Katas Raj, an ancient religious site located in the Salt Range of Punjab, has been an important pilgrimage site for Hindu devotees for over a 1000 years.
Last Updated: 22 May 2014
Katas Raj, locally known as Qilla Katas, is an ancient religious site for Hindus. It is located in the Salt Range of Punjab in Chakwal District. The main Hindu temple complex is situated around a small pond, known as Kataksha, and consists of a few Hindu temples and the haveli of Hari Singh Nalwa, a general of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Nearby is another group of Hindu temples, known as Satgara or Seven Houses, the remains of an ancient Buddhist stupa, and a fort. For more than a thousand years Katas Raj was a site of pilgrimage for Hindus. Even today, Hindu devotees from India visit during their annual festival of Maha Shivarati.
The Hindu tradition venerates the site of Katas Raj. According to legend, the Hindu god Shiva was so distraught by the death of his wife Sati that he wept bitterly. His tears created two ponds, one was Kataksha and the other was Pushkar Lake near Ajmer, India. Kataskha is a Sanskrit word which means raining eyes. Hindus believe that by bathing in this pond their sins will wash off.
In addition, the Hindu epic poem, the Mahabharata, tells the tale of the Pandavas brothers who go through various trials before they can win back their kingdom in the 3rd century BC. Before the final battles take place, the Pandavas are exiled for 14 years. Legend states that they spent at least 4 years in Katas, if not all the 14 years. Legend also claims that during their stay they constructed the Satgara temples and dedicated them to the god Shiva.
Long before the advent of Buddhism and Hinduism in the region, the lake Kataksha was probably a site of pagan rites. The beautiful and bright blue color of its water must have attracted awe from all who came across it. In the 3rd century BC, King Ashoka tried to spread the teachings of Buddhism by constructing stupas and carving edicts on rocks all over his empire. The Buddhist stupa at Katas Raj is said to have been constructed on Ashoka’s order, but now only a small mound remains.
In the mid-6th century, the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang traveled through Katas Raj. At that time, Katas Raj was part of the kingdom of Singhapura. He gave a lively and vivid description of Kataksha: dragons and fishes lived in the water, lotus flowers of four different colors floated on the surface, and surrounding the lake were trees with hundred kinds of fruits. “The trees are reflected deep down in the water, and altogether it is a lovely spot for wandering forth,” Hiuen Tsang wrote. But much to his dismay, the inhabitants of Katas Raj were not Buddhists like him, but Jain monks. The Jains wore long white robes and had their own monastery, the ruins of which can be found near Katas Raj.
The Hindu temples of Katas Raj are mostly in ruins. The oldest of the temples at Katas Raj dates back to the 6th century. But most of the temples were constructed later during the Hindu Shahi rule starting in the 7th century. In order to protect their territory, these kings established forts and public buildings in elevated areas. As the population in these areas increased, temples were constructed. A very natural setting for forts was in the Salt Range. The barren hills would be perfect for keeping a lookout below into the plains through which a number of trade routes passed. Katas Raj was one such site that the Hindu Shahi kings restored and built temples on.
The Satgara temples are built along the style of Kashmiri architecture that prevailed from the 8th to the 13th century AD. The Haveli belonging to the Sikh general Hari Singh Nalwa was built in the early 19th century. It has a façade of red sandstone and overlooks the lake Kataksha.