Our community is called Batta and Pandits, which mean respectively honoured and learned. Honoured and learned indeed we are and we are the original inhabitants of Kashmir dating back to the time when Kashyapa Rishi set up this pious place after draining the waters of Sati Sar. If there is a single terminology that sums up the entire gamut of our culture as Kashmiris, it is the name ‘Ryeshi Vaer’ given to our land. ‘Ryeshi Vaer’ literally means a garden of sages. This land has produced an innumerable number of saints and savants, sages and Sufis, who have always stood for the durable principles of truth, freedom, wisdom, humility, simplicity, compassion, contemplation, worship and the like. The common Kashmiri has adopted these qualities and infused them in his thinking and actions. If I borrow the idiom of Mary Pat Fisher I would say that the map of our Kashmir couldn’t be colour-coded as to its Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist identity; each of its parts is marbled with the colours and textures of the whole. We have had Buddhist view of life and cosmos thrive in this land for many years in the past till about 8th century. We have had a distinct non-dualistic ideology called the ‘Trika’ Philosophy shape the metaphysical thinking of this land. We have had the Vedic rituals of the Sanatana Dharma as the basis of our very existence. There used to be an admixture of ‘Shakta’ and ‘Tantra’ in our way of worshipping and then, with the advent of Islam in fourteenth century we witnessed the Sufi order in this land. All these in course of time got merged and produced a blend of cultures, which is humanistic, pious and pure, yet very simple and straightforward. It has taught us to turn from the fragmentary to the ‘total’, from the superficial to the profound, and from the mundane material to the spiritual. Religion has never been an obstacle to this unique cultural blend.

Ekam Sat Viprah bahudhah vadanti

Professor Timothy Miller, a specialist in new religious movements, has rightly observed that, ‘Human culture is always evolving and reinventing its own past and present.’ We call our way of life ‘Sanatana Dharma’ or the Eternal Law of Do’s and Don’ts of life. Our belief is that God, Universe and the Vedas are eternal and co-existent. Strict adherence to the prescribed norms ensures cosmic harmony, order in the society and the welfare of mankind. Due to this belief Hindus, the original inhabitants of this land, were neither interested in recording their history nor inclined to force their way of thinking on any one. The only recorded History in India, the ‘Raja Tarangini’ has been written by a Kashmirian, Kalhana. Yet, ironically we do not have any record of our cultural heritage and historical events of the prior period and, therefore, we are unable to paint an authentic picture of the life and faith of our ancestors who lived in this pious land. As in the rest of the country, we have to draw upon legends, fables and other types of literature, verbal or written, in order to visualize the picture of our ancient heritage. It is very significant that in the Indian tradition the two great epics, ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ along with the ‘Puranas’ form the corpus of our history, from which we have to figure out what our past has been like. Kashmir also has its own ‘Purana’ called the ‘Nilamat Purana’, which throws some light on our heritage. This ‘Purana’ vouches for the fact that after the water was drained from the vast area of Sati Sar, sages were invited to settle in the valley and do their penance in the calm and peaceful environment of this sacred valley surrounded by the Western Himalayan ranges. The aborigines, Nagas, Pishachas, Shvapakas etc. were assimilated and became extinct as tribes in course of time. During this period the rituals and the injunctions of the Vedas only were followed. The inhabitants today in effect are, therefore, the progeny of the sages who settled in this valley for penance and eventual emancipation with a sprinkling of immigrant population. It is no wonder that the basic ideology has been twofold. One, ‘Ekam Sat Viprah bahudhah vadanti – the Truth is one and the learned describe it in many different ways’ and the second, ‘Aano bhadra kratavo yantu vishvatah – let noble and beneficial thoughts come to us from all sides of the world’. The age-old culture of ours is said to be five millennia old on the basis of the ‘Saptarishi Samvat’ adopted by us from time immemorial. Ours is perhaps the only almanac in the country, that gives this ‘Samvat’ and the running year is 5090.

Beautiful local kids of Kashmir, Photo via Pinterest

We celebrate various festivals in our capacity as world citizens, as citizens of a nation, as members of a community or a religious group. Each such celebration has a purpose and importance. As world citizens we celebrate world labour day on 1st May each year in order to acknowledge the dignity of labour. As Indians we celebrate our Independence Day and Republic Day and other national festivals in order to rededicate our services to our beloved country. Similarly we have religious festivals of Holi, Deevali, Rama Navami, Janmashtami et al, which are celebrated with piety and religious fervor.

There are some festivals of regional importance like Durga Puja in Bengal, Ganesh Chaturthi in Maharashtra, Baisakhi in Punjab, Shiva Ratri in Kashmir, Ayyapan Mahotsava in the South and so on. In addition there are shrine specific festivals, when the devotees assemble at the shrine in question, offer prayers, propitiate the deity there and celebrate the occasion with gaiety. In our Kashmir we have umpteen such shrines where festivals are held on specific days, like Swami Amarnath, Hari Parbat, Tula Mula, Shankaracharya, Zeshta Devi, Khrew, Ganapatyaar, the various Bhairav shrines and places in the name of saints and savants.

Kheer Bhawani Temple, Photo via Wikipedia

At Tula Mula we offer pooja on every eighth day of the bright fortnight normally but on Jyeshtha Ashtami there is a special celebration. Legend has it that Rajna Bhawani of Tula Mula was originally in Sri Lanka. There the devotees used to offer animal sacrifice, which the Devi did not like. So she directed Hanuman ji to carry her to a sacred place where she and her pet snakes could settle down. Hanuman ji selected Tula Mula village for her. The marshy land accommodated the snakes and she made the holy spring there as her abode. She desired that she should be propitiated with milk and flowers only and accordingly to this date we offer milk in the spring and a variety of flowers including green Venna. Because of the offering of milk, the deity is called Ksheer Bhawani (Ksheer in Sanskrit means milk). She is called Rajna and addressed as ‘Shiva Patni’, the consort of Shiva.

Gaurim ambam amburuh akshim aham eeday

The shrine is situated at village Tula Mula, surrounded by mighty Chinar trees and surrounded by Dharma Shalas, or guest houses. A row of shops is also there selling eatables, Prasada and material for pooja. People go there by bus and cars on the land route and by boats on the river route. We row down the Vitasta up to Shadipur and from there enter into the Sindhu canal and anchor the boats near the shrine. The devotees on reaching there, first of all take a dip in the Sindhu canal, put on new set of clothes and then enter into the precincts of the shrine. There is Aarti in the morning and evening, when the multitude of devotees has plateful of lighted lamps in hands and all chant the shlokas in one voice. Gaurim ambam amburuh akshim aham eeday, I offer my salutations to Mother Goddess Gauri whose eyes are like lotus flower.’ There are night-long Keertan, Bhajan and group songs. The atmosphere is celestial, one of peace and tranquility. Separate areas have been earmarked for Homa and people perform yajnas there to propitiate mother goddess. This is a major collective festival for we the Kashmiri Pandits. It is decades that most of us have not been able to go there on the auspicious day of Jyeshta Ashtami, but these shrill voices still reverberate in our ears whenever this auspicious day arrives: ‘Dodahan baeviv, tami saet praeviv – Offer milk into the holy spring and you will gain a lot’. The spring, incidentally, is shaped like the usual small bag carried by ascetics, who place their hand into it to tell upon the beads of the rosary tucked in it. On the bend is the marble temple of the deity, the pooja of which is offered on all sides around the spring. This is the spring the water of which changes its colour – a miracle indeed.

Dodahan baeviv, tami saet praeviv

Now why do we celebrate these festival days even when we are not in a position to go to the shrine proper because of the political turmoil there? These celebrations revive the memory of our mother land, kindle the pride of our rich cultural heritage in us and reinforce the religious bent of mind that is inherited by us from our ancestors. There is no doubting the fact that we the Kashmiris are basically religious minded, God-fearing and a community that cares for ethical and moral values. We may be non-vegetarian otherwise but on these festival days we refrain from non-vegetarian items and more often keep fast on such pious days. These holy days provide us an occasion to renew our faith, belief and reverence to our religious tenets, our humane behavior and the rich spiritual philosophy, so elaborately enunciated by the great masters from Vasugupta and Utpala Dev down to Abhinavgupta and Khemaraja and known as Trika philosophy.

Hari Parbat, Photo via Wikipedia

Post 1990 period has been a period of turmoil, which brought shame to the composite culture of the valley. Religious extremism and fundamentalism overran the tolerant ‘Rishi’ cult that had kept the two communities together till then. The Pandits were given three options, Raliv, Tsaliv or Galiv meaning either get converted or run away otherwise you will be killed. The Hindus had to run for their life and honour. They were hounded out and forced to migrate to Jammu, Delhi and other parts of the country to escape the wrath of the foreign provoked and controlled militancy. So many innocent men and women were brutally killed. That has made this heaven on earth a hell. Jehangir must have changed his statement to 'Agar jahanum bar ruye zamin ast hamin ast hamin ast -o- hamin ast'.  One has only to hope that good sense will prevail and the culture of mutual respect and harmony, brotherhood and acceptance of diverse faiths will once again thrive in this lovely ‘Garden of Sages’. The valley that is known by the name of Kashmir has been referred to by so many names too, one of which is Sharada-peetha, which mean a seat of learning and a great centre of learning indeed it was. It has had so many epithets, Aden of the East, ‘Bhu-swarga’, Paradise on Earth and so on. Just as every mountain peak of Kashmir is a place of pilgrimage, every spring is sacred and every cave is a shrine, every household of this holy land has produced a saint. Every village of this pious valley can boast of a sage of eminence. These saints and sages have perpetuated a tradition of peace and piety, truth and divinity that is fondly called the ‘Rishi parampara’ or the tradition of sainthood. We all owe it to our motherland to bring back this glory to our land, where flowers of all hues will flourish and enchanting fragrance will spread in every nook and corner. Let there be peace and let people of diverse faiths live here with dignity and honour. When that happens, we shall perform a grand thanks giving yajna at Hari Parbat, the abode of Sharika, the presiding deity of Kashmir.