The Pandits of Kashmir: Culture and Future

By K.N. Pandit

It is somewhat painful to write on this subject. We are in exile; we have little to say and much to lament. No culture can survive if it is uprooted from its place of origin. There is eternal link between people and their land.

Our cultural heritage is an integral part of vast Indian Hindu cultural fund as a whole. But our land, Kashmir Mandala, has been an independent kingdom for thousands of years. The Mughals annexed it in 1588 but then Maharaja Gulab Singh created the present State of Jammu and Kashmir in 1846.  Since 1947 our land has become part of the Indian Union.

Despite the fact that our cultural heritage is part of Indian civilization, our ancestors did not fail to add and induct new aspects and ideas into Indian pantheon. Shaivism or the Shaivite philosophy is a unique contribution of our sages and savants to the rich fund of Indian philosophy. If Hinduism became our faith Shaivism became our religion. Extensive reach of Shaivite trinity, meaning Shiva as the creator, preserver and destroyer became the watchword of Kashmiri Pandit thought process.

Imagine the dedication of the Pandits to Shiva and his powers in their prose and poetic writings, and you will find it a golden chapter in Sanskrit literature. Abhinav Gupta remains the celebrated exponent of Shaivite philosophy. If we are to believe some enthusiastic scholars and historians, we may imagine that Kalidasa, the celebrated poet-dramatist and Pannini, the great Sanskrit grammarian, also had their roots in Kashmir.

Conscious of geographical constraints of their land, the ancient Kashmiri Pandits brought in all famous shrines from all over India, to Kashmir so as to make it a replica of the vast Indian cultural matrix.  We have the holy river of Vitasta about which Kalhana tells us that it contains the qualities of all well-known rivers of India, namely the Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Sindhu Godavari, Kaveri, Krishna and others. In our hymns and ritualistic literature we regularly take the names of these rivers and many shrines. We have Sangam, the replica of Prayaga at Shadipur, the confluence of Vitasta and Sindhu. We have Koti-tirtha at Varahmula (Baramulla) the corpus of a thousand shrines in the vast Bharatvarsha… We have Gangbal shrine at a height of more than twelve thousand feet consecrated to the origin of Ganga, the holiest of holy rivers, and we adduced all such traits to Gangabal as are assigned to a visitation to Haridwar and Prayag. Pilgrims considered it a rare divine blessing if they succeeded in making a pilgrimage to Gangbal.

Likewise, we assigned a site to Shiva atop a Himalayan peak at Amreshwara or Amarnath, the counterfoil of Mount Kailasha. The story of Amarnath and the linga-shrine of the cave are well known to beggar any description. Pilgrimage to Amarnath Cave is what the devout cherish. Not only that, even the halting stations enroute, too, received sanctimony and these were assigned to deities. Some of these stations like Vicharnag, Ambarher, Bihama, and Wangat etc. received great importance.

Our indigenous cultural heritage has had its specificities. For example most of our shrines, temples and worshipping places are located close to water bodies like a river, stream, spring, lake or pond. It is not only because water bodies are frequently found in Kashmir but mostly because of the great and deep sense of purity and cleanliness which our ancestors obstinately maintained as part of our cultural life. Watering plants and trees is integral part of our cultural ethos. It brings us close to another aspect of our culture and that is our respect and care for Mother Nature.

Our ancestors gave names to many glaciers and lakes atop mountains all around Kashmir. A pilgrimage to these water bodies was always considered a blessing. Worshipping at these places and bathing in their waters was considered washing off sins and impurities and ultimate purification of mind. Kashmir was called the land of saints and savants, the land of rishis or hermits. Kashmir Mandala was a big hermitage.

Beautiful natural setting and richness and variety of Kashmir flora and fauna must have immensely impressed our ancient sages and that is the reason why nature is worshipped so intensely by the Pandits. Water, flowers, milk, green leaves called bell petar, grains of rice, barley, oilseed (tel), milk, honey, sugar, incense (made from a wild herb called dhoop of pyrethrum) are the commodities invariably needed in our ritualistic system. Planting saplings and watering them at proper intervals has been a custom with our ancient village folks. We have more than 500 year old chinar trees to stand testimony to our love for nature. At the confluence Sindhu and Vitasta at Sangam, remains planted a huge chinar tree almost half submerged in water. Chinar has been the symbol of Pandit respect for nature and it is a travesty that the indigenous name of this tree from boen has been changed to Farsi equivalent namely chinar and then the spurious claim that the tree was imported from Iran.

Agriculture-related customs and traditions among the Kashmiri Pandits were mostly preserved by the Pandit peasantry for millennia after millennia. If one traces the entire history of agrarian pursuit strictly within the Pandit cultural parameters, we find that a Pandit peasant has been emotionally and culturally closer to Mother Nature. At every step in his agrarian activity, he begins with invocation to God and deities supplicating for their blessings and requesting for plenteousness of the harvest. On specific occasions during the year the peasant held small festivals in the field itself sitting with his family members by a furrow, making a puja and invoking the blessings of the supreme for bountiful harvest.

Kashmiri Pandits are the only ethnic group in India who celebrate the new year of ancient fire-worshippers called Navroz It is the day of vernal equinox when day and night are equal and days begin to lengthen, viz. 21 March. This tradition in Pandit culture reminds one of the Zoroastrian culture in which Navroz is the most important feast being the New Years day. Outside Iran of the days of Zoroaster, it is only the Kashmiri Pandits who observe this feast in identical manner. A platter is filled with a variety of things like  rice, grains, sugar cubes, a cup of milk, new years calendar called jantari, a pen and inkpot, image of goddess sarswati (goddess of knowledge), a blade of sanctified grass called darab, few walnuts and a coin. Early in the morning members of the household have a look at it taking it an auspicious occasion and praying that the New Year brings happiness to the family. This is precisely what used to be called in Zoroastrian Iran as haft seen meaning collecting together seven things each name beginning with sound s. All these are put together on a platter for the members to keep in home for a long time of the year as an omen of prosperity.

Being the descendents of Aryan race, the Kashmiri Pandits have always held the sun and fire in great reverence. A deity called agni devta has been assigned to it. None of our rituals is complete without lighting fire. The importance of fire remains with us as a symbol of light and warmth that we inherited from our Aryan ancestors. We have assigned elements of nature to gods or deities, air, ocean, water, light, fire, thunder etc. Our closeness to elements and nature has been an important links between us, our spiritual life and our concept of cosmos.

Despite our individuality framed mostly by geographical conditions, our ancestors identified themselves with vast Indian Hindu ethos. Rama and Krishna, Sita, Tara, Mandodari, Dropadi and others, remain our socio-religious icons for worship and benediction. The spiritual and mystic poetry of our saints like Laleshwari, Ropbhavani, Parmanand, Krishnajo Razdan, Zinda Kaul and others has give content to our socio-religious existence.  Their songs of eternal love and purity, of wisdom and truth remain with us our indestructible communal property.

In the field of architecture, especially temple architecture in stone, the ruins at Martand, Avantiora, Pandrethan, Parihasapora, Tapar, Bonyar or Wangat show the highly developed architectural expertise of our ancestors who produced finest specimens of that genre next only to that of the ancient Greeks.

I will not go into the remarkable corpus of Sanskrit literature, secular as well as liturgical produced by our eminent scholars and intellectuals in ancient times because it is well documented in the works of Indian historiographers. Suffice to say that Kalhana Pandit, the great historian and author of Rajatarangini is regarded by one and all as the first real historiographer of India. Interestingly, Kalhana tells us in the introduction to Rajatarangini that six historians all eminent in their field preceded him and he acknowledges having borrowed much from them.

A study of Rajatarangini reveals that Kalhana collected good deal of historical material from writings carved in stone slabs and put up as frontispiece on the temples throughout the valley. This shows that ancient Kashmiris were adepts in the science of epigraphy. Most of these tableaus were destroyed during the cataclysmic period of transformation of Kashmirian society to Islamic ethos in 14-15th centuries. Even today sporadic excavations throw up such slabs at now unknown sites or the ruins in different parts of the valley.

Tolerance towards other faiths and traditions and their accommodation within the Hindu fold has been the hallmark of ancient Kashmirian culture. In particular mention may be made of Buddhism, which rose to flourish in Kashmir when Emperor Ashoka made it the official religion of India. Advent of Buddhist bhikhshus into Kashmir around 2500 BC did not give rise to   any conflict of creeds… Kashmir Hindu royalty not only showed respect to the Buddhist missionaries but even showed personal appreciation and inclination towards that faith. The viharas for the Buddhists were raised side by side with Shaivite temples. Peaceful co-existence of Brahamans, Buddhists, Shaivaites, Vishnuites, fire worshippers and others in Kashmir is an exemplary phenomenon of ancient Kashmiri Hindu civilization. If a king ordered consecration of a temple to Shiva, his queen or prince regent ordered consecration of another temple to Vishnu.  Name places in the valley ending with sound “haar” are actually “vihara” which changed severally into “yaar” or “haar” like Ganpatyaar or Chandrahaar.

Mohsin Fani, a brilliant Farsi scholar contemporaneous with Emperor Shah Jahan tells us in his interesting work titled Dabistanu’l-Mazahib (The School of Religions) that besides Brahmans, Buddhists, Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians also inhabited Kashmir and they coexisted peacefully. Such was the level of tolerance that a Buddhist vihara or a Christian church could be easily raised at any convenient place.

The sweep of Buddhism in Kashmir has been large and forceful. It eclipsed Hinduism for some time till Shankaracharya, traveling to Kashmir all the way from South India brought revival of Brahmanism. Nevertheless, Kashmirian Buddhist monks and missionaries became catalyst to the spread of Buddha’s teachings in Central Asia, Ladakh, Tibet and China. At Bamiyan in western Afghanistan, then known as Tukharistan, stood the more than 350 feet high Buddha statue carved in the top of a rocky hill. Fanatical Taliban destroyed it in 1999 through gunfire. Likewise the largest stucco statue of the Buddha was found at a site in Panjikent in the Zarafshan Valley of Samarkand region in present day Uzbekistan. The Texila Museum and also the Kabul Museum preserved rare artifacts of Buddhist period in the region. Kashmirian Buddhist monks are reported to have played crucial role for the spread of Buddha’s message in those vast regions. Kamalshree the Kashmirian Buddhist’s name has come down to us as one who brought Buddha’s teachings to Tibet.
Over those rugged terrains and unending sand dunes Kashmirian cavalrymen once marched triumphantly raising high the banner of the Kings and Queens of Kashmir. They also carried with them the finer aspects of Kashmirian cultural heritage.

Kashmirian Hindu culture came under great strain with the arrival of Muslim missionaries from Central Asian and Iranian regions about the third decade of 14th century. Transformation from indigenously established cultural structure and philosophy of life to a culture and life style alien in their essence was painfully cruel. But such was the depth and tenacity of indigenous culture that for many centuries and down to present day, many of its manifestations remained impressed on the minds and behaviour of the proselytized community.

When I turn the pages of Kashmir medieval history, the one question which I have been persistently putting to myself is: “How did the few Pandits survive all those cataclysms and tyrannies hurled on them in the course of their history?” I fail to find any convincing answer to this question. But I do find the origin of some traits of our character traceable to those long years of suppression and oppression, and how the Pandits were locked in a grim battle for survival.

For any serious and thoughtful student of history, mediaeval Kashmir presents a huge fund for understanding the vagaries of human nature and the onslaughts of time. The Pandit struggle for survival during seven centuries of medieval period is the primary factor in shaping the broad contours of their character, which we so often and so brazenly discredit.

To be fair, the era of decay of our rich and colourful culture had set in with the rise of the Mongols in mid-13th century from the Great Steppes of Central Asia. Their incursions into the Central Asia, Iran and later on beyond the Hindu Kush cut off the Silk Route trade and commerce. That dealt a heavy blow to the economy of Kashmir, a state to the north of India whose boundaries ran up to Qandahar to the west and Kashghar to the east. Enfeebled economy could not sustain the state’s defense establishment for too long a time. Rebellious chiefs and Damras unmindful of the consequences of economic recession and depleting resources wrecked the solidarity of the state by trying to grab political power through whatever device possible.

Kashmir Hindu culture has always drawn inspiration from the royal court and the religious policy of Hindu kings. It is the royalty which in ancient times took the lead in building temples and shrines and then dedicated them to gods and deities, Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, or bhairavas and goddesses. These temples were generally provided with endowments called agrahara to make them economically independent. The same agraharas became the shrines (astanah) during Muslim period. Visitation by the Kashmiri Hindus to most of these shrines continued for some time after the new social order spread in the valley but these became few and far between. With the passage of time and social cleavage widening and deepening, a day came when the relevance of these shrines got restricted to the Muslims only. As these shrines remained a great cementing force for the local population, their social importance in historical perspective was quite notable. A few shrines were left unmolested for their original stakeholders and the Pandits having lost their social and political authority, now clung to these shrines to indirectly maintain whatever social cohesion was left intact.

The exiled community has tried to introduce manifestations of its cultural contours in and around Jammu city which has witnessed their large concentration after their exodus from the valley. In exile, too, we find that many among our dedicated members are trying to recreate shrines consecrated to deities and spiritual personalities. Ashrams have been built and made functional at a few places. These are called crude replicas of original shrines or devasthanas. Obviously, the purpose is two-fold: to maintain semblance of social cohesion as far as possible, and to perpetuate cultural heritage. These temples and shrines may sustain our saga behind us. Visitors will get acquainted with the background of the shrine and that would naturally give solace to the supplicants. Beyond that no substantial role appears to be waiting in wings.

Therefore all this activity looks somewhat out of tune. We do understand how we have stuck like a leech to our age old mythological fund and how tenaciously we want to hold it even in environs totally unsuitable… The serious question is how long can these replicas serve the purpose for which these have been created? After all we should understand that the community is widely dispersed all over the country and being a service class, its thousands of years old immobility syndrome has now after its exile,  under force of circumstances, given place to great mobility and consequential non-sedentary conditions.

Protection and preservation of its cultural heritage is a big question with many corollaries. We are talking of cohesive cultural fund or heritage only in terms of past history. That is not going to help any more in the present situation. The youth is always the backbone of a society. Our youth is dispersed and dispersal is its strength and source of survival. What does that mean?  Perpetuation and progress of culture is commensurate with the sedentary phenomena of a given group.  Our youth, floating in a vast ocean of Indian social structure will find it increasingly difficult either to continue or sustain its cultural heritage. To their ears it will sound music or something like a tell-tale of some people in far off times with whom we had only emotional relationship.

The first and most serious casualty in this scenario is Kashmiri language or our mother tongue. I have often heard observers and commentators lamenting the gradual loss of our mother tongue Kashmiri. I do not personally subscribe to this for a variety of reasons. Let us be pragmatic. Kashmiri language lost, its shine and its future the day it was divorced from its scientific script namely sharada. Arabic script now adopted is just out of sentimentality. It cannot represent broken vowel sounds of Kashmiri. As such, its propagators have been inventing cumbersome vowel sounds which they themselves fail to read properly.  Language without a scientific script remains a dialect at the best. Its sources of development are choked once it is without scientific script. Hindi script is somewhat better than Arabic script but that is not acceptable to the Muslim majority community of the valley.

The strength of a language lays in its prose works especially historical works. We have no prose literature in Kashmir worth the name. The poetic compilations are a crude imitation of Farsi or Urdu poetry. These are insipid and unimpressive, dismally lacking originality and innovation.

Our youngsters are now born and brought up in non-Kashmiri environment. They have grown in wide Indian social surroundings and will naturally imbibe the entire gamut of Indian ethos including language. The use of Kashmiri in homes is dwindling fast and the day is not far away when nobody would be speaking it. I do not find any sense in harping on Kashmiri as our mother tongue. Why not tell our youngsters to learn French, German, Russian and especially Arabic. Anybody equipped with any of these languages besides English as the medium of instructions is in a far better situation to make an excellent career than the one struggling to learn Kashmiri. I do not see any big loss to our community if our youngsters miss Kashmiri.

We would certainly like that our young boys and girls of marriageable age find their mates within the fold of the community. First preference should be given to that option. But as we see, the area of this option is fast narrowing down. Marriages outside the community fold can neither be stopped nor encouraged. In a new situation in which the community is placed, there are many constraints and we need to be pragmatic to adjust ourselves with the life as it comes. When a Kashmiri Pandit boy or girl marries outside the community fold, he or she naturally loses much of cultural cover. This is what they do understand and need not be alarmed about it.

In this essay I have tried to highlight just some aspects of our cultural fund created and preserved during long years of our existence in the valley in a somewhat concentrated fashion. The purpose is to give our readers, especially the younger generation an idea of our rich heritage. But at the same time, we need to be realistic towards the situation in which destiny has placed us. We have become a victim of unrealistic dreams and fantasies of Indian leadership on the one hand and communal propensity of the valley leadership on the other. Instead of treating our minuscule community on equal footing with other communities of the country for our rights and privileges, we were labeled either as amanaat meaning custodial property or “the symbol of Kashmiri secularism”. The amanat and the symbol of secularism of 1947 are now languishing in refugee camps or on the roadside.

There is much talk of return of the Pandits to their homes or homeland. This is an idle talk. We cannot be hypocrites all the time. We may have lost our homes and heaths, our properties and our heritage back in Kashmir, but we are face to face with new opportunities of wide scope, of progress and improvement. The wide world is open to us. Let us open our wings and seek new lands and new climes. Let us forget the dark and dismal past, the life of oppression and suppression and breathe in an atmosphere of freedom, respect and result-oriented action.

Diasporas have made great civilizations. If our community produces just one hundred IAS and IFS rank officers, the destiny of this country will change. Our youth should seek opportunities in defense, police and legal services. Our capable youth with strong linguistic skills should take to law and politics. We need diversification of our career selection. Once we are able to produce these cadres, we shall succeed in preserving, nay enriching broad contours of our culture and heritage. Diversification is very essential and this is the time when we should impress it upon our youth. We have to accept and adapt contours of contemporary culture, which sometimes is called universal culture or globalization of culture. How can we escape its impact? Ours is not a moribund community; we have the most precious inheritance, viz. education which will never fail us. But we need its proper diversification and utilization for the benefit of broader Indian society. We are the best patriots because we belong to no one part or region of the country; the entire country is our home. We work for the country and we serve the nation. That is a matter of pride for us.
(Dr. K.N. Pandit is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies in Kashmir University).

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