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At first sight the land of Pakistan is almost entirely Islamic.  Its population is something like 97% Muslim, of course, and mosques are found everywhere, from rural villages to large cities.  Yet a closer inspection reveals a surprising truth: that this land has a history far more diverse and complex than would first seem to be the case.

This becomes very clear when you visit the Hindu temple complex at Katas Raj, near Chakwal in the Punjab.  The complex is located in the Salt Range, an immense line of mountains which separate the plains of the Punjab from the Potohar Plateau.  These mountains were formed when an ancient sea, long since dry, was thrust upwards by tectonic activity.  The temples are located in a fold of land in this beautiful part of the country.

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Hindu teaching has it that the temples were formed from the tears of the grief-stricken Lord Shiva on the death of his wife, Sati.  There are seven temples on the site, each dedicated to a particular Hindu deity, and many of them still contain original features such as carved wooden door frames or magnificent frescoes depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.

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In 1947, when the tragedy of Partition tore the Punjab in half, the vast majority of Hindus left the newly-formed nation of Pakistan and migrated to India.  The complex was left to deteriorate, with nobody showing an interest in its upkeep, and signs of decay are evident.  The pool itself, formed from the tears of Lord Shiva, is muddy and neglected; nearby cement factories have drained much of its water and the remaining water is muddy and garbage-strewn.  Yet to the credit of the Pakistani government steps are being taken to rectify this situation: many of the temples have new rooves, are newly painted, and even the damaged frescoes are being repaired.

The temple even hosts Hindu pilgrims, many of whom come from the southern province of Sindh, and some of whom even come in selected groups from India during auspicious Hindu festivals.  Given the hostility between India and Pakistan and the agony of Partition, it is surprising and heartening that Katas Raj exists at all, and particularly encouraging that the Pakistani government is taking steps to restore and protect it.  Long may this continue.

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I seem to make a habit of missing obvious tourist attractions when I travel.  I spent a year in Spain and didn’t once visit Barcelona, nor Seville.  I grew up in the UK but didn’t visit the Lake District, one of our premier sites of natural beauty, until I was 25.  I travelled all around Tanzania and didn’t go to the Serengeti National Park, which is more or less the only thing that the majority of tourists in Tanzania actually DO see.

Last weekend I remedied a significant oversight on my part by visiting the Lahore Fort.  This is one of Pakistan’s premier attractions and one of its six UNESCO World Heritage sites.  Built largely during the reign of Moghul Emperor Akbar, between 1556 and 1605, it occupies a significant chunk of the north western corner of the Walled City of Lahore.  We turned up in a rickshaw and were deposited a few hundred yards away from the entrance, since renovation work to the next-door Iqbal Park prevented our rickshaw from getting any closer.

First, the positives: Lahore Fort is a really impressive place.  It covers a huge area of land and its walls and towers still possess a real sense of grandeur.  Entering the Fort entails climbing up a set of shallow, broad stairs which seem oddly disproportionate, until you learn that they were thus built so that Emperors could ride their elephants right into the Fort itself.  The walls command an impressive view over Old Lahore.

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Much of the artwork in the individual palaces and rooms which make up the bulk of the Fort is remarkably beautiful: elegant carvings, fine stone inlays, delicate stone tracery.  The skill of the artisans who produced such beauty has to be appreciated.  Furthermore, the Fort uses open space very well: fountains and lawns stretch in front of the visitor, fringed with trees.  The Lahore Fort put me in mind of the Alhambra, another magnificent Muslim palace with beautiful artwork, fountains, and gardens.

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And now for the negatives: everything is neglected.  It is heartbreaking to see.  Magnificent painted ceilings are now stained with damp, their colours faded and worn.  Whole sections of delicately inlaid stones depicting elegant floral patterns have been chipped out, leaving gaping holes.  The 19th century cannon which stand in front of the Diwan-e-Aam have crisp packets jammed into their muzzles.  Most appalling of all is the graffiti: names of visitors scribbled in black marker pen, scrawled directly onto ancient stonework and mosaics.  Mobile phone numbers, inane comments, childish insults, etched onto a UNESCO World Heritage site!  It is unthinkable.  Imagine the outrage if visitors wrote their names in Tippex on Stonehenge or the Taj Mahal – that is precisely what has been done, and continues to be done, at the Lahore Fort.

I don’t understand it.  This is the premier tourist attraction in Pakistan, a country which, contrary to popular belief, is actually packed with fascinating sights.  And yet instead of being revered as an example of Muslim achievement and architectural excellence – which it undoubtedly is – it is scribbled on by idiotic schoolchildren as if it were nothing more than a discarded scrap of paper.

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Where are the UNESCO funds being used?  Not to employ guards, nor to employ guides; not a single one was in evidence.  Is it really that difficult to prevent people defacing a monument of international historical importance?  Do people here really care so little about their national story?

One Saturday morning we took the kids to the Golra Sharif train museum on the outskirts of Islamabad.  The first difficulty we faced in this task was finding the museum at all, which is more difficult than you might think.  Very few tourist attractions in Pakistan are actually signposted or labelled, and only the major ones have websites with visitor information on.  Google Maps came to the rescue, indicating that the museum was in the E-11 sector of Islamabad.  We duly drove in that direction, arrived in E-11, and started driving down the Golra Sharif road. IMG_20160116_1205419_rewind

Somewhat remarkably we found it first time, although we had to stop by a police checkpost to ask directions from the friendly policeman sitting outside.  Several dozen speedbumps later, we arrived outside the museum and parked.

The museum is actually part of the Raj-era Golra Sharif train station which is still a functioning facility, seeing traffic every day as trains rattle through from Peshawar en route to Rawalpindi, Lahore, and eventually Karachi.  The waiting room has been converted into the museum’s main attraction: a collection of railway artefacts from the early days of the railways of the Raj.  Glass cases containing lamps, uniforms, tools and other memorabilia line the walls.  Unusually for Pakistan these are all well labelled in both Urdu and English.  Chief among the attractions (for my 6 year old son, at least) is a gun rack containing original Raj-era rifles – possibly Lee Enfields, although I am not an expert.

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The musem’s sole attendant was only too happy to give us a guided tour.  He was friendly and well-informed about the history of the station and of subcontinental railways in general.  This being Pakistan, we were welcomed to handle the exhibits and were even given a brief lesson in how to load and fire the rifles.

The next-door room contained a remarkable collection of original furniture including some of the infamously-named “Bombay Fornicators” – easy chairs with extended arm rests for impromptu naps.  The room also featured an original Raj-era punkah or fan, a wooden beam suspended from the ceiling with a large square of linen attached.  When a rope attached to the beam is pulled the linen swings back and forth , fanning the room with cool air.  It was remarkably effective and an insight into how people managed to beat the heat before air conditioning was invented.

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The main attraction was found further down the station platform: an original locomotive attached to two carriages which were used by the last Viceroy, Mountbatten, and Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, during a trip from Karachi to Lahore.  Incredibly, the lights and fans are still functioning; my kdis enjoyed lying on the bunk beds and examining the kitchen in which food was prepared for these two remarkable men.  It is fascinating to see such historical artefacts up close; in the UK they would no doubt be enclosed behind glass doors.

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We spent time wandering up and down the platform admiring the beauty of the ancient banyan trees which give it shade, and wondering at the signs advertising chai for sale, complete with Hindi script.  The museum is a window into the past, truly a fascinating place.  We tipped the museum guide – there is no charge for admission nor for the tour, but it seemed appropriate to thank him for helping us appreciate the museum – and made our way back home.

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Here’s a confession: I have been to Lahore a total of five times and only recently, on my fifth trip there, did I get round to visiting the Badshahi Mosque.  This is strange, seeing as it is one of the premier historical attractions of Pakistan and I am keenly interested in history.

Never mind, though – despite my tardiness I eventually got around to visiting it, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Its size alone makes it stand out – it is vast, with a courtyard large enough to accommodate some 95,000 worshippers.  It was the largest mosque in the world for over 300 years, until it was overtaken by the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

I don’t want to add much more – if you want to learn about it, head over to Wikipedia in the first instance – but I can confirm that it is large, beautiful, a remarkable piece of Moghul engineering, and that we were welcomed warmly when we visited.  Hopefully the above photo will speak for itself…