[Interview and pictures by Syed Kamran Safdar, teacher at the University of Engineering and Technology in Taxila, Pakistan.]
I live with Zubeida Khatoon, my mother, in Taxila - a small town in northern Pakistan famous for its Buddhist ruins. Amma, now 77, was a young married woman when Pakistan was created out of India. Thousands of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were killed in an orgy of mindless violence. She recently talked to me about those times.
Amma, I can still see two Hindu temples out there in the town.
Yes Kamran. Once upon a time there were so many Hindus living in Taxila. Do you know the place next to the Jamia Masjid was a Hindu Dharmshala? That is where they recited Guru Granth Sahib every morning. Now there is a water tank built on that place.
There were so many Sardars. I remember those little Sikh boys helping their fathers in selling vegetables. The bhatiyaran (pop corn lady) was also a Sikh woman. She used to make murandas (a kind of rice cake) for us.
During this year's Muharram procession, I overheard two old men talking about how they took part in the looting of the bazaar during the partition. One of them had managed to grab a Ghee canister from a Hindu's shop when his uncle asked him to return it back.
Those were bad times...
Amma, what exactly happened in Taxila during the partition? Were people massacred here too?
Allah be praised, it was mild compared to other towns but we did hear the killing of two men in the railway station. They were either Hindus or Sikhs. The train was coming from Peshawar. You know, beta, things were quite till then. But trouble started brewing as the stories of the massacre of Muslims reached here. Our young men were outraged and they raided the bazaar, robbed the shops and burnt down everything. The bazaar burned for several days. I myself saw the flames from the rooftop.
But there was so much hardship. Since all the shopkeepers were Hindus and the bazaar was destroyed there was nothing to buy for several days. We had to live on a strict ration.
But Amma what happened to the Hindus? Where did they go? Were they killed?
Our Hindus were mostly wealthy traders. You know what traders are like...they are smart enough to handle situations like those. They had an inkling what was coming so they removed all the jewels and money out of their shops in time. Later they took refuge in the homes of Muslims neighbors, mostly in the mansions of Syed families. When things calmed down they all left for India.
Were there Hindus in our neighborhood? Did Shahji (my late father) help them?
Yes, a few of them lived in our locality. Your Abbu was their good friend. When the mahaul became kharab, they gave him the house keys, with all the furniture locked inside, and moved into our guest section with their families.
What did Shahji do to those houses? What happened to the furniture and other things Hindus left behind?
What could your Abbu have done? We waited for them to return. Afterwards, he opened the houses for the refugees who had come from Delhi and Kashmir. Many abandoned havelis were taken over by the locals. Some even took the possession of the shops in the bazaar. But the land that once belonged to the Hindus was allotted only to the refugees.
So, the refugees were lucky then?
How can you say that, Kami? They left behind everything they knew and owned. The Kashmiri immigrants were very poor. They were content with the vacant neighborhoods behind the Jamia Masjid. But those Delhi people were too sheheri. They found Taxila too small for their taste. As far as I recall, they later left for Karachi.
How did the Hindus and Sikhs escape - on the lorries?
There were no buses. In those days people simply walked or used bullock carts if they had to go to a nearby town. But the fleeing Hindus…they all took trains going towards India...
Amma, did you have Hindus as friends?
Yes. (She smiles) They fondly called me Baji. They would often bring Kashmiri kajoos for us but we would eat them only after reciting the Kalma. Arre Kami, have I told you about my school?
Beta, we had Hindu teachers as there was hardly any educated Mussalmaan around. The Hindu girls were taught Hindi while Muslim girls were taught Urdu. In history, we used to read about the vilayati kings and queens. Arre Kamran, tell me is Elizabeth the daughter of Queen Victoria?
No Amma, I think she is her granddaughter…but I'm not sure...But Amma, what about the Christians? There are so many of them in Taxila. Why were they not harmed?
But they had nothing to do with the jhagra-fasaad of Hindus and Muslims. Do you know the story of the Christian hospital, Kami?
Everyone knows about it. It was set up by the English missionaries. Hundreds of poor people go there from all over Pakistan for its inexpensive treatment.
Yes, yes, I know all that. But things used to be different then. In the beginning no Mussalmaan wanted to go there. We were not sure what was done there. We thought they wanted to convert us.
But Amma it is no longer like that. There are even Muslim families working and living inside the hospital's colony.
Yes, yes, I know all this. Anyway let's talk something else. I don't like thinking about all those times. I'm old. What's the point…
As you say Amma.
Zubeida Khatoon witnessed an era when Muslims, Hindu, Sikh and Christens lived peacefully in Taxila. Now it all appears like a fable.
Recently, an elderly family friend traveled to India where he met some of his old Hindu friends. They showered him with kisses and hugs claiming his body carried the unmistakable fragrance of their Taxila.
But they should know their Taxila has changed. Today there are only two surviving temples and only a few old people, like my Ammaji, who remember those times.
The Dharmshala is gone, the Baawali well is under mud, and the bazaar has undergone drastic renovations. Havelis reminiscent of Hindu architecture are fast disappearing. But these symbols of Taxila's multi-religious past should not be allowed to fade away. The town must restore and preserve the remnants of its recent history, just the way it has cared for its ancient ruins.