Karachi: Ayaz Baloch claps his hands once and opens the door to a stale room in what was once a Karachi library, saying he needs to warn the Hindu souls inside that a living being is entering.
Baloch is the caretaker of a largely deserted cremation ground in Pakistan’s biggest city, where the remains of about 130 minority Hindus are gathering dust in a peculiar footnote to the country’s oft-strained ties with India.
“It started more than 30 years ago,” says Mohammed Pervez, a guard at the facility in Karachi’s oldest slum Golimar, who says the area’s Muslim poor have kept watch over the ashes for decades.
On final pilgrimage: Ayaz Baloch stacks away ashes of Pakistani Hindus. Rizwan Tabassum/AFP
“These pots started piling up as the dead had asked in their wills that their ashes be immersed in the Ganga, but their families could not get visas from India and left them here in trust,” he said.
Three decades on, with relations again tense between the neighbours in the wake of the attacks on Mumbai which New Delhi has pinned on Pakistan-based militants, the urns are still here.
The dead are now in danger of being lost and forgotten as the identification tags on the urns have started to fade, prompting the caretakers to launch a frantic search for the families of the deceased.
Mohandas, who asked that only his first name be used to protect his family’s privacy, said he was astonished to finally find the remains of his uncle Vishnu, who died in 1979, at the Karachi facility.
“We came here to find him but it was nearly impossible. The writing on many of the tags has completely disappeared, especially on the older containers,” he said.
“My father tried hard to fulfil the last wish of his older brother, but could not get an Indian visa. My father also wanted to be immersed in the Ganga after his death but seeing how difficult it is, he changed his mind.”
Mohandas said his father’s ashes were eventually bathed in the Indus river in southern Pakistan, which Hindus regard as holy.
Pakistan’s Hindus, who make up only about 2% of the Muslim country’s population of 160 million, usually immerse the remains of their dead in the Indus. But some Hindus here hope they will be brought to Haridwar after death for a final cleansing in the Ganga.
Lachman Jaisinghani, a leader of Karachi’s small Hindu community, says getting permission from India is difficult, as the authorities there want proof that the deceased has family still living in Haridwar.
“Normally India issues visas to only those who have relations in Haridwar. These deceased made wills but there is no proof,” Jaisinghani said.
Even if the relatives have evidence of family ties across the border, the sad state of the identification tags makes it hard to claim their loved ones’ remains, according to the cremation ground’s chief custodian Maharaj Ramnath.
Each of the urns, capped with white or red cloth, has a tag bearing the name of the deceased and the date of death. But much of the writing is illegible.
Ramnath says the facility’s caretakers launched a public appeal in the hopes of finding relatives of some of the deceased, but their leaflet campaign yielded few results.
Ramnath says despite the current friction between India and Pakistan, he will not stop fighting for the souls of the deceased.