For centuries, Hindus traveled a long way just to worship at a tiny sixteenth century temple built against the foothills of the Himalayas in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad where Hindus believe ancient god Ram lived with his family during 14 long years of exile.
To continue their journey, Hindus used to stay peacefully in an adjoining dharamshala, or rest house for pilgrims, in what is today called Saidpur Village.
According to official records dating as far back as 1893, a fair was held each year at a pond near the site to commemorate that Ram and his family had once sipped water from it.
But since 1947, Hindus have not been allowed by authorities to worship at the temple and the compound in which it is housed.
Visitors can tour the temple, but all idols have been removed and the shrine today is all but subsumed into a touristy strip of restaurants and handicraft stores. Instead of the freshwater ponds that once surrounded the area and were considered holy by the Hindu community, a foul-smelling rainwater channel now flows through the village.
“The government has apparently preserved the site as heritage, but is violating its sanctity by allowing restaurants and shops to operate on the premises,” Sawai Lal, a Hindu rights activist said.
Muhammad Anwar, caretaker of the temple compound, said the area was now a “heritage site” and worship by Hindus was not allowed.
“Sometimes people insist [they want] to offer prayers here, but we have to stop them,” Anwar said, standing next to the dilapidated building of the temple.
Most of Pakistan’s minorities feel the state has failed to protect them, and argue that it sometimes even tolerates violence against them. But Hindus have once more come into the spotlight in recent weeks after authorities in Islamabad decided to halt the construction of a new temple in the Pakistani capital.
“We are feeling threatened after some fanatics tried to vandalize our temple site in Islamabad,” Lal said, referring to the halting of construction of the new Islamabad temple, and adding that there were currently no functioning Hindu temples for Islamabad’s 3,000 Hindus.
It was in 1960, the Rama Mandir Temple complex was converted into a girls school. After years of protests by the Hindu community, the school was moved to another location and the temple finally vacated in 2006.
But Hindus were still not allowed to worship there. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council, said only 31 out of a total 1,288 Hindu temples registered with the Evacuee Trust Property Board were currently functioning. The Board is responsible for the maintenance of properties abandoned by people who left for India during India’s partition.
“We should be allowed to rehabilitate our existing temples,” Vankwani said.
As construction began on the new temple in the capital in June-end, the hopes of the community were revived, Hindu leaders said. But now, they await final approval from Prime Minister Imran Khan so that construction can once more begin.