The Idea of India
Breathing Life And Death Into Gods And Men















In the world there are invisible ladders,
leading step by step to the summit of heaven.
There is a different ladder for every group,
a different heaven for every path.
Each one is ignorant of the other’s condition in this wide kingdom which
has no end or beginning.
This one is amazed at that one and wonders why he is happy,
while that one is astonished at this one and asks why he is amazed.
God’s earth is spacious: every tree springs up from a certain soil.
The leaves and boughs sing thanks to God:
What a fine, broad kingdom.
The nightingales hover around the fruiting blossom,
calling, Give us some of what you drink.
This discourse has no end.

Jalal al-Din Rumi

I stare at the object. The cold, still air of the museum presses in on me. The overhead lights casts harsh shadows across it, veiling its eyes in black voids, highlighting its rib-cage and razor-edged shoulders, and illuminating a smile that appears uncannily alive and inviting me to raise my hands and touch the very lips that form it. The statue appears to float above its mantel – this miracle of levitation obviously added to my reminiscences in retrospect, the base veiled in a shadow cast by the object’s folded legs. The slightly soiled plaque pinned on the wall reads ‘Siddhartha’. I think of Hesse. I have no other reference to turn to. The Buddha.

I am drawn to the object, its perfection, balance, serenity – but I can’t tell why. It is alien. What it stands for and represents is incomprehensible. In this museum dedicated to Pakistan’s heritage, it seems misplaced and irrelevant. Our class tour avoids it and the gallery it sits in alongside a number of other Hindu and Buddhist statues and deities. In this cold, poorly lit corridor they dance, meditate, and stare out into a world that is no longer of them. I touch the lips and feel their cold. The object draws me to it, but is dead to me. Incomprehensible. Unreachable.

I hear my classmates in the adjacent gallery. The teacher leading the class outing to the museum is explaining Islam’s arrival on the lands of what would become Pakistan. A 20th century nationalist enterprise ordained by a medieval invasion. I look again at the seated figure. Quiet. Serene. Questioning. Its form emanates what I can now only describe as a palpable bliss. I look back with a gaze only informed by confusion and disconnectedness. The object does not live, does not speak to me. It is not of me.

Some 30 years later I will think of it again as I kneel in a small Hindu temple in Ayodhya and offer darshan to the god Vishnu.


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 icons 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

Davis, Richard H. Lives of Indian Images

The image lives. Life is breathed into it, and a devotee kneeling before it sees not the object, but a moment where a transcendent god manifests himself in the form of an object a human can connect and relate to. The image lives with the soul of the god within, and it is given this life by rituals and sacrifice.

Pratistha is the sequence of rituals by which a Hindu image is bought to life. In fact, medieval texts dedicated to the worship of Vishnu and Siva speak repeatedly of a transmigrating soul entering the human form of an idol. The manufactured idol is a vigraha (body) or murti (embodiment). The rituals that consecrate an object and prepare it for occupation by the atman (divine consciousness), jiwas (animating spirit), prana (life breath), cetana (consciousness), or sakti (divine energy) focus on the materials and human actions needed to prepare the idol to be suitable for divine energy. The entrance is not abrupt, but a rather a gradual, measured process that requires an elaborate sequence of rituals that transform the inanimate into a form suitable for the in-habitation by a divine spirit. Davis points out that the medieval Saiva text the Kamikagama lists twenty-two constituent rituals needed to fully prepare a temple image.

The rituals begin with the selection of materials. Creation of a wooden image requires the careful selection of specimens that ‘bear an innate resemblance to the intended deity’ (Davis, page 34). For example, male trees are chosen for male divinities and ‘female’ trees for goddesses. It is the Eastern side of the tree that is auspicious and defined as its ‘face’ and temple images also face East. But the priests are aware that other divinities and spirits may inhabit the tree and offer prayers and worship to these spirits (ancestor spirits, ghosts, demons, snakes, antigods, henchmen etc.) and must propitiate these spirits, and ask for their permission to use the tree. The Brhatsamhita recommends that ‘…he should touch the tree and say: `You have been designated to serve as an icon for … a deity. We bow, to you, tree. Please accept these offerings of worship, in proper manner. May those beings who dwell here receive our tribute, which is given properly, and choose another dwelling. May they forgive us. We bow to them’. (Davis, page 35)

The second stage of the ritual of life centers around the creation of the image. Deity sculptor requires adherence to iconographic and iconometric guidelines so that the representation of the god is appropriate and correct. Throughout the process of formation, the priests perform rituals, offerings mantras that best invoke the deity into the image taking form. There is rarely a moment in the creation of the deity that the image is not being consecrated or wrapped in some form of ritual incantation and practice.

The third stage of creation if what is called ‘the awakening’ or netronmilana the opening of the eyes of the deity. The image is placed on its pedestal, and a golden pin is used to draw the outline of the eyes. In the case of Shiva, the eyes number three. The sculptor then opens the eyes with a diamond needle. The priest steps forward, bathes the deity with unguents and displays it before various offerings; ghee, honey, grain, brahmans offering recitations, virgins in full decoration and an assembled crowd of devotees. The new god is washed with ash, clay, cow dung and other substances before being dressed in clean clothes and relevant ornaments. The deity may then be carried through the town.

With its eyes open it has begun to see its environs and offerings. But is far from alive.

Davis explain that a deity is given a rest, the jaladhivasana which entails it resting in water over the course of up to nine nights is one of the most important and significant phases in its transmutation from material to transcendent. Waters from the holy Ganges is preferred and this ritual is crucial for correcting the image against any mistakes or short-comings in the earlier rituals.

The ritual of abhiseka is perhaps one of the most crucial acts performed as described in the Brhatsamshita a number of different substances can be used:

With its head to the east, the image should be bathed with water infused with plaksa-fig, holy fig, ficus, acacia, and banyan trees, with plants deemed auspicious, and with sacrificial grass; with mud from shores or river confluences, anthills, and mud from lotus ponds; with the five products of the cow and with water from holy bathing spots; and with water containing gold and gems along with fragrant perfumes. The bathing should be accompanied by the sounds of many instruments, shouts of best wishes, and the recitation of Vedic hymns.

Saiva texts however pay less attention to the bathing and more on the essential mantras required during this stage. It is the mantras that infuse the complete mantric body, the divine gods cosmic force, into the image. Water pots are used and placed alongside the deity in a geometric pattern and a mantra read over each. Together the pots contain the complete cosmic force identified with Saiva theology. The image is then washed with this blessed water, thereby infusing it with the complete energies needed to complete its journey to becoming divyadeha a divine body.

The image is placed in the temple.

The priest performs the complete puja (worship) for the first time, recognizing and revealing it to have now become sivatva (embodiment of Shiva).

The image is 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 ever met a Hindu was in 1984 at Columbia University in New York City. The first time I ever met a Hindu in Pakistan was nearly fourteen years later while I was working on a personal photo project about the country and its people.

Nothing in my earlier life in Pakistan had required me to know of, speak to, or interact with Hindus. There were no Hindus in our family, or in our social circle, or at school or any other venue I occupied as a child raised in the city of Karachi. They were little more than an abstraction generally referred to as ‘the enemy’.

My earliest memory of their existence comes from the television and radio broadcasts during the 1971 war with India. The conflict led to the division of what was then East & West Pakistan into the nation of Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively. Indian fighter planes frequently strafed oil refineries near our home and we would excitedly look up at the sky in the hope of catching a glimpse of aerial dog-fights or at the very least a jet aircraft.

But to a 6-year old living under the claws of war Hindus were the entity out to destroy us Pakistan and my family specifically. Yet when the war was lost, and Bangladesh severed from the larger nation, the radio and television stopped talking about Hindus and the valor of our jawans (soldiers). Amnesia would help the country deal with the trauma of the amputation.


September 12th, 2007 Swat Valley, Northern Pakistan: A group of men, apparently in an effort to erase evidence of all things un-Islamic, arrived at the foot of a mountain face containing a 2,200 year old carving of the Buddha and attempted to blow it up with dynamite. The statue survived.

October 1st, 2007 Swat Valley, Northern Pakistan: The 2,200 year old carving of the Buddha on a mountain face in the Valley of Swat is seriously damaged when a group of men attack it with dynamite. Claiming it their religious duty, the men promised to return to finish the job.


Our national 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 Pakistani schoolchildren’s textbooks.

Our textbooks simply reflect the values and ideas our nationalists and educators choose to celebrate. They are a reflection of an ethos of fear and suspicion that is created and sustained in the minds of the citizens of Pakistan. A fear that prevents them from seeing ‘the other’ as equally human, just, humane, moral, civilized and spiritual. A fear that ensures that we don’t engage with those who are divide from us not by history, tradition, culture or ethnicity, but by man made ideas and falsehoods.


Glancing into the doorway of a building, I see something that surprised 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, carefully trying 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 any more.’ I look around, the walls have been freshly painted and cooking utensils hang on the wall outside the temple’s central chamber. Where a murti once stood there is nothing but personal belongings. ‘Are there any Hindus that still live in this area?’ I continue, letting hope overcome common sense. ‘God forbid!’ Comes the reply, followed by a laugh.


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. Rachna (not her real name) 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.


October 13th, 2008 Islamabad, Pakistan: Personal diary entry: They are bombing and attacking gods that have died thousands of years ago. Denigrated, ignored and forgotten, these carvings no longer live because they are no longer sought, blessed, bathed, caressed or pleaded to. They are dead. And dead minds attack them to salve themselves and their incomprehension of themselves. Deities on mountain faces, in glass display cases in museums, and in dark and dank corners of crumbling temples a history and heritage that repulses us, like a body feature that repels but cannot be ignored. And we try to scrape at with our fingers, disfiguring ourselves further, bleeding with the danger of succumbing to a self-inflicted wound.


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, and turning towards the offices where I have my meeting and says ‘This is not Pakistan here’


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 Navrati 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 be, 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 fear are of my own making.

The following morning I meet him at the steps of the shrine of the Sufi saint Baba Ibrahim Shah. 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 apparently 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 locality and the men now sitting around me all live nearby. They are all devotees of the Baba and proudly point out how they collaborated to protect 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 – Muslims, Sikhs and others, for centuries.’ 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 walk through the alleys of Ayodhya’s Lal Qila mohalla, 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 am not sure if I would be allowed into the temple, but he assures me that it will not be a problem.

A few minutes later I am standing in the inner chamber of a temple and realize that it was over thirty year 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 priests welcome and blessings. As he recites the puja on my behalf, I raise my eyes to Shiva and see him looking back.

I see him looking back.

Further Readings:

Helminski, Camille & Kabir, Rumi: Jewels of Remembrance,  Threshold Books, 1996

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

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