Sacred Sites and Devotional Spaces: Hindu Places of Worship in and around Karachi


The Indian Subcontinent is one of the ancient cradles of human civilization. Archaeological sites scattered over the Indo-Gangetic plain provide evidence of a highly developed and advanced culture with links to far-flung areas throughout Central and Western Asia. This Harappa or Indus Valley Civilization, which was well established as early as 3000 BCE, provided the foundation or base from which early Indian or Hindu cultural including religious practices and beliefs arose and developed.

The proto-Hindu religious practices evident in the archaeological remains of pre-historic Harappan cities indicate that certain sacred elements present at that time continue to be relevant and significant in current religious observances. For example, the sacred bull and the pipal tree, the all-important Mother Goddess and the precursor to the god who eventually came to be worshipped as Shiva[1]. The antiquity and lineage of the gods and goddesses who dominate contemporary Hindu religion can thus be clearly traced back to the early days of Indian Civilization. In his The Roots of Ancient India, Fairservis notes that “in the villages Krishna, Rama, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Kali, Parvati, Siva, and a pantheon of local spirits and deities grow out of roots that may be as old at least as the Harappan.”[2]

Hinduism as a term or designation for a particular religious ideology and devotional practices is of recent origin. Interestingly the word Hindu is not of Sanskrit provenance, nor is it found in any of the other native languages of the subcontinent. Its origin, in fact, lies in archaic Persian; in ancient times the Achaemenid Empire bordered and occasionally ruled over the region that now comprises Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the valley and plains of the mighty river Indus, or Sindhu as it was locally called. Due purely to linguistic enunciation, the Persians pronounced Sindhu as Hindu and referred to the people inhabiting the region as Hindus. Thus, the term Hindu was assigned to all the natives of the area, irrespective of their ethnicity, culture, belief system, and religion. The Greeks, in turn, converted Sindhu into Indos and eventually Indus for the river, while Indians came to be the people of ‘India’, that vast, mysterious country that lay to the east of Persia. The Arabs, in turn, called the region Al-Hind or Hindustan the land of the Hindus. This was thus a purely geographic designation and therefore totally secular and free of any religious connotations. Even after the Turkish conquests of India, the term Hindu continued to denote the natives of the land, to differentiate them from newcomers but did not attribute or assign a religious identity to the indigenous community. It was the British who first assigned a religious designation to Hindu in order to differentiate them from the Muslims and create a communal divide based solely on their own rather limited, Eurocentric perceptions of Muslim and Hindu philosophies and worldviews. Even though, “before the nineteenth century, people of South Asia did not consider themselves to belong to a wider religious identity but would rather be members of a tradition or community whose focus was a particular deity or practice”.[3]

With its myriad gods, goddesses, and a pantheon of super-beings, Hinduism is a complex amalgamation of diverse ideas and beliefs, of traditions and customs, of rites and ceremonies, of philosophies both intellectual and esoteric. It has been argued that it is difficult to characterise Hinduism “as a religion in the normal sense since it is not a unitary concept nor a monolithic structure, but that it is rather the totality of the Indian way of life”. [4] Nevertheless, as Wendy Doniger maintains in On Hinduism, that while there might not be a centralised dogma or even a consensus on issues of lifestyle and even faith, certain vital practices and rituals provide commonality and connection, a continuity that transcends time and space. These ceremonial traditions and observances link diverse communities of people who refer to themselves as Hindus today to the past, to the ancient, prehistoric people of north-western India, who, around 1500 BCE compiled and assembled the sacred texts of the Vedas and indeed those who preceded them. [5]

The Trimurti or triad of three Gods along with their female counterparts and their innumerable manifestations and avatars dominate Hindu mythology. The four-headed, four-armed, self-created Brahma is the ultimate creator, the author of the Vedas, and the God of knowledge. However, few temples are devoted solely to his worship. His consort, the female force of creation is the beautiful four-armed Saraswati. The goddess of knowledge, learning and music, music and the arts is often depicted seated on a lotus or her favourite mount the swan, Brahma’s favoured ride as well. Far more popular than her spouse, she has numerous temples devoted to her throughout the Hindu and Buddhist cultural world. The iconic Vishnu, the preserver and protector, is perhaps the most popular and widely worshipped of the triad. Often referred to as the Supreme God, his avatars include the heroic, legendary Rama, the ebullient Krishna, and even for some devotees the universally revered Buddha. In his human form, Vishnu/Rama/Krishna is portrayed as a light-blue-skinned man; as Vishnu he is shown with four arms, each holding a lotus, a conch, a mace, and his powerful weapon of choice, the Sudarshana Chakra. His mount is the dependable eagle Garuda. Vishnu’s equally popular consort is the beauteous Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, material as well as spiritual, and physical. Thus, she is also the goddess of fertility and the protector of mothers and children. The embodiment of the perfect woman, her avatars mirror Vishnu’s, thus she is Sita to his Rama and Radha to his Krishna. Always depicted standing or sitting on a lotus, she holds the flower in two of her four hands. Shiva the ultimate destroyer is the most ancient deity in the triad. Also called Mahadev, Shiva is often portrayed as an ascetic or yogi, a pale man draped in tiger skin with a snake around his neck, a crescent moon on his forehead above his third eye and the river Ganga flowing from his hair. As Nataraja, he is the Lord of the Dance and a patron of music. As the embodiment of cosmic power, Shiva/Mahadev is most commonly worshipped in the form of a lingam. His consort Parvati has multifarious identities and manifestations; she is Sati, Durga, Kali, Mata Devi, Shakti, and has numerous other regional forms. The couple is usually shown with their two children Ganesh and Kartikeya and their ever-faithful cow, Nandi. Shiva/Mahadev and Parvati/Shakti both have benevolent and malevolent aspects, he as Bhairava and Rudra and she as Kali and Durga.

In pre-modern times, throughout the subcontinent, the sacred was always omnipresent and pervasive; the underlying belief in the divinity in all things, in natural, often-innate objects and hallowed places could well be ascribed to this philosophy of life. It is therefore not surprising that these aspects of religious tradition continue to form the core essence of Hindu religious practices amongst believers. Sacred places abound in the Hindu tradition; stones and trees, rivers and waterfalls, mountains and cairns, caverns and caves, consecrated over the centuries, special places of pilgrimage and prayer, they display a lineage that goes back in time to the very dawn of human intellectual and philosophical inquiry and development. The ubiquitous shreds of cloth tied to trees, rocks placed in a particular formation, offerings made in flowing water are some of the common practices that transcend religious boundaries and find their root in an indefinable and obscure past that continues to affect the spiritual impulses of the common populace all through South Asia.

Anthropologists and population geneticists calculate that human first arrived in the subcontinent approximately 70,000 years ago, although no fossil remains from that period have so far been found. However, excavations along the banks of the Soan River in the Potwar Plateau in the Punjab have yielded evidence of a substantial Palaeolithic culture. Well-established and archaeologically important Neolithic sites have been located in north-western Baluchistan particularly the pre-Harappan city of Mehrgarh, and further south at Shahi Tump near the Makran coast. While the Indus Valley sites such as Kot -Diji sites in Sind are well known and firmly accounted for in the major archaeological surveys of the area, the lesser-known Mesolithic and Neolithic sites within the close environs of Karachi clearly demonstrate the antiquity of early human habitation in the region.[6] Further study and analysis of these sites might yield additional information about the cultural and religious practices and beliefs of those early inhabitants.

Archaeological excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro offer us some insight into the culture and social organisation of those highly developed and sophisticated civilizations. Perhaps the most important and significant source of this information are the numerous clay seals that have been found at these sites. Although the exact function of these seals has not been determined, they offer penetrating and insightful pictorial images of contemporary life at that time. A common and recurring image is that of a male figure seated in a yogic pose. Mark Kenoyer, perhaps one of the most authoritative Harappan archaeologists, refers to this deity as a “proto-Shiva”, a similar image displays a three-headed figure, another precursor of the later all-powerful deity. The ever-present Pipal tree is another significant feature that often appears alongside the seated figure; occasionally its branches form of an elaborate headdress for the deity. Images of ritualistic sacrifices are also shown as taking place under the sacred pipal, a tree that continues play an important an iconic role in Indian religious imagery. Several centuries later, it was under the shade of the Bodhi or Pipal tree that the Buddha achieved enlightenment. The yogic posture of the seated figure is another frequently portrayed form prevalent throughout Indian cultural history. Kenoyer notes that “the tradition of yoga continues to the present throughout South Asia, and images of the Buddha and various Hindu deities, including Shiva, are often shown in the famous yogic posture called padmasana”.[7]Another feature of the proto-god that has endured over the millennia is the lignum, represented in stone and on the ubiquitous clay tablet.

Archaeologists believe that the many terracotta female figurines with accentuated breast and hips found at various Harappan sites depict mother goddess; these may well have been used in fertility rituals and worshipped as grantors of abundance and plenitude, perhaps even to safeguard expectant mothers. Some statuettes are even shown with a small infant, which supports the idea that these were used for domestic rituals, much as they are still utilised in traditional Hindu households. Combined animal-human figures also appear on several seals, a precursor of the later gods such as Ganesh or the many avatars of Vishnu.

The present metropolis of Karachi is of recent origin, and certainly, no major town or city existed here before the eighteenth century. In 1729, a fortified settlement was constructed by the merchants of Karack Bunder, a port on the Hub River, which had recently been rendered unusable due to heavy silting. This then was the origin of the city of Karachi.[8] However, human habitation in the area can be traced back to early antiquity and several sanctified places of pilgrimage and worship have endured that existed long before recorded history. Many of these sacred places have discarded their ancient animistic provenance and acquired new religious identities, although antecedents of their prior existence continue to persevere under the guise of new creeds.

At the time of the Partition between India and Pakistan, the population of Karachi was 450,000; Hindus comprised 51 per cent of this number and Muslims 42 per cent. In the aftermath of the 1947 cataclysm and the unprecedented displacement of populations that took place the population of Karachi grew prodigiously and by 1951, it stood at an astounding 1.137 million. The 1951 Census shows that Muslims now accounted for  96 per cent of that number, while the Hindu population had dwindled to a mere 2 per cent. [9] This extraordinary change in the demographic makeup of the city’s populace acutely affected the religious institutions and establishments that had administered to the spiritual and cultural needs of the once affluent and powerful Hindu community in Karachi and its environs.

Ancient shrines and sacred places throughout the world often had humble beginnings. A special tree, a natural rock formation, fresh water, or healing springs, could provide a root source for the establishment of a consecrated space to worship. Over the years, many have attained a higher status and subsequently expanded and developed into major holy shrines, temples, churches and mosques. Others have gained in popularity but retained their original, natural form. A number of such sacred places, in and around the city and district of Karachi continue to hold their eminence, not just locally but globally for their devotees.

The Hinglaj Mata Shrine is one of the pre-eminent sanctuaries for the Goddess Shakti/Parvati, the divine female power or energy of the universe, who is also worshipped as the Devi Mata/Mahadevi or Divine Mother. This sacred shrine is located in a cavern at the lower end of the Kirthar Mountains, within the Hingol National Park in the Lasbela district of Southern Baluchistan, approximately 250 kilometres from Karachi. The name Hinglaj is thought to derive from Hingula or cinnabar, the bright red mercury ore used in traditional Indian medicine as an antidote for snakebites. Thus, Hinglaj Devi is a protector against poisons of all sorts as well as a healer, and bathing in the waters near her shrine is considered especially auspicious.

Hinglaj is one of the seats or peetha/pitha of the Goddess and thus an important site of pilgrimage. According to the ancient Hindu Scriptures, the Puranas, the Goddess in her Sati manifestation was the daughter of Raja Daksha, one of Brahma’s sons. Sati married the God Shiva against her father’s wishes and was consequently ostracised by him along with her husband. When Daksha organised a yagna, an important devotional feast, he deliberately neglected to invite Sati and Shiva. Nevertheless, against Shiva’s advice Sati decided to attend the ritual; there, upset, angered, and mortified at the insults heaped upon her husband by her father she jumped into the sacrificial fire. Shiva on hearing about his beloved’s death instantly rushed to the spot and immediately decapitated Daksha. Then gathering Sati’s corpse in his arms and consumed by grief he began his deadly Dance of Destruction or Tandav. This act of Shiva endangered the very existence of the world and Lord Vishnu was enlisted by the other Gods to intervene. Using his special Sudarshana Chakra, Vishnu cut Sati’s body into fifty-two pieces and scattered them in all directions. The spot where a body part landed was consecrated as a Shakti Peetha. The crown of Sati’s head is believed to have fallen at Hinglaj and here she is worshipped as Hinglaj Devi, Hinglaj Mata, or Durga. Hinglaj is an example of one of the earliest form of a sacred place of worship; although referred to as a Mandir; in actuality there is no building or formal structure, nor is there an idol of the Goddess although there are two red-painted stones that represent her and her consort Lord Bhairava, a manifestation of Shiva. Until recent times, there was no full-time priest or custodian, nor were there any manmade structures within the cave; now the floor is tiled, and a wall and grill fence surround the sanctum while painting and small idols adorn the inner section of the cavern. These additions have been constructed over the last decade or two ever since easy access to the site has been facilitated. At the far end of the cave is a low, narrow circuitous tunnel that the faithful crawl through in as an act of devotion. Hinglaj is mentioned in the Ramayana as “the place Lord Rama came in order to gain expiation for having killed Ravana, who was after all a Brahmin and killing a Brahmin is one of the most dreadful of sin.”[10] Furthermore, Rama and Sita on route to Hinglaj are said to have stayed in a grove centred around a sweet water tank. This place was later named Rambagh in honour of the exalted visitor. However, shortly after Partition the name Rambagh was changed to Arambagh.

Incidentally, local Baluch and Katchi Muslims venerate Mata Hinglaj as Nani and the pilgrimage to Nani ki Mandir is called Nani Hajj. In view of the fact that Baluchistan in ancient times was a province of the Persian Empire, it is speculated that the worship of Nani might be a vestige of Sumerian Goddess Inanna, worshipped as Anahita ancient Persia. The annual pilgrimage to Mata Hinglaj takes place during Navratri in October; pilgrims gather in large numbers at the Sri Ratneshawar Mahadev Mandir, situated near the Arabian Sea in Clifton Karachi, a devotional site that also garnered a mention in the Ramayana.[11] In earlier times, the route to Hinglaj was a slow and arduous trek through rough, inhospitable desert terrain, but now the efficient Makran Coastal Highway linking Karachi to Gwadar has made the journey less formidable. En route, the pilgrims go off track for a distance to pay homage to a group of mud volcanoes located approximately 3 Kilometres inland from the Arabian Sea coast. The Chandragup complex includes the largest mud volcano in Asia and is regarded as the habitat of the deity Babhaknath. Of the three volcanoes in this group, the smallest one is dormant, while the highest one gently spews out a constant stream of warm mud; the third volcano has a wide crater in which the bubbling mud forms the active centre. The wide circumference of this volcano provides a broad, even wall on which people can walk, and this is where the pilgrims gather to light their incense and cast their offering of coconuts and specially cooked roti into the hot stew of boiling mud. The priests led the mantra prayers and the pilgrims are instructed to confess their sins. Once the rituals are completed, the pilgrims continue their trek towards the sacred shrine across the Hingol River. A ritual bath is required, for which the pilgrims avail of the waters of the river, before entering the precinct of the Goddess. A large pond nearby is believed to be imbibed with beneficial powers and devotees are encouraged to immerse themselves in the waters to cleanse themselves both physically and spiritually.

The 300-year old Sri Ratneshawar Mahadev Mandir located near the sea in Clifton, Karachi, is dedicated to Lord Shiva in his manifestation as Mahadev. Previously known as the Shiv Takery Temple, it is the largest existing temple devoted to Shiva in Pakistan. Closely linked to the Hinglaj Mandir, this temple is also located inside a natural cave formed by the now receded waters of the nearby sea. According to the custodian of the temple, this sacred site is mentioned in both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; indeed, it is thought to be the Mahadev Temple visited by Rama and Sita on their pilgrimage of penance to Hinglaj. A large, glass-encased statue of Hanuman bearing Rama and his brother Lakshman on each shoulder greets the visitor in the entry courtyard. Like Hinglaj, the original sanctuary did not contain a manmade idol. The source of worship was and continues to be a naturally formed, egg-shaped stone lingam. During the colonial era, a simple entrance was built in yellow Gizri stone, similar to the nearby buildings constructed around the same time. However, recent modifications begun in the early twenty-first century have greatly altered the natural sacred space that formed the core of the temple. Although the jagged roof of the cavern is still clearly visible, the walls are now hidden behind the wall-to-ceiling glass cases containing larger than life statues of the all the pre-eminent Hindu Gods and Goddesses, while the floor is paved with marble. The actual sanctum is now sealed off from the public by a wall of glass, through which a large image of the seated Mahadev/Shiva can be viewed accompanied by his usual companions including the hooded cobra. The king of snakes also provides a protective umbrella to the lignum in the next room. A sweet water spring with special healing capabilities is an unexpected feature of this sacred site considering its closeness to the sea, a peculiarity it shares with the nearby 1400 old shrine of the Muslim Sufi Abdullah Shah Ghazi. The eternally auspicious and revered pipal tree with pieces of cloth tied to its branches guards the upper entrance to the cave temple. The pipal with its multiple gnarled roots and trunks is an image that instantly recalls the ancient veneration and worship of these trees engraved on the Harappan seals. The presence of water imbibed with healing and beneficial powers both here and at Hinglaj is another shared component of these two sacred spots. The symbolism of sanctified objects and spaces at the Mahadev Mandir, Hinglaj, and Chandragup continues to delineate, define, and determine the very nature of religious practice. Unfortunately, recent, large-scale, heavy construction in the neighbourhood is said to have created cracks in the natural cave structure of the temple though long-term damage is difficult to judge at this time.

The Sheetala Devi Mandir is located deep in the inner city of Karachi in Bhimpura, the old pre-Partition town where once affluent Hindu merchants resided and conducted their businesses. This temple is the abode of Sheetala or Shitala Devi, an ancient Mother Goddess and a benevolent, protective, maternal aspect of Durga/Parvati. Sheetala is the goddess of smallpox and other skin disease and ailments; her name means ‘the cooling one’ and her puja involves the sprinkling of blessed water on the supplicants who come to her for a cure. Mounted on a donkey, she carries a broom for sweeping up the germs, a fan for collecting them, a bowl for holding them and a pot of water for cleansing and purification. Hedged in on all sides by small workshops and stores, the brightly painted, 150-year-old temple with the ubiquitous Pipal tree shading the courtyard, offers a quiet respite for her devotees. An effigy of the Goddess reclines on an elaborate, gilt throne flanked by two peacocks and guarded by a family of lions. As with most other Hindu shrines in Karachi, Sheetala Mata shares her temple with other deities, small statues of Brahma and Saraswati occupy an alcove in another room, while Shiva with Nandi crouched at by feet and the ever-present lignum has a separate space all to himself on the other side of the main temple. The temple is a part of an estate trust that owns a number of commercial and residential properties in the surrounding neighbourhood. However, illegal encroachments and land-grabbing mafias have appropriated much of the trust property over the last couple of decades and deprived the temple of its rightful income.

Hanuman, Rama’s faithful aid, devotee and ally in his battle against the demon king of Lanka, Ravana, appears to find a niche for himself in almost every Hindu temple. The Sri Laxmi Narain Mandir, located on the creek, under the New Jetty Bridge, overlooking the Arabian was constructed in 1943.[12] The site of this temple sets it apart from the other temples in the area since it lends itself to a variety of rituals that involve immersion in the water. At the culmination of the nine-day Navratri Festival dedicated to Durga Devi, the idols of the goddess are immersed in the water, similarly, the clay likeness of Ganesh that are installed in traditional Hindu homes and temples at the start of the Ganesh Chaturthi celebration are immersed to dissolve and return to the elements. Furthermore, yearlong purification rituals require bathing in the flowing water although the waters at the foot of the temple are now distressingly polluted. The last rites of the dead too demand the consecration of the ashes to flowing water. The approach to the temple is through a narrow shabby lane on the left side of the pretentiously named Port Grand. The perennial pipal guards the entrance into a large and open paved courtyard facing the sea. The goddess Lakshmi/Laxmi and her consort Vishnu preside over this temple; they reside in a room to the left of the entry where they share space with their avatars Radha and Krishna, Rama and Sita, other important deities and, of course, the ever-present Hanuman. That deity also has a separate space to himself at the other end of the courtyard where he can be seen carrying Rama and Lakshman on his broad shoulders. Shiva is not forgotten and is also present around the corner with his attendants. Sadly, this once attractive and lively temple has now been squeezed and delegated to a meagre sliver of its former self as encroachments and commercial interests have gnawed away at this highly covetable property on the waterfront.

Everyone’s favourite deity Hanuman is the proud denizen of one of the finest existing temples in Karachi and its environs. Situated in a quiet lane, off a busy, bustling street in Soldier Bazaar, a populous, congested section of the old city, the current Sri Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir was built in 1927. According to the custodians, however, the original temple was built well over 1500 years ago to house a non-manmade image of Hanuman. The idol, it is said, appeared miraculously from the ground in response (some say) to a Guru’s prayers, other’s say it appeared after Ram and Sita visited the spot on their pilgrimage to Hinglaj, its form untouched and unaltered by human hand. The soil beneath the statue’s feet, I was told, had been recently tested and carbon dating showed it to be from the Mohenjo-Daro era, which would then make it over 2500 years old. The miraculous origin of idol makes the Panchmukhi or five-faced deity unique in all aspects with special powers attributed to him; no prayer or request goes unanswered or unfulfilled. Women are not allowed within ten feet of the Panchmukhi Hanuman, since, I was told, the celibate deity considers all women his mothers, sisters, and daughters, and will not allow them to bow in front of him. Entering through a beautifully carved stone archway, one enters a passageway that has obviously seen better days. The main shrine is a classic yellow stone temple with intricately carved and elegantly scalloped arches; the peaked spire is embellished with elaborate carvings and engraved sculptures of Hanuman. This structure, with its beautifully scalloped portico, houses the deity and sits in the centre of the courtyard. The inner sanctum is approached through the small portico entered through heavy, ornamented silver and brass doors. A deep and raised, covered veranda runs along two sides of the courtyard and offers niches and spaces to accommodate the entire hierarchy of the Hindu pantheon. A cowshed offers lodgings for the sacred cows on one side of the temple. Methodical and meticulous renovation with assistance from the architectural college of NED University, reusing the original yellow stone from the external walls, has unfortunately stalled due to the usual issues of unlawful land -grab and encroachment. This appears to be a constant predicament that regrettably assails all the Hindu temples that remain in the city.

The Sri Swaminarayan Mandir sits hidden in clear sight on one of the busiest streets in Karachi, Bunder Road, or M.A.Jinnah Road as it is now called, one of the main arteries of this teeming, commercial metropolis. A lofty gateway provides access to the large compound or estate that houses several hundred families. An inner road leads to the cramped lanes and dwellings of the inhabitants whose families have occupied these buildings since the temple was erected in 1854. A large cowshed also sits on the side of the temple, an essential element of Hindu religious rituals. Arguably the most beautiful he temple in Karachi it is both aesthetically pleasing and skilfully constructed in the classical style with a handsomely ornamented spire of intricately carved yellow stone. The entrance of the temple opens into a paved courtyard shaded by the sacred pipal tree, its branches displaying the usual pieces of cloth tied by suppliant devotees. A Sikh Gurdwara, currently undergoing renovation and expansion sits in the centre of the courtyard, the Swaminyaran temple on a raised platform is on the left. An enclosed domed portico, with its cool marble checkered floor,  provides ample room for devotees to gather and pray. There are two inner sanctum rooms; ornate and richly gilded doors open to reveal Radha and Krishna in the first niche or room ensconced within an equally elaborate gilded altar enclosed behind a rich gold-painted grill door.  A likeness of Swaminarayan is painted in the other alcove/room, seated behind a highly ornamented, four-poster gilt bed, surrounded by his disciples.  Statues of muscular moustached guardians with gold staffs keep vigilance over the two rooms. In this temple, the ceilings also display rich murals depicting the various deities and their attendants. The Swaminarayan version of Hinduism was a reform movement which took root in the early nineteenth century Gujarat in India and has proven to be one of the most successful and prominent forms of Hinduism worldwide in the twenty-first century. In the words of religious historian Raymond Brady Williams, “Sahanjanand Swami, the founder, who attained the status of the manifestation of the divine as Swaminarayan, has been called the last of the medieval saints and the first of the modern Sadhus of neo-Hinduism.” He goes on to state that “his followers assert that he preserved the best of the beliefs and practices of the past and forged a new form of Hinduism well suited to the modern period.”[13]

The Sri Swaminarayan and the Sri Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandirs both display the typical architectural format of a classical north Indian sikhara or spiral temple. In keeping with this style, the “temple form is composed to evoke the ascent of a mountain or illusion of progressively increasing height. Contributing to this sense of ascent, the sikhara is designed with a curvilinear form that aligns with and curves smoothly up from the base to the pinnacle.”[14]  The Sri Varun Dev Mandir on Manora Island also shares this feature but is currently inaccessible. Changing demographics have taken a heavy toll on the Hindu places of worship in Pakistan, and the architecturally and decoratively exquisite Varun Dev temple is another victim to hostile incursions and illegal encroachments. The current structure was built around 1917-1918 [15] and is unique in that it is not dedicated to one of the Trimurti deities but to Varun, an ancient Vedic God of the ocean although local folklore often links him to Krishna. Devotees claim that an older temple existed here before the current structure, dating from a much earlier time and was an important place of worship for seafaring supplicants seeking protection and guidance from the Lord of the Sea. Now in a severely dilapidated condition, it is seldom used other than by the brave and loyal faithful who continue to gather there on special occasions and festivals.

Although the institutionalised temple, as a place of gathering, of communal or individual prayer and ritual is as significant in Hinduism as in any other religion, sacred sites that are the focus of pilgrimages continue to delineate the core spiritual imperative of the Hindu belief system. Places like Hinjlaj  cavern and Chandragup volcanoes, the now forgotten sweet-water  tank at Rambagh, the cave that appeared from beneath the sea with a naturally formed Shiva lingam at Clifton, are all nodes in an ancient pilgrimage route that centre primarily on earlier, pre-Aryan deities particularly  the formless Mother-Goddess and the supreme Mahadev who dwell in mysterious spaces. By the same token, it is not surprising that the definitive Hindu epic, the Ramayana makes references to these pilgrimage destinations for the penitent Rama, seeking forgiveness for his crime of brahmanicide in the killing of Ravana.

Further studies are essential to obtain factual archaeological/historical insight into the source and age of these sacred places. Scholarship and evidence are sadly lacking, and the rapid speed of commercialisation and change are serious threats that endanger the very existence and viability of these ancient heritage sites. Research and analysis of a number of Sufi shrines could also, perhaps, reveal their deeper, earlier pre-Islamic roots. A preliminary archaeological survey of the area during the colonial era, in the nineteenth century, revealed the existence of a Neolithic settlement in the close vicinity of the shrine of that ambivalent Sufi Saint Mangho Pir, on the outskirts of Karachi, situated next to a hot sulphur spring with curative attributes. It should be noted that the chosen companions of the Saint, crocodiles, figure significantly on Harappan seals and tablets and continue to be worshipped in several parts of India, including Gujarat.[16]The crocodile is also the chosen mount of Varuna, whose ancient temple is on the verge of collapsing on the nearby Manora Island has only recently been rescued and restored.

The deliberate cultural separation of the regions that now constitute Pakistan from their pre-Islamic past is a phenomenon that does humanity great disfavour; a denial of the past creates a false sense of identity or worse a created identity which lacks all memory. Throughout the history of the subcontinent, from ancient through early modern times, the culture of the subcontinent has been a closely woven tapestry based on assimilation and amalgamation; the languages, literature, music and religion have all been formed by this process and by their very nature and form bear witness to this.  Hindu shrines have always drawn Muslim devotees and similarly, Muslim Sufis have attracted hordes of people of different faiths and beliefs; religion as an element of culture has never been exclusive nor have religious boundaries been solid or impregnable.  Political agendas and rigid ideologies create dangerous realities. Neglect or denial of a long-established, multi-dimensional mosaic of culture, tangible or intangible cannot bode well for the moral, social, psychological, political or even economic welfare of an ancient civilisation that has its roots in a rich and definitive past.

[1]  A.L. Basham. A Cultural History of India. New Delhi: Oxford University press, 2009.2.

[2]  Walter A. Fairservis Jr.The Roots of Ancient India: The Archaeology of Early Indian Civilization. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. 380.

[3]  Gavin D. Flood, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

[4] J.L. Brockington. The Sacred Thread: Hinduism in Its Continuity and Diversity. Edinburgh: University Press Edinburgh, 1981. 1

[5]  Wendy Doniger. On Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[6]  Henry Cousens. The Antiquities of Sind: With Historic Outline. Karachi: Department of Culture, Government of Sind, 1998.

[7] Jonathan Mark Kenoyer,. Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998.112

[8] Arif Hasan. Understanding Karachi: Planning and Reform for the Future. Karachi: City Press, 1999.15

[9] Ibid. 24

[10]   Diana L. Eck. India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Harmony Books, 2012. 469

[11]  Arif Hasan. Understanding Karachi: Planning and Reform for the Future. Karachi: City Press, 1999. 16.

[12] (Pakistan Hindu Council n.d.)

[13]  Raymond Brady Williams. An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.2.

[14]  Krupali Krusche, Vinayak Bharne. Rediscovering the Hindu Temple: The Sacred Architecture and Urbanisation of India. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012. 70.

[15] (Pakistan Hindu Council n.d.)

[16] Asko Parpol. The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and the Indus Civilisation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.


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Williams, Raymond Brady. An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.


makli & balochistan 463
The Chandragup complex


The habitat of the deity Babhaknath
makli & balochistan 512
Coconut and incense offerings
Hinglaj Mata Mandir

makli & balochistan 749



Sri Swaminarayan Mandir


Sheetala Devi Mandir
Sri Panchmukhi Hanuman Mandir

One thought on “Sacred Sites and Devotional Spaces: Hindu Places of Worship in and around Karachi

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