Kheer Bhavani came alive again last week with Kashmiri Pandits thronging the annual religious festival in good numbers. But as Bilal Handoo found out, it is increasingly becoming a multicultural event as Pandits come along with their non-Kashmiri spouses to the revered shrine
For Kashmiri Pandits, it is not just for paying obeisance at their revered shrine Kheer Bhavani -Tulmul, but also an occasion to visit their homeland after most of them left the valley in difficult circumstances more than two decades back. During those years many of them have married in families from other cultures and states.
Chanting religious hymns amid affectionate hugs, the gathering was totally absorbed in nostalgia. One could see moist eyes around and a sense of loss was palpable in their conversations.
This year, it was easy to spot many Kashmiri Pandits with their non-Kashmiri spouses thronging Tulmul – a sign of what changed for them more emphatically after they left Kashmir.
Vijay Koul is a new generation Kashmiri pandit who had come to this year’s Mela with a non-pundit spouse. He originally hailed from Habba Kadal area of Srinagar who left the Kashmir valley with his family when he was twenty. He lived in a one-room compartment with his parents and two sisters in Jammu and married a Dogra girl, Anju, three years back.
”It was an arranged marriage,” said Vijay exchanging a smile with Anju. “She belongs to a Rajput family and her father is an army officer.”
“Anju’s parents approached us with the marriage proposal and we accept without giving it a second thought as we knew them for years,” said Shiela Koul, Vijay’s mother.
Anju maintained silence throughout the conversation and most of the time her two-year-old baby kept her busy. “She belongs to a conservative family and I found her quite family-oriented,” said Vijay.
The Raina family nearby had a distinct person among them. He was a Bengali, son-in-law of this pandit family. “During our stay in Jammu, a nice Bengali family desired to marry their engineer son with our daughter. We agreed to it with full consent of our daughter,” said Sanjay Raina, father of Sushela Raina.
Sushela is a teacher and was visiting Kashmir for the first time after the migration of her family. “It is an amazing experience to be back home,” she said greeting another lady. She said her marriage with a Bengali has helped her appreciate the other culture.
”When two persons from different cultures come close in a marital bond, some positive developments do take place, cultural appreciation is one such good change,” Sushila said.
Her husband, Alok Chatterjee looked quite joyful and expressed happiness at being a part of the Kheer Bhavani Mela and is looking forward to spending some time at different tourist places of Kashmir with his wife.
“All thanks to my wife that today I am experiencing such a rejuvenating religious fervour,” said Alok. On a special note, Alok said her wife Sushela has brought a lot of change in his life like the richness of pandit culture. “She is a lovely lady with maturity ahead of her years. She is having a good cultural background which is visible even today.”
The couple looked very much absorbed in happenings around and kept themselves busy with greeting other community members.
In the meantime, hymns chanted by devotees reverberated the Ragnya Devi temple. Among the multitude of devotees, a recently wedded couple was making their way to perform rituals. They sat down under a big Chinar after completing religious obligations. The wife of this Kashmiri pandit was a Delhi based architect. “We married twenty days ago and it was a love marriage,” said Ajay Nath who belonged to Karan Nagar area of Srinagar.
His wife Kavita, a visibly cheerful and Ajay studied together in Delhi. “He is a deadly combination of beauty with brains which made me lose my heart for him,” remarked Kavita, painting a blush on her husband’s face. This young couple is on their maiden visit to Kashmir together.
Ajay wants to settle in Kashmir with his wife in the near future, provided he doesn’t feel threatened. “Definitely homecoming is on the cards but not as of now. Let the conditions for pandits improve more,” he said with his wife smiling in agreement.
As noon approached, some devotees were taking a nap under the shade of mighty Chinar trees. One couple was chatting their time away as others slept. A Gujrati entrepreneur and his Kashmiri wife.
They first met in Mumbai during a conference five years ago and fell for each other. “It looks a bit filmy, but yes I was there to attend the entrepreneurs’ conference and she was there too as a delegate. We saw each other and perhaps developed a sense of bonding soon after that,” said Aakash Verma.
“I am finding him the most supportive person and truly a family man,” said the wife, Daisy Kathju, originally from Budgam district. Her family left Kashmir in 1983, six years before the mass migration of pandits and settled in New Delhi.
As the Mela Kheer Bhavani went on, the scene started to get merrier and livelier. Hundreds of Muslims poured in and exchanged greetings with their Pandit brethren.
Showket had travelled from Kupwara only to meet his childhood friend, Sanjay Bazaz, who had recently married a non-Kashmiri girl from Mumbai.
Sanjay now lives in Pune with his wife Pooja, where the Pandit family is settled. “I happened to meet her at a family function where she had come with her family,” said Sanjay.
Pooja is a fashion designer. “I knew my husband’s family well before our marriage and I am totally in love with their culture and traditional practices.” She was attending the mela for the first. “I am simply mesmerized to be here,” she said.
Bazaz family migrated from the valley at the onset of the insurgency here and settled in Pune.
A little distance away a family from Bangalore was taking a dip in the sacred waters of Kheer Bhavani. Their son married a Kashmiri Pandit with whose family they had developed a business relationship first.
Ravi Bharadwaj married Indira Kak seven years back. “Every time I came here I felt reborn,” said Ravi. After the mela the couple desired to pay a visit to Kak’s ancestral home in Anantnag. “We were trying to go there last few years, but every time something became an impediment. This time around we are adamant enough to go there,” said Indira.
Many more mixed culture couples thronged the Kheer Bhavani shrine, some in the thrall of the Kashmiri culture and ethos. They expressed happiness at the sight of Muslims helping out and travelling long distances to meet with old friends and colleagues. Religious places and festivals like the Kheer Bhavani have now remained the only places and occasions for most of them to catch up with each other.
Like always, Kheer Bhavani welcomed them all.
Kashmiri Pundits (KPs) assembled at the Ragyna temple for the annual religious Khir Bhavani Mela expressed mixed views on their return plans to Kashmir. While only a handful of KPs are willing to come back, a majority of them seemed uninterested.
“This is our homeland and it equally belongs to Pandits as to Muslims. We will definitely come back in near future,” said sixty-year-old Sushil Gunjoo who used to live in Budgam.
While Sushil is hopeful for his return, his contemporary Vijay Dhar expressed strong opposition to the idea. “For what you want us to return. We can never forget the manner we were banished from our own homes,” he said.
Dhar said “Kashmir now belongs to Kashmiri Muslims and they have no say on this land. We are just tourists here.” His views were supported by Usha Bhat. “How can we forget the pain of living in exile all these years? It doesn’t matter how many CBMs for Pandit return will be put in place by the government, we won’t come,” she said.
It is not only a ‘blast from past’ which stops most KPs from returning, but also lack of avenues in Kashmir. “I am more than willing to come back, but a dearth of opportunities kills my desire to return,” said a software engineer, Suresh Tickoo who is currently working in Bangalore.
“Government is offering us jobs but without pension which is against what we believe,” said Ajay Koul. He added that before marrying a daughter off in any Pandit family, the parent of the bride makes it sure that the groom must be doing government job with a pension so that in the event of the untimely death of the groom, the bride gets a pension.
Some also cited the lack of private sector growth in the Valley as a hindrance to return. Others still fear the security situation is not good. “Situation here has improved a lot, but the threat perception still exists among our community,” said Nidi Kaw. She quickly added that it would take some time before the haunted minds will heal up.
A majority of KPs said that their having settled outside the Valley will make it very hard for them to return. “Most of us are settled well in different parts of India and abroad and I don’t think it will be a sane decision for us to relinquish all of that hard-earned position for the sake of ailing homeland,” said Sanjay Raina.