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The goddess of Taliban country

Baluchistan, purported home of the Pakistani Taliban, offers much more than a wide open road.

The southern swath of Baluchistan is anything but godforsaken. It is, I learn, hallowed land: When Kali, the Dark Mother of the Hindu religion, the Goddess of Death, shattered millennia ago, her torso landed in the mountains.

Baluchistan, then, is not simply hallowed; it is one of the holiest tracts in Hindu mythology. Several years ago, L.K. Adavni, then-leader of the Hindu fundamentalist party in India, was stirred when he visited Nani Mandir. (On his return, he was temporarily dismissed from the party because of “pro-Pakistan” statements he made to the press.) Asphalt roads were paved in anticipation of his advent.

The approach to the temple is unremarkable: An iron gate opens into a narrow esplanade nestled in a valley, presumably a riverbed in the rainy season. Simple single-story cement rooms stand on either side. A makeshift cupboard-sized shrine houses a statuette of Kali, arms perpendicularly extended, tongue rolled out like Gene Simmons. Burnt incense sticks are pitched in the surrounding earth and empty coconut husks litter the periphery. In April, thousands of Hindu pilgrims, both local and from across the border, make the journey on foot. They shave their hair and shed their clothes. We follow in their tracks, passing mossy pools littered with Frooto boxes and floating locks. There is graffiti in Sanskrit on the boulders, and a pair of vertiginous eyes.

Unlike the temples in and around Karachi — Sri Swami Narayan on Bandar Road, Ratneshwar Mahadev in Clifton — Nani Mandir is not grand; there are no spires, arches, no detailed stonework. The structure seems to have been carved into rock. The surrounding whitewashed walls are recent, an afterthought, like the billboard outside featuring the busts of prominent members of the community. Steps lead up to a two-tiered tiled clearing girded in saffron flags where Kali presides. You have to see it to believe it. Who would have thought that a Hindu goddess reigns in Taliban country?

Under her throne, there is an opening, a portal into the unknown: A miniature wooden door opens into a tunnel that can only be entered on all fours. It is dark inside, very dark, stygian; it is meant to represent Kali’s womb. I decide to crawl inside. About halfway through the horseshoe-shaped passage, I am compelled to reach for my lighter. It is tough going. It would be tougher later in the year. The weather turns hot in April, and the rite is probably performed at night. Sweaty hoards must jostle to enter. When you emerge, you thank God. Smoking a cigarette afterwards, I figure that’s the point.