Staff Picks: Plague, Priest, and Peasant

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How Kashmir overcame plague when a senile sovereign ordered mantras and painful vaccination as its antidote for oppressed Kashmiris caught in the throes of poverty and panic. 

 Zareef Ahmad Zareef

THE reign of Dogra Maharaja Pratap Singh (1885-1925) brought a lot of misfortune for Kashmir in the form of floods, earthquakes, famines, arsons and killings. When a plague broke out in the valley during early 1900, the monarch abandoned his summer durbar in Srinagar and ran to Jammu to save his life.

In Jammu, the Maharaja ordered his royal court of popes and priests to exorcise the plague demon of Kashmir.

Hearing this, the head priest of Raghunath Temple told him, “Your Highness, plague in Kashmir won’t be countered and controlled from Jammu.”

This set the crown imperator thinking.

He couldn’t order his courtiers to conduct emancipatory prayers in the valley instead, as the fear of plague was still haunting him.

Sensing the growing unease, the head priest, while hailing the king, said, “Don’t stress yourself too much about it. We’ll find a solution.”

The court priest proposed a mantra to fight the plague.

“All you need to do is to publish and distribute it in Kashmir.”

Shoot an official decree, the priest continued, and make it a mandatory mantra for every Kashmiri household, in order to ward off the evil.

“That way,” the priest argued, “the celestial gods would be pleased, and won’t let the plague enter the place.”

Soon as Pratap’s law-enforcers arrived in the valley with the supposed plague antidote, they faced a protest from Kashmiris.

But the cruel officers forcibly fastened that state-printed mantra on the doors of the people. They even charged them with 4 annas per mantra.

The valley witnessed a huge hue and cry over this form of oppression. Given the pervasive poverty in Kashmir then, many households didn’t even afford those 4 annas.

But that wouldn’t deter the Maharaja’s mean men from barging into people’s homes and loot their utensils.

They would auction those household items in marketplaces in order to recover the mantra price.

Such tyrannical practices only intensified the anger against the king in Kashmir.

A Message for Mirwaiz

Sensing Trouble, the old king sent a word through his envoy to Mirwaiz Ahmaddullah, whom Kashmiris would lovingly call as Mouli’i Amme Soab.

If people don’t wish to keep this mantra at their homes,” the emissary read the Maharaja’s Farman [an edict of an Oriental sovereign] to Mirwaiz, “then they should go for vaccination as prescribed by healthcare specialists.

This order, the court messenger read, should be implemented as soon as possible. “And people should cooperate with vaccinators to contain and control the plague.”

Maharaja Pratap Singh

Soon as the word about it spread across the valley, it further distressed people, as the vaccination process was a prolonged painful procedure then.

The vaccine would be shot at upper arm area with a three-needle iron tool. It would bruise arm and leave a scar behind.

Soon after the vaccine, a person would suffer from excruciating arm pain and body restlessness. Dizziness and fever would follow. The place of piercing would develop swelling and pus. This agonizing period would last for 40 days. Even I had to suffer this agony in 1955.

This painful process was the reason why people opposed the vaccination.

Soon Mirwaiz sent a word to Maharaja about this public displeasure.

Give us three days,” the priest bought time from the monarch. “Our beloved Prophet [pbuh]’s birthday, Mawlid al-Nabi, is after three days. We’ll attend the night-long prayers at Dargah Hazratbal. I’m hopeful that after that sacred night, the plague would wane from our lives.”

Hearing this assurance from Kashmir’s head priest, the Maharaja deferred the painful vaccination process for three days.

Soon swarms of faithful from city and countryside would start a long, beseeching walk towards Hazratbal to participate in the night-long congregational prayers.

In that sea of devotees was my eldest uncle, Ghulam Nabi Shah Maldaar.

“After Isha [the fifth and last prayer of the day], Mirwaiz pleaded Almighty with tearful eyes for forgiveness,” my uncle would tell me.

“And then at the midnight hour, he led the faithful of Dargah, in offering the glorious prayers to our beloved prophet. The devotees cried a river during that pleading moment. I saw the entire sanctum lighting up with Noor [a divine light] and reverberating with heartbreaking cries till the daybreak.”

Old Hazratbal

Finally, the Mirwaiz would cup his hands, raise his tearful eyes towards Heavens and plead, “Almighty, please forgive our individual and collective sins! Spare us from all those burdens which we can’t shoulder! And spare us from this plague! We’ve bought time from the monarch to overcome this. Please don’t let us down!”

After that, the devotees would raise the collective cry of Aameen so loud that it would travel at distance and reach all corners of the city.

Enter a Peasant

After the dawn prayers, as Mirwaiz along with masses began walking back home, he bumped into a pleasant-looking man from countryside at Saderbal area of Srinagar.

After offering his respect, the man whispered something into Mirwaiz’s ears. A beautiful piece of shawl was slung over his shoulder.

Seeing it, Mirwaiz asked him, “Would you like to sell it?”

“Yes, that’s why I’ve come to the city. I’m in need,” pat came the reply.

“What’s the price?”

“I’ll sell it at Rs 10 in the city market, but for you, only Rs 7.”

“Would you like to come with me to my residence at Rajouri Kadal?”

My uncle would tell me that the peasant quietly followed the priest’s footsteps.

Once home, Mirwaiz would tell his domestic help—“Give this man seven rupees from the loose cash kept under the [reed] mat.”

The domestic help lifted the rug, took out coins and started counting them.

“So, is this shawl suitable for me,” the priest asked the peasant. “I mean, I should know, because I step on the sacred pulpit to deliver the teachings of our beloved prophet [pbuh] to people.”

Hearing this, the peasant replied, “There’s nothing wrong in this shawl. I’ve reared sheep and sheared them myself. My wife has spun their wool into fine threads, before I weaved them into a shawl myself. So, it’s very worthy for you.”

But Moulvi sahib, the peasant continued, “even I want to ask you something?”

“What’s it?”

“Is this money of yours worthy for me to spend?”

In a disconcerted state of mind, the priest replied, “I don’t know that!”

“If you don’t know whether your money is right or not, why should I sell my shawl to you then?”

Saying this, the peasant took his shawl, slung it over his shoulder and left the priest’s home.

But from the next morning, no new case of plague was found in Kashmir.

Heavens had indeed answered the heartfelt prayers of Kashmiris.

And after that, neither those mantras, nor that painful vaccination returned to haunt Kashmiris.

The author is a prominent Kashmiri poet and historian. This piece is a transcribed version of the video uploaded by the author on his official Facebook page.

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