Growing up in London for the first eighteen years of my life, there was no dearth of museums and galleries to visit. In fact, the constant presence of art, though enjoyable, could also be overwhelming. Some of my favorite museum experiences in the city have been at exhibits that explore the intersection between fashion and art. Two summers ago, the Victoria and Albert Museum displayed Alexander McQueen’s designs, from his 1992 MA graduate work to his final 2010 collection. More recently, the Saatchi Gallery was host to Mademoiselle Privé, which explored the craftsmanship and history of the House of Chanel.
My most meaningful experience, however, took place four thousand miles away from home, in my family’s native Pakistan. On New Year’s Day over winter break a few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Katas Raj Temple Complex. It’s a hidden gem tucked away a few kilometers from the ninth exit on the M-2 highway that runs between the capital city of Pakistan, Islamabad, and Lahore, an urban metropolis with its own unique cultural history.
The Temple Complex, though not a traditional museum, is a living, breathing piece of art. It dates back to about 615-950 CE, and according to Hindu mythology is dedicated to Lord Shiva. As such, it is one of Pakistan’s most important Hindu sites. Because I was visiting on a public holiday, there were busloads of tourists from surrounding towns, out and about in celebration of the new year. The complex itself is a collection of temples set around a sacred pool of water, carved into hills with domed roofs and elegant arches. The entrance to the ladies’ quarter bore the markings of a more martial era – the original area outside the grand door where guardsmen sat on the lookout for enemies.
The sacred pool of water is said to have been formed by the tears of Shiva, following the death of his wife, Sati. The ceilings of the inner sanctums of the temple were painted in bronze and beige tones, displaying miniature pieces of artwork that seemed to be illustrations of events that took place in the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. The highly-detailed designs are reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, but precede the Renaissance by hundreds of years.
Hindus are a minority in Pakistan, and make up a minuscule percentage of the overall population. The government has considered nominating the Katas Raj complex, which is an important Hindu place of pilgrimage, as a World Heritage Site. Having visited, I hope that this happens so that others are able to explore and appreciate its storied past.