Once a year, devotees of Sheikh Zaiuddin in Ashmuqam assemble and lit Mashaal’s and the festival has emerged as a tourist attraction. Scholar and historian MJ Aslam offers a detailed explanation of how the ritual survived for centuries and changed its symbolism

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Ashmuqam: The shrine area.

Kashur Encyclopaedia (Golden Edition, 2010, V, I: pp 96-98) edited by a team of Kashmiri “literary figures” associated with the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, writes about Phrow, is also known as Phrow Zalun or Phrow Lagun or Phrow Karun or Phow Manavun as a yearly performance at the Urs at Ziarat of Baba Sheikh Zain Ud Din at Aishmuqam (Pahalgam). The ritual has origins in “ancient tradition” when yech (goblins) descended from the higher mountainous ranges in the winter to live in the valley and the lukh (people) – the “human beings”, burnt down their “huts” before their arrival.

This tradition is followed by a section of the people in Kashmir who on the occasion of Urs of Baba Sheikh Zain Ud Din prepare flambeaus or torches (mashali), of grass with ashud (herbal collyrium) and perform the Lashi Zool ritual. Gas eh Zool and Lash eh Zool were old practices among the people. Zool is an illumination, festal arrangement of lights. The Kashur Encyclopaedia adds that this practice on the part of the ‘devotees’ at Ziarat Sharief is called Palun, which implies following a practice. The special feature of the annual fair at the Ziarat is nocturnal illumination. It is claimed that Baba Zain ud Din [d 1440] had killed some “demon” in commemoration of which the Lashi Zool displayed a row of traditional torches or flambeaus by the devotees, it adds.

Without referring to the actual background of the so-called festival of Phrow, the Academy publication states that in ancient times, Kashmir was occupied for six months of winter by “demons” who descended from the hills and the “humans”, immediately before departing, burnt down their huts.

It may be noticed that Kashmir’s hill countries in the distant past are identified with the present-day Northern and North West areas of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir. The Dardas, Khakas and Bambas of these areas are the descendants of the aborigines, Nagas and Yakshas.

The Enigma

A prima facie gloss is kept on the actual genesis of this so-called “ancient festival” of Phrow by the Academy experts. What is the meaning of the words, like, this custom was performed in Path Kal (distant past); who were the Lukh (human beings); who did it in Path Kal and who were the Yech (demons) whom the Lukh wanted to avoid from entering their huts, rather Kashmir valley, are the questions requiring answers.

Before proceeding, it may be noted that under old tradition, it was believed that if a bear ate this wild herbal grass of ashud, it made the beast unconscious for six months. The effect of herbal ashud is so strong that one becomes faint from its smell in the mountains. It was added to the nocturnal bonfire under the belief that “demons” would be frightened to come near to the homes of the “humans”.

Medieval Sources

Old Tazkias Awliya e Ullah (historiographies of saints) of Mulla Ali Raina, Baba Naseeb ud Din Gazi, Baba Dawood Mishkati, Dedmari, Miskeen and others have not mentioned the practice of Phrow being in vogue. However, Peer Ghulam Hassan Khuihami in his Tazkira, which he compiled towards the end of the nineteenth century, simply mentions it.

Khuihami writes that at the time of the annual Urs of Sheikh Baba Zain ud Din at Aishmuqam Ziarat, the people of Maraz (Islamabad district, later Anantnag) burn the Mashals at night and every village and household are illuminated by torches. The custom is called Phrow “by the locals” which is not seen, however, at any other Ziarat of the valley.

Phrow, the zool festival at the Zain Shah Sahib shrine at Ashmuqam

Tracing the Origins

Let us look for the genesis of this practice in the record. To begin with, after the desiccation of the water in pre-historic times, the valley was inhabited by the tribes of aborigines, the Nagas.  

Nagas were the first “historic people” of Northern India from the earliest times of human civilisation in ancient India, writes Will Durant. Their status as the aborigines of Kashmir is unanimously agreed on by all historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnologists and Sanskrit, Buddhist and European scholars. Kalhana and Nilamatapuran too hold the same view.

However, Nilamatapuran has noted that there was one more tribe who lived in Kashmir and they were Pishakas. Then, among the aborigines, there was a third tribe of Yakshas. Some scholars identify Pishakas with Yakshas while some scholars consider them only the third tribe of Kashmir aborigines.

However, the mythical lore of Nilamatapurana has “demonised” Kashmir’s aboriginal tribes. It states that Pishakas, who co-lived with Nagas, were “demons”, goblins who were five crores in number, headed by their chief, Nikumbha, who fought an equal number of ‘evil-minded five crores’ goblins in Kashmir.

Interestingly, however, Pishakas are unambiguously identified by Rajatarangni author Kalhana with Buddhist Bikhshus. Under Buddhist records, Yakshas were the guards who protected the mountain passes during Kushan king’s time till the second century AD. Going by the Nilamatapurana, the ‘demons’, Pishakas, (which apparently is modified form of Bikhshus, Buddhist monks of the oldest Kashmir), had made it impossible for the ‘human’, that is, “Brahman-settlers”, to live peacefully with them in Kashmir and, therefore, under the legendary story, an arrangement was made between the Brahmans-settlers, who were imported, under Kalhana’s accounts even, from outside by Brahman Rajas, Nara-I/Kimnara of Gonanda/ Gonandiya (between 262-360 AD), Mihirakula (515-540 AD), Gopaditya (between 580-625/6 AD) and Ksemagupta (950-958 AD), into Kashmir and the Pishakas or Buddhist Bikhshus or Nagas.

Under the arrangement, the Pishakas, or Buddhist monks, dubbed as ‘goblins’, who “ate the flesh of men”, lived for six months of cold from October-November to March-April, while ‘human’ Brahman settlers lived for the remaining six months of spring-summer in Kashmir under the legendary tales of both the Nilla and the Kalhana. “The human settlers” Brahmans, had to retire from the country from the full moon day of Asvayuja to that of Caitra” corresponding to September-October to March-April.

The Strange Custom

There was a strange custom among the Brahmans when on Asvayuja-day, according to Nillamata, which was called Aswayujgali, under which they threw mud on each other, abused each other, to frighten by that the Pishakas who were led by their chief, Nikumbha, who had gone to the “sea of sand” on that day. “Can the strange name recorded for this festival Puhai have to do anything with Pisacas?” asks Dr Stein. (Stein, I: IV: fn 710; Nilla: sholaks, 388-393)

The learned Sanskrit scholar, Pandit Isvara Koula, who had assisted Dr Stein in translating Rajtarangini and who had partly prepared the Kashmiri Lexicon which was further developed by Sir George Grierson, in the first decade of the last century after the death of the Pandit, more than a hundred years before the cited Kashur Encyclopaedia, has shed more light on the festival which was observed by the Brahmans on the Asvayuja-day. It was called Phrow or Phrow Zalun, the distinguished Sanskrit scholar and linguist writes.

It is elucidated by the eminent linguist in these words on which the Academy publication is silent: “According to (Brahman) tradition, in old times the inhabitants of Kashmir had every winter to leave the country for six months in the possession of demons. Before departing they set their houses on fire and left them in ashes” to make them un-usable by the so-called demons who were none but the aborigines of the land. “This is commemorated” he further adds, “at the present day (till early twentieth century) in the Anantnag Pargana by lighting bonfires at the end of the month of Oshid (September-October). The festival was celebrated to commemorate the day of frightening away the demons (Pishakas, Nagas, and Buddhists of ancient times) from their homes by the Brahman settlers.

A Ritual Shifts

M J Aslam

Although it cannot be said precisely at what period, the Brahman tradition of Phrow found its way among the Muslims of the area. Seemingly, it got prominence in the early Dogra period from Hassan’s mention of it.

Phrow a Kashmiri word has a Sanskrit root and is confirmed by Kashur lexicon. It has an etymological connection with the word Phirun, to go around, to circumambulate something. Even Al-Beruni has referred to the ancient tradition in the eleventh century AD which is mentioned by Dr Stein also. The Phrow, as such, has had nothing to do with selfless mystic, Sheikh Baba Zain ud Din, one of the four disciples of the wali, Sheikh Noor ud Din Noorani, Sheikh ul Alam.

(MJ Aslam is a historian and author. Ideas are personal).


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