Asim Rafiqui

This essay is excerpted from a multimedia web project titled, The Idea of India, which photographer and writer Asim Rafiqui describes as, "a journey through an alternative India; of lived experiences, of lives and imaginations not bound by sectarianism. In some instances I document real, lived acts of resistance and cultural sharing. In other instances I explore social spaces that point to worlds more complex, beautiful and vital than those offered by the threadbare hate mongering of the sectarians. In other words, I am using photography not only as a means of evidence, but also as a vessel for the imagination."

Karachi, Pakistan, 1980: I stare at the object. The cold, still air of the museum presses in on me. The overhead lights cast harsh shadows across its face, veiling its eyes in black voids and highlighting its thin, razor-edged shoulders, the birdcage ribcage, and illuminating a subtle smile that sits across its thin, pressed lips. The idol appears to float – its pedestal hidden by the shadow cast by its folded legs, in a state of perpetual calm. A slightly soiled paper plaque pinned on the wall reads “Siddhartha.” I think of Hesse. The Buddha. I have no other reference to turn to.

I am drawn to the object and intrigued by its perfection, balance, and aura of serenity. But it is alien to a fourteen-year-old boy and the philosophies and histories it represents are unknown to me. In this museum dedicated to Pakistan’s heritage, where I have come on a field trip with my high school class, it seems misplaced and irrelevant. I have never heard about nor seen anything like it. The teacher taking us around the museum simply avoids the room where the idol, along with a number of others in various postures of dance, contemplation, explication and meditation, is placed. I reach out and touch its lips and feel their cold. It smiles at me.  

When I rejoin the school group I find the teacher explaining Islam’s arrival in what would become Pakistan. The other students stand huddled around intricate scale-model dioramas that depict the arrival of Islam and the conquests of the lands by the soldiers of Allah. Here, surrounded by artifacts and dioramic artifice, the students can confirm what they so far only learned in books. Audio and light effects give scale-model invasions all the drama and excitement of a living moment in time – a sense of immediacy, as if we are witnessing them as they unfold. The excited voice of the teacher, the sound of horses’ hoofs, the clash of swords and the mesmerized look of the students creates an intense sense of living in that very moment of a historical triumph of which we, the young Pakistani kids from 10th grade on a school outing, are the living heirs. We can feel the triumph and the inevitability of that history. 

And yet, there is that seated object. I look back into the dark corridor and see it sitting there. Quiet. Serene. What is its story? I am attracted to it – I want to leave the cacophony of the gallery and the certitude of the history that is being demonstrated to me, and instead stand in the silence that surrounds the idol. But I am aware that it is not of me. What is it and why is it there in the museum? Its presence is a question that I dare not ask the teacher, and at the same time it is also a provocation. I will soon forget about it and return to my life. But I will think of it again some 30 years later as I stand in a temple in Ayodhya, India and kneel to offer darshan to the god Shiva.

*          *          *

New Delhi, India, 2010: The image lives and life is breathed into it. A devotee kneeling before it sees not the object, but a transcendent god in a form a mortal human can connect and relate to. As Richard Davis explained: 

For South Indian Saivas (followers of Shiva) of the 11th century, as for traditional Hindus today, religious icons…were most fundamentally living divine beings. The center of an icon’s identity and value lay not in its physical materials nor its form, but in the divine presence that was invoked into it through ritual procedures and came to animate it. In medieval Saiva theology, the animated icon or image was a localized, particularized “manifestation” or “incarnation”: of the all-pervading, transcendent God Shiva, who at his highest level of being was considered to be beyond all form, but who simultaneously would inhabit a variety of immanent, physical embodiments.1

The murti lives with the soul of the god within, and it is given this soul by a sequence of carefully performed rituals. The Pratistha – the sequence of rituals by which a murti (embodiment) is brought to life, consecrate an object and prepare it for occupation by the atman (divine consciousness), jiwas (animating spirit), prana (life breath), cetana (consciousness), or akti (divine energy). They gradually, carefully, and with a devotional precision born over centuries, transform an inanimate object into a form suitable for occupation by a divine spirit. As I sit in my apartment in Delhi and read about the rituals I am struck their beauty, how they embody a reverence for the natural world around us and reflect the inter-connectedness between all things. A wooden deity's wood isn't merely wood, but chosen by the gender of the tree, and only after appeasing and requesting permission from the other deities that live within the tree. The sculptor adheres to iconographic and iconometric guidelines that date back centuries. Once the physical form is ready the deity is gradually and gently invited into the physical sculptor. There are incantations and acts of consecration – in fact, there is hardly a moment when the deity is not surrounded by mantras and incantations. There is “the awakening” or netronmilana - the opening of the eyes of the deity as the outlines of the eyes are made, and a diamond needle used to open them. In jaladhivasana it rests for up to 9 days in the waters of the Ganges. And then the final bathing and incantation of mantras – the abhiseka, to infuse the complete mantric body, the divine god’s cosmic force, into the image. The first puja (worship) recognizes and reveals the deity as a sivatva (embodiment of Shiva). The image is now alive and the god – pervasive, omnipresent, limitless, beyond name and form, without beginning and without end, imperishable and unchanging, unknowable and perfect – is now manifest.

*          *          *

The first time I met a “Hindu” was as an undergraduate at Columbia University in New York City. I was in love with her. There were no Hindus in our family, in our social circle, at school in the city of Karachi, or for that matter in any part of Karachi or Pakistan that I moved in. “Hindus” were little more than an abstraction – a synonym for “the enemy.” My earliest memory of them and their nefarious intentions (the two were associated closely) comes from the television and radio broadcasts I would hear during the 1971 war. The conflict, which led to the division of East & West Pakistan into the nations of Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively, defined my ideas of India, and of “the Hindu” for years to come. 

I remember well the sounds of Indian fighter planes strafing and bombing oil refineries near our home in Karachi. When permitted we would excitedly look up at the sky in the hope of catching a glimpse of the dog-fights or at the very least a jet aircraft. We would spend hours glued to the television and the radio for any news about the battles and the daring achievement of our brave jawans (soldiers) and the defeats they were inflicting on “the enemy.” To a 6-year-old living under the clouds of war, and in the fog of propaganda, "the Hindus" were all those out to destroy Pakistan. And once the war was lost, and Bangladesh severed, the radio and television stations stopped talking about “Hindus” and the valor of our jawans (soldiers). A silence settled over the country. 

*          *          *

Pakistani textbooks feed the divide, coax the fear and encourage the hatred. In a study commissioned by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, titled The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan, the authors identify a long list of what can only be called hate material taught to high school children in Pakistan. Most of it still remains in print. These Social Studies and Pakistan Studies textbooks reflect the broader dismissive, suspicious, and denigrating cultural and social prejudice against all things “Hindu.” The deviousness of “the Hindu,” the pettiness of their beliefs, their moral depravity, their designs against all things “Muslim” and “Islamic,” their innate hatred of “Muslims,” their unjust social and cultural values, their exploitation of women and lower castes, their underhanded and criminal attempts to scuttle the creation of Pakistan, their continuing single-minded determination to destroy Pakistan and other such simplistic, reductive, and frankly racist generalizations pervade the pages of these textbooks. These prejudices scar the child, and damage the adult, and ensure that we remain fearful, suspicious, and hostile towards those who are in fact a part of our history, traditions, culture or society.2 

*          *          *

Lahore, Pakistan, 2003: Glancing into the doorway of a building I see something that surprises me: a small Hindu temple. The morning crowd in Lahore’s old city is already jamming the narrow alleys of the mohallah (neighborhood) and people push past on their way to work. I step inside and look around, careful to not to surprise any women who may be inside. A young man sees me and breaks into a smile. “I beg your pardon, but is this a Hindu temple?” I ask. “Yes,” he nods. “It was at some point but not anymore.” I look around – the walls have been freshly painted and cooking utensils hang on the wall outside the temple’s central chamber. Inside, where a murti must once have stood, there are now beddings and other personal belongings. “Are there any Hindus that still live in this area?” He looks at me incredulously and says. “God forbid!”

*          *          *

The girl that I fell in love with was from a Hindu family from Bombay. It was still called Bombay back then in 1985. She wasn’t the first Indian I befriended at the college, but certainly the one who most compelled me to question my ideas about India and her people. It was through her that I first started to read books beyond those sanctioned by Pakistani nationalism. A history major fascinated by post-colonial literature, she introduced a whole new complicated and sophisticated world to me. Raised in the closeted world of the Pakistani middle class, I had very little

knowledge of something called the South Asian diaspora, let alone its emergence as a literary, artistic, intellectual and creative force in Europe, USA, and even in South Asia. She was a door into new realizations and surprising revelations, the likes of which I, an Engineering major, had not been prepared to confront. But she was exciting because she was different, and I was determined to keep up even if just to impress her and spend time with her. Her interest in me lasted a few weeks. The questions and interests she sparked in me have lasted me a lifetime. Some years later she married a nice Indian boy from New Jersey. I was not invited to the wedding.

*          *          *

Ayodhya, India, 2009: The men from Indian intelligence were polite but firm when they had questioned me earlier in a small tea shop. I could see that they were nervous, excited and unsure all at the same time about what precisely it was that I represented. I looked Indian, spoke Hindi, and yet, as they later told me, I did not carry myself like an Indian and it had been easy to pick me out from the crowd that morning outside the Ram Janmabhoomi complex – the stretch of land that is claimed by Hindu fundamentalists as the site of a temple to the god Ram who they say was born here. They are on the lookout for suspicious “Muslims” who may attempt some sort of “terrorist” attack on the site. Their suspicions are further aroused when they saw that I had no identification papers on me, heard that I have a Muslim name, and learned that I was a photographer working on a project about India’s heritage of pluralism and had come to Ayodhya to document evidence of it. To make matters worse, they had found me in the company of Mahant Yugal Kishore Shastri, a dissident Hindu priest who had a reputation for his opposition to the Hindu fundamentalists and their scheme for  the construction of the new temple to Ram where the mosque had once stood. He had alienated himself from a lot of people some months earlier by hanging a garland of shoes around a picture of the god Ram. It was with his help that I had been visiting the surviving Sufi dargahs and syncretic temples in the city. 

It has been 16 years since the leaders of India’s Bharata Janata Party (BJP) and members of her sister organizations led a mob to this once quiet, nondescript town in Northern India and carried out a act of historical vandalism that lifted this city out of its obscurity and made it into a symbol of the new, “pure” Hindu nation they hoped to build. The passage of time had done little to heal the wounds or reduce the fear on the streets. Police checkpoints and barricades remained in place around the Babri mosque complex. Further up the road security check points and intrusive bag and body checks protected the entrances to the city’s most important mandir – the Hanumangarhi. Police trucks carrying men in riot gear were a constant sight in the area. Men from the Indian intelligence, with their large walkie-talkies and threatening swagger, could be seen sitting in local tea shops or at street corners, their eyes scanning the crowds. And in the midst of all this, thousands of Hindu devotees went about their daily rituals entering and exiting the complex site which was now closed to all “Muslims.” And despite all this, one could still feel that this was a city offered to the gods – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Jain. The streets were filled with the sounds of pujas, religious music from inside mandirs. The melody of the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer, fills the air with its melody and men rush towards the mosques.

Sitting in the tea shop as the Intelligence agent went through my notepad and fired questions at me, I remembered how I had hesitated coming here, fearful of precisely this moment. From a few thousand kilometers away I had imagined it as a dangerous and violent place – a Hindu town hostile to anything Muslim. And at times, in conversations with people that I met on the streets it seemed to be just that: fragmented, hate-filled, and with a Hindu-Muslim community irreparably divided. My interrogation – which began in the tea shop and later continued in my hotel room, lasted 24 hours. Four large men with looks that suggested an easy familiarity with violence, sat in my room and asked me the same questions again and again. They were hoping that exhaustion would reveal a contradiction. Later they took copies of my passport, my press credentials and my travel details. I was assigned a minder who promised to be discreet but to never let me out of his sight. They asked me about my family (I did not reveal my Kashmiri heritage for fear of further complicating the situation) and about my friends in India. Just before leaving they asked me whether I said my namaaz (Muslim prayers). I lied and said that I did not. As they left I heard the sound of them laughing at my cowardice.

*          *          *

Ayodhya, India, 2010: It is time to open the fast and the priests invite me to join them. I am hesitant because I am not sure if they realize that I am of Muslim origin. I make an excuse, but they insist, and I explain that I don’t wish to offend or desecrate their domain as I am not Hindu. They laugh and spread a place for me to sit. It is Navratri, the festival of nine nights in honor of the goddesses Durga, Lakshmi and Sarasvati. The festival of Dussehra is a few days away and the men, along with a few women from a nearby temple, are preparing to break their fast. I sit on the cold, wet floor as a cloth is laid out in front of me. The sound of food being ladled into large palm-leaf plates can be heard from the veranda in front of the ashram. I watch the setting evening sun cast magnificent shadows across the facade of the building, and into the chambers of the priests – a wonderful photographic moment, but I desist out of respect for my hosts and the ritual to which I have been invited.

“Where are you from Asim bhai?” asks one of the men who has come in and joined us. I am not sure how to respond. Do I reveal that I am a Pakistani-born Muslim? Do I try to dodge the question and lay claim to my American and Swedish residencies and nationalities? Despite four weeks in Ayodhya I have yet to figure out how best to handle this situation. “I was born in Pakistan, but that was many decades ago and I now live in Sweden.” There is a slight hush in the group and for the first time I hear the women’s conversations hesitate as they look over to me, trying to be inconspicuous. My companion is smiling – a smile that is reflected in his eyes and the outstretched body that is now leaning across the plates and attempting to hug me. I am taken aback, but clumsily return the gesture. “A special feast for us then!” he exclaims, looking across to the others. The women are quiet – they seem unconvinced of the honor. “Ravinder,” he says after a few minutes. “Asim,” I answer, smiling at him. “This is an honor, Asim,” he adds after a few minutes. “We are pleased to have you here.” What must have been a visible tension now eases away from me. I scold myself for my clearly visible hesitations and outward caution. I have repeatedly been welcomed and befriended by the people I meet here. My fears are of my own making.

*          *          *

Lahore, Pakistan, 2007: It took some effort to locate the small Hindu neighborhood in one of Karachi’s oldest commercial districts. Little more than a ghetto, the enclosed neighborhood is surrounded by high walls and can only be entered through a single archway that today has large, metal gates and a police observation post. But before I could enter I was approached by four men. “Why do you want to see the temple?” one of them asked with a sneer. “Are you a Hindu?” I explain that I am a photographer and that I have an appointment with a gentleman from the Hindu Association of Pakistan who has agreed to give me a tour of the temple and the predominantly Hindu neighborhood surrounding it. The policeman, manning the gates to what is essentially a Hindu ghetto in one of the older neighborhoods in Karachi, is unconvinced. Concerns for the safety of the small Hindu community require a twenty-four police presence at the gates of their mohalla. Today there are four plainclothes policemen on duty and they are clearly in no mood to be cooperative. A young man sitting with them stands and approaches me. I give him the name of my contact and ask if he would kindly go inside and announce my arrival. He looks down at my card and asks with a severe politeness, “What is the story you are working on?” I explain that I am doing a large project on Pakistan and its many inhabitants. I am beginning to suspect that he is in fact a resident of this area. He smiles, turning towards the offices where I have my meeting, and says, “This is not Pakistan here.”

*          *          *

Ayodhya, India, 2009: I meet him at the steps of the shrine of the Sufi saint Baba Ibrahim Shah located in the heart of Ayodhya's Lal Qila neighborhood. He is there with his family and greets me with a large smile. After lighting candles at the tomb of the saint, a ritual that he and his family perform every Thursday, he invites me to join him for a cup of tea at a stall nearby. The neighborhood around the shrine is predominantly Hindu and the men sitting around me all live nearby. They are all devotees of the Baba and proudly tell me about how they protected the shrine from attacks by the Hindutva mobs during the Babri mosque incident in 1992. “We were all scared, and shocked,” one of them remarks. “It was as if the life and city that was ours was being taken from us and turned into something new and dangerous.” The men nod in agreement. “We have lived here with each other for centuries,” my friend Ravinder comments. “Now these people come here and tell us that this was not how it was!” There is laughter amongst the group. “Suddenly,” he continues with a mischievous smile, “what we know and what we have lived is lies.” Later, as I continue photographing in the alleys, Ravinder catches up to me. “Asim bhai. I am on my way to the temple.” There is a slight hesitation in his voice. “Perhaps you want to offer darshan with me?” I agree. 

A few minutes later I am standing in the inner chamber of a temple and realize that it was over thirty years ago that I last stood in such close proximity to an image of a god. The mantras echo in the room, and men and women move past me, oblivious to my presence there. Ravinder steps forward towards the priests and whispers something in his ear. The priest gestures to me and I look at Ravinder, whose eyes are locked on mine. I step forward and receive the priest's welcome and blessings. As he recites the puja on my behalf, I raise my eyes to Shiva and see him looking back at me with the same smile I first saw in a museum in Karachi some thirty years ago. 


1. Davis, Richard H. Lives of Indian Images Princeton University Press, 1997

2. For a longer discussion on the role of textbooks and the creation of fear, see my piece The Hindus Live In Small And Dark Houses Or Finding The Roots Of War In Textbooks at the Idea of India project website. 

Asim Rafiqui is an independent photographer focusing on photography in the aftermath of conflict. He has worked in places like Haiti, Israel, and the Palestinian Occupied Territories.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic (France), Stern (Germany), and Time (US and Asia). He also writes a blog called The Spinning Head.