Kashmir’s Grave World

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Death doesn’t mean an end. There is an elaborate system of social stratification involving the burials that is an economy in itself. But space is gradually becoming a larger issue, reports Shazia Yousuf.

At the foothills of the Hari Parbat lies Malkhah, Srinagar city’s biggest and oldest graveyard. Literally, Malkhah means ‘field of the gravedigger’. But the place, unarguably, is the first example of private investment in a public utility.

The graveyard was developed over the land purchased by Hazrat Mir Syed Ali Hamadani and donated for the common good. Over the centuries, the area of the graveyard was reduced from 1300 kanals to 700 kanals – encroachments being the chief reason. And today, one can see the earlier one-house abodes inside Malkhah transformed into housing colonies. Land, as elsewhere, is a prized entity in the valley. And encroaching a graveyard under the gaze of colluding officials becomes the easiest option for the land grab. In 2007, though, the whole graveyard, a Wakf property, was fenced to avoid further encroachments.

This did not make much difference. The fenced Malkhah is still not maintained well within. Thorny shrubs, garbage dumps and the pariah dens still occupy most of the space in the city’s major cemetery along with gangs of gamblers.

In 2008, there was a serious move in the Social Forestry Department to adopt some of the graveyards in Kashmir for plantations. In fact, the department replaced some withered and damaged trees from Malkhah with newer varieties. But somehow, the project did not take off.

Well before the government initiated the idea, the residents in a particular part of Chatabal belt changed the outlook of a graveyard located on the banks of the River Jhelum. It looks more like a garden as above every dead body buried there, breathes a plant. There are no gravestones.

“I know it is a graveyard but it is a garden too,” says Faazil, scanning the graveyard for his cricket ball. His friend, Ubaid, thinks otherwise, “This graveyard haunts me more. You never know when your feet land on a dead body.” Ubaid points towards a place where grass has been plucked out. “This man died three days back. I feel he is just there.”

While burial of the dead is an essential part of the Muslim faith and so most of the dead in Muslim majority J&K require burials, grave digging is considered a taboo. Eighty-five-year-old Mohammad Akbar of Malkhah, who had been a gravedigger at the graveyard for 50 years before retiring, declines any affiliation with the profession. “I had my handicrafts business. People speak rubbish. They should have something to gossip over,” Akbar says in anger when asked.

The Malkhaesh (gravediggers) and the Sraangaer (who give the dead the funeral bath) are a community apart. In urban belts, especially in the capital city, these people are at the bottom of the social ladder. Being paid for the job, the elders say off late they have seen some change in their status.

“At one point of time, our womenfolk were supposed to go to the families of the nobles and the rich for wailing over their dead for which they were paid,” says a young college student whose father is a gravedigger and lives around Malkhah. “Now, at least the people are wailing over their dead themselves.” He was referring to the tradition of Rudali (professional mourners) that still exist in parts of Rajasthan.

The rise of militancy created its own mascots. One of them was Abdul Hamid Sheikh, one of JKLF’s top five men. His rise as a fabled militant commander gave the gravediggers a huge social boost as Sheikh came from a family of professional gravediggers.

But the mascot was lowered to the grave in 1992 by none other than his father Abdul Kabir Sheikh, popularly known as Kabir Chacha. Hamid, released barely a few months before, was crossing Jhelum in a Shikara when BSF fired at him, killing him along with many of his colleagues. Kabir Sheikh has since laid many of his sons’ comrades to rest.

Besides the Malkhah and many other ‘commoner’s graveyards’, there are private graveyards, in the backyards of homes, in Kashmir. Usually maintained by the ‘Pir’ or ‘Sayyid’ families, these cemeteries were telling examples of the social stratification of the yore, a tacit divide between the natives and the ‘outsiders’ belonging, though, to the same faith.

And in present times, another ironical phenomenon is being witnessed. Graveyards are adding to the USP of new colonies developed by private developers. Newspaper advertisements scream loudly about the availability of graveyard space in a proposed colony to woo the prospective customers. The turbulent times prevalent in the valley have made sudden deaths a day to day affair and availability of secured graveyard space a must.

In 2007, it was reported that the valley is facing an acute shortage of land for graveyards due to extra pressure on existing ones. There were times when more than 30 graves would be dug every day. A report says that the land under graveyards recorded an increase of seventy per cent between the two decades of strife. The lack of space for graveyards even forced people to bury their dead in the scattered graves dug out on roadsides and hilltops.

That brings us to another painful phenomenon related to graveyards: The ‘Martyrs’ graveyards! These cemeteries stand as a testimony of the loss of an entire generation to violence.

The first Martyrs’ graveyard came up in Srinagar in 1931. Located in the compound of Khawaja Mehmood Naqashband’s shrine, it has a strong political significance. On July 13 that year, 22 Kashmiris were massacred outside central jail by the Dogra soldiers when they had assembled to witness the trial of Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Kashmir origin butler who became famous overnight in Kashmir for his fiery historical speech against Dogra autocracy at Khankah-i-Mualla. The choice of the place sounds interesting. Was it because, Khwaja Khawind Mehmood Naqshband, a Sufi saint of Naqshbandi order, was martyred a few centuries earlier by the then king for protesting against atrocities committed on the people?

After the armed rebellion saw dozens of ‘freedom fighter boys’ dying every day at the hands of security forces, martyrs’ graveyards sprang almost everywhere. Ishfaq Majeed was the first militant commander to be buried in the now famous Martyrs’ graveyard at Eidgah. He had laid the foundation of the graveyard a few days before he got killed on March 31, 1990.

The enterprise of death has another ugly face in our valley – the unmarked graves. Local human rights groups have discovered more than one thousand unmarked (unidentified) graves in Kashmir. Spread over entire Kashmir these graves are believed to contain the dead bodies of people who were subjected to enforced disappearances, custodial deaths and fake encounters. The graves are mostly near the areas close to LoC. There are cases where even the civilians killed in the city were transported to these cemeteries for burials.

“Facts Underground”, a report prepared by a civil liberty group suggested that there were around a thousand people buried in unmarked graves discovered in 18 villages in Uri district alone. The security grid claims they are the graves of foreign militants killed while trying to infiltrate the LoC. The locals, involved by the army for these hasty burials, though vouch that most of the graves are of Kashmiri boys. Civil libertarians believe around 8,000 persons have gone missing in J&K since 1989.The government figures are wavering putting the number between a few scores to 4,000. The unmarked graves hold within them so many untold stories of despair and deceit. The marked graves have though a few stories to tell – of changing times and changed gravestones.

Enter into the famous Mazari Salateen near the Hazrat Bahauddin Ganj Baksh shrine and you will notice a few very ancient graves. What makes these graves uniquely stand out is their tombstones. Very large stone slabs with engravings in Shardic or Sanskrit scripts on their sides. The custom of marking a grave by a gravestone in Kashmir is as old as Islam here. It is believed that when Mir Syed Ali Hamadani came to Kashmir and most of the Brahmin population converted to Islam, it gave a huge setback to the idol-making industry of the state. The idol making artists then started making gravestones to earn a living. A classic example of the enterprise of pantheonism getting converted to monotheism along with its promoters!

Nissar Ahmad, 55, of Panthachowk was 12 when he joined his family business of making tombstones. “Tombstone was the first thing my grandfather taught me to design; it would fetch a good amount of money then. But now everything is different. This trend is dying,” Nissar says.

The death of the trend is visible from Nissar’s workshop itself. Products like gate pillars, pestle mortars and flower pots are ready in his shop. But there is not a single gravestone at the display. “They do not sell. We only make them on order,” he explains.

Traditional gravestones were made from Devri stones obtained from Laddu, a village near Pampore. But now marble and granite headstones are fast replacing the Devri ones. It involves money matters: a traditional gravestone would cost around Rs 3,000-5000 but a marble or granite board costs only Rs 300. The engravings cost Rs 5-10 per letter. It takes a craftsman a week to make a Devri gravestone while designing a marble gravestone is a job of two hours. Although marble headstones do not give the durability offered by the traditional ones, they are popular due to their lower cost.

What has a young man with Master of Financial Control (MFC) degree to do with the enterprise of tombstones? Ansar, a nephew of Nisar and an MFC from Kashmir University is excited about the business. “I will come up with some thrilling designs of gravestones. I will try to bring back that earlier demand.” That’s what Ansaar dreams about. He even goes to the extent of linking cemeteries to tourism. He calls it “Cemetery Tourism” and thinks it has great potential if the government pays attention towards the beautification of graveyards. He is confident that “it can give a boost to the economy of the state. After all Cemetery tourism is flourishing all over the world.”

Shafeeq Ahmad Bhat has been working as a craftsman at Ghulam Qadir Sofi’s tombstone workshop for the last 15 years. A twelve-hour long day of stone cutting and grinding fetches him 200-250 rupees. A decade back he would earn more on gravestones. “Lakhs of people are dying; those living can hardly make their ends meet. Gravestones are now afforded by politicians and rich men only,” says Shafeeq.

Quite a few people seem to mourn the art of using Persian poetry on the gravestones. This peculiar art involves writing an epitaph in the form of a couplet that would be using numerology (Ilmi Abjad) fetch the date of the death of the person. It is being referred to have ‘tareekh naeesi’ (writing the date (of death). “There were quite a few individuals who had mastered the art and scholarly genius Peerzada Ghulam Hassan Masoodi was the great master,” says Wajahat Ahmad, who knows him very closely. “Last month he passed away at the age of 82 and left a huge gulf behind.” Interestingly, people had already given up the use of Persian poetry in writing epitaphs. Unlike past, the gravestones are a simple affair – they offer name, parentage, residence (in select cases) and the date of passing away.

But gravestones are essentially an urban phenomenon. Villages are yet to adopt the tradition of marking the burial sites with gravestones. “I was a small child when my grandparents died. I have a vague idea about their burial site. My children will not have even that. But there is no such trend in villages to mark the graves. ”says Hameed, a villager. In the peripheries, graves are marked with stones, or in some cases, a bush is planted over the grave.

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