Change is in the air, as Kashmir hosts the annual mela of Kheer Bhawani- its largest Hindu festival, says Amitabh Mattoo- Professor of International Relations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
Theres an unmistakable continuity in the display of the gentle interdependence and mutual respect that Pandits and Muslims have enjoyed for centuries at the festival he says. But what heralds a new beginning for Mattoo this year, is the colour of the water in the Tul Mul spring- under the bed of rose petals showered by the pilgrims- the water was a gentle aquamarine blue: the colour of hope and with the promise of a better future, he says. This for him is a massive departure from the past, as he recalls how his mother spoke of the spring as dark purplish and then almost black in the troubled Nineties.
In a first-person account of his visit to the holy shrine at Kheer Bhawani at Tul Mul village in Ganderbal district, Mattoo writes in The Hindu that Blue is the colour of hope in Kashmir, this time around.
Describing the ambiance of harmony and oneness at the festival, he says, As thousands of Pandits and other devotees prayed at the holy spring at Kheer Bhawani at Tul Mul village in Kashmirs Ganderbal district, there were Muslims too. All the shops that sell the puja samagri- including the qands (sugar lumps), diyas, and agarbati- are run by Muslims. There were a range of stalls and service centres to help the devotees and provide free kehwa, luchi (a flat Kashmiri deep fried roti) and even lunch.
But perhaps the most striking was one run by Sameer Kaul and Suhail Ahmed. A Pandit and a Muslim, one teaching Computer Science and the other Management, both teachers of the Islamia College of Science & Commerce, have been serving the community for more than the last decade. Their bond was one of a shared past that could lead to a new future.
I asked an elderly Muslim gentleman from downtown Srinagar why he was there. He said that he had been coming to Tul Mul for 40 years and added, with the proverbial Kashmiri sarcasm: Azkal cha Gaunah? (Why, have they made it (a) crime?).
Providing context to the celebrations that take place during the Kheer Bhawani mela, Mattoo says, The Pandits principal deities have mostly natural forms. Sharika is the holy hill at Hari Parbat adjoining the great fort that Akbar built, while Ragya is the spring at Tul Mul.
Describing the peculiar quirks of both deities and worshippers here, the JNU professor writes, Ragya, is one of the few Pandit deities who is strictly vegetarian and who will not forgive those who enter her portals after a non-vegetarian meal. In contrast, the prasad at Sharika is yellow rice with hot mutton liver curry and the priest even offers a sheeps lungs to kites on the hill. But in deference to Ragya, every Muslim I met said that he would never enter the shrines compound after eating mutton, fish or fowl nor would anyone from the neighbourhood.
Summing up his impression of the Kheer Bhawani festival in Kashmir this year, he says, It was evident from the gathering at Kheer Bhawani that the yearning for reconciliation is intense on both sides and this year could be a game changer. Perhaps that is what the colour at the holy spring was telling us.
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