Night at the Graveyard

Cemeteries across the valley witness an unprecedented rush during the night of Shab-e-Baraat. Bilal Handoo reports on this tradition of visiting the final resting places of their departed by the faithful.

Shab-e-Bharat
Shab-e-Bharat

On the holy night of Shab-e-Baraat, the largest cemetery of the Kashmir valley, Malkhah, is in the grip of public rush. Otherwise silent, a large number of people come here to offer Fateh Khawani (prayers) for their departed which lifts the spirit of this place. On this night, the year-long stillness prevailing in the graveyard is replaced by illuminating and vibrant scenes.

A walk through the graveyard on this sacred night is thought-provoking. Candle illuminations and glowing mist sticks are seen galore. As soon as the late-night prayers end, people start pouring into the graveyard to offer prayers at the graves of their departed. While most people come after the night prayers, the visitors keep trickling in till midnight.

Abdul Rehman, 35, had decorated the grave of his father with candle lights and mist sticks following a tradition he had learned from him, “Candle lights and burning mist sticks on this particular night is a traditional practice which is a testimony to the fact that people don’t forget their departed ones,” he said. People like him are doing such practices out of great love and honour for their departed ones.

Ali Mohammad, an octogenarian from the Khayam area of Srinagar, had also come to pray for the peace of his late parents. He says he comes every year to visit the grave of his parents. Like him, most of the people indulge in this traditional practice during this night.

“When I was growing up, the whole graveyard was without roads or concrete partitions. The people used to visit this place in acute darkness due to the absence of electric lights in the cemetery,” he said. Once he entered into the graveyard, swarms of people kept trickling in.

On Shab-e-Baraat, the graveyard gives an impression of social mixings. People from Old city and their counterparts from the city outskirts assemble on a common piece of land. Nasir Wani, a resident of Hyderpora used to live adjacent to the graveyard earlier. He comes here every year and often socializes with his friends from the old city. “Apart from religious significance, I think this occasion has a social importance too,” he said while chatting with his friends, “Life has kept all of us busy and occasions like these turn out to be a meeting point.”

Children accompanied by their parents also make a visit to Malkhah on this night. In most cases, it is an occasion of festivity for them rather than a religious obligation. A fourth-grade student, Amir, was on his third visit to the graveyard. He had put on fresh clothes like the most of people here. “I have come here to recite holy verses for my beloved grandfather,” he said innocently. Other children could be seen lighting candles and mist sticks.

Aerial view of Malkha grave yard in Down Town, Srinagar. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Scenes during this night have so much to offer. A man sitting near the grave of his relative was continuously gazing at the grave and reciting the verses from Quran. There was no light in this part of the graveyard and he had put the torch of his mobile phone on the cenotaph of the adjacent grave. He remained in this state for a long time. Not far from him, four people were sitting inside the compound of a saint, Rehman Sahib. Busy chatting, they were here to offer collective prayers for their deceased spiritual guide. “We are regularly coming here since our peer sahib left for heavenly abode six years ago,” said Abdul Ahad.

Some people also carry rice with them. As they enter the graveyard, they place grains of rice on top of the graves of their relatives and loved ones. This, they believe, will be beneficial for the departed soul. “It is an act of salvation which is aimed to put evil away and lessen the burden of sins,” said Mohammad Shafi who had come to offer prayers for his late parents and daughter.

Meanwhile, youth sporting beard also comes here. They appear to be typical present-day religious preachers. One of them says being a land of Sufis, this night witnessed extended prayers by the people which is not prevalent outside the Valley. “Lighting candles and burning mist sticks on this occasion are more out of ignorance rather than a religious duty,” said Hilal Wani. Most of them don’t believe in traditional practices and quite bluntly call them anti-Islamic.

The holy night of Shab-e-Baraat is perhaps the only occasion in the year when all the gates of Malkhah graveyard remain open. The partitioned cemetery looks caged other than this night. A stone carver, Irfan Akhoon, who lives nearby, says the graveyard remains shut for movement, except on the night of Shab-e-Baraat. “On this particular night, the graveyard has free access for the general public,” he said.

During this night, ferocious dogs roaming in the area remain away. Else, they won’t shy away to pounce on passers-by during the nights. As the time galloped into the midnight, dogs were not on the prowl, much to the respite of people.

Adjacent shrines and mosques reverberated with sermons and Quranic recitations till the stroke of midnight. Both men and women took part in a religious congregation. To facilitate them, markets surrounding the cemetery remained open till late at night. As the movement of people became thin, the graveyard returned to its sullen look.

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