Shree Ratneswar Mahadev Temple

Amidst the hustle bustle of a metropolitan city like Karachi, people often tend to inadvertently neglect the hidden treasures it has to offer. Among these heritage sites is the Shree Ratneswar Mahadev Temple; an underground Hindu temple dating back to more than 300 years. Coyly located in Clifton besides Karachi’s largest urban park Ibn-e-Qasim, the temple attracts around 25,000 pilgrims during annual religious festivities such as the Maha Shiva Ratri.

There are many legends surrounding the Shree Ratneswar Mahadev temple. Centuries ago the underground cave existed underneath the sea and due to its close proximity to the sea currently, Hindus believe Lord Shiva ensures protection from any sea locked disasters – a view very similar to that of Muslims and the Abdullah Shah Ghazi mazaar. Another tale suggests that this is the location mentioned as Lord Shiva’s residence in the ‘Mahabharata’ and hence was the originating point of Karachi.

On a tiresome Saturday, I set out to assimilate the religious rituals carried out by Hindus in this temple. Upon entering the vicinity, I halted at the small clustered shops to purchase a plastic bag full of rose petals, ‘agarbattis’ and a matchbox to light them and made my way towards the entrance of the temple. Against the twilight sky stood a modest yet alluring gate, through which you could see a flight of descending stairs lit by florescent green tube lights. Luckily, I stumbled upon a very kind lady who generously offered to give me a tour of the temple all the while providing me with information about the rituals. She guided me in taking my shoes off at the entrance in order to prevent dirt from outside contaminating their holy site, another similarity I drew to how Muslims enter their mosques barefoot.

The first thing I felt as we were climbing down the stairs was the coolness of the marble tiles against my warm feet. The lady explained the phenomena to me that the floor stays cool all year round due to it being underground and went on to saying “yahan aa ke humaray dil ko bhi thandak parti hai”. As we were engaging in this conversation while descending, there was an area besides us which was cordoned off with towering trees. These trees had various sized pictures of Hindu gods and red strings tied around them signifying ‘mannats’ made by people. The lady kindly cautioned me that females are not permissible in that area as a ‘sunny dev’ sits there and performs anger management rituals on aggressive men via special prayers.

Unfortunately, giving a reminder of how blatantly societal norms such as gender inequality and patriarchy affect all spheres of life, even religion and its holy sites.

A couple of stairs further down is a wide open space where the aroma of piping hot biryani lures you towards the left corner and a small kitchenette is visible against the clouds of steam rising from their ‘daigs’. This biryani was being handed out as ‘Prasad’ to the visitors and other corners of this side were preoccupied by visitors eating and meditating. Without any hesitations in their gesture, they generously offered some to me which made me feel as if I belonged.

On the opposite side of this was a statue that stood out amongst all others – a vibrantly lit statue of a Goddess on a tiger captioned as ‘Mata Sheran Wali’ which translates to mother of tigers. Besides this was a mounted statue of the lord of good fortune; Ganesh, to whom people asked for blessings in order to succeed and prosper in life.

‘Ding’ ‘Ding’, I turned back and noticed a narrow opening leading me to a staircase that further descended into an enclosed cave. The source of the sound was a bell hanging by the entrance of the cave and people were ringing it to inform their deity of their arrival. The hallway leading to the place of ritual had a collection of huge statues on either sides of the walls depicting various tales and the forms of Baghwan, amongst these I could recognize a few myself namely: Ganesh, Parvati, Hanuman, Ram, Lakshman, Kali Ma, Radha and Krishna. The statues looked nothing short of art and had been imported from India around 15 years ago, before which the temple had pictures of the gods in place of the statues. As the devotees bent down and took ‘ashirwadh’ from these gods, I made my way down the pathway where the lady with me poured milk down a gold enlarged face statue of Lord Shiva and we lit the fragrant agarbattis (joss sticks) and placed them underneath statues of Shiva, his wife Parvati and their two sons Kartikh and Ganesh.

Once we came back in the upper veranda, I spotted a group of female pilgrims dressed in bright fuchsia and apricot colored traditional saris. Intrigued by their language, I inquired about their locality to which I got a timid reply “Umerkot”. Further conversation led to them informing me about their experience residing in the ashram within the temple. We continued on to placing fresh rose petals underneath the statues in the veranda as a source of blessing and while doing so I came across a statue representing their guru ji which had a donation box and the woman explained to me that people make mannats and donate money here which then goes to a reliable charity. This made me realise charity is a prominent part of every religion, and not just Islam.

With a heavy heart, I decided to head back home despite of wanting to stay longer due to the tranquil environment. I was genuinely taken aback and in awe of how accepting and welcoming the people there were, making me realize how even the slightest amount of tolerance goes a long way. I almost felt guilty for the warmth and respect I received, and wished I could somehow reciprocate this to minorities in Pakistan who continue living in fear of persecution. In a country where we are bred to hate people over the differences, we often forget to keep aside our differences and embrace each other every once in a while and bond over the many similarities we have. Personally for me it was a very spiritual and intimate experience witnessing the rituals first hand which broadened my horizons in certain ways; the tales and different forms of Bhagwan can be inspiring and can be taken as life lessons for many situations. There is a certain vibe about that place that just lures one in hence it’s no surprise that the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak Dev would always meditate in this temple.

Unfortunately, the constant constructions nearby the temple has been causing it and its people a lot of trouble. The vibrations from the constructions can be felt in the temple and affects its fragile infrastructure. However, regardless of their religious differences, people are uniting and protesting together against the damages being made to this mandir as it holds invaluable significance for everyone. The importance of one of the oldest temples in Karachi is not just limited to the religious aspect and Hindu community but also how it adds so much richness to this city’s diverse history and culture.