“How are things now?” I asked, and their answer surprised me. They said that in some ways they had been better off under the Taliban.
This hill, which looms over the center of Kabul, was once home to many Hindus and Sikhs. There was a Sikh gurudwara on it as well as a Hindu temple – the Asha Mayi Mandir. Many of the Hindus and Sikhs of this area had been in Afghanistan for generations. They had grown up speaking Pashto and were thoroughly assimilated into Pakhtun culture. They were protected by the Pakhtun tribal code, being regarded as guests. They prospered in Afghanistan in much the same manner that many Afghans did in India – through business and the retail trade. They ran shops and some had extensive lands and property.
But in the last few decades most of the Hindus and Sikhs have left. Only a few managed to sell their houses and businesses. Mostly their properties were seized or encroached upon.
The Asha Mayi Mandir too has moved elsewhere. Today it is located in a featureless building with high walls. Until quite recently some fifty Hindu families lived within the compound. Now there are only five or six families left and they too may not last long.The temple is tucked away under a gnarled mulberry tree. It is looked after by a few sevadars. Some of their families have been settled in Afghanistan for many generations. Some are more recent immigrants from Nepal: young men who came to Afghanistan to look for work.
Some of the caretakers remained in the temple through the Taliban years. They told me that when the Taliban entered Kabul, they were quick to conceal their murtis. But even though the temple was empty, the community continued to gather for prayers and other ceremonies.
For the most part the Taliban left them alone. But at one point they decided that all Hindus and Sikhs would have to wear yellow robes and put tikas on their foreheads. “When they came and told us to do this, we refused,” said the caretakers, “and in the end they gave up.”
One time, there was a jagaran and all the remaining members of the community were present in the temple. This attracted the notice of the Taliban who forced their way into the inner sanctum. “There were thirty of them squeezed into that little space. They looked here and there, expecting to see our murtis, but we had hidden them all. Only one nishana remained, the most important one, and it was right in front of them. But still they did not see it. The Devi had closed their eyes.”
“How are things now?” I asked, and their answer surprised me. They said that in some ways they had been better off under the Taliban. In those years, despite all their other difficulties, when members of the community died they were able to cremate them, at a site that had been in the community’s possession for generations. But over the last few years the old cremation grounds have been seized by squatters; all their attempts to reclaim it have come to nothing. This is one of the principal reasons why they are leaving. They are no longer able to perform the last rites for the dead.
[Acclaimed author Amitav Ghosh was born in Calcutta and grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. He is the author of The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In An Antique Land, Dancing in Cambodia, The Calcutta Chromosome, The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide, and the first two volumes of The Ibis Trilogy; Sea of Poppies, and River of Smoke. In January 2007 he was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest honours; Along with Margaret Atwood, he was also a joint winner of a Dan David Award for 2010. In 2011 he was awarded the International Grand Prix of the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal.]
Art: Indu Bhandari