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VITASTA ANNUAL NUMBER: Volume XXXII (1998-1999)

THE FLAVOUR OF KASHMIR

- FESTIVALS AND RITUALS

Anju Munshi

All festivals apart from their religious and communal connotations have one more thought behind them. That is to unite the people with a thread of oneness and bind the people morally and spiritually, in an attempt to transfer the ethos of a community from one generation to another. Another very important aspect of these festivals is to ensure a full presence at one's home, by way of some rituals that necessitate the members to take part in the activities, and thus celebrate the auspicious days with the entire family. The same holds true of the Kashmiri festivals, the spirit reigns high and the general mood is upbeat, there is gaiety and fervour that penetrates the sensibilities of young and old alike.

The most important festivals that are celebrated with a zeal are 'Maha-Shivratri', 'Janamashtami', 'Jyesht Ashtami' and 'Navreh'. This is talking about a few ones that have stood the onslaught of time. These four festivals are a collection of various rituals and myths, reading and knowing of which becomes quite interesting. In its real essence, these festivals inculcate certain disciplines, that are instrumental in getting the whole family together and also paving the way for an opportunity for the youngsters to imbibe some important traits like comradeship, obedience and also a sense of tradition.

SHIVRATRI

Generally most of the people in Kashmir take 'Herath' as the marriage day of Lord Shiva with 'Uma' while outside Kashmir it is taken as the day when Lord Shiva manifested in His human form on the earth to bless His devotees and redeem them. Shivratri in Kashmir is popularly known as 'Herath'. All through the ages people have given various meanings to 'Herath'. Some trace it back to the times of the Pathan occupation of the valley, when alien rulers forced the people to celebrate the festival in the summer month of 'Asada', instead of 'Phalguna'. The forced alteration in the timings of these celebrations brought a lot of misery upon the valley. There were inexplicable changes, snowfall in the summer months that resulted in crop failure and consequent famine. The Pathans called it 'Hairath', a Persian word for utter surprise. The word has ever since clung on to the memories of the Kashmiri people.

The main important festival. It starts from the first day of 'Phalgun', dark fortnight [Hur Okdoh] and ends on 'Tela ashtami', lunar fortnight of Phalgun, which as the common belief goes, the cold and wintry days are on way to bid goodbye and are heralding the approach of summers. From this day i.e. the first day, the entire house is cleaned and washed - the walls, the floors, linen, utensils, everything receives a face lift and is made to look wonderfully perfect. On 'Hur Ashtami' that comes in-between, on the eighth day people organise religious kirtans, jagran originally at 'Hari Parvat', 'Pokhribal' and 'Khirbhawani'. Fish is a very important item to be cooked on all these days of fun and merrymaking. On 'Dyara Daham' the day of the Laxmi, the new krides come wearing new clothes and bring with them 'Herath' Bhog' [Shivratri Kharcha] i.e. presents-in kind and cash for her inlaws. Besides the new brides, all ladies who come back from their parent's homes bring presents and 'Atagat', and also 'Kangri', symbolic of goodluck and prosperity. This small gesture pleasantly enough still carries on and is treated as a very good omen.

'Gad Kah' comes soon after on the eleventh day. This day fish is bought home and cleaned and fried for the main day, followed by 'Wager Bah', the day when new earthenware, specially prepared for the occasion is installed in the 'Puja room'. This marks the beginning of 'Herath'. Walnuts have a very important role to play in this festival. The shape represents the universe. They are filled in earthen pots covered with water up to the top. This water has to be changed every day. The 'Watuk' consists of a big earthen pitcher, two small ones and two smaller ones, one elephant trunk shaped figure, seven bowls decorated with flowers and 'Sindoor'. They represent Shiva Parvati, Ram Brahmin, Seven Rishis, Ganesa and some other Rishis. These walnuts are washed and placed into the pitchers of and seven bowls. Then these are filled with water and some milk and Mishri is poured into each one of them. Pooja is started at 'Pradosh Kala' [dusk] and all the family members take part in it and the same carries on till late in the night. The fast is broken and boiled rice with a variety of cooked vegetables is taken. The Shivratri comes to a close in the evening of 'Amavasya'. The walnuts in the pitchers are taken out and washed. Pooja is once again performed, signifying the culmination of the Festival. The 'Samgri' and the flowers used are immersed in the river. Walnuts are used as Prashad and distributed amongst the neighbours and friends.

NAVREH [NAVSAMVATSARA]

According to the lunar calendar, it is the first day of the New Year. It is also the beginning of Navratras. As per the custom, a thali is filled with rice, and some articles are placed on top of rice - like milk-pot, flowers, walnut, pen, coins or a currency note, Jantri [panchang of the new lunar calendar], boiled rice, sugar, salt, baked rice flour bread or any bread, and pictures of Vishnu and Parvati. This plate is filled on the eve of 'Navreh'. Early in the morning the grandnZother or any elderly lady or the mother gets up and brings this Thali for darshan to every member of the family. It is considered a good omen for the New Year. The rice of the Thali is cooked into 'tahar'. Navratras are celebrated with great devotion and faith. New clothes are worn on this day and people generally make merry. People in Kashmir used to go to 'Hari-Parbat' for a picnic, usually to the Mughal gardens.

JANAMASHTAMI

Lord Krishna's birthday is celebrated on the eighth day of Bhadrapada with great devotion and faith. Fast is kept and broken at the rise of the moon. This festival is important in case of a recent wedding at home. The new bride gets gifts in kind and cash for her in-laws. The gift hamper usually consists of seasonal fruits and sweetmeats. Because of the perishable nature of these goodies, the modern gifts have undergone a slight change in the sense that dry fruits have slowly replaced the tradition of fresh fruits. Temples are decorated and people in large numbers perform Pooja.

JYESHTA ASHTAMI

The day of the goddess sees many people fasting and praying, and seeking her blessings. Back home, people visit the holy shrine at Khirbhawani. The entire day is spent in prayers and for the children it is a sort of a picnic. People coming to the holy place from long distance would come a day before, with an idea to grab the vantage places, well shaded by the mighty Chinar trees and close to the sacred spring. A scene of total devotion and a spirit of a gay abandon prevailed.

MAHANAVMI

In olden days, arms and ammunition were I worshipped, along with Goddess Durga. Now the practice of worshipping arms and ammunitions is gone and only Goddess Durga is worshipped at 'Hari Parvat', 'Durganag' and 'Akingam'.

CHAITRA NAVMI

What is celebrated as Ramnavmi in Northern India is the ninth bright day of Chaitra, when Goddess Bhadrakali is worshipped. Navratras come to an end on this day and fast is also kept. Bhadra Kali is a famous temple on a hilltop in Kupwara district. There is a statue of Bhadra Kali which is worshipped on Chaitra Navmi.

VASTA POOJA

Another auspicious day in the month of Chaitra, when 'Graha-devta' [god of the house] is worshipped and offerings are made to him for the well-being and protection of the whole family. Today this festival is celebrated only on Tuesdays or Saturdays, in the month of 'Pausha'. 'Gaddabatta', i.e. fish cooked with rice is offered to the house deity after performing Pooja.

KHICH-MAWAS

This falls on the fifteenth day of the moon's waning in Poh, and it is a day for the propitiation of evil spirits, who are conciliated by an offering of rice and pulses.

Apart from these main days of festivity, there are some rituals that have overtones of a festive spirit and cannot just be left out. Some rituals like 'Marghashirsha Poornima', a day when rice boiled with turmeric along with Pooja is offered to the house deity, 'Kah Nethar', 'Mekhal' or the thread ceremony, marriage rituals and as a grand finale to everything, 'Tile Dwadashi' - when Shradh of the dead is performed with oil and sesame seeds, 'Shradha Paksha' etc.

The observance of these rituals and festivals speaks of a highly civilised and cultured Kashmiri society. Nilmata Purana describes in detail which rituals and festivals are to be celebrated on a particular day of the year. Both men and women participated in them. They kept fasts and prayed to different Gods and Goddesses. In fact these festivals were started for the need to have an outlet by way of providing some days of fun and frolic and eventually lead to prosperity, health and happiness of the people. Mr. Walter R. Lawrence, the then settlement commissioner of Jammu and Kashmir in the British period has given a lucid detail of the rituals and ceremonies of Kashmiri Pandits in the state. In one of the references, he talks about the ritual cycle of a Kashmiri Pandit right from the day of his birth to his end moments and also the Shradh ceremonies.

A JOURNEY OF LIFE AND DEATH - BEGINNING TO END

A Hindu child is ushered in to this world by noting down the exact time of the birth, a job done by the astrologer. The mother is known as a 'rosa' and if this is her first child, then she is called a 'sadh piai'. On the ninth day after the birth, called 'sunder' the mother and the child are bathed at an auspicious hour and after bathing, seven vessels either of clay or bronze are filled with food. These vessels represent seven deities, and as some are flesh eating deities and some vegetarian, the food chosen has to be selected with care. Seven women of the household must be present to represent the seven deities. After the food has been made holy, the midwife lights a torch of birch bark and waves it around the heads of the mother and child and finally flings it into an earthen bowl filled with water. When a child is a month old, the day is celebrated in the name of 'mas-nethar' and in the third year the ceremony of shaving the child's head takes place - 'zar-kasay', a very joyous occasion. The food on this occasion is known as 'wari' end for her services the paternal aunt receives congratulatory gifts - 'zany' of rice, salt and cash and all the relatives and friends feast heartily on the 'warts'. In the case of the girl, there is no shaving of the head and the hair of the boy is buried carefully under a tree. When the boy has attained the age of seven years as per the ancient Kashmiri belief, and before he reaches his thirteenth year, he must become a true Brahmin - the Yagneopavit ceremony. On the day, after the ritual of the sacred thread being put around the boy's neck, coins and shells are thrown over his head, and he is then carried in state down to the river to perform his first prayer ceremonies.

Then the next important thing in the life of the boy is his marriage. 'Mehendiraat' and 'Devgon' are performed and decked out in the same brave fashion as the groom is another boy - 'the pot maharaja' or the best man. Before the bridegroom is allowed to enter his house, he must pay money to his maternal and paternal aunt or sister who bars the door. The gifts to the bride from her father are numerous but noteworthy are two - 'Dijhuru', and the 'Chandanhar'. The 'Dijhuru' are ear ornaments of pure gold, of a mystic shape and the 'Chandanhaar' is a gold ornament worn around the neck, and it is given to the bride by her father-in-law. Overall, marriage in a Kashmiri society is a joyous ceremony.

Death has its own ways, by way of rituals that are observed quite rigidly. When a person breathes his last, his body is laid on the straw bed, and a lamp is kept alight by his head, day and night. Near it is placed a tray full of sesame seeds with a coin. The son of the deceased lights the funeral pyre, but the work of cremation is done by the Musalmans called Kawji. For ten days the house where the death has taken place is unclean and no one eats food cooked in there, and for ten days, while the soul of the deceased is on its journey, rites for the dead are performed on the river bank.

We are indebted to our ancestors for laying out the rules so clearly before us. There is more freedom when you know your limits, and to set the boundaries is a mammoth job which is already done.
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Views expressed by authors in Vitasta Annual Number are not necessarily of Kashmir Sabha, Kolkata.

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