The tank is
believed to have been formed by the tears Lord Shiva shed when his
consort, Sati, died, after she jumped into the sacrificial fire at
a yajna being conducted by her father, Daksha.
The name ‘Katas Raj’ comes from the Sanskrit term for ‘tears.’ It is
said that the Pushkar lake in Rajasthan — also considered sacred —
is the other place where Shiva’s tears fell. This was obviously a Saivite
site, but there is also a temple dedicated to Lord Rama and another
The entire complex has been carefully renovated. The pool has been
cleaned. On Shivaratri, we are told, Hindu devotees from across Pakistan come to pray and bathe in the pool, which is also said to have curative qualities.
We had a most enthusiastic Pakistani guide who showed us the various temples with a great sense of pride. He treated us to a Sufi Punjabi
song, which he sang with genuine feeling, the theme being the oneness
of humanity and the power of love and compassion — values common
to all faiths.
On one side of the pool is a small alcove that houses an ancient
Shivalinga, which, according to legend, was fashioned by Lord Krishna
during the four years that the Pandavas spent in the area during their
exile. There are no other images in any of the temples.
The Pakistan government, we were told, has a plan to renovate several Hindu temples and Buddhist sites, which over the years have fallen
into disrepair. The aim is to create a pilgrimage circuit to attract visitors
from all over the subcontinent.
Lahore is easily one of the most interesting cities, not only in Pakistan, but in the entire subcontinent. It has an air of cosmopolitanism that is missing in Islamabad. It has a multi-layered history and
a rich and varied heritage.
There are parts of the city that hark back to the Mughal empire, with
echoes of Delhi. Other quarters testify to its significance as an important centre during British colonial rule.
A flight to Paki
Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran
explores the sights and flavors of Islamabad, Lahore
and the old-world charm of a modernizing State.