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The Winter Rituals of Kashmiri Pandits -The Legacies of Past

By Upender Ambardar

The hallowed land of Kashmir is blessed with divinity in enormousness. The rituals, customs, traditions and celebration of sacred days are cultural, social and religious expressions of great cultural mosaic of Kashmir. Mysticism, mythology, spiritual thought and socio-cultural history are formidable ingredients of our festivals, rituals and customs. The local shades and native identities inherent in them not only connect us with the past but also help in the socio-historical reconstruction of antiquity. They land hope, grace, zest, variety and grandeur both to an individual and the society. The prominent winter  rituals of Kashmir are - Gada Bata, Majhor Tahar, Chari Oakdoh, Lavsi Chodah, Kichdi Amavasya, Makar Sankranti (Shishar Sankrat) and Shishur etc. They represent the community's religio-cultural pride as they give us social, psychological religious, cultural and emotional compactness. Moreover, their origin and roots can be traced to the progenitors and forebears of the community centuries back.

Our unbending faith in them reminds us not to forget the ancient land and rich civilisation of the past to which we belong.

Gada Bata:

'Gada Bata' stands out conspicuously as an imposing and time honoured winter ritual of Kashmiri Pandits. The ritual has survived even in our forced exile despite a brush with the modernity. It is celebrated in the month of December during the dark fortnight of Posh locally known as 'Poh Gutpach' either on Tuesday or Saturday. As per a religious belief, every house has a presiding and governing deity, reverently remembered as 'Ghar Divta' or 'Dayat Raza' by Kashmiri Pandits. The house is believed to remain under the benevolent and protective surveillance of 'Dayat Raza' everytime. A religiously pious house is thought to have auspicious and positive dividends. The believers share a firm conviction that positive and spiritual resonance generated due to the presence of presiding deity of the house drives away bad omens, evil spirits, acrimonious feelings and negative retardants if existing in the house. His indivisible presence also guarantees wellness, harmony and stability of kinship among the inmates of the house.

It also testifies a centuries old notion that elements of spiritualism, religiousness coexist alongwith materialism in a harmonious blend in the houses of Kashmiri Pandits. The ritual of 'Gada Bata' is an eagerly awaited occasion in every Kashmiri Pandit house even now. On any selected Tuesday or Saturday of Posh Krishna Paksh, the divine patron of the house called 'Ghar Divta or Dayat Raza' is propitiated by an offering of fish dish and rice. On the designated day, the kitchen is cleansed and the needed utensils are thoroughly washed. The fish to be cooked are spotlessly cleaned and cut into whole girth pieces. The entire volume of used water along with the scrubal fish scales, fins, discarded fish inners are retained and thrown off only when the fish and rice offering is made to the 'Dayat Raza'. The fish are cooked in combination with nadru, reddish or Kadum (Knolkol) as per the family's ritual or 'reath'. It is followed by invocational pooja of rice and fish dish. Afterwards, rice and cooked fish pieces in the sequential order of head, middle and tail portions are kept either in fresh earthen plates (toke) or on grass woven circular base (Aer) called 'chret' or in a thali as per the family 'reeth'. They are now placed on the clay smeared floor of the upper storey room of the house called 'Kani or pbraer-Kani' A washed uncooked and ..dressed fish is also kept on a separate grass woven ring called 'chret' adjacent to the above offering. An oil lit earthen lamp (choang), a tumbler filled with water and a tooth pick (optional) are also kept near the rice and fish offering. As per the family custom, the offering is either kept underneath a willow basket called 'Kranjul' or left uncovered. The said room is then left undisturbed and unattended during the night. The following morning, the families in accordance with their 'reeth' either put the rice and fish dish offering on the house roof to be fed upon by the birds or share the consecrated food-offering as 'naveed' by the family members. As per belief, the scattering of rice grains and sight of fish bones kept aside is indicative of the acceptance of the offering by the 'Ghar Divta'.

Every care is taken by the family to ensure the religious purity during the celebration of this ritual as any deviation or flawed observance invites 'Ghar Divta's' annoyance and anger. The oral narratives and family lores are full of the wrath inviting incidents. Recounting a happening of such nature at her Habbakadal residence as heard from her elders Smt Aneeta Tikoo revealed "Once a delay in performing the 'Gada Bata' ritual resulted in disquietening noise coming-out from the 'Thoker Kuth' for several nights. It was taken as displeasure and annoyance of the 'Ghar Divta'. Immediate celebration of the ritual astonishingly put an end to the mysterious noise."

Recollecting another incident of the yore, she elaborated "once an elderly lady Smt. Visherded received a mysterious bash from an invisible force in the house. It was taken as an indication of some wrong doing during the observing of ritual. Afterwards, the ritualistic offering made once again put the things right." Narrating one more unusual happening of 1970s, wherein a lady in the neighbourhood the fried inner parts of fish before the customary offering was made to presiding deity of the house. It resulted in the hurt caused to the said lady by unexpected collapsing of the kitchen wall during the course of cooking, which was an indication of 'Ghar Divtas' anger and ire".

Sharing a personal experience in the existence of 'Ghar Divta', Sh Susheel Hakim, an erstwhile resident of Karan Nagar, Srinagar, also recounted "for  several days in the year 1980, I would feel  enormous and mysterious heaviness pounding my body in my bed during night in wakeful state following the opening of my room door on its own. Astonishingly, the mysterious feeling of pounding vanished after the well-known mystic of Karan Nagar Kashi Bub, fondly known as Kashi mout, who used to frequent our home advised me to make an offering of rice and fish to 'Ghar Divta'. Narrating one more related incident of the same year, Sh. Susheel Hakim divulged "one of our tenants Sh. Anil Kachroo, a student those days would observe the unoccupied bed in his room getting weighed down by a mysterious and invisible force during night, which would precede the automatic opening of the room door. The bed would regain its original form after a brief spell, indicating that a divine figure had rested for a while on the bed".

Sh. Roshan Lal Zadoo, presently at Bhagwati Nagar Jammu also shared a similar incident that his father late Sh. Dina Nath Zadoo had noticed a divine figure in white robes descending the staircase of his home at Nowgam Kuthar, Anantnag.

Manjhor Tahar:

 One more important winter ritual is that of 'Majhor Tahar', which is celebrated on Magh Purnima, locally  known as Manjhor Punim. The ritual comes in the months of November-December. It is a thanks giving ritual towards the all pervading Almighty God, who is the source of our sustenance and subsistence. It is symbolic of His generosity and benevolence bestowed upon us in the form of bountiful cultivated crops. On the day of Magh Purnima, yellow coloured rice (Tahar) and potatoes and 'Kadum' (Knolkol) spiced with red chillies are cooked during night.

After the customary pooja, the offering  - the 'Tahar' and the cooked vegetable dish known as 'chout' is kept on the roof top during the night itself. Afterwards, the remaining portion of the food is taken as 'prasad' by all the family members. In certain places, the ritual is regarded to signify the fertility of the soil. The believers offer the oblation of 'Tahar' and cooked vegetable dishes to the deity of crops in their crop fields. The ritual of 'Manjhor Tahar' is celebrated to invoke the deity of crops and soil fertility for ensuring allround welfare and prosperity in the form of bountiful crops. The ritual is also supposed to ward off the damaging influences, which may affect the crop production. The ritual also enforces the intimate and fruitful relationship between man and the forces of nature, which are believed to shower grace, mercy and blessings in the form of different varieties of crops cultivated by us. The food or crop represents the physical matter, which guarantees the sustenance, nourishment and household protection.

The yellow colour of 'Tahar' is a mystical interpretation of auspiciousness, spirituality and positiveness. Yellow is regarded as a royal colour and is symbolic of the flow of sacred energy, which is believed to activate and stimulate the surroundings. The yellow colour of 'Tahar' also denotes warmth, glow and bloom in every action connected with our life.

Chari Oakdoh:

'Manjhor Tahar' is followed by another ritual know as 'Chari Oakdoh', which is celebrated on Posh Krishna Paksh Pratipadha, locally known as 'Poh Gutpach Oakdoh'. The ritual involves  the cooking of rice and moong dal. About seven or nine small rectangular stones collected from the river or streams are seated on grass woven rings called 'Arie'. These are symbolic of the 'Mother Cult' or 'Shakti Pooja' and represent 'Matrakas' or little Divine. Mothers.' 'Matrakas' are known by the names of Brahmni, Mahesvari, Kumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Narasimhi and Aindri or Indrani.

They are the 'Shaktis' of Brahma, Isvara, Kumar or Skanda, Visnu, Varaha, Narasimha and Indra. According to Tantarshastra, Brahmini represents the primordial nada, which is the unmanifest sound denoting the origin of all the creations. It resembles the Divine energy as represented by the 'Pranav' or 'Om'. In the ritualistic invocation of the 'Matrakas', offering of rice and dal mixed together are placed before the seven or nine 'Matrakas' represented by small rectangular stones. It also involves the applying of tilak to all the idealised images of 'Matrakas'. Afterwards the family members take the 'naveed'. The 'Chari Oakdoh' is also known as the ritual of 'Matraka Pooja'.

Lavsie Chodah:

One day ahead of 'Kitchdi Amavasya' comes the little known ritual of 'Lavsie Chodah'. It is celebrated on Posh Krishna Paksh Chaturdashi. In this ritual, apart from rice, moong dal in combination with reddish is cooked.

After the traditional pooja, the offering of rice and the cuisine of dal and reddish is kept on the roof top. The consecrated portion is taken as 'naveed' by the house inmates.

The ritual of 'Lavsa Chodah' has presently lost much of the original ritualistic fervour and has receded in significance. It needs to be taken back to its pristine glory.

All the community rituals need to be celebrated with unquestioned faith as besides spreading cheer and mirth, they have an impacting role in shaping our lives.                            

Khaechimavas or Khichdi

Amavasya is an ancient winter ritual of Kashmiri Pandits. It is celebrated on Posh Krishna Paksh Amvasaya (Poh Ghata Pach Mavas) with unshakeable faith by Kashmiri Pandits. Khaechimavas besides being an integral part of our religio-cultural life also encompasses the mythologized history of Kashmir.

Further, it authenticates and affirms the historicity of Yakshas, the ancient aboriginal tribe of Kashmir, who dwelled in the upper mountainous region of the Himalayan ranges extending from the present day Uttranchal, Himachal Pradesh to Kashmir. The Hindu scriptures have elevated Yakshas to the status of demigods along with Gandharvas (the celestian musicians), Kinnaras (the divine choristers), Kiraats and Rakshas.

The influence of Shaivism on the ritual of Khichdi Amavasya is clearly visible. Yakshas were also ardent worshippers of Lord Shiva, the most adored and revered God of Kashmiri Pandits.

The Yakshapati Lord Kubera is regarded as an intimate friend of Lord Shiva. Lord Kubera, known as the Lord of wealth, is said to be the son of sage Visravas and grandson of the sage Pulastya besides being the half brother of the demon king, Ravana. As per the Hindu mythology, Lord Kubera resides in the mythological city of Alkapuri, which is said to be situated on one of the spurs of the Mount Meru in the exalted Himalayas. Incidentally, Mount Meru, which is believed to be densely forested with the divine 'Kalpavraksha' trees is said to be the abode of Lord Shiva also. Alkapuri is also known by the names of Vasudhara, Vasusathli and Prabha. As per the Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharat, Lord Kuber had his sway on the city of Lanka before he was ousted from there by his half brother, the demon king Ravana. He was also the proud owner of the celestial aerial chariot 'Pushpak Viman', which was later-on snatched away from him by the demon king Ravana. The city of Lanka is believed to have been built of gold by the divine architect Vishwakarma for the residence of Lord Kubera.

Yakshi also known by the alternative names of Charvi and Kauveri, the spouse of Lord Kubera is said to be the daughter of Danav Mura. She is believed to serve Goddess Durga as one of the attendants. Manigriva (also known as Varnkavi) and Nalkubera (also called as Mayuraja), are Lord Kubera's sons, whileas Menakshi is his daughter. Lord Kubera, the King of Yakshas is also known as Dhanpati (the lord of wealth), Nar-raja (the King of men), Rajraja (the King of Kings), Ichchhavasu (one who gets immense wealth at his own wish and will), Ratangarbha (one who possesses plenty of jewels and diamonds) and also as Rakshasendra (the chief of demons). He is also known as the presiding deity of the northern side of the universe and the house. Hindu mythology describes Kuber to have a white complexion, a deformed body with three legs and only eight teeth. Further, he is regarded not only as the lord of gold but also of silver, jewels, diamonds and all other kinds of precious stones. He is also known as the protector of the business class of the society.

In the mythological depictions, Lord Kuber is shown as seated on the shoulders of a man or riding a carriage pulled by men. Sometimes an elephant or a ram (an uncastrated male sheep) are also shown as his mounts. The subjects and devotees of Lord Kuber are called as Yaksh and they are believed to possess supernatural powers. They can change their shape and form at will. They are regarded to be full of kindness, compassion and benevolence.

According to Kalhan's Raj Tarangni, Yakshas resided on the mighty mountain ranges of Kashmir. They would descend to the plains during the winter season, where the Naga inhabitants would extend the hospitality to them by offering the delectable cuisine of Khichdi. The Yakshas are believed to be historical reality down the ages as innumerable villages and temples have been dedicated to them. They exist in vast stretches of land right from the present day states of Uttranchal, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. In the capital city of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, there is a famous Hanuman temple on the adjacent Jakhu hill. It is believed that thousands of years back Yaksha sage performed austerities and penance there. Lord Hanuman is said to have made a brief stopover at the Jakhu hill during his search for 'Sanjeevani Bhooti' for Lakshman. The sage Yaksha latter-on built a temple on the hill in honour of Lord Hanuman. In Rohru and Arki tehsil of Shimla district, two villages dedicated to Yakshas are known by the names of Jakhu and Jakhol. The word Jakhol in the local dialect means 'Yakshalai' or the abode of Yaksha.

In the central part of Himachal Pradesh, there are many temples dedicated to Yakshas and Yakshanis, who are worshipped as the village deities of the natives. They are also regarded as the deities of domestic cattle. In order to ward off the evil spell and to guarantee plentiful of milk, Yakshas are propitiated by burning 'dhoop' and incense sticks in the cowsheds. Dr. M.S. Randhawa, a noted researcher writes in his book "Farmers of India" that Pischas, Yakshas and Naga tribes inhabited Kashmir in ancient times. Prof. DD Sharma, a well-known historian and researcher has identified numerous villages dedicated to Yakshas in the hilly regions of the Himalayas in his book "Himalayan Sanskriti Kae Muladar". There is a strong belief among the people in the hilly areas that affluence and fortune will come one's way if the Yaksha King Lord Kuber is propitiated and pleased. The said belief also exists in the folklore of Kashmir.

According to Prof. D.D. Sharma, the villages of Jakh, Jakhet in Karanprayag, Jakhola in Joshimath, Jakhni and Jakhoal in Chamoli, Jakhand, Jakhanyali, Jakhvadi, Jakholi, Jakhni and Jakhi in Devprayag, Jakh and Jakhol in Tehri Garhwal, Jakh, Jakhni, Jakhola and Jakhmoli in Pauri Garwal and Jakhu on Dehradun-Rajpora road not only had strong association with Yakshas but also speak volumes about their possible high concentration in these places in the ancient times. In addition to it, the entire area of Alaknanda right from Joshimath to Karanprayag is known as 'Jakh' or the area which was once occupied and dominated by Yakshas.

According to Dr. Jagdish Prasad Samval, a celebrated researcher, a temple known as 'Yakshraj' exists on a mountain top about one km. away from Narayankote on the road leading to Kedarnath. Yakshraj, Lord Kuber is the local deity of the surrounding eleven villages of the area. Likewise, there is a Yakshraj temple in Pithoragarh also, where meat offerings are made to the deity. Yakshraj is also the guardian deity of the adjacent villages. Almora also has a famous temple known as Jakhani Devi temple.

According to Prof. D.D. Sharma, Almora area has Jakhnola, Jakhnoli, Jakhani, Jakh villages, whileas Ranikhet has Jakhni, Jakh and Nainital has the village by the name of Jakh. In Jammu province also there are two villages-Jakhni (65 kms from Jammu city on way to Udhampur) and Jakhbhar (4-5 kms from Kathua on Nagari road).

In Kashmir also, the Yakshas have left their impressions behind. These have survived in the form of village names even upto the present times. The villages of Ichikote, Ichigam, Ichihama, Ichigoz and Rairyach situated in the central district of Budgam (Kashmir) might have been Yaksha settlements at certain stages of time. I have also been able to locate one more village by the name of Yachihoum, which is nestled in the foothills of forested mountain on Srinagar - Sonamarg road in Ganderbal district in Kashmir. One more village known by the name of Yachinar is situated in the southern district of Anantnag in Kashmir. According to Late Prof. Laxmidhar Kalla, a noted Sanskrit scholar of India and HoD Sanskrit, Delhi University, a village by the name of Alkapuri exists near the village Manigam in Ganderbal (Kashmir). Some scholars state that a tribe by the name of Yakshun lives in Dardistan area, which is located in north of Kashmir. They assert that the name Yakshun is a derivative from Yakshkun meaning Yakshas. A township to the west of the present day new airport near Humhama village in Budgam village locally known as Damodar Wudar is said to have been built by an ancient King of Kashmir, Damodar. Yakshas, who were adept in the construction skills are believed to have contributed help and expertise.

Yakshas have also left their imperishable imprints on the social fabric of Kashmir. They are in the form of Surnames of 'Yaksha', 'Yach' and 'Rakshas' retained by Kashmiri Pandits.

Lord Kuber is said to be the chief of both Yakshas and Rakshas. Late Sh. Dina Nath Yaksh, a noted Sanskrit scholar of Kashmir was a resident of Bulbullankar, Alikdal Srinagar upto the year 1990. About five to six Pandit families having the surname 'Yach' were residents of Rainawari (Karapora Khushki) area in Srinagar upto their migration from there in 1990. A few Pandit families with the surname 'Yach' were also residents of Karfalli-Mohalla, Srinagar and Sopore township of Baramulla district. According to few Hindu scriptures 'Rakshshas' are not demons but on the contrary benefactors and defenders.

According to Kashmiri folklore, Yaksh is believed to make two and half sounds of 'Waaf' (two high pitched and one low volume sounds). The same folklore says that Yaksh dons a red cap made of gold, which is studded with jewels and diamonds. This cap known as 'Phous' is said to bestow enormous supernatural powers to Yaksh.

As per prevalent lore in Kashmir, anyone who succeeds in snatching the cap and then hides it under a mortar or a hand mill stone or a pitcher filled with water or an earthen pot full of fermented kitchen leftover vegetables called 'Saderkanz' is believed to tame Yaksh. The snatcher is given unlimited wealth if the cap is given back to Yaksh.

According to family lore of Ambardars, one of their ancestors is believed to have seized the cap of Yaksh. After the cap was returned to Yaksh, the Ambardar families were exempted from offering the oblation of Khitchdi to Yaksh on the ritual of Khitchdiamavsya. The same family lore states that once one of their ancestors, who in violation of this exemption dared to observe the ritual of Khitchdiamavsya had his house engulfed by fire. Since that time the Ambardar families of Kashmir continue to abstain from observing the said ritual. 

Observance of the Ritual:

On the evening of Khichdi Amavasya (Khaechimavas), rice mixed with turmeric powder and ungrinded moong dal is cooked. Khichdi is also prepared with meat or cheese as per the individual family's tradition. Khichdi cooked with sanctimonious purity is kept either on a fresh earthen plate (toke) seated on a hand woven circular grass base called 'aer' or in a 'thali'. Adjacent to it, a pestle (Kajvut) is also seated on a round grass base (aer) in an upright state.

During the ritualistic pooja, tilak is applied to the pestle. The pestle is a symbolic representation of Lord Kuber, the King of Yakshas. After the completion of navigational pooja, the offering of Khichdi kept in the earthen plate and seated on the grass base (aer) is placed on the court yard wall of the house. Afterwards, the consecrated potion of Khichdi is taken by the family members as 'prasad' either with uncooked reddish or Knolkhol pickle.

In some rural areas of Kashmir, Khichdi of 'mash dal' called 'Maha Khaechar' or Khichdi of black beans or 'Varimuth' is also cooked. It is prepared for the domestic cattle. This kind ofKhichdi along with a bit of honey is kept in the cowsheds, paddy storage room (daan-kuth) and on cowdung heaps. In the morning it is fed to the cows. As per belief, it not only increases the milk giving capacity of the cows but also protects them from the various ailments as the Lord Kuber is also the Lord of domestic cattle. It bears close resemblance with a practice followed in certain rural pockets of Uttranchal and Himachal, where pooja is performed in the cowsheds. The pestle kept during the ritual of Khichdi Amvasaya is symbolic representation of our steadfastness and unwavering faith for the said ritual. It is also metaphoric representation of the hilly regions where Yakshas lived in the past.

The pestle denotes the absolute formlessness of the all powerful God. On the evening of Khichdi Amavasya, a few Pandit families of Sopore township of Baramulla district make a bonfire of wood on the riverbank (Yarbal) and burn crackers. It is believed to bestow health as fire is supposed to consume all kinds of human ailments since Yakshapati, Lord Kuber is also regarded as the deity of health.

Sharing a ritual related incident of the year 1981, Sh. PN Tikoo, a retired engineer of Vijayanagar, Talab Tillo Jammu, recalled. "The residents of the newly constructed government quarters of Khannabal, Anantnag (Kashmir) were baffled by the unusual sounds of 'waaf', heard continuously during wintery nights. All the measures undertaken by the residents neither stopped the unusual sounds nor led us to the origin of sound. Astonishingly, the sounds of 'waaf' stopped the moment I made a ceremonial offering of Khichdi to Yaksh".

All the rituals need to be celebrated with fervour and faith as they give spiritual resonance to our lives.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel



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