As a result of insurgency that hit the northern state of Jammu & Kashmir in 1989, Hindus, a minority in the state, fled their homes seeking safety. Nearly three decades on, Hindu culture and heritage remain firmly embedded in the lifestyle even as physical traces like traditional Hindu homes begin to fade away.
It is a journalist’s delight to meet friendly people who open their doors to conversation. In the Downtown area of Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir, one such family graciously invited India & You to have a close inside view of a Kashmiri household and a sneak peek at their lifestyle. What set apart the experience was that it was a Muslim family living in a nearly 100-year-old home, earlier belonging to a Kashmiri Pandit family, a community of Brahmins or Hindu priests belonging to the Kashmir valley. Our hosts had purchased this house about 15 years ago from a Hindu family that has now settled in Jammu, a Hindudominated part of Jammu & Kashmir. Though they had allowed their relatives to move into the two-storeyed house after the devastating floods that hit Srinagar in 2014, the house still bore a strange sense of numbness.
The new owners of the house have tried to preserve the building in its original state. “It took us nearly 5 years to make up our minds to clean the front yard and a few other rooms that were filled with garbage,” said 28-year-old Arshid Hakim, the son of the owner who volunteered to give a tour of the house.
The house, built with mud and wood and designed keeping in mind the harsh winters, had wooden windows in every room and floors well covered with thick Kashmiri carpets that the state is famous for. At the entrance hung dried and cut vegetables like radish, carrots and turnips by a thread, meant to be eaten during winters. “This food culture originates from Pandits and is called Aar,” informed Hakim. The room at the ground floor had a small, open kitchen, a sitting area and a small bath area with a container for hot water.
To a plainswoman, the house looked rather constrained for space, with compact rooms and narrow stairways, leading to a darkened lobby, lit by a single bulb. The rooms had been brightly painted but remained couched in darkness. Adding to the feeling of constriction was the fact that the house had a lot of items lying about.
Another specificity of the four-room house was a brightly coloured room that Hakim felt would have been a guestroom as it was very well-decorated. Several rooms had interconnected chambers called kooth that functioned as storage units. The top floor was a big open area covered with thatched roof that had been used by the family as storage. It also had a mud stove in a segregated corner. This was the Pandits’ second kitchen in case they rested here, explained Hakim. Also scattered there were a few more items like khadaav wooden slippers for snow. “It was used until 40-50 years back, now it does not snow as much,” says Hakim. Besides the goods belonging to the Hindu family, the house also had a few traditional Muslim items that are not of a daily use. Tash-t-Nari (jug and basin), a metal utensil used in the weddings for guests to wash their hands, and a musical instrument tumbaknaar, also used during the weddings, to name a few.
The mass exodus
Downtown Srinagar has been at the heart of the insurgency and violence that has gripped Kashmir since 1989. India has often accused Pakistan, with whom it has had four wars since the independence in 1947, of stoking violence in Kashmir. The insurgency has also led to heightened tensions between Muslims and Hindus in the state, even though Hindus have lived in the region even before the arrival of Islam.
The insurgents have threatened the minority Hindus to either adopt Islam or leave the state and their property behind. As a result, over the past seven decades, the Hindu population of Kashmir has been declining consistently. The first wave of exodus came in 1948, after a short war within Pakistan and the ensuing riots, with nearly 20 pc of the Hindus fleeing Kashmir. Each successive peak in violence led to another mass exodus, with the result that by 1981, Hindus formed only five pc of the total Kashmiri population. The next big wave came in late 1990s when the insurgency had hit a peak and as a result over 300,000 Pandits left the valley to settle primarily around New Delhi or Jammu.
According to a survey conducted by local organisation formed by the Hindus, Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, in 2008 and 2009, nearly 400 Pandits had been killed by the insurgents since 1990, with 75 pc of the murders taking place in the first year itself. According to Jammu & Kashmir revenue and relief ministry, approximately 38,119 families are still registered with it. “More than 8000 died prematurely in the first 10 years of displacement as a result of hostile environment or extreme conditions,” wrote Seema Shekhawat in her paper titled Conflict Induced Displacement in a journal on Conflict Trends in 2009.
While the Pandits thought that it was only a temporary exile, few have dared to return. Some Pandits were able to sell their homes and land, even if in distress sales. Others weren’t as lucky and their properties were burnt, vandalised or taken over. Over the years, the government has made attempts to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits back in their homelands with incentives such as jobs and financial aid. In 2015, for instance, the government declared its intent to provide upscale apartments worth INR 4 million to any Pandit family willing to move back to the valley. But it came with a string of conditions. The rehabilitation terms specified that those seeking jobs would not be eligible for transfers to other parts of the country and would lose their jobs immediately in case they left the valley. However, even these incentives could do little to bring back the Pandits, still scarred by the memories of the exodus and under the current circumstances that still remain sensitive.
Writer Siddhartha Gigoo was 15 years old in 1990 when his parents decided to send him and his nine-year-old sister to Jammu. While going on a truck he first felt it as an adventure but soon reality kicked in. “There were months of depression and it lasted almost five to six years,” he told an Indian daily, referring to his immediate family. The Garden of Solitude (2011), his first book, dealt with the mass exodus while his second book, A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories (2015), is a collection of short stories based on a fictional place in the valley. “I look upon Kashmir as part of my identity. There is within me the strangest desire to reclaim what has been lost…a consciousness of exile,” he said.
Heritage at risk
It is because of the turbulent history that the lanes of Downtown, where majority of the Hindu population once lived, look straight out of Hollywood filmmaker Tim Burton’s films that are mostly in greyscale. Old abandoned houses, with occasionally broken windows, on both sides of the street is not a rare sight. “A Hindu house can be distinguished from others through architectural elements such as zoonedabe or overhanging balcony used during the winters to get the sun,” says Ahmed Mukhtiyar, a native of Srinagar, now based in New Delhi. Pointing out at an old, abandoned-grey house by the Dal Lake, Rafiq, who works in the Sarovar Portico hotel, Srinagar, says, “This house has been shot in many Bollywood films based on Kashmir and insurgency, such as Mission Kashmir (2000).” A small wooden bridge over the Dal Lake, that spreads across 18-22 square kilometres from one end of the city to another, says Rafiq, also has been shot often.
On the other side of the lake is an old Hindu temple for Lord Shiva, one of the three major deities of Hinduism, where the caretaker informs that he migrated to Srinagar a few years ago to stay with his son who works in the town. According to KPSS, Kashmir had 583 temples, of which nearly 532, including 52 that disappeared without a trace, were damaged in different militancyrelated incidents. Last April, a Shiva Temple, Jogi Lanjar, was re-opened after 27 years. Incidentally, after the migration of the Hindu Pandits, the temple was illegally sold by the local Dharmatma Trust, handling the temple property, to a real estate dealer. However, the local residents informed the Kashmiri Pandits who took swift legal action to recover it from the property dealer.
The mixing of cultures
As is evident, despite religious differences, Hindu and Muslim communities in Kashmir share a cultural and historical bond, called Kashmiriyat. It was during the rule of Sultan Sikandar Butshikan in the 14th century that Kashmir became a Muslim dominant region. “Mir Syed Ali bin Shahabud-Din Hamadani, a Persian Sufi saint who came to Kashmir, converted a majority of the population in the 14th century. So our ancestors were all Hindu,” explains Rafiq.
Sultan Sikandar Butshikan was succeeded by Ghiyas-ud-Din Zain-ul-Abidin. “He respected the learnings of Kashmiri Pandits and played a huge role in nurturing the community. Some of his closest advisers were community members. So if there is a Kashmiri Pandit community today, it is because a big role was played by a Muslim king,” writes sociologist TN Madan. However, they never intermarried or even mixed socially. Muslims were mostly service providers like plumbers, drivers, family retainers, but never cooks, he writes further. But the long time engagements and life together did allow exchange in cultural practices. “The lengthy rituals of Hindu weddings has influenced the Muslim weddings that was earlier limited to one day ordeal. Now even we have various ceremonies extending between 3-4 days,” says Rafiq. Additionally, wanvun (chorus) that the Pandits sing traditionally before certain rituals such as marriages are also at places sung to celebrate the end of Muslim festival, Ramadan. When it comes to cuisine, Kashmiri Pandits have had the earliest influence on the Kashmiri food. While Brahmins in other parts of the country do not eat meat, those in Kashmir only stayed away from beef.
Though wazwan, a 36-course meal cooked in Kashmir on very special occasions like weddings, may be Muslim in origin, today a lot of similarities can be found in the wazwans prepared by the Hindus or Muslims. While Hindus’ wazwan emphasises on lamb, Muslims prefer goat meat. One of the dishes in wazwan – butt haak, a spinach preparation – is specifically the contribution of Pandits. Kahwa, a hot Kashmiri beverage, prepared with saffron and almond is enjoyed by both the communities. Hindu Pandits also refer to it as Mughal chai (tea).
Many other aspects of a Kashmiri lifestyle remain the same for both the communities. For example, the traditional costumes. A typical male dress consists of a lower garment (adhararansukha), an upper garment (angaraksaka) and a turban (sirahasta). While Muslim women wear Phirak-yezar (traditional Indian women wear with trouser and long tunic) Hindu women opt for sari (an elaborate garment draped around the body). In winters, the Kashmiris turn to woolen pherans (Kashmiri gowns). And Kaangiri forms an indispensable part of Kashmiri culture. With hot embers in it, it is used under pheran to keep a person warm during the freezing winters. These, therefore, are a part of the broad Kashmiri culture, irrespective of the religion or sect. As an Indian daily quoted a Kashmir-origin artist Veer Munshi who went back to his homeland to take photographs of his home and reconnect, “Kashmir is all about the composite culture, we are all a part of it. It was only over 25 years ago that ‘Kashmiri Pandit’ emerged as a separate identity, before that we were all Kashmiris.”