Twelve years after the Pakistan government launched an ambitious plan to renovate the historic Katas Raj temple complex, the shrine’s sacred pond is at risk of running dry because of excessive groundwater use by nearby factories.
A series of pipes carrying water from a nearby source have helped fill up the Amrit Kund or main pond at the temple complex located in the Kallar Kahar range of the Potohar plateau, some three hours south of Islamabad. But experts say this is, at best, a temporary solution to a much larger problem.
Three cement factories located in the vicinity of the temple complex have reduced the groundwater level to a point where it is almost impossible for most residents in the area to find water even after digging deep wells. The well at one side of the Katas Raj complex has run dry and, in the summer of 2017, the sacred pond itself was on the brink of running dry. The water level had fallen drastically in 2012 too.
Senior BJP leader LK Advani had inaugurated renovation works at the temple complex — believed to be more than 2,300 years old and linked to the epic Mahabharat — during a visit to Pakistan in June 2005. Despite the allocation of several crores of Pakistani rupees by successive governments, the work was never completed.
According to Hindu history, the sacred pond at Katas Raj was formed by a tear that fell from the eyes of Lord Shiva after the death of his wife Sati. A second tear created a pond at Ajmer, Rajasthan. It is also believed that the Pandavas spent several years at Katas Raj during their 14 years in exile.
It was only after Pakistan’s Supreme Court intervened over the poor upkeep of the temple complex last year that the Punjab government tried to fix the problem by laying pipes to bring water from a source to the pond.
But even this source could run dry in summer, putting the sacred pond in danger, local residents said.
Vikas, who is the temple’s pujari, said the number of Hindus visiting the complex over the years has increased: “The number of those coming from India has gone down but those from other parts of Pakistan, particularly Sindh province, has gone up.”
Politician Bhagwandas Chawla from Sindh regularly sponsors visits but these last only a few days. “Much more needs to be done,” Vikas said.
The government of Punjab province, with the help of the archaeology department and the Evacuee Trust Property Board — which is responsible for the upkeep of shrines of minorities — has cleaned up the temple complex and also built walkways for tourists.
But more needs to be done to stabilise a number of structures that are crumbling. Attacks by local students in 1992, in retaliation for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India, affected some buildings. A number of murtis or idols were removed and still have not been traced.
For several years now, the Katas Raj administration has been trying to persuade Indian yatris to bring some murtis from India but without success. “For us to start regular prayer services, we have to have enough murtis,” said Vikas.
The local government has ambitious plans to attract visitors. A huge structure to accommodate visitors is being built on one side of the complex. This will cater not only to Hindu yatris but also to others who come to visit the complex.
But there are also plans to build a waterfall-like feature, much to the horror of historians and well-wishers. “It seems they want to convert this into an amusement complex,” remarked a historian who didn’t want to be named.