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'We are glad we came; this is one chance in a lifetime'

Chindu Sreedharan in Bombay

Pakistani Hindu Pilgrims It is a miniature, Hindu-ised version of the Haj. And for 32-year-old Khosla, her husband Roop Chand and the 494 other Pakistani Hindu pilgrims, it is the answer to a prayer -- a 'god-given' opportunity.

"Hum log Bharatiya mandiron ki yatra karne ki bahut pehle se yojna banate aa rahe the. Iske bare me bahut kutch suna tha (We had been planning to visit the Indian temples for a long time. We had heard so much about these)," says Khosla, "Ab pehla awsar mila hai (This is the first opportunity we got)."

"What we heard about the holy places here is every bit true," her husband, a trader from Pakistan's Sindh province, chips in, "We are glad we came; this is one chance in a lifetime."

The pilgrims -- comprising 344 men, 101 women and 51 children -- are on a month-long visit to the holy places here, and is the first such group to cross over after the Indian government relaxed visa regulations, just before the Indo-Pakistani bilateral talks last month.

Pakistani Hindu Pilgrims For most of them, this is the first-ever visit to the land which, through the Ramayana and Mahabharata., they are much familiar with. And naturally, they are thrilled.

"Bahut badia lag raha hai," says group secretary A D Talreja, "Mandiron mein ja rahen hain aur apne bichchade rishtedaron se mulakat ho rahi hai... Bahut accha lag raha hai (We are visiting temples, and also relatives who have been separated by Partition... It's really great!)"

The pilgrims -- from Punjab, Baluchistan, Sindh and Sarand provinces -- had started out from Lahore, entering India at the border town of Attari on March 27. After a meandering journey which saw their eight-coach special train -- the Samjahauta Express -- passing through Delhi, Gwalior, Jhansi, Bhopal, Itarsi, Nagpur and Durg, the pilgrims arrived at Raipur. From where, after visiting the Baleshwari Devi temple at Dongargad, they entered Maharashtra through Nagpur and reached Bombay for a short, three day visit.

Now, at the end of the second day at their camp in Suryanarayan temple, the pilgrims are hurriedly getting ready to leave. ''As per our initial schedule, we were to leave tomorrow only;'' says Roop Chand, "But we have advanced it as we are running short of time... and there are so many more places to visit!" Their schedule, he said, had become uncomfortably tight as the programme (costing Rs 4,500 per head), which started out as a 50-day affair, had now shrunk to just 35 days ('technical problems').

In Bombay, the pilgrims had made the most of their time, and had covered almost all of the city's holy places. "In the last two days, we have been to most of the famous temples here -- Mumbadevi, Jhulelal, Mahalakshmi... We were even able to do some shopping," says Bhagwan Das, another pilgrim.

"Raipur is the better city for a pilgrimage," the 26-year-old Das adds, "but Bombay is much better for sightseeing! I wish we had more time here."

Pakistani Hindu Pilgrims From Bombay, the group moved to Gujarat. After visiting the historically famous Somnath and Dwaraka temples there, the pilgrims planned to travel down to Mathura, Brindavan, Rishikesh, Hardwar, Badrinath, Kedarnath and Hemchand Saheb. They would then take the rail to Kurukshetra in Haryana, winding the tour up with a visit to the Vaishnavi Devi temple in Jammu and the Golden Temple in Amristsar.

On April 30, they planned to take a train to Pakistan.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

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