By Hansa Piparsania
Kashmir is not just beautiful lush green valleys, forests and snow-clad mountains, but about the humans, culture and a fine woven social carpet, which altogether is known as Kashmiriyat. The author weaves a story.
Who has not fallen in love with the beauty of Kashmir? From emperors to spiritual gurus, honeymooners to diehard adventurers – all have succumbed to its languid charm. With much enthusiasm and trepidation alike, I headed to the valley after four decades, amidst warnings that stemmed from genuine concern – to stay safe, and to carefully navigate the delicate socio-political climate that changes in Kashmir with each day.
The strong army presence in Srinagar with soldiers in combat wear and guns on tanks was proof that daily life was pregnant with turmoil and possible conflict, but as I moved towards the mountains, I realized why Kashmir came to be known as ‘Peer Veer’ – the abode of Sufis and saints. Over centuries Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Persian and Central Asian spiritual leaders walked this land in peace and love. Many destinations offer beauty but Kashmir had soul, and unique energy rooted in its gushing streams, green meadows, pine-scented forests and snowy mountains.
There was no dearth of surreal moments and some sights I experienced were comparable to masterpieces of art. At the hilltop Shankaracharya temple, my heart danced on hearing chants of the Shiva aarti echoing simultaneously with the azaan prayer from a nearby mosque. The shikara boat ride on Nageen lake in the dead of the night was bone-chillingly beautiful – where all was black except distant lights, and all was silent except the rhythmic sound of oars cutting gently into the tranquil waters!
In the small village of Kanihama, I saw hands magically weave delicate yarn into exquisite Kani shawls and was treated to the warm hospitality of a master craftsman’s family. As we relished their homemade Kashmiri Kehwa – a saffron tea spiced with herbs and dry fruits, his teenage daughter shared with me her secret dream of becoming a pilot!
A group of us set out on an exhilarating trek to Shikargah in Aru valley, crossing rocky paths, torrential rivers, and snacking on the ubiquitous Maggi noodles, sitting precariously on logs fallen across a stream. An old Gujjar shepherd woman with finely braided hair I met en route, reminded me that many nomadic tribes originating in Central Asia had migrated here. A sudden cloudburst forced us to take shelter in a shepherd’s hut. Drenched and tired, we shared their hot noon-chai with fresh Girda bread cooked over an impeccable mud-fireplace as the family spoke of their nomadic life.
Hopping onto a shikara yet again at 5 am, I caught the early morning floating flower & vegetable market on Dal Lake where the most spectacular waterscape awaited me. I found myself surrounded by lotus fields till as far as my eyes could see and within minutes, the buds began to bloom, caressed by the soft rays of the rising sun. As the boat glided effortlessly towards the sacred Hazrat Bal mosque, I noticed rows of colourful ‘phirens’ – robes worn by Kashmiris being hung to dry by washermen. This mundane routine created a mesmerizing reflection in the still waters, emerging like a painting in perfection that changed colours with each day.
I offered prayers at the famous shrine of Aishmaqam Dargah and exited the narrow cave of the sanctum to find people of different faiths partaking in the Sufi ritual of ‘Wazifa’ together. Their loud chanting invoking the Almighty to bless humanity spiralled me into a trance, it felt like the sheer sound of those collective prayers had the power to move mountains.
Each moment I witnessed had depth and gravitas. Slowly, the legendary concept of ‘Kashmiriyat’ that I had read about came to life. An age-old tradition of social harmony and peaceful coexistence was born out of the many free-spirited interactions of Kashmiri people with the spiritual gurus and mystics in the region. The Kashmiri pride in their language, blended customs and their vast built heritage had evolved over centuries as a result of cross-cultural exchanges and a synergized philosophy of ancient Shaivism, Persian and other Islamic centres in Central Asia.
In the wake of recent tragedies and a history of conflict, smoky clouds have been cast over the blue skies of this paradise and perhaps, fractured the essence of Kashmiriyat. Many say the concept is a myth and unduly romanticized, but what is life without an idea or a utopian dream? As an eternal optimist, I choose to believe that the spirit of peace and brotherhood still exists organically. For me, the spirit of Kashmiriyat lives on, in the breathtaking landscapes, in the warm smiles of people I met, and unfailingly in the abundant ‘portraits of peace and love’, I found in Kashmir.
(All the photographs were clicked by the author.)
(Hansa Piparsania is a visual artist, author and photographer deeply interested in art, culture and design.)
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