In a rare display of inter-communal harmony, Muslims in a southern Kashmiri village have been taking care of a centuries-old temple since an insurgency forced the resident Hindu population out more than two decades ago.
Mushtaq Ahmad Sheikh and some fellow Muslims are the ones who safeguarding and keeping up the Shiva temple in his native Payer. The village in Pulwama district lies some 45 km (28 miles) from Srinagar.
Sheikh and other Muslims sweep the temple clean almost every day. Even back in the 1990s, when the regional insurgency was at its peak and militants targeted temples, Sheikh said he and others protected and preserved the structure.
It reveres Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.
“I honor the temple as much as I do the mosque,” Sheikh, a government employee and caretaker of the Shiva temple, told BenarNews.
Pulwama is considered a hotbed of militancy. The district accounted for much violence at the height of the insurgency, which goes on today. Kashmir has been the focus of a decades-old dispute between India and Pakistan, which both have territorial claims over the Himalayan region.
“I’m here to ensure its protection and upkeep even if our Pandit brothers are living outside the state for over past two decades,” Sheikh said, referring to local Hindus who were uprooted by inter-communal bloodshed.
“Even during the worst of times, when temples were randomly vandalized by miscreants, with the active support from my neighbors, I ensured there was no damage to the temple,” he added.
According to official data, 208 temples have been damaged or burnt over the past two decades of insurgency in Kashmir.
Last December, the well-known Jwalaji temple in Pampore, a town in Pulwama, was gutted under mysterious circumstances.
According to local residents, Pandits, most of whom now live outside Muslim-majority Kashmir, occasionally come to the temple in Payar to worship, and they go home happy and satisfied because it is maintained so meticulously.
“Although no Pandit family has lived in this village for more than 20 years, the minority community members, especially from south Kashmir, occasionally come here,” Bashir Ahmad Sheikh, a retired government official from Payar, told BenarNews.
Domestic and foreign tourists also visit the site quite often, he said, because the temple is famous for its elegant architecture and engraved figurines of Shiva.
“They come here and show lot of interest in learning about its history,” he added.
The maintenance and protection of the temple, situated on the roadside near a rivulet, had been a challenging task until the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) fenced it from all four sides in 2002.
“Before that, it was increasingly difficult to prevent stray dogs and livestock from entering the premises. Now its main gate remains closed and nobody is allowed to visit the temple without permission,” local shopkeeper Altaf Ahmad Mir said.
During unrest that rocked Kashmir in the summer of 2010, a group of youths clashed with security forces near the temple, but village elders managed to prevent them from damaging or desecrating the religious site.
“In the 1990s, a period when temples were increasingly targeted by miscreants, groups of locals took turns to guard the temple day and night,” Mir told BenarNews.
‘No discrimination between mosque and temple’
Members of the minority Pandit community praise the work and devotion shown by the Muslim villagers in keeping up and protecting the temple to Shiva.
“Our Muslim brethren never discriminated between mosque and the temple. They have safeguarded the temple like their own place of worship all these years,” Avtar Krishan, a retired lecturer from Pulwama, who now lives in Jammu – the predominantly Hindu portion of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir – told BenarNews.
“Protection of the temple, even during the turbulent times, sends a strong message to the world community that Muslims and Pandits lived like brothers until the insurgency forced the minority community members to flee,” he added.
Anil Kumar, a pharmacist from Anantnag district, echoed Krishan’s views.
“Kashmiris are well-known for their religious harmony and hospitality,” he told BenarNews.
“And our Muslim brothers have demonstrated that tradition by protecting the temple from miscreants’ attacks repeatedly.”(BenarNews)