TULMUL Amidst crowd, two old men can be seen hugging and talking passionately about a childhood that they spent together. Nothing out of the ordinary about this sight, nostalgia runs deep in humans- except the fact that one is a Kashmiri Muslim and another a Kashmiri Pandit. Word is that there is hatred among the two communities. Or, there was.
Men like Omkar Nath and Muhammad Akbar defy it on occasions such as the Mela Kher Bhawani. After they embraced each other with complete satisfaction, Akbar explained their bond, Pandits and Muslims have the same lifestyle, the same pehnava (dressing), the same food habits, and despite the distance we continue to be brothers because our bond is so much more than where we live. The two were separated as young friends in the face of the mass migrations when Kashmir plunged into turmoil in 1990.
After the migration, the number of Kashmiri Pandits in their erstwhile home, Kashmir has dwindled. But time has proven to be the best healer of pain- with time, Kashmiri Pandits are returning to their homes. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the tensions that forced them out of the earthly paradise has now turned into something of a longing for brotherhood.
Once a year the town of Tulamul in Ganderbal district comes to life with hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits swarming it to offer prayers at the shrine of Ragnya Devi. This is annual Kheer Bhavani Mela. Muslim men with beards and skullcaps stand in lines to serve Pandit pilgrims with refreshments. Abdur Rasheed, one of the volunteers serving water to the pilgrims since six in the morning in spite of the scorching sun said, We want to promote brotherhood among the two communities and with this send out a message. Pandit community is welcome home. Many residents throw open their homes and host pilgrims for a night or two, offering them meals and reconciliation. Word is, locals dont cook or eat non-vegetarian food on the day of the puja as a gesture of respect for Hindu sentiments.
Given that there is a mixed population of the young and old in the temple, the place is suitably lined with stalls selling puja items.
Among thousands of pilgrims, some are those who moved away from their homeland as children, some as adults and some only know it as a land that their parents and grandparents long for.
Sangeeta Koul, who left Anantnag as a child returned to her birthplace after over twenty years of living in Jammu. She expressed joy of coming back to her homeland after marriage, When we left Anantnag, I was scared and horrified as an eight year old child having to leave behind my school and friends. I got married in 2008 and returned to the place of my childhood. After migrating from Kashmir, eight year Koul was moved to Udhampur in Jammu where her family still lives.
Family of Sunil Bhatt, Sangeetas husband, was one of the few who did not migrate. We used to live in Anantnag and we continue to live there and never ever faced a threat to our lives. There was tension on occasions, but it was hugely exaggerated, Bhat said.
Talking about kids and their sense of isolation, Praveen Koul, who was in his late 20s when he migrated from South Kashmir to Jammu said, Even though I come to this mela every year because it gives me a sense of belonging, I dont think my kids enjoy this too much. Their life is the only life that I have shown them, which is away from home. Living with Dogras, they have become Dogras too.
Many celebrate the homecoming while some still face a sense of disillusionment. Sunil Kumar Suri, who moved out of Kashmir valley to live in another city in early nineties said: We migrated from Kashmir when I was nine years old, and returned only over a decade later in 2004. Now I have made it a point to come to this mela every single year, but I cant help feel like a guest here, in my own home, or worse- like a tourist.