In Search of Diwali in Lahore

Diwali was on our minds. We were tossing around ideas on how to celebrate the first ever festival of lights on the campus of the Lahore University of Management Sciences. For some, it was too radical a proposition, for others something that just had to be done. It was in that context that a participant produced a newspaper clipping claiming there were only about 50 Hindus in Lahore and that some of them had celebrated Diwali at a private location for fear of being attacked.

“That’s just not true,” said a member of the team indignantly adjusting her hijab. Then and there, it was decided to locate a public celebration of Diwali in the city and to go ahead with our own event. The evening light was fading; the timing was right for lamps to be lit if they were going to be lit anywhere. A few phone calls identified three mandirs that might offer what we were looking for – in Model Town, on Ravi Road, and at Neela Gumbad, the latter two in some proximity to each other. We decided to head in their direction to maximize our chances.

Our guide suggested we take a rickshaw to the Ghazi Station on the Metrobus and ride it to Bhati Gate in the old city. There we were to ask for directions to either one of the two mandirs. We did as told and were informed with much confidence that there was a mandir close by and another some distance further off. Delighted, we boarded a rickshaw for the nearer one and were soon dropped off at the entrance to the lane headed towards the Badshahi mosque with a gesture that our destination was in the general direction. Having been there a number of times before, we all concluded simultaneously that the rickshaw driver had mistaken a gurdwara for a mandir.

Disappointed but undeterred, we engaged another rickshaw with instructions to take us to the other location that was now even further away. Much turning and twisting later, we were asked to disembark in front of a mandir that was in fact a church – the signboard said so quite plainly. We realized that the popular culture had erased the distinctions between mandirs, gurdwaras and girjas in Lahore.

Nonetheless, we were at Neela Gumbud and if there were a mandir there, we were determined to find it. Our best bet appeared to be a sleepy policeman with gun across his lap guarding the entrance to a narrow street. Sure enough he knew the location to a mandir and pointed us deeper into the lane while eyeing us with some suspicion.

The policeman, whose specific duty must have been to guard places of worship, turned out to be right. We found ourselves in front of a nondescript red gate which announced the entrance to the mandir. Another policeman frisked us and without much more hassle, we were past the gate.

Inside, Diwali was in full swing. Our protracted search had made us miss the puja but we were in time for the fireworks, the prasad and the music. There were certainly many more than 50 people in the compound and none of them looked afraid. Ominous, gun-toting policemen were stationed on adjacent roofs but that did not appear to cast any kind of shadow on the festivities.

It was Diwali alright, but, when all was said and done, it was Diwali in an alien soil. Half-way through the proceedings everything came to a halt and a prolonged round of speeches ensued. Muslims of various stripes came on stage to profess love for all religions and, for some odd reason, insisted the participants join them in full-throated renditions of Pakistan Zindabad. For many, the response was not good enough and the audience was exhorted to be more vociferous. The celebration of Diwali had turned into a test of loyalty, something that would be no part of a ceremony unencumbered with the need to prove anything to anyone.

Ordinary people, however, expressed a curiosity quite at odds with the certainties of the community leaders. My neighbor, sitting on the floor, was quite clearly a Muslim who took me for a Hindu and had questions about the similarities and differences between the two faiths. I answered as best I could and the conversation extended to the relationship of Sikhism to both and whether some Sikhs revered Muslim saints. It occurred to me how badly we needed to teach comparative religion in our schools.

Our mission accomplished, we strolled leisurely down the Mall treating ourselves to a congratulatory stop at Bundu Khan’s in the block where the rounded façade of E. Plomer and Sons still exists at the intersection across from Fane Road. At the Alhamra, we took a rickshaw and headed home.

Back on campus, we plunged into the Diwali preparations with renewed vigor. The student response was incredible. Within a day, Diwali was celebrated with great enthusiasm and fervor. There were no speeches, no talk of erasing differences, no tests of loyalty. It was an occasion for festivity and everyone went about the business of feeling good and enjoying themselves. We sensed at the end that some of the spirit of Diwali had been restored – there was hope that light could triumph over darkness if we set our minds to it.

 Diwali at LUMS

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  • Sohail Kizilbash
    Posted at 14:18h, 09 November Reply

    Good job. Any occasion to celebrate something is a good one.

  • Arpita chatterjee
    Posted at 04:53h, 10 November Reply

    If you can have Comparative Literature, why not Comparative Religion – but who will teach?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 08:34h, 10 November

      Arpita: There are many bizarre aspects to Pakistan. The mention of teaching comparative religion was a reference to one of them. You will get the gist from this news item:

      The question of who will teach has to wait a resolution to whether it can be taught at all. There is much darkness to overcome and at the moment there are not enough people lighting the lamps.

  • Mohinder Gulati
    Posted at 21:50h, 10 November Reply

    LUMS: congratulations on taking a bold step to try to find the remnants of age-old cultural roots of your land. The article makes a very sad reading that a city that took pride in its cosmopolitan culture, communal harmony, respect for diversity, and cherished its shared heritage has changed so much in sixty years that one has to search for a temple where Diwali is being celebrated.

    I hope LUMS fraternity enjoyed the festival that celebrates the victory of the good over evil, defeating the forces of darkness with light. Thanks for sharing the lovely pictures of celebaration by Aahang. Wishing you all a Happy Deepawali and a wonderful year ahead of discovering the shared heritage of the region and a prayer for overcoming the forces of darkness.

  • yayaver
    Posted at 08:40h, 11 November Reply

    great initiative…congrats !

  • KD
    Posted at 07:54h, 12 November Reply

    Wonderful. Great job on your part. What makes me sad, however, is how we have let our history and heritage be erased. Sad how finding a mandir was that difficult.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 08:38h, 17 November

      KD: Yes, it is indeed sad that this part of history and heritage has been erased. The loss is entirely that of the city and its residents. Vibrant cities thrive on cultural diversity and its celebration. The challenge is think creatively in these very difficult circumstances.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 11:26h, 12 November Reply

    Lucky you guys had a quiet and peaceful Diwali. Over here the festival has become an irritation. An insensitive fellow came back home on Diwali day at 2 AM began bursting high decibel crackers totally oblivious to other fellows concerns. The relative prosperity has turned the festival into a full five days noisy celebrations which used to be just a low key Choti Diwali and proper Bari Diwali. People have become brash and it seems that if you are in enough numbers then breaking the law is your moral right.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 08:39h, 17 November

      Anil: Everything is being commercialized as the market economy extends its reach into domains that were once very clearly out of its jurisdiction. The corollary is that people who have money feel they can do whatever they feel like with it as the barriers that kept money out are weakening.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 03:55h, 03 December Reply

    There are about three times more Hindus in Pakistan than in the US, both in absolute number and proportion. The naysayers in Pakistan need to be shown how much of a contribution Hindus have made to America. Not just Pakistani Hindus, I feel a great deal of sorrow for the Pakistani Muslims who are not able to enjoy parts of their heritage like Diwali and Holi.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 14:42h, 06 December

      It is wrong to make this comparison about contribution of Hindus.. Mostly the best from India have migrated to US therefore it reflects in lopsided data of Indians being better educated, making more money etc. Besides according Wikipedia there are 1.8 million Hindus in Pakistan (I think mostly Dalits and tribals) and 2.8 million Hindus in US so three times part seem wrong.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 03:55h, 07 December

      Anil, 2.8 million is the number of Indians in the US, Hindus only make up half of those numbers, so their population is around 1.5 million or 0.5 % of the population (2008 Pew religious survey). But I was wrong about the absolute number part, in absolute terms the numbers of Pakistani and US Hindus are about the same.

      Regarding the nature of migrants, I think this is a huge misconception among Indians in India. Much of the Hindu migration to the US has been led by the Gujaratis (either directly from Gujarat or Africa), who have opened businesses and shops. The ‘tech’ migrant phenomenon is relatively recent. A lot of the Pakistani Hindus were business folks, the question of why they were referred to as ‘banias’ was raised not too long ago. If allowed to flourish the Pakistani Hindus could have built bigger business houses.

      Perhaps its better to think of the contribution of Jains in India, they make up only 0.4 % of the population, but their contribution to Indian business (and general Indian life: Jain cuisine/restaurants, Jain temples/pilgrimage places, Jain NGOs) is quite a lot. Similar things can be said for Parsis who are an even smaller community.

    • Anil Kala
      Posted at 11:19h, 07 December

      Even if what you says is correct it still doesn’t convey inherent capability of a group of people. If Jains are a successful lot then it has to do something with core focus of their community. In general minorities and migrants due to insecurities of their small numbers work harder to succeed than the dominant communities. Sometimes focus of a community also helps them succeed in their chosen vocations viz Parsies, Gujaratis Marwaries etc.

      It still is bad reason for Pakistanis to ignore or not pay attention to cultural heritage of their minorities. Actually it is not even cultural heritage of minorities but collective heritage of their nation but they are so blinded by hatred of India which is identified as a nation of Hindus that anything that is Hindu is repugnant to them. I can’t imagine how terrified these Hindus must be living in Pakistan therefore themselves must be keeping the celebrations so low key and still feeling guilty.

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