The landscape of the Hingol National Park in Balochistan, Pakistan?s largest national park is otherworldly. The tur quoise and azure-hued Hingol River snakes through the expanse of white sands, tumbleweed and craggy sandstone peaks. It is only fitting, then, that nestled deep within the park is a spiritual sanctuary, the famed Hinglaj Mandir, known in the vernacular as Nani Mandir, one of the holiest Hindu sites of worship in the country.
As one approaches Nani Mandir, the beige and sepia tones of the park?s scenery are suddenly interrupted by flashes of colour: orange, golden yellow, amber. Thousands of strips of coloured cloth ? the mannats of Hindu devotees ? flutter in the breeze, announcing the entrance to the mandir. These are the relics of the thousands of pilgrims who visit the site each year to pay homage to the devi Sati.
According to tradition, Nani Mandir is one of the holiest shakti peeth (sites of cosmic power) of Hinduism. To calm down an entranced Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu is believed to have carved Sati?s body into dozens of pieces and spread them across the subcontinent. Mythology states that the head landed at Hinglaj.
The short trek up to the mandir, however, betrays little of the turmoil of the originating myth. The mystical silence that pervades the national park endures on the track to Nani Mandir along which visitors enjoy the sparse view of rocky peaks and the serenity of little pools of water ? runoffs from the Hingol River ? in which fish playfully dart around.
Just before the main mandir itself, an explosion of coloured flags reveal a smaller temple adorned with statues of Hindu gods. Nearby, a pile of ashes and charred wood betray a recent wedding ceremony. Many Hindu couples based in Sindh and Balochistan travel to Nani Mandir to complete the mandatory seven encirclements of the Agni, or Sacred Fire.
Arriving at the mandir, which is cradled in a small cave within one of the sandy mountains, one is greeted by Maharaj Gopal, the poojari, or caretaker of the temple. He warmly invites visitors to sit down in the mandir?s cool shade and then announces, ?You are now seated in the only temple in this region that was born of a natural formation, and it?s probably over 200,000 years old.? As if on cue, a group of young, male devotees seated at the entrance of the mandir beat on a dhol and begin performing a bhajan ? the drum beats echo off the surrounding peaks to eerie effect.
In Gopal?s telling of the myth behind Nani Mandir, the goddess Hinglaj becomes a beautiful woman, who descended from the seven skies to woo a cruel prince who used to rule over Hingol and urge him to become more benevolent. ?The prince saw Nani ma and instantly fell in love,? recounts Gopal. ?But as soon as he reached for her, she turned to stone. On losing his beloved, the prince begged for forgiveness. On hearing his pleas, Nani ma became animated again, only to tell the prince that a ruler who inflicted pain and oppression on his people was in no position to seek forgiveness. At that point, the prince repented and forever changed his ways.? Gopal?s tales about Nani Mandir are also a living homage to the centuries of peaceful coexistence of Hindus and Muslims. ?This site is even more holy because Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai came here hundreds of years ago,? he says. According to legend, the Sufi saint travelled to Hingol to pay his respects to the goddess Hinglaj. ?Bhit Shah raised a bowl of kheer to the goddess?s lips and enticed her to drink, and suddenly, after centuries, the goddess became animate again!? But it is not only legend that excites Gopal. He speaks eloquently and passionately about the historical and cultural significance of the temple and the role it can play in strengthening relations between Hindus and Muslims as well as India and Pakistan on a diplomatic level. Jaswant Singh made the pilgrimage out to Hinglaj in 2006. Gopal therefore points out that a government plan to dam the Hingol River is inane. ?s soon as they dam the river, this ancient mandir will forever be flooded,? he complains. ?How do you explain the value of a temple to some low-level government employees? Why can?t they dam the river a few hundred kilometres further up or downstream?? Gopal?s concerns about the planned dam are not the only indication that the mandir exists very much in the present. The walk up to the shrine is marred ? some would say enlivened ? by graffiti in praise of Nani ma and stencilled images of bhangra icons and pop stars like Sukhbir. One guesses these are the work of the young men clad in T-shirts and jeans who linger at the mandir?s entrance. Their biggest complaint is that there is no mobile phone connectivity in Hingol National Park. ?We like to spend time here, but how long can you go without getting reception?? asks one.
Between devis and dams, mobile phones and mannats, Hinglaj Mandir is one of the few sites at which Islam meets Hinduism, the past fuses with the present and it becomes difficult to distinguish between truth and tradition. For that reason, one hopes it endures for centuries to come.
Article Coutesy Daily Dawn