The Exception

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Shrines in Kashmir are regarded by many as places of worship, of hope and promise. But in most of these shrines, women are kept at a distance. Saima Bhat travels to a unique shrine, that defies the norm.

Women offering their special prayers at the Shrine of Bibi Baria, the daughter of Seeh Bhatta, the medieval Hindu commander who became father-in-law of Shah i Hamdaan’s son. KL Image: Saima Bhat

The shrine of Bibi Baria, located in the outskirts of Srinagar in Kralpora, is a shrine exclusively meant for women. The structure is a concrete one, with the main door leading to another where Bibi Baria’s grave is. The grave is surrounded by three windows and a door which usually remain closed. It hides behind green and black glittering curtains on which the names of Allah and some verses from the Quran are inscribed.  Between the two doors, there is a space which women use to circle around the grave, some with their eyes closed as tears roll down their cheeks while they narrate their ordeals to Bibi Baria. Wishes of conceiving a child and curing different ailments are common in this shrine.

This shrine is believed to be of the 14th century. Bibi Baria was the daughter of  Saif-ullah, the then governor of Kashmir (in the era of Sikander). Saif-ullah was actually Seeh Bhatta, a non-Muslim who was always discriminated against for being from a lower cast in the era of Budshah. “He converted to Islam and became very strict towards Brahmins who later left the valley and shifted to Punjab. ‘Kashir ruz kahai ghare’ (Kashmir is left with only 11 houses) is a phrase of that time and it is believed that Saif-ullah was the reason,” says poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef. After seeing the dedication of  Saif-ullah, Mir Syed Ali Hamadani (popularly known as Shah-i-Hamadan, accompanied by 700 Sayyids spread Islam all over Kashmir) decided to marry his son, Mir Mohammad Hamadani to the lone daughter of Saif-ullah. But Bibi Baria died shortly after her marriage.

Women who come to visit this shrine are now long time visitors who believe all their wishes have come true. People, especially women, come to this shrine throughout the week, but on Fridays, women come in the hundreds to offer their prayers in separate halls, specifically meant for prayers following the Imam in the nearby Masjid. The shrine and the Masjid are separated by a wall, and both have their separate entrance. Young girls who haven’t even entered their teenage years also come here and strongly believe their wishes might come true one day.

Only a few women are allowed to offer their prayers on the separate surface of the shrine, on the sides where Bibi’s grave doesn’t come between them and God.

The handles of the doors and windows of the shrine are not visible. They are covered with hundreds of thousands of pieces of cloth. For people visiting this shrine, these knots are their wishes that God will fulfill anytime. All these knots have been tied by Zoon Malik and before her, by her mother-in-law. Zoon is a volunteer caretaker of this shrine who believes it has been her dedication towards Bibi Baria that her mother-in-law acknowledged her to take care of the shrine after she passed away. Zoon is an elderly lady, weak and without teeth, but she still prefers to come on the shrine every day. Earlier she would be here five times a day but now, as her health declines, she comes only once a day. She says her past; her memories; are slowly fading away because of old age, but she still recalls that no wish has remained unanswered. The thing that she says bothers her most is the changes in rules of the shrine by the representatives of Masjid. As she speaks of her concern, the wrinkles of her face silently speak of her unease, the same wrinkles that have been witness to the countless number of prayers, wishes, tears, politics, and knots of promises that float through the shrine.

“First they rebuild the shrine into a concrete structure and now they have thrown open this shrine for men- I believe these things have affected the power of the shrine,” shares Zoon Malik in a distressed voice. The shrines in Kashmir are not only religiously significant but have immense archaeological and historical importance attached to them. But now, most of the previous shrines have been changed to concrete structures.

Every resident of this area shares that during the entire era of turmoil, not even a single militant was ever martyred in the area nor did any clashes between Indian forces and militants ever happen here. They credit this to the power of Bibi’s shrine. Shakeela, a local who lives near the shrine is a witness of the day when some militants were walking on the main road and an army came from somewhere. “Those militants entered the shrine of Bibi, not inside the area where she is buried, and we were getting ready for a shootout between the two. We were so frightened that we had already dived on the floor but luckily those army men had not seen the militants and those militants were saved,” she says. She believes this village is living on the mercy of this noble lady who is resting inside.

A girl tying a votive at the shrine of Bibi Baria. KL Image: Saima Bhat

Haji Ali Mohammad Bhat, 75, caretaker of the Masjid which is near the shrine is witness to the old structure of shrine. He remembers how flowers used to blossom from the roof of Bibi Baria’s shrine. He names it as the shrine of ‘Deead Mouj’. This place of Deead Mouj has been the center for people visiting the shrines of  Sheikh- ul- Alam in Chrare-i- Sharief and Khankah in Srinagar. This central place has been on a vast area but now it is limited to three Kanals only and the rest of the land is given to the Masjid, to the graveyard and some has also been sold off.

Haji Ali shares that in times of drought the stream that flows in front of the shrine had never dried up.  It always had water, no matter what. Locals used to call it the river of Deead Mouj but now it is just like any other stream carrying drainage water.

“In the past, a lion would visit the shrine at night. That lion had never harmed any local,” says Haji Ali blissfully.

For all people mostly from the upper reaches of this area, this shrine has always helped them in fulfilling their wishes. Mumtaz was married three years ago but she hasn’t been bestowed with a child yet. She has visited almost every shrine in the valley and now she is a regular visitor of this shrine also. She believes this shrine will definitely help in fulfilling her wish.

Mumtaz accompanied by another lady tells her to visit very frequently. The lady says she is the mother of Mumtaz and expresses her trust by recalling her own mother-in-law who has been a devotee of Deead Mouj.

“One day while coming out of the shrine after prayers, she saw a crowd on the main road. She went to check what really was happening there. It turned out to be a circus performance. Being close to the circus people she decided to enjoy it for some time and when she decided to return home, she lost her eyesight on the way back. My mother-in-law has passed away now,” says Mumtaz’s mother. She also adds, “I have a faith, I come here that is why I keep telling Mumtaz to be a regular visitor.”

According to some government figures, there are around 1111 shrines in the valley. In all shrines, women are not allowed to pray outside or go near to the holy spot, but there are two shrines where women are allowed to go inside the periphery and men are barred from entering. In these shrines, women are the caretakers. Another shrine in Kreeri, Baramulla holds four graves of women. This shrine is beside the shrine of Syed Haji Mohammad Muraad Bukhari and the four women are believed to be the wife of Syed Haji Mohammad Muraad Bukhari, his brother’s wife (who was martyred during the war in Balakh) and his two daughters. And there are two more graveyards in Bul Bul Lanker and in Malarate’ but they are not used as shrines.

The shrine of Syed Ali Aali Balki in Pakharpora also has a separate cemetery where Syed Ali Aali Balki’s wife is buried. But the grave is not decorated like the other shrines in the valley. It is bound with a roof tin, not in any concrete structure. This shrine is not open for women either. The myth is that once a man accidentally took a glimpse of that side of the grave after which he had lost his eyesight. The same is said about the shrine in Kreeri Baramulla. Besides these shrines, there is a Masjid, Pather Masjid which was built by a female- Mughal Queen, Noor Jahan in 1623.

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