Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

‘Spring of the Raining Eyes’

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Shortly before entering the town of Choa Saidan Shah, the highroad to Kallar Kahar passes by a clump of old buildings overlooking an emerald pool. Those nearer the road all have fresh coats of wash, while the tall building on the far side of the pool seems untouched for years. This is Ketas Raj, revered by Hindus, sacred to Shiva the Destroyer, and once the centre of a grand annual yatra for devotees from all corners of the subcontinent.

Legend has it that when Sati died, her husband, Lord Shiva, was inconsolable. His tears flowed so that they virtually ‘rained from his eyes’, and from these tears two pools were formed. The one Pushkara near Ajmer in Rajastan and the other Ketaksha in the Salt Range - both greatly revered by followers of Shiva. And because the tears had rained from his eyes, hence Ketaksha or ‘Raining Eyes’. Through the usage of centuries, the word was abbreviated to Ketas as we know it today.

Cunningham, who believed this to be the site of Hiuen Tsiang’s Singhapura explains the name variously in his different writings: Svetavasa - ‘White Robes’ - after the Svetambra Jains that the Chinese pilgrim found in the city, can be changed to Khetavasa for the compound sw is easily interchangeable with kh. Then it was only natural for Khetavasa to become Ketas. Conversely, it derives from Kataksh Kund or ‘spring of raining eyes’.

Although there is little evidence of Ketas being Singhapura, there is no denying that it is an ancient holy site. Long before it was revered by either the Buddhists or the Hindus, the emerald pond (sounded to a depth of 7 metres) would have been the site of pagan rites. With the rise of Buddhism under King Asoka in the 3rd century BC, a stupa was built and the site was consecrated for the followers of Buddha. Today the oldest edifice among the temples and ruins of Ketas is the plinth of this stupa. Surely this was the ruinous stupa lying just outside the city of Singhapura to the south whose ‘miraculous powers continued’ according to Hiuen Tsiang.

Even at the time of the visit of the Chinese pilgrim, Singhapura was a dependency of Kashmir, but in the following centuries it was completed integrated with that kingdom. The last great disturbance from the west had been Mehr Gul and his Huns. Following several years of barbarity and tyranny, he was defeated in AD 528 by a confederacy of Rajput princes and banished to Kashmir where he died twelve years later. The next assault was not due until the Ghaznavids, and in the peaceful interregnum of the latter half of the 7th century AD, King Durlabhaka Pratapaditya of the Karkota dynasty of Kashmir, nominally expanded his authority to the south and the west.

It was, however, his descendant Lalitaditya Muktapida (AD 724-760) who was to consolidate control over Taxila, the Salt Range and other parts of the Punjab. Wherever the arm of the conqueror spread, a house of worship was raised as a mark. In Kashmir the fabulous temple of Martand was built to set the pace for the temple architecture of nearby Nandna and Malot. Still later, braving the uncertainties of the early years of the 11th century, the successors of Lalitaditya were to consecrate the site of the ancient Asokan stupa outside Singhapura with two temples of Shiva. Called Sat Ghara or ‘Seven Temples’, they are attributed to the Pandavas who are believed to have sojourned at Ketas in their years of wandering.

Built of blocks of calciferous limestone, the Hindu Shahya temples raised around the ruins of earlier temples, are very similar to that of Nandna. From the exterior decoration which replicated the elevation of the temple on the outside walls, to the square cella with a domed roof topped by the spire, to the vaulted porch, the temples of Ketas were to be humble replicas of the one at Martand. Today, some 900 years after they were raised, these buildings, teetering on the brink of collapse, are dwarfed by a stubby white temple of a much later date.

Their building marks the time when the Buddhist tradition was supplanted by the Vedic. Asoka’s stupa (whose ruined plinth lies forty metres to the east), already almost a millennium old and decaying, was allowed to fall into ruin; the sangharama was replaced by a dharamsala and the tradition of Shiva’s tears forming the pool was born. For the next twelve hundred years Ketas Raj was to be one of the most hallowed sites for the Hindus of the subcontinent.

Subsequently, with the passage of time more and more buildings were added, turning the site into a complex of temples, hermitages, and residences. Today the most imposing, and one of the more recent, building is the three storeyed high Ram Chandra temple overlooking the pool. Behind it stands the haveli, a veritable fortress, of Hari Singh Nalwa, the most able general under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, built after 1810 when the Salt Range was annexed by the Sikhs.

With Independence and the greatest transmigration in human history, Ketas Raj was abandoned. The roofs of the apartments inside Hari Singh’s haveli and those of the priests’ residences were demolished, presumably for the timbers to be used in neighbourhood houses. Red sandstone lintels were wrenched out of doors and windows, jambs were removed and frescoes inside the temples were defaced as a sign of iconoclastic piety.

For years the temple stood abandoned and neglected until the 1980s when a party of yatris was allowed for the first time since the 1950s. Then the buildings were cleaned of refuse and given fresh coats of wash. And so the practice continues. Otherwise the site of Shiva’s tears for his wife, Sati, remains largely deserted - but for the occasional tourist.

Book is available at Sang e Meel (042-3722-0100), Lahore

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 15 January 2014 at 01:26, Blogger Gazelle said...

Went to see Katas Raj on my last trip to Pakistan. Enthralled by the 'ancientness' of the ruins and disappointed with the fact that there were no signs, no reading material explaining such an important ancient holy site. Further disappointed by the fact how the government was trying to "restore" the mandirs by whitewashing some old paintings and replacing them with some new ones. The religious slogans on the walls was another peeve and so was a used pamper...the worst was a broken part of the stupa just lying in the sahn. overall still a beautiful and serene place to visit.

At 15 January 2014 at 15:18, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Gazelle, this is a country run by morons. They have ruined this priceless site. And I am so sorry. Beyond that I have no words.

At 16 January 2014 at 09:14, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don understand what a historic place has to do with a religion? We should take care of it as its very precious & we cant get it again if once gone, we should follow Egyptians in this as majority there are Muslim but still keeping the history of ancient Egypt which do not belong to nor even near to their religion.

At 6 February 2014 at 17:16, Blogger Rehan Afzal said...

Salman sb, I have been visiting Ketas for the last 6 years and have made friends with the teacher at the school adjacent to the Temple Complex. He narrated a story of the recent uplift during Ch. Pervaiz Elahi's tenure, where during digging, two large "Mutkaas" were found. These Mutkaas were sealed. Some villagers / muzdoors, thinking there was treasure inside broke the seal and found human remains in the Mutkaas; Men with very long skulls, sitting inside the Mutkaas. He narrated that the Skulls exploded shortly thereafter. Could you shed some light on the story. The gentleman is a very dear friend now and I don't suppose he has any reason to prevaricate.

At 7 February 2014 at 22:04, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

You friend is a fool and a liar, Rehan. Keep clear of fools.

At 20 September 2015 at 12:31, Anonymous Ahmed Bajwa said...

Dear Salman Rashid Sb, well done for all you did to tell about our Pakistan for the well being of tourism, culture and related matters.

At 20 September 2015 at 12:51, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Ahmed. Glad you liked this.

At 20 September 2015 at 12:52, Anonymous Ahmed Bajwa said...

Dear Salman Sb, can I see you some day in your preoccupied engagements some day???

At 22 September 2015 at 10:22, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Bajwa sahib, why do you even have to ask this question? My telephone number and email address are all on my blog. Call/write and we'll set up something.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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