In Kashmir, pilgrimages diffuse Hindu-Muslim tensions

Kashmiris of Hindu and Muslim faiths celebrate the festival Kheer Bhavani, named after a Kashmiri Hindu goddess. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Kashmiris of Hindu and Muslim faiths celebrate the festival Kheer Bhavani, named after a Kashmiri Hindu goddess. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

SRINAGAR, Kashmir, India — Aejaz Hussain takes a month off every year to serve thousands of Hindu pilgrims journeying through rough Himalayan terrains in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir to the Amarnath cave, a Hindu shrine and temple.

The Amarnath Yatra (pilgrimage) started in July and will continue the rest of the month. Local Kashmiri Muslims spearhead the pilgrimage arrangements. In fact, it was a Kashmiri Muslim family that discovered the cave more than 150 years ago. The locals were also instrumental in relief and rescue operations in 1996, when a snow storm killed 200 people on the pilgrimage route.

Hussain, a Muslim businessman from Jammu city, sets up stalls to welcome the pilgrims as they enter Kashmir. The territory is occupied by the Indian army and marred with decades of armed conflict between the Indian government and Kashmiri militants. It’s also claimed in part by Pakistan and China. Kashmiris make up the largest majority-Muslim region in India, with a language resembling Persian and Arabic and culture more similar to Pakistan than North India.

If you visit Kashmir valley, it’s hard to find Kashmiris without relatives and friends who’ve disappeared or been shot in “encounters” with Indian police and soldiers, who tend to be Hindu. Hussain’s welcoming of the Hindu pilgrims by garlanding them in line with Hindu custom and serving them porridge counters the media narrative of division and hate between Muslims and Hindus in India.

Over the years, Hussain has befriended many Hindu pilgrims and has kept in touch with them. He says people believe in different religions, but faith is universally the same.

Many local Kashmiri Muslims set up food stalls to sell meals to the Hindu pilgrims. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Many local Kashmiri Muslims set up food stalls to sell meals to the Hindu pilgrims. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

“We have set up a community kitchen for the pilgrims and serve them dishes and porridge before they set out for the pilgrimage in our state. They are our guests and we welcome them heartily,” Hussain said.

It’s also big business for an area with high unemployment. Jammu and Kashmir often tops Indian states for unemployment, measured at 25 percent of the working population unemployed in 2017 versus 13 percent nationally.

Since the 2016 capture and killing of a popular Kashmiri militant, Burhan Wani, rising numbers of Kashmiri youth have joined rebel militant groups to fight the army, according to Indian government counts. Headlines from Kashmir often mention youth who are shot and killed for protesting or their involvement with the militant separatists who want either an independent Kashmir or to join Pakistan.

And this past February, a Kashmiri suicide bomber and member of a Pakistani Islamist terrorist group killed 40 Indian security officers, further fueling Hindu nationalism, anti-Muslim sentiment and the desire for a strong defense against Pakistan among voters in the national election that analysts believe helped reelect Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A quick bite at Hussain’s stall is a ritual many Hindu pilgrims religiously follow each year, as a way to kickstart their annual pilgrimage to Amarnath.

“It feels so nice to begin our pilgrimage on a sweet note, we never miss to visit this stall whenever we make the pilgrimage,” said Govind, a pilgrim from the west Indian state of Gujarat.

About 350 km from Jammu at the Amarnath Yatra (pilgrimage) base in Pahalgam, Kashmir, Sabir Ahmad sells Kashmiri handicrafts to the pilgrims. He’s one of 5,000 Muslim traders and shopkeepers who welcome the Hindu pilgrims to the tourist town, known for its spectacular valley views.

“We exchange contacts and phone numbers with the pilgrims, that helps us to stay connected, we call each other on festivals, like Hindu pilgrims call us on Eid and we make calls and send messages to them on Diwali,” said Ahmad. Eid and Diwali are the two most popular holidays for Muslims and Hindus, respectively.

Kashmiri Hindus pray for peace in the valley

While Amarnath Yatra gives a major push for reconciliation between Hindus from the rest of India and Muslims in Kashmir, another local pilgrimage, the Kheer Bhavani festival, is helping to build bonds between Muslims and Kashmiri Hindus separated by strife and conflict in Kashmir. It is acting as a catalyst for bringing reconciliation between communities divided by violence. In the 1990’s, hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus lost their homes and fled attacks by Muslim militants in Jammu and Kashmir.

Last month, thousands of Kashmiri Hindus returned to Kashmir to celebrate the annual festival Mata Kheer Bhawani, named after the Kashmiri Hindu goddess. The occasion was the Zysetha Asthami, one of the pious days when Hindus pray and celebrate the Mother Goddess, and the venue, the ancient temple of Mata Kheer Bhawani temple, 30 km from the capital, Srinagar. 

Hindu pilgrims pray at the shrine of the Kashmiri goddess Kheer Bhawani. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Hindu pilgrims pray at the shrine of the Kashmiri goddess Kheer Bhawani. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

The festival symbolized Kashmir’s religious harmony and was an occasion to revive the strong bonds between the different communities in the valley and to pray for the return of Kashmiri pandits, another name for Kashmiri Hindus.

Like with the Amarnath pilgrimage, the local Muslims work for the Hindus to find comfortable lodgings and space to pray in Kashmir.

“We wait for this day, the day when pandits come here, we also do good earning,” said Ghulam Mohammad, a local Kashmiri shopkeeper.

The government too has chipped in by facilitating travel of the displaced Kashmiri Hindu community to the Kashmir valley. The government provides free transportation facilities from important centers where Kashmiri Hindus have settled, like Delhi and Jammu in North India. Kashmiri pandits who have settled abroad also often join this unique occasion of solidarity and prayers between the communities.

For people like 80-year-old Padmavati, the festival was a homecoming. Thirty years ago, she migrated from Anantnag District in south Kashmir to the northern city of Jammu.

She has returned with her family for the Kheer Bhavani pilgrimage, praying for peace in the Kashmir valley and a safe return of Kashmiri Hindus living like refugees in other Indian states.

“I am praying to God for the safety of all Kashmiris,” Padmavati said. “We should return to our homes in Kashmir and live together in the same way we used to do in the past. We stood for each other, and the future should reflect that past bonding and affection.”