Ganderbal: New epicentre for all hopes Kashmiri
It was a caravan that had descended to its roots. Using buses, taxis and even two-wheelers, hundreds of Kashmir Pandit devotees thronged the Khir Bhawani temple shrine at Tullamulla in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, 24 km from capital Srinagar, amid emotional scenes of Hindu-Muslim amity.
Elaborate security arrangements had been made by the authorities as most devotees who arrived at the shrine had left the Kashmir Valley in the early 1990s with the outbreak of separatist insurgency. But the scenes at this centuries-old temple on May 29 resurrected the imagery of Kashmiriyat that most young Kashmir people have only heard of.
The temple of Ragnya Devi bustled with life, its colours and incense. Men, women and children lit lamps and offered milk to the goddess. “This is a very important day of our life. We take bath to purify our sins and then offer prayers inside the temple,” said Prem Bhat, who along with his friend, had taken the 300-km motorcycle ride from Jammu to pay obeisance at the revered shrine.
Over the past 12 years, the annual Khir Bhawani festival, known as Zestha Ashtami, has been an occasion for a visit for thousands of Kashmir Pandits who left the Valley during the outbreak of militancy. Many devotees said that it was not only a religious occasion now as the festival has become an important occasion to bond with the other communities in Kashmir. “The bond between us (Kashmir Pandits and Muslims) gets strengthened every year when we come here. We cherish the local support and also keep in touch with them throughout the year,” said Ashok Khar, who left the Valley in 1990. “Today many of my Muslim friends are around. We had a lot of discussion. But the only thing which makes it uneasy is the separation which is growing day by day,” said his wife, Rita Khar.
In the outer compound of the pantheon, stalls were set up by Muslims. “We sell everything needed to perform the rituals of the festival,” said Mohammad Afzal. He said the need to support the Pandits who stayed back in the Valley was the reason behind the gesture. When Pandits left, few of them stayed back and Muslims opened stalls and prepared ‘Puja thalis’—the plates carrying offerings for the goddess. Nearly two dozen stalls dot the complex these days.
Vikas Raz, a Pandit who didn’t leave the Valley, remembered the days when the temple was deserted in 1990s. “Those days were dark. But our Muslim brothers helped a lot to bring the old glory back,” he said, adding, he has been witness to the events that are now bearing fruits for the people of the region.
“The only thing they (Pandit migrants) fear is the lack of avenues here. But I swear we could be happier than we are if we have the reunion and settlement,” he said.
During the armed insurgency of the 1990s, the temple was almost deserted. The sprinkle of Kashmiri Pandits began to swell after 2000. The Pandits believe the colour of water at a spring in the temple enclave foretells the year’s future.
“The scene at the mela has remained unchanged despite the political upheavals. Muslims in Tullamulla have always eagerly waited for the festival each year to be of some help to the Pandit brothers,” said Muhammad Shafi, 52, a local Muslim, adding, “This is what keeps the basic fabric of our eclectic society alive.” Till midday May 29, more than 20,000 devotees had prayed at the temple shrine.
Not surprisingly, the festival has attained political cantors too. From Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to various separatist leaders in the
Valley flocked to the temple to interact with the Pandit community.
Talking to media on the sidelines, Abdullah said the economic package in the shape of employment to the youth of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley is an important step to help return of these families.
He said the remarkable increase in the number of Kashmiri Pandits visiting Khir Bhawani during last some years is an encouraging phenomenon. “Government would continue to work to improve the facilities for the large number of devotees visiting Khir Bhawani,” he added.
Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front Chairman Mohammad Yasin Malik, Hurriyat Conference (M) Shabir Ahmad Shah also interacted with the Pandits. An old Pandit woman held Malik’s face in her hands as crowds watched. Malik stood unmoved, his eyes closed. The onlookers too remained unmoved to see the former top militant commander of the JKLF, who gave up violence in 1994, freeze in amity. “We enjoy every support from them and the only wish which will remain till death is to return to Kashmir,” said the old woman with tears rolling down her cheeks.
By afternoon, the canal outside was a carpet of marigolds; children played hide and seek, elders rested under the mighty trees, and some kept praying to the goddess Ragnya.