ONE MOUNTAIN RIVER, two names―the Kishanganga in India and the Neelum in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). A small bridge connects the two banks and thereby the countries, but a white line in its middle denotes the divide―no person on either side is allowed to cross the line.
Just across the gurgling waters of the Kishanganga, skirting the last Indian border outpost at Teethwal in Kashmir’s Kupwara, Pakistani trucks and civilian vehicles can be seen gently negotiating the slopes of the Lower Neelum Valley. Look up from the Indian position, and one can spot several newly constructed buildings, marked by fluttering flags.
“These are restaurants and resorts that have come up recently, in the past six to eight months, mainly to cater to the growing number of people from the other side who come to see the congregation of Indians this side of the Line of Control (LoC),”said a security officer.
Pakistanis have long been curious about Indians and their way of life. But what is bringing Pakistani tourists to the border now is an under-construction complex in Teethwal that houses a temple, a gurdwara and a mosque. The resorts in Pakistan have “view points”from where a growing number of Indian pilgrims can be seen visiting the multi-religious shrine. “The shrine and its construction have generated considerable interest in Pakistan. There are numerous blogs and YouTube videos on it already,”said the officer.
The complex is coming up at a place, identified by the Waqf Board, that used to be the base camp for Kashmiri Pandit pilgrims visiting Sharda Peeth, about 60km in PoK’s Neelum district. The base camp was razed by Pakistan-aided tribal raiders in 1949.
“With the construction of the multi-religious structure having begun on December 2, 2021, 10-15 Kashmiri Pandits visit this site daily. This September 4 (the traditional date of the start of the yatra) and on Diwali, they came in hundreds,”said Ajaz Khan, who, along with two Muslims, five Kashmiri Pandits and a Sikh, is leading the effort to rebuild the pilgrimage centre.
Meanwhile, Sharda Peeth, once among the most prominent temple universities in the subcontinent, now lies in ruins. Sharda, another name for Goddess Saraswati, is a much-revered Hindu deity of learning who commands considerable devotion among the Pandits.
Prior to partition, thousands of yogis would flock to Sharda Peeth for meditation and yoga during summers, and during winters, they would come down to Tilla Jogian in what is now Pakistan’s Jhelum district. Believed to be about 2,000 years old, Tilla Jogian is a 975m-high mountain on the outskirts of Rawalpindi that once headquartered the ‘Kanphata yogis’or ‘Gorakhpanthis’. Besides Baba Gorakhnath, Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, is also believed to have practised meditation at Tilla Jogian.
“Tilla Jogian is not very well-known and not many people go to the ancient ruins,”said ‘yogi’Shamshad Haider, who operates a chain of yoga centres across cities in Pakistan. “But even now the ‘energy’is very high and intense as I organise shibirs (camps) there.” He climbs Tilla Jogian barefoot, which often leave him with blisters and bloody sores. “Over the ages, this place has graced the feet of thousands of wise and evolved personalities,”he said. “How can I dirty it with my shoes?”
Haider thinks that yoga is the “only way to unify the hearts of Indians and Pakistanis and to stop the persisting hatred”. “The mutual curiosity and interest between Indians and Pakistanis is there because the same blood runs in our veins. We are the same people with the same roots,”he said.
Khan, meanwhile, wants the authorities to enable free movement of people across the border. “Enable people from this side to visit the Sharda Peeth and vice versa, like in olden times,”said Khan. “After all, it is the religion of insaniyat (humanity) that matters the most. At the same time, with more tourists coming in, this backward region will also develop, like it is happening on the other side of the LoC.”