The bazaars of Rawalpindi boast an impressive plethora of temples and mansions, which hark back to the time that the city was home to influential and powerful non-Muslims. In pre-Partition times, Kohati bazaar was once the focal point of Hindu traders and merchants. Hindu communities in what is now known as Pakistan, preferred staying together in exclusive neighborhoods around the Bani Chowk area on Murree Road.
Entering Kohati Bazaar, one can see the cupola of Kalyan Das’ temple hovering over the busy streets. Upon closer inspection, one can see the board for Government Qandeel Secondary School for Visually Impaired Children. The temple has taken a long and difficult journey through time, from being one of the largest Hindu temples in Rawalpindi, to a humble school tucked away from the average Pakistani’s imagination.
The temple was built in 1850, and completed in 1880 by one of the wealthiest Hindu families in Rawalpindi, the Suris. The Suri family used to deal in lumber, and the building itself was constructed by Lala Kalyan Das Suri. The old Suri house, called ‘Nuri Mansion’, is still located in Kartarpura. The name was changed from ‘Suri’ to ‘Nuri’ after Partition, and the condition as well as the ownership of the building is unknown.
The temple allegedly housed over 100 rooms, and was spread over an area of seven acres. The several floors of the building opened into a vast courtyard, and the whole compound was once surrounded by a clear water pond, and ashram. The Hindus who lived in the area would gather together in the evenings under the Banyan and Peepal trees in the courtyard.
What is impressive about the temple structure is that it has remained relatively intact all these years, which is a testament to the brilliant construction work of it. The doors are made out of stunningly carved sandalwood. The roofs of the building are adorned with exquisite and vibrantly-coloured murals of Hindu deities and rituals. The murals were etched in stones like lapis, which at the time, could only be found in Afghanistan.
The pictures depict prominent deities such as Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. Some of the scenes depicted on these temple walls are not painted anywhere else in Pakistan. The wall fresco says “Shamaskhi” in Gurmukhi, which calls out to Krishna for mercy, compassion and the creation of a peaceful community.
Along with being a social meeting point, this temple has had great spiritual significance for the Hindu community of British India. Hindu yatris (travelers) from the South of the Subcontinent had to stopover at this temple on their way to Srinagar, Kashmir for the annual Amarnath Pilgrimage. The pilgrims would gather, rest, perform ablution and put on ceremonial robes to walk barefoot through the Murree Hills. There is also a common legend that the Hindu god Krishna appeared to 200 worshippers in this very temple in 1946-47, informing devotees to prepare for migration and great change. The Suri family also shifted to Dehli in 1947, abandoning their home and their legacy in the city.
In the 1950’s, the Evacuee Property Trust Board took over the building, but it wasn’t until 1973 that a Government School was established in it. Initially, the pool and ashram remained for worshippers, but the 1973 Punjab Government massively altered the layout of the temple. A seminary nearby acquired most of the land, demolishing the wide courtyard and pool in the process. In the wake of the demolition of the Babri Mosque in India in 1992, several Hindu temples became susceptible to attack, and some people tried to break the brass tips of the temple. Fortunately, the school administration intervened, and stopped anyone from causing permanent harm to the building.
If one asks the people of this neighborhood, and alumni of the school about the temple nowadays, they will confess to not knowing much of its history, but they still feel a responsibility to protect this place as a heritage site.
Kalyan Das’ grandson visited the temple in 2005, vowing to contribute to the development of the school, but it is unclear if such funding has reached the school. There is no doubt that the temple is in dire need of preservation, with crumbling walls, leaky roofs, and broken statues. Some plan for its conservation must be implemented, so that the still-standing structures of the temple do not begin to crumble away like Sujan Singh’s Haveli, a Sikh haveli not too far from the temple.
However, today the Kalyan Das Temple is in need of modernization to better serve as a school (which has existed long enough to claim some sort of ownership of the building), but there is also a dire need for conservation of the temple which the structure houses. As of last year, the local administration of Rawalpindi and National College of Arts (Rawalpindi) has assumed the responsibility of conservation of the temple, along with other heritage sites in Rawalpindi. Concerned citizens urge consultations with Hindu conservationists, who can better assess and preserve the temple according to Hindu traditions.
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