oetry can change your life. I had this experience when I was reading Ezra Pound’s Canto 97 in the last December of the twentieth century. It opened up new horizons of fascination that continue to inspire me.
I found Pound weaving arcane elements like “sun worshipping” from Vedic mythology into his Cantos. But I didn’t yet know that he had summarised the golden saga of our glorious heritage in a couple of lines. Then I heard his poetic voice reciting this: “A thousand years before T’ang,/gothic arch out of India,/from Multan 700 li,/ torchlight, at Multan, offer perfume,/ Son of Herakles, Napat son of Waters,/Panch, that is Phoenician, Tyanu”
Now earlier readings of Pound’s poetry had informed me that the “Son of Herakles, Napat son of Waters, Panch” were all versions of Assias – a famous ancient Aryan Vedic fire priest. But what was this “torchlight, at Multan”?
A quick look at the extant multi-volume literary reference works only revealed the following: ‘Multan is a place of worship mentioned in Waddell’s Indo-European Seals, which quotes a Buddhist pilgrim on “a temple dedicated to the Sun, very magnificent and profusely decorated,” which is also a ‘house of mercy’.”
I immediately decided to travel to Multan to find whatever it was that had been envisioned by our poet.
But days of wandering in the dusty and sultry town could offer no glimpse of anything close to “a temple dedicated to the Sun, very magnificent and profusely decorated”.
That was when a native student of Multan who was studying in my hometown gave me Ibn-e Haneef’s postal address, and suggested that I write him a letter. (Email was not widely available in Multan in those days.)
Ibn-e Haneef is the author of many well-written scholarly works on the history, art and literature of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Now he promised to send me excerpts from the work of the “Buddhist pilgrim” in exchange for a research article on the Buddhas of Bamiyan that had been published in a British history journal. My request to the librarian of the British Council in Lahore was serviced, and in a fortnight they procured the research article required by Mr. Haneef. (I sighed with grief when later this vast trove of books on the cultural aspects of Punjab was shut down.) Ibn-e Haneef reciprocated with excerpts from the memoirs of the 7th century Buddhist pilgrim Hiuen Tsang. But these came with a heartbreaking note that quoted Al-Biruni: the original Sun-temple was destroyed in the 11th century, only to be rebuilt later. Ibn-e Haneef also wrote that the French traveler Jean de Thevenot had mentioned this temple in his 17th century Voyages, but that book was no longer available.
Later I discovered that Hiuen Tsang was a misnomer, the result of an oriental transliteration in the 19th century. The Chinese traveler’s real name was Xuanzang.
Let me share with you his account of the Sun-Temple of Multan:
“There is a temple dedicated to the Sun, very magnificent and profusely decorated. The image of the Sun-deva is cast in yellow gold and ornamented with rare gems. Its divine insight is mysteriously manifested, and its spiritual powers made lain to all. Women play their music, light their torches, offer their flowers and perfumes to honour it. This custom has been continued from the very first. The kings and high families of the five Indies never fail to make their offerings of gems and precious stones (to the Deva). They have founded a home of mercy (happiness), in which they provide food and drink, and medicines for the poor and sick, affording succour and sustenance. Men from all countries come here to offer up their prayers; there are always some thousands doing so. On the four sides of the Temple are tanks with flowering groves, where one can wander about without restraint.”
And, as luck would have it, I soon acquired a unique early edition of Thevenot’s Voyages too! It happened a few years after my interest in the temple was kindled: I took a friend to the oldest public library in Lahore. We were wading through the dark and gloomy alleys of its basement when his hand stumbled upon a zinc box hidden in the debris under the stairway. We opened it with great difficulty and found a treasure-trove inside. Imagine our delight when the helper at the library informed us that these books were to be discarded and would be disposed of soon! My friend managed to buy those abandoned books and kindly allowed me to photocopy some of them, including a late 17th century edition of Thevenot’s Voyages. His observations on Multan are very interesting, and include a description of the “Pagoda” with an idol, black-faced and clothed in red leather, with two pearls for eyes. The governor of the country used to take the offerings that were presented to it! Later I also discovered other travelogues about Multan, written by the Europeans and Arabs, and I’ll tell you about them some other time, but two interesting points are worth noting here. The travelogues inform us that Muslim authorities contributed to this ecumenical prosperity by allowing the Sun-Temple of Multan to operate unhampered, attracting large numbers of devotees from all over the subcontinent and generating considerable revenues for the shrine as well as the government kitty.
And the second thing to note is this: the mythological origin of Holi can be traced to this Sun-Temple of Multan, which is also known as the Prahlada-Puri Temple in native manuals of history. Now Prahlada was a devotee of the Hindu deity Vishnu, and his devotion was tested by his furious father Hiranyakashipu, who poisoned Prahlada, had him trampled under the feet of mighty elephants and imprisoned him with snakes. Still Prahlada survived. Then he was forced to sit in the lap of Holika, his paternal aunt, in a great pyre. While the fire was consuming Holika, Lord Vishnu appeared in the form of Narasimha – a half-man, half-lion avatar – and pounced upon the cruel father, cutting him into two pieces and saving poor Prahlada from the agony of being burned alive. The festival of Holi celebrates this incident, and the Sun-Temple of Multan is its memorial shrine!
Sohaib Arshad lives in Lahore and Multan