By Riyaz Wani
02 June 2012
Kashmiri Pundits celebrate the annual Mata Khirbhawani festival; hundreds turn up for the pilgrimage, the biggest in Valley after Amarnath Yatra
Pradeep Kisroo, 28, has come from Muthi in Jammu to pay obeisance at the Hindu shrine of Mata Khirbhawani, considered one of the holiest here. It is the second time he has visited the temple since his family fled Kashmir in early 90s. Touched and inspired by his visits Pradeep Kisroo now he wants to come back permanently and settle among his “own people”.
“Kashmir is now peaceful. I have this intense feeling that I have come back home,” says Kisroo, a teacher, who originally hails from Tulamulla. “My parents had also come last year. They found the same old environment of Hindu-Muslim amity in which they had grown up. They want to come back”.
Kisroo’s family is not alone. There are hundreds of others who have turned up for this annual pilgrimage, the biggest Hindu festival in Valley after Amarnath Yatra. The numbers have grown over the past two decades. From a trickle at the height of militancy in early nineties to the thousands this year, the number has been directly proportional to the degree of normalcy in Valley. Even though the pilgrimage has not been attacked but that was because fewer pundits visited the shrine in the nineties and that too under heavy security.
Sushil Khushoo, 35, attests to this fact. “I have been to Khirbhawani several times in recent years. But this year it is different, it is very peaceful,” says Khushoo, a businessman who has also come from Jammu to visit the temple which is located near a natural spring. “If this peace holds, many Pundits will feel encouraged to come back”.
There was an unbroken throng of devotees around the temple singing devotional songs in Kashmiri. They pray for boons and prosperity and offer milk and kheer to the goddess Ragnya Devi. Eateries around prepare strictly vegetarian food. There are loonche (local bread), samosas, and pakoras on offer.
However, the large numbers of the Pundits present a challenge for the local police personnel charged with the security of the shrine. They keep a strict vigil on the crowd. Every new entrant to the shrine precincts is frisked. But compared with the previous years the atmosphere this year is relaxed. The devotees are freely moving around. Many migrant Kashmiri Pundits who hail from the place went to visit their ancestral houses and met their Muslim neighbours.
“All my Muslim neighbours came to welcome me. I was overwhelmed with joy and emotion,” says Kisroo who lives at Batapora locality of the village. Kisroo has come here with his wife who has also come for the second time. “It was nostalgic visiting my home, where I was born”.
Mela Kherbhawani, as it is locally known, has significance for the local Muslims also. “We usually invite our relatives on the occasion. And we also restrain from cooking mutton. None of us will visit the shrine precincts if we have eaten meat,” says Zahoor Ahmad, 37, a teacher at a local government school. Besides, the mela comes as a boon for the local economy. Flowers, earthen lamps and other things used in puja are sold by Muslim shopkeepers. “We also offer the pilgrims milk in earthen pots which is a tradition going back centuries”.
Unlike yatras to Amarnath and Vaishnodevi where Hindus from all across the country visit the high altitude shrine, Khirbhawani is almost exclusively a Kashmiri Pandit affair. And over the past two decades, the visit to the shrine has become an annual nostalgia trip. “I come here to experience the joy of being back in Valley,” says Surinder Raina, 45, who has come from New Delhi. “The feeling is really great”.
The spring at Khirbhawani is among the most sacred in Valley. For Kashmiri Pandits it divines the situation of Valley. Different colours are manifestations of different events. Shades of black in the water signal the approaching disaster. And as the Pundits folklore goes, the waters of the spring were darkest in 1990 when the outbreak of militancy led to the mass migration of the community from Valley.
“This year the water is clear,” says Raina. “Kashmir as you know is finally at peace”.
Sheikh Ghulam Muhammad, Chief prayer leader of the local Grand Mosque has witnessed the annual mela for the 80 years of his life. But seeing the pundits return to celebrate the festival over the past two decades has been a painful experience. “I can’t bear to see that pundits no longer live among us, in our localities,” Muhammad says. “I wish they return to their homeland and Kashmir becomes old Pir Vaer (Garden of Saints) again where all communities live in harmony with each other”.
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.