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Ancient Civilisation of Katas- The Salt Range

With reference to the excellent book ‘The Salt Range & Potohar Plateau’ by Salman Rashid (2005), I will summarize the extraordinary heritage of Katas. It is situated shortly after Choa Saiden Shah, on the main road to Kallar Kahar (M2 motorway interchange).

In 630 AD, a 26 year old Buddhist monk from China embarked on a 16 year journey to visit the Holy sites of the Indian Subcontinent. His name was Hiusen Tsiang. Fortunately he left a legacy of detailed written accounts from his travels, ‘Records of the Western World’.

He set out from Taxilla to visit the ‘Kingdom of Singhapura’, the capital also called Singhapura, was founded by the Buddhist King Asoka in the 3rd century BC. From Taxilla he traveled 185 km in a south east direction, until he reached the area of the capital. He found the location well defended by craggy mountains. He described the warlike people as highly valuing ‘courage’. Hiusen Tsiang visited the nearby Buddhist sites, which he describes as ‘not to far south of Singhapura’. Here he disappointingly tells of an Asokan stupa in ruins and a deserted monastery without priests. He had read accounts from previous visitors that it was an active Buddhist stronghold. This place is likely to be Katas.

Although the capital city, Singhapura has never been formally located there are a few hypotheses. Alexandra Cunningham (British engineer, historian and archaeologist) conducted a survey of the region in the 1860’s. He felt the capital was at Katas. Auriel Stein (Hungarian-British archaeologist and explorer) in 1930, placed the capital to be close to Dulmial Village. Katas has been a Holy site for many centuries, but shows no remains of a large city. However 1 km north of Katas lies Dulmial Village, with its pottery strewn mound and coins dating back to the Indo- Greeks from the 3rd century BC. Dr Saifur Rahman Dar of Lahore Museum agrees with this hypothesis.

Dulmial Village therefore is the best location as described by the Chinese pilgrim Hiusen Tsiang to be the ancient capital city, Singhapura. He stated that ‘not so far south’ was the ruined 3rd century BC Asokan stupa, the remains of which can still be seen at Katas. At that point the Buddhist Holy site had been taken over by the ‘white clad’ sects of Jainism.

Please read: Dulmial, Pakistan- ‘The Village with the Gun’

‘Spring of the Raining Eyes’

At Katas a complex of temples of variable ages overlook an enchanting emerald lake. Katas Raj is a Holy site for millions of Hindus. It was the center of the grand annual Yatra (pilgrimage) for devotees from all over the subcontinent. Legend has it that when Sati died, her husband Lord Shiva was inconsolable. As tears flowed two pools were formed, one at Pushkara (near Ajmer, Rajasthan) the other at Katas, the Salt Range, Punjab. In Sanskrit the word Ketaksha means ‘raining eyes’, now abbreviated to Katas. It is also known amongst followers of Lord Shiva to be ‘Tirth Raj’ the king of pilgrimage sites. The legend states that the lake possessed special magical powers.

Katas is also associated with Mahabharata, as the place where the Pandava brothers spent 4 years of their exile.

The remains of the Asokan Buddhist stupa of the 3rd century BC are still visible at Katas in the form of a plinth on the ground. Other temples of various ages and ruins are also visible. Two 7th century Lord Shiva temples are present. The 3 storey Ram Chandra temple overlooks the sacred pool. A collection  of seven temples is situated in the form of the monument ‘Sat Ghara’. There is evidence of an ancient academic  learning center, a university. Some of the constructed buildings date back to the Indo-Greek era.  A haveli, fortress of Hari Singh Nalwa (a General of Maharaja Ranjit Singh) was built after 1810, when the Salt Range was annexed by the Sikhs.

Katas Raj Temples 1875
Katas Raj Temples 1875

After Independence in 1947, the Hindus left the Holy site. The abandoned area deteriorated due to neglect and the great floods of 1948. The pilgrimages did not happen again until the 1980’s. In the last few years about a 100 Hindus from India have annually visited the Holy site of Katas.

Unfortunately due to the construction of several cement factories close by, over the past few years the water table has dropped. This almost caused the drying up of the sacred Katas pool. Together with dust and smoke the cement factories are having a devastating effect on the local environment and village residents.

Surely this once grand location of ancient civilization, which deserves be a World Heritage site, must be treated with great respect.

Katas Raj Temples
Katas Raj Temples

I refer this blog to the great writings of authors Salman Rashid and Riaz Malik, local historian and President of the Salt Range Archaeological & Heritage Society, Dulmial, District Chakwal.

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