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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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Near our house is the visa office for most Western countries.  Anyone living in Pakistan who needs a visa for the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia or a range of other destinations makes a pilgrimage here, armed with application forms, documents, flight bookings, and a face of grim determination.  Every morning I see them queueing up, hopeful and perhaps just a touch desperate.  They are eager to leave.  Many people are.

One of the many contradictions of which the nation of Pakistan is constructed is that people here feel both a fierce sense of national pride and a strong tendency towards self-criticism.  Many Pakistanis love Pakistan deeply and proudly, and yet criticise it without hesitation.  Many would leave, given the chance.  Many have already left, setting up colonies in Toronto and New York, London and Birmingham and Melbourne.  Even the fundamentalists who scream hatred of the USA would give their right arm for a chance to live there.

We have done the opposite, moving from the West to live in Pakistan, and everyone thinks we’re insane.  At first I did too, wondering exactly why it was that we had chosen to swap reliable electricity and sensible governance for the myriad eccentricities (if I’m being kind) and baffling illogicalities (if I’m not) of the Land of the Pure.  The electricity comes and goes.  Corruption is rampant.  The police can’t be trusted.  It’s hot and dusty half the year, cold and dusty the other half, and everyone stares at me whenever I walk outside.

Yet it would break my heart to leave.  Why?  What would I miss?  The straightforward kindness of the people, for one thing, who have every reason to resent a British man and yet never seem to do so.  The kindness and generosity of Muslim people.  The smell of rain on dusty ground.  The epic monsoon thunderstorms which split the sky asunder with a terrifying roar.  The mountains of the north.  The chance, the wonderful chance, to do something positive in a place of need, to praise Pakistan, to honour its people, to promote education, to bring peace between Muslim and Christian in a time of great fear and mistrust.  The opportunity to see God move in the lives of others, to see him mould and change and refine us, to experience his love precisely when we most need it.

I do not want to leave, not yet.  There is so much good here, so much beauty, and we are almost uniquely privileged to witness it when so few Westerners ever come here.  I love Pakistan very much.  I rather suspect I always will.

We sat in the restaurant having breakfast.  This is one of my favourite meals of the day when done in proper Pakistani fashion: delicious parathas, fried circles of dough enriched with ghee, and puris, deep-fried dough puffs as light as air, with spicy omelettes and chickpea curry.  Everything was fresh and hot and we washed it all down with sweet yoghurt lassi and Kashmiri tea.

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Then I looked out of the window and saw three girls watching us through the plate glass.  With their pale skin and piercing eyes they had to be Afghans.  Their dupattas were wrapped tightly around their heads and they stood in silence, unmoving, watching steadily as I helped our daughter finish her drink, holding the straw so she could sip the last bits of lassi from the glass.  They looked similar enough to be sisters, aged perhaps 5, 7 and 9.  The oldest held a scruffy sack over her shoulder.  They would spend the day scavenging through the bazaars of Islamabad, collecting old bottles and rags to sell for a few rupees.  The restaurant’s cook, seeing them staring at us, started to shoo them away.  Perhaps he thought they would put us off our breakfast – and besides, Afghans are not popular in Pakistan.

I beckoned the waiter over and asked him to send breakfast out to the girls.  He nodded, smiling, and called to the cook to start preparing food for them.  A few minutes later a package of food was pressed into their hands and they were shooed away.  I had assumed they would eat it themselves but no, it was safely stowed away to be taken home for the family.  One of them, the oldest, smiled shyly as she skipped away.

Later, when we left, I saw the girls scampering away from our car in the car park.  I looked, surprised, and saw three stars which they had drawn in the dust of the rear windscreen.  Three stars scrawled in the dirt, a tiny fragment of beauty in a world in profound need of restoration.  The girls skipped away laughing, and, rounding a corner, were gone.