The greatest travellers of the ancient world were arguably the Buddhist monks and sages who travelled the length and breadth of Asia to spread the Buddhadharma
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Tolerance is the most devalued quality in a world riveted by secularist-modernist sensibilities on the one hand and fundamentalist interpretations of faith on the other. Each faith has always had its share of the lunatic fringe, but this fringe is now more prominent than ever because it is so media-friendly. Worse, the atheists have sprung their own intolerant fundmentalists. It is easy to forget that some of the greatest mass murderes of the 19th century — Hitler and Pol Pot, to name a couple — were atheists.
This is why Reema Abbasi’s effort to examine Hindu shrines in Pakistan is so impressive. For in all the news reports that reach us on fundamentalism, the Taliban and Malala Yousufzai, we have nobody telling us that Pakistan still has Hindus living there. That there are still temples dating back to the medieval and ancient times. And that the syncretic traditions of South Asia, which survived years of tyranny and bigotry at the hands of several powerful rulers and communities, is not dead yet.
Madiha Aijaz’s photos illustrate Abbasi’s words well, but also tell a story of their own. The photographer’s notes, though, undermine her efforts. Instead of adding to the pictures, the words distract from them. The editor’s bad (as also the reviewer’s, for nitpicking). Abbasi is a journalist. It shows in her sourcing of information and anecdotes from diverse sources. Some of the practices she describes will surprise Hindus in India, because Hinduism is losing its pluralistic streaks. For example, the Balmiki temple in Peshawar’s Kalibari has Balmiki flanked by Krishna and Shiva, and it faces Durga. In India, Balmiki has been pushed away from other deities by other castes, to the point that Maharishi Valmiki is their only community identifier. No wonder untouchability continues to thrive. Perhaps Pakistani Hindus can teach Indian Hindus a lesson or two!
Faith has been a powerful reason to travel — through time and space — in South Asia. Abbasi’s book offers a trip to a world beyond the reach for most Indians, given the state of Indo-Pak relations. Even if you don’t care for any faiths, this book is a must for the transport it offers to an inaccessible and valuable part of South Asia.
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