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Kashmiri Pandits On The Edge

14 Jun 2022

Kashmiri Pandits On The Edge
—A.K. Bakshi
It may be cumbersome to unfold the chronological pathway to rich cultural heritage of Kashmiri Pandits, evolved through more than five thousand years of the discourses of home grown sages and saints, their penance and the influence subsequently rendered to the inhabitants. Bereft of modern amenities of transportation and surrounded by lofty Himalayan mountains, the valley developed into a full-fledged cohesive Hindu Shaivist society. Shaivism is a unique school of thought, having originated from the valley itself. Sticking to Shaivist philosophy of Hinduism led to our preferences of the festivals, with Shivratri at the head of it and all others being at the tertiary place. Being ardent followers of Shaivism, we developed our own way, quite different from the Hindus of the rest of India, of conducting Shivratri, stretching for continuous fifteen days from Preti to Amavasia, with emphasis on Bhairav Pooja and offering non-vegetarian “bhogs” to the deities. This is unique only to Kashmiri Pandits. Our society, through ages, has indigenously initiated, developed and standardized hosts of customs, traditions and rituals – be it births, birthdays, deaths, marriages, yegneopavits and allied functions. This goes without saying that the repository of the heritage, traditions, customs, folklore etc. is the Mother Tongue. Kashmiri language flourished in isolation, with rich vocabulary, phraseology, idioms and proverbs with no distinct lipi, having flown down through ages only through the word of mouth. It is a verbal transmission from generation to generation, with an incremental change in the dialects of southern, central and northern regions of the valley respectively. Being Brahmans, we were at the vanguard of education. Education has been considered our birth right. We were to be educated and propagate education in every manner. Its fruits were borne in the manifestation of reputed poets, poetesses, mystics, writers, scholars, doctors and celebrities of calibre. Some could even attain the courteirship of Muslim kings or chieftains. At the top of it we had established a prestigious seat of learning by the name of Shardapeeth ( University ), now in ruins in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Its lingua franca was Sharda. Even our horoscopes are written in the Sharda lipi. This sanctum sanctorum of education attracted students from the length and breadth of India.
Another important ingredient is our food habits. It may seem surprising to all the Brahmans of the rest of India but we are non-vegetarians by birth. Kashmiri Pandits are known for preparing highly delicious non-vegetarian dishes which one would really relish. Rice both times a day – lunch and dinner— is our staple food, common to both the rich and the poor. Whether it would be day-to-day routine or any get-togetherness, religious function or a throw-away party, food was served to all the attendants in their sitting posture only on the floor of a room or under a shamiana erected for that special occasion. The only exception to the non-vegetarian dishes is the grand religious celebration of the holy Thread ceremony (Yegneopavit) of the male urchin(s) of the family, wherein only vegetarian dishes are strictly adhered to. A feather in its cap is the day-to-day common attire and dress of gents and womenfolk irrespective of their economic condition – rich and poor alike. ‘Pheran’ (Kashmiri name of our gown / apron) merits special attention, being worn by both males and females; of course with different textures and draping. It signifies an ideal and distinct mark of identification of our community, besides giving full cover and warmth to the whole body. It all sums up to the zenith of Kashmiri Pandits’ culture, having carved out a unique and jealously-guarded values and norms based place, built up in isolation, in the social and community fabric of India.
Back to back onslaughts and invasions of Muslim kings (or chieftains) on Kashmir, in the medieval periods, led to murders and conversion of bulk of Pandits to Islam, resulting in the reduction of our population to a microscopic minority in a major shakeup. This struck a severe blow to us, entailing in disheartened, demoralized and discouraged community. But still the community did not deter from sticking to the value-based traditions, customs and religious functions. It continued till the start of 1990 when Islamic militancy, at its peak, had a final assault on the community and in desperation there was en masse migration from the valley to the plains of India, leaving our homes, hearths and properties. It was a genocide of a peace -oving community which shattered the very foundations of our name and fame. Most of us took refuge in the Jammu city while the rest moved to Delhi and other cities of India. We became refugees in our own country – unheard of in the annals of history. Government employees’ job continued but those in private enterprise were hard hit and had to start ab-initio, laying their hands on paltry salaries offered and of whichever form. Days would pass in sighs of grief and broken-hearted entities. Many of us were given shelter in tents of the camps erected by the government.
Yes, the government came to our rescue for the basic sustenance of life, but the roots are gone and the moorings are gone. This unimagined and unforeseen lightening transition has had adverse social effect. The first casualty has been our Kashmiri language. We know if language becomes extinct, the cultural heritage vanishes. It has to be spoken aggressively in daily life – Parents have to converse with their children in their mother tongue. Unfortunately our younger generation bade good bye to it by adopting Hindi in its place while the elderly are struggling to stick to it. Due to scorching heat of the sun and climatically poles apart, the place of our inheritance and that of the adopted one, we have given way to our cherished and well known ‘Pheran’. Thus dress and attire also did not remain untouched. Third axe fell on food habits. ‘Chapatis’ have intruded in our daily routine; of course not completely throwing away our accepted ‘Rice’. Adopting to the choices of the vast majority all around, new vegetables have crept in our list of dishes. Non-Vegetarianism has partially given way to Vegetarianism. Major dishes prepared in our marriage parties are now imported ones, with little space for the indigenous ones. A vivid glimpse of the change is noticeable in our present day marriages and allied functions. Even festivals are not out of hook. Some of them have been shown the door giving credence to the new ones now in our adopted list. To be more precise ‘Holi’, ‘Karva Choth’ were never adopted by us while in Kashmir. 
To sum it up the whole Kashmiri Pandit culture is under stress – Youngsters are not so keen about it and the elders are struggling to keep it up. It seems that this microscopic community is going the Parsis’ way. Could it ever be that our lost glory is restored and the position retrieved!!! (Views are only personal) n