The Navratras have just gone by, celebrated virtually all over the country. But while Shakti worship is iconic in Bengal, and the more convivial forms associated with it, such as the garba dance, in Gujarat, few know that, historically, it is in Kashmir that the Goddess has been central to the definition of regional identity and selfhood.
This can be understood at different levels. All major Hindu gods and goddesses have been worshipped in Kashmir for millennia. This is well attested not just in the ancient texts but in the plethora of iconographic representations of these pan-Indic deities found all over the Valley from early. These include not only colossal Shiv lingas, Bhuteshwaras and Vaikuntha Vishnus, but resplendent images of the Goddess as both Durga Mahisasuramardini and Parvati with family, as also matrikas like Chamunda.
Alongside this saguna (theistic) tradition, a nirguna (monist) Shaiva-Shaktism emerged in Kashmir known as Trika. At the hands of a series of scholar-siddhas, like Utpaladeva, Abhinavagupta, Lalleshwari and Lakshmanjoo (8th-20th century CE), Trika became emblematic of Kashmiri belief, shaping even Islamic Sufism when it arrived in the 14th century.
According to this yogic/tantric school, the universe is replete with one supreme consciousness called Parama Shiva, and Shakti, primeval energy, is its principle of creation (vimarshini). Realising this truth is moksha and Kashmir was literally the place to attain it since liberation suffused its very ecology, as it were.
For example, Harmukh (‘mouth of Shiva’), the towering holy mountain 45 km north of Srinagar, is also the name of the point in the human body at which the kundalini shakti lies coiled in the muladhara chakra, and, when awakened, can ascend to pure consciousness.
Or see this verse from Lalleshwari, invoking the hydraulic origins of the Valley (discussed later), and describing Kashmir as a bridge to salvation: “I saw, once, the waters that flowed / From the Mouth of Shiva (Harmukh) to the Foot of Vishnu (Vishnupad) / Becoming a bridge across the illusory world (samsara).”
Vishnupad or Konser Nag is 65 km south of Srinagar. This allegorical verse thus beautifully captures not just the north-south extent of Kashmir but the complete overlap between her physical and spiritual domains. Parvati too is associated with the vicinity of Konser Nag at Naubandhana peak, having transformed herself into a great boat (nau) to save life forms during the deluge.
Indeed Shakti worship defines Kashmiri identity through a close association with the very land and waters of Kashmir. The Valley’s founding texts, the Nilamata Purana (7th century CE) and Kalhana’s Rajatarangini (12th century CE), the ‘first’ history of Kashmir, speak of a special land that was not just born of the Goddess but embodied her as well.
Thus the originary myth of the formation of Kashmir from the Satisaras or the lake of Sati, Shiva’s wife. This lake was said to be inhabited by a demon to kill whom, on the request of sage Kashyap, the gods drained the water, revealing a land fit for human settlement. There is thus a founding association of the land with the Goddess. (Fascinatingly, geologists say Kashmir did indeed emerge from a primordial lake thousands of years ago!)
Then, the many rivers of Kashmir were historically identified with different forms of Shakti. Chief among these, Vitasta (modern Jhelum), the lifeline running through the Valley, was said to be Uma or Parvati herself. And by all the mokshadayini (salvation-granting) tributaries of the region ultimately merging into the Vitasta, who is the Goddess Uma, all of Kashmir was deemed purified.
But that’s not all. Both the Nilamata and the Rajatarangini also tell us in no uncertain terms that Kashmir itself is Parvati (kashmirah parvati). Thus Kashmir is instated as the very embodiment of Shakti. And, as if to further exemplify Shakti’s role in Kashmir’s place consciousness, the three paramount kula devis of the Valley worshipped to this day, also manifest as river, spring and hill goddesses.
Thus at the confluence of the rivers Kishenganga and Madhumati stands the ancient shrine of Goddess Sharada, who lent her name to Kashmir as Sharada desha. Today lying in ruins just beyond the LoC, the Sharadapitha was built over a subterraneous spring, which is the Goddess herself. For, according to tradition, when the war was to break out between Rama and Ravana, Parvati was relocated from Lanka to the Himalayas by Hanuman, in the form of water in a kamandala (jar). Wherever drops spilled en route in the Valley, a sacred lake formed, and where the Goddess-bearing kamandala was finally put down is where the sanctum of the Sharada shrine lies.
Another example is Ragnya devi or Kheer Bhavani at Tulmul (ancient Tulyamulya), 22 km out of Srinagar. Her temple is located in the middle of a pond where water miraculously changes colour, presaging auspicious or evil occurrences. It is recorded that the water blackened when Kashmir was invaded by marauding tribals from Pakistan on 22 October 1947.
And then there is Sharika bhagwati, the ishta devi of Srinagar who resides atop the hill Hari Parbat. The Goddess assumed the form of the sharika bird (hari, in Kashmiri) and, lifting a celestial pebble in her beak, dropped it on an evil demon in the Valley, crushing it to death. This pebble then came to rest on the hill and became the Goddess incarnate—a giant rock bearing the natural mark of the shrichakra and fervently venerated as such even today.
Everywhere, then, in Kashmir, its past and present, history and myth, geography and spirituality fold into one another to yield an extraordinary identity rooted in the land and based on Shakti.