Almost everywhere in Kashmir, the gods are under lock and key

Almost everywhere in Kashmir, the gods are under lock and key
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Civilisations do not last forever but they leave behind their fine imprints, traces and quests for the future to pursue. Which civilisation do I belong to now? Or which civilisation have I drifted from? My eclectic claims to my identity lay scattered in an alien land. A journey in the valley, dotted by remnants of the past, was a pilgrimage for my soul, homage to my parents and their memories, and my own memories.

I ambled through the ruins of the ancient temples at Parihaspura, Fatehgarh, Pattan, Buniar and Martand, where I marvelled at the massiveness of the ancient structures, remnants of Kashmiri architecture. I felt a magnificence standing tall through the ravages of time with remarkable durability, tickling the imagination even in the present time considered much advanced. For me, it was the sense of my glorious history that made me joyful and proud: the sense that the ruins belonged to me and I always belonged here.

As I further travelled through the valley, my gaze fell on the vandalised and desecrated temples and their derelict condition, smudged even more by offensive graffiti inscribed on their walls. Throughout my time in the valley, about a week, a bizarre thought crossed me – my god, almost everywhere, is under lock and key or under guard.

My god, is he vulnerable or is it my faith that makes me the other, or the insecurity of the vandal’s interpretation of his faith? I wondered. And then at Ganesh Bal, a temple of Lord Ganesh in Srinagar, under the protection of the local police – Lord Ganesh, a deity revered as a protector and guard – I surmised that perhaps god too, is a conspirator.

At Badshah’s tomb in Zaina Kadal, both inside and outside, I found Saracenic and pre-Islamic totems merge, a result of failed attempts at iconoclasm. And my mind trailed off to envisage Harsha’s and Sikandar’s depredations that persecuted my community long before I had come face to face with the sacred pond at Vicharnag – that once was a seat of spiritual learning and discourses, and was also visited by his holiness Jagat Guru Shankaracharya – dilapidated and in ruins and forsaken by its devotees.

I speculated if our faith had anything to do with it or if there was a method to this madness. History of human civilisation is replete with horrible stories where entire clans have been erased, their religious and cultural symbols wiped clean for the sole reason that they belonged to a different ethnic sect, community, faith, nationality, or culture or just over the diversity of being iconic or aniconic – Buddhas of Bamiyan and Sufi shrines.

I wondered about the psychological upheavals and erasure of ethos that the survivors are faced with; from Armenia to the Jewish holocaust, to Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, many more, scores of surviving stories impelling one to think if it really has to do with just a belief that a belligerent persecutor or a vandal follows to deliberately obliterate the cultural and intellectual roots of a particularity, indulging in damnatio memoriae with a view to seek ascendancy. I pondered: what faiths and religious beliefs are meant for humanity to profess?

I couldn’t believe that revulsion and instilling fear could be the characteristics and a proponent of a faith – the desire to exist alone and in supremacy. And then I wonder if Camus has the reply when he says, “The law of this world is nothing but the law of force; its driving force, the will to power.”

My desire to visit the Kali temple took me to the monastery of the evangelist Shah-e-Hamadan. My soul sensed resentment from some unseen spiritual presence which dissipated in a couple of hours, and I felt I was welcomed into the essence of the monastery after I had paid obeisance at the remnants of the Kali temple. And then I reached the ancient Shankaracharya temple.

The stoical appearance of the idol filled me with sublimity; something within me felt inebriated and attuned to the mirth of this realisation of unattained but attainable self-awareness. The incipient power of some divine light filled me with joy, which streamed down from my eyes in the form of tears. I felt that the part of my self that had vanished came back and was healed. Even as the environs were pervaded with the fragrance of the marigolds and the leaves of bilva I found a subtle assurance of a resurrection and growth of all; the Pandits, marred with identity crises and a receding sense of belonging and the Muslims, beset with hopelessness and a life bereft of ‘freedom’. I felt acknowledged and re-assured and joyous.

Our intertwined histories come in the way of our conflicting memories.

Excerpted with permission from “My House of Stone”, by Neeru Kaul, from A Long Dream Of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits, edited by Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma, Bloomsbury.