When the faithful thronged the places of worship after 21 weeks of disconnect in the lockdown dictated by the pandemic, the scene was cathartic. Being caged in their homes for months they found a spiritual refuge from the crisis triggered by visible and invisible factors. But with the pandemic raging strong – more than 600 dead already, unregulated religious gatherings could be both a balm and a risk, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
A cool summer breeze wafts and stirs the leaves of Chinar trees in the historic Jamia Masjid of Srinagar as people offered the Friday prayers on August 21, after over 21 weeks. The historic mosque had been shut down since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in mid-March. Maintaining physical distance, wearing masks the worshippers prostrated on their individual mats outside the mosque. People inside the mosque prayed at spots designated with white spots.
As the loudspeakers boomed with Imam’s sermon and recitation of the Quran, they failed to fill the silence of all these months.
This was unlike the pre-pandemic times when there was a lot of jostling, pushing and pulling among people at all religious places.
Much to the relief of the faithful, the padlocked religious places were re-opened on August 16. However, as authorities had insisted, the people had to observe safety precautions during their visits to mosques and shrines.
At the cemented lawns of shrines, the pigeons flutter as they peck the scattered grains amidst throngs of masked people visiting to offer prayers. The commotion of sellers of ittars, amulets, hawkers, buyers, shopkeepers, kiosks of religious books, the custodians of pilgrims’ shoes, the clamouring of beggars has shattered months of sullen silence.
Mosques And Shrines
Kashmir had twin systems of religious spaces – the mosques where the prayers are offered and which are a divine obligation and the shrines which are rooted in Kashmir’s cultural ethos. Usually, both remain busy in routine. The pandemic forced the closure of both the spaces.
Inside the shrine of Makhhoom Sahab, a girl ties a bangle and thread to the grille around the tomb while simultaneously caressing it, putting her forehead on it and whispering prayers. Not far away, at Dastigeer Sahib, the women rocking back and forth weep silently in the corner while the other female devotees circle the tomb, touch and caress every part of it with their hands, and then rub them on their bodies. An elderly woman lying on the stairs of Khanqah-i-Mualla was crying loudly as if meeting someone after a long time. The men were also praying and seeking blessings.
Outside shrines some people prostrate on the steps while others broodingly stare with moist eyes and hands raised in prayers. They were experiencing a catharsis. Being caged in their homes for months they had suddenly found a vent.
Closing Religious Spaces
On March 25, the central government had imposed a country-wide lockdown. People were asked to confine themselves to their homes. In Kashmir too, the markets closed, transport went off the roads and simultaneously religious places became out of bounds to people to curb the spread of deadly contagion much to the distress of devotees.
The shrines, mosques, gurudwaras, temples fell silent and looked deserted. The congregational prayers and religious rituals were strictly banned by the authorities.
Prominent religious places thronged by thousands of people to seek solace and blessings like Hazratbal Shrine Mosque, Dastigeer Sahib Shrine, Khanqah-i-Mualla, Jamia Masjid Srinagar, Makhdoom Sahib Shrine, local masjids, temples, gurudwaras and other religious places were also shut down.
The First Shrine
At Khanqah-i-Mualla, people were crying with contentment on their faces. “These are pent up emotions and people come here to seek refuge from overwhelming grief,” said Kaiser Zahra Hamdani, 34 who collects donations outside the shrine. Hamdani is a resident Khanqah-i-Mualla.
Himself a devotee, Kaiser said, “Khanqah-i-Mualla has a spiritual significance and that the pandemic had removed devotees from the spiritual abodes much to their despair,” he said. As Kaiser has a house nearby, he helplessly watched people from his window occasionally stopping and paying obeisance outside at Khanqah-i-Mualla as the main gate was locked.
“I have never experienced such an agonizing period in life. Even during other natural calamities and government-imposed restrictions like hartals and curfews, the shrines and mosques were never out of reach of people,” said Kaiser.
As the Jhelum flows alongside the shrine, Kaiser, recalling 2014 floods said that water was near the stairs yet people waded through it and offered congregational prayers. “But this contagious disease made it impossible for people to visit the religious places,” he said.
Kahnqah is the first shrine of Kashmir where Islam was being taught for many centuries. Even though hundreds of mosques were set up in and around Srinagar since Kashmir’s transition to Islam, Khanqah has not lost its significance.
Sitting at the window of his house, turning prayer bead in his hand, Peerzada Nazir Ahmed Qadri, a septuagenarian, is an Imam at Dastigeer Sahib shrine mosque. “It became solace versus safety as praying at home became compulsion and convention,” he said, adding the onset of the pandemic is a warning and punishment for our deeds. Qadri had never experienced such a period in life where he had to stay put at home for so long.
Within Dastigeer Sahib, there is a deep serenity, the devotees wear a deeply contented look and are safely distanced from one another while praying.
Syed Khalid Geelani, Sajadah Nasheen (the caretaker) of Dastigeer Sahib Shrine said, “We offered a congregational prayer on August 16, afternoon for the first time since the detection of a first positive case in Kashmir in Khanyar itself. All SOPs were followed and due precautions were taken,” Geelani said. “All these months it was desolate and now limited congregations are allowed. We are not allowing the crowd to gather. People are cheerful as the opening of these shrines gives us solace.”
“Till pandemic is over, some rituals have been stopped like drinking spiritual communal water, and other physical offerings,” he said. As the shrine lacks sanitizing tunnel at the entrance Geelani believes such an arrangement would have been better than sanitizing the shrine alternatively.
“It would have ensured that whosoever enters shrine is sanitized,” he said. “We have urged people to bring their own mat or piece of cloth which they may take back with them after prayers”.
Syed ur Rahman Shams, spokesperson of the Jamia Masjid’s head priest Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and a key member of the committee which administers the mosque said, “For the convenience of those coming for prayers we have put in place all the SOPs and other preventive measures including free masks and sanitizers. We have also put up a poster of guidelines outside the mosque to be followed by the worshippers”. Since the masjid is spacious, the administration believes that this will help in ensuring social distancing during Friday congregational prayers.
“All these months it was padlocked and now as the call to prayer was given, the people thronged the Masjid with joy and full of emotions. The moment rejuvenated the faith of the believers,” he said.
The scene is similar at Hazratbal shrine located on the banks of Dal Lake. Ubaid Jeelani, 27, who lives nearby has been regular at the shrine. “The prayers have resumed to my huge relief. All these months it was agonizing to be unable to offer prayer despite living in proximity to the beloved shrine. The pandemic even forced us to offer congregation prayers at home even during the holy month of Ramzan, Eid and other important events of religious and spiritual significance.”
Earlier, Ubaid used to offer Friday prayers at a neighbour’s lawn. The most revered shrine thronged by people from all parts of the valley because of its spiritual significance was even out of bounds to its people in the vicinity.
“Initially I thought it was an attack on my faith as my congregation prayers were disallowed. But later, realization dawned on me that it was a necessity dictated by the pandemic and I like all accepted and adapted to it.”
A regular masjid goer since a young age, Muhammad Musa Mubarak is a preacher at a local mosque in the downtown city who has had to stop weekly Friday sermons during the pandemic. “The disruption was distressing personally but our religion is flexible enough to allow us to adapt to SOPs and health advisories issued during the pandemic,” Mubarak said. “The recitation of the Quran, Kalimas, Aurad-ul-Fatih, sermons on loudspeakers and other religious rituals and activities create an aura; bring tranquillity as they have been part of our distinct identity, especially in the mornings. And during the lockdown, the calls to prayers and peaceful voices were missed and people yearned for their resumption.”
As people were finding it difficult to come to terms with the new conventions and customs especially when they were advised to stay away from religious places, Musa being a local preacher and associated with the administration of a local masjid, advised people to adhere to SOPs, health advisories and not to discriminate against positive people. He also used the pulpit of the mosque to raise awareness about the deadly disease besides highlighting the religious significance of those who died after contracting the Coronavirus pandemic as he believes the scholars count them among martyrs. This contributed to a large extent to allay panic among the people in his locality following the detection of the3 first COVID-19 positive case.
Later when the lockdown was eased, the administration of the mosque of which Musa is a member did not allow people to enter without facemasks and sanitizing hands. Besides people were counselled to avoid overcrowding, handshakes, and hugs.
In all the mosques, only two to four people were charged to attend prayers and give a call to prayers.
“During pandemic limited congregation of two people especially young was allowed inside the mosque to continue the religious activities and oversee the affairs of the mosque and perform the duty of Azan,” said Uzair-bin-Manzoor, 20, who is also regular masjid goer, even though the call for prayers were meant to pray at home only.
Uzair being young was one of the two people chosen by local masjid management to continue prayers and visit the mosque during the lockdown as he lived nearby. People also were scared to flout norms due to lockdown and the potential threat of contagious disease.
“This was the first time I had to pray alone with Imam at Masjid in Ramzan, particularly Taraweeh,” Uzair said.
At Dastigeer Sahib, emotional scenes were witnessed once the shrine was thrown open to people.
“I broke down the moment I entered the shrine,” said 45-year old Farooq Ahmed Mir, a resident of Khanyar. “All these months something was inconsolable in my heart, but today I am at peace after paying obeisance at Dastgeer Sahib”.
Mir plans to visit all the revered shrines soon. He has been a regular visitor of shrines since a tender age. “I used to visit them with my grandmother,” he said. “I now go along with my family to these places. We seek solace. All these months were stressful.”
There was a similar rush at the non-Muslim religious places. Jagmohan Singh Raina, Chairman Sikh Coordination Committee, said: “All the Gurudwaras were closed in view of the pandemic. I used to go every Sunday to Chatti Padshahi at Raniwari Srinagar to seek solace even during shutdowns and hartals but in this pandemic, I am yet to visit as I fear contracting or transmitting the contagion. Even though I along with my family perform all religious rituals at home but the contentment is missing.”
Raina continued: “As gurudwaras were closed, the people dependent on the charities and funds were also adversely impacted. All the religious rituals were halted and this has psychologically impacted people.”
Harbans Singh, Head Granthi Chatti Padshahi Gurudwara said with religious places being thrown open to people, they were ensuring proper SOPs are followed. “We are making sanitizers available and ensuring people maintain social distancing. Prostrating by folding hands is new custom till the pandemic is over,” Singh said.
Mudasir Hussain Banday, Chief Sanitation Officer, SMC said that they are ensuring the sanitation of all public places especially the religious places since they were reopened.
“Every 48 hours we ensure sanitation at religious places as people from different places may throng,” Banday said.
The management committees of all the religious places have been directed by the government to strictly follow the guidelines and SOPs in view of the pandemic. Any deviation from the SOPs would attract penal action under the Disaster Management Act, 2005. The guidelines also say that the visitors will not be allowed to touch the statues, idols or holy books at the religious places.
A prominent poet of Kashmir, Zareef Ahmad Zareef, said that closing down of religious places and restricting of large gatherings is not new to Kashmir’s history due to its political uncertainty and turmoil. “The pandemics, famines, droughts, floods and other natural calamities are age-old and people have shown resilience facing them,” Zareef said.
He added that in recent history Jamia Masjid was closed for prayers for 22 years during the Sikh regime from 1819-1846.
“The Masjid was turned into a stable during their rule. All the military horses were kept in it. No prayers were offered and no call for prayers was given from the mosque,” Zareef said. “Similarly, Pathar Mosque, known locally as Naev Masheed, is a Mughal era stone mosque located in the old city. It was converted into a food store. Similarly, prayers were prohibited in all the mosques and shrines at that time.”
In case of any tensions, the religious spaces, mostly the major ones are the first to be closed. For most of the last half of 2019, Jamia was closed for many weeks. It was happening earlier in 2010 and 2016 unrests.
Dr Mushtaq A Margoob, former Professor and Head, Post-Graduate Department of Psychiatry, Government Medical College, Srinagar and Director Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience said: “The turmoil of past years in Kashmir has led to a phenomenal increase in psychosocial problems. The continued death and destruction due to multitude of reasons has reinforced the faith in God and enhanced the role of religion and religious places,” said Margoob, an internationally recognized expert on humanitarian emergencies and disaster mental health. “Shrines and mosques have played a pivotal role as people rush to these places to seek peace and uplift soul. These are a coping mechanism.”
Margoob added that being consistently confined to four walls has seriously affected the mental health of the people. “This manifests itself in the growing cases of domestic violence. This is where the religious places play a great role,” he said. “At the religious places, people learn to cope up and often most of the psychological needs are fulfilled. Faith heals”.