When a community voluntarily lets go of its culture it is known as committing cultural suicide. Similarly, when a government or an external power aggressively enforces foreign culture on its people it is termed cultural aggression. The result is, of course, an identity crisis which leads to either a community becoming extinct or assimilating into another. Sadly, our country is victim to both cultural suicide and cultural aggression thanks to our incumbent governments. Cultural aggression peaked during the time of the infamous dictator, General Zia ul Haq, and he along with his prodigal children adamantly tried to expunge the beautiful spectrum of our country in the name of Islamization.
The dying cave temples of Islamabad are among the great losses that our country has had to endure. Located in Sector C-13, just few miles from the sprawling village of Shah Allah Ditta, these temples commemorate the period when the North West region of our country was home to the Gandhara civilization. The cave temples are located around a naturally occurring stream lined with ancient Banyan trees adding magic to the glory of this ancient site. Archeologists believe that this site was originally a Buddhist enclave whose history dates back to the first century of the Common Era, where Buddhist monks and other devotees came for pilgrimage.
Despite the historical significance of the site, the temples are in pathetic shape due to lack of interest from the government, particularly the Capital Development Authority (CDA). Furthermore, the influential land mafia does not only have political backing but they are also capable of stirring the emotions of people with the help of religious propaganda against anyone who dares to speak for the protection of these ancient Hindu sites located in Pakistan.
The temples are currently under the custody of a Muslim family who have named the place ‘Sadhu ka Bagh’. They narrate the story of the Hindi Saint who handed their family the custody the temples:
“He was a holy man but when partition occurred he was forced to leave his temples and he gave them to the grandfather of the present custodian to look after them”
The story may or may not be true but it is very alarming to see that a hotel is being built right beside the ancient site, threatening the beauty as well as the structure of centuries old caves.
During the time of Zia, the Margalla hills were given to his chosen Bajri & Rait wallahs who blew a part of them to make crushed stone and rait. According to the custodians of the temples, this practice stopped only recently (during the time of Musharraf). The recent threat to these temples comes from the land mafia and encroachment mafia which were also a gift of Zia ul Haq to Islamabad. Afghans displaced from the war were encouraged to encroach upon Islamabad. They illegally occupied Sector I-11, greenbelt between I-10 and H-10. Green median between I-9 and H-9 is also in their illegal possession. Now, they have reached Shah Allah Ditta and according to the custodians of the temples, are encouraged to occupy the adjacent lands by the influential people of the area.
Another looming threat to this heritage site comes from the visitors who mindlessly write their names on the walls of the temples. On my first visit to the temples in 2008 only a couple of the lines from the ancient Khoroshti script (Khoroshti is the name of the script used to write Gandhari dialect of Sanskrit) were visible on the walls of the caves. Today, this ancient graffiti is lost forever, as people have left no stone unturned in vandalizing the walls of the temples.
My research on this ancient site along with cluster of others located in and around the Margalla’s has revealed that the history of the site goes back to the Vedic period (a period in history during which the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, were composed.) InRig Vedas and other Hindu literature such as Matsiya Purana we hear about a site where Devas (the demigods) and Asvaras ( an evil divine race) clashed on the possession of caves where the most powerful secret of Barhama was buried.
Despite the rich history and myths attached to this heritage site, there is has been no effort at rehabilitation and the ancient site lies in ruins with no one interested in making it a focal point of pilgrimage for the Hindus and Buddhists devotees. It is the responsibility of the citizens of Islamabad to protect the cave temples as they speak volumes about our cultural history and diversity.