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VITASTA ANNUAL NUMBER: Volume XXXV (2001-2002)

Social Geography of Kashmiri Pandits-The ancient Kashmirians
Prof. K. N. Pandita, Jammu

Social topography sounds something unique or bizarre. In the context of ancient Kashmir, it certainly is of its class. Kashmir geography has a mystique of its own. That is about its scenic beauty and its pristine environs.

Kashmir's geography is something the like of which we find in Switzerland. But Switzerland is exclusively beautiful and attractive. Its beauty owes more to human love for nature and ingenuity of making it more attractive. This has not been the case with Kashmir. If her nature was not tempered with, that in its own place would have been a contribution.

Alas Kashmir's topography has been tampered with; its pristine purity and beauty have been vandalised and man's greed has made the nature pay a heavy price. Its lakes have been defiled, its streams have been dirtied, its meadows have been grabbed, its springs have been spoilt, its jungles have been dewooded, its indigenous fruits and flowers have been cloned and its mystifying picnic sites have been converted into commercial complexes. Nothing could be more disastrous for a heavenly place wrought by savage instincts of human beings. History will not spare the generations of Kashmiris who wrought such a havoc to this land of sages and seers.

Anybody seriously interested in the social geography of Kashmir should read the Ancient Geography of kashmir by Aural Stein, the translator of Kalhana's Rajatarangini. One is wonder-struck by the manner in which ancient Kashmiris attached the element of sanctimony to the environs and objects of nature in Kashmir.

We do not find the like of Mahatmayas in the history and culture of any other people in the world. We do have the recorded description of shrines and holy places, but the Mahtamyas of ancient Kashmir are something unique. It may be given the name of social geography of Kashmir because these deal with various objects of social importance connected with particular manifestation of nature. We have the Vitasta Mahatmya giving the topography, route, place names, shrines, products, social functions etc. connected with the river Vitasta called Jehlum after the name of the town where the Vitasta meets with Chenab (Chandrabhaga), now in PoK. Likewise we have the Martand Mahatmya that gives us the details of the topography of Matan close to which place Martand sun-temple existed.

All mountains in Kashmir and valleys they form, hills and hillocks, heights and declensions were given a proper name by the ancient people of Kashmir. These names are generally embedded in Hindu mythology. Many of these are woven around the local folklore. Pilgrims to Amarnath cave or to Gangbal in northern Kashmir were required to perform particular rites at particular mountain heights. Rites were performed on the banks of lakesand springs to commemorate history of their origin. Not only that, even glaciers also received attention while pilgrims marched on to some holy destination.

It is of much significance to note that ancient Kashmiris developed familiar liaison with the environs in which they lived. The New Year (Navreh = nava varsha) day's celebrations remind us of the ancient Aryan tradition that has lingered on with the entire race of Indo-Aryans in one form or the other. In Kashmir, this day had a special meaning and a message because that was the beginning of enormously enticing spring season of Kashmir. It was the season of blossoms and vegetation in abundance. Therefore a visit to the adjoining garden or open green space became a part of social gathering.

Every spring close to this or that habitat in ancient times, became a place of worship. The essential purpose behind converting the spot into a place of worship was to maintain its purity and cleanliness. By attributing some religious sanctity to the spring, it got insulated against defilement. This is how the ancient Kashmiris ensured ecological balance and cleanliness.

Tall and beautiful trees of Kashmir, particularly the fir and the conifer, were also made the objects of ritualistic sanctity. In particular "deodar" literally meaning the `wood of the gods' elicited special care. It was magnificent and imposing; it had the maximum utility for the ancient Kashmirian who used timber extensively for construction. As such its felling was sacrilege. Ancient Kashmiris were the worshippers of Shiva and subscribed to the Shaivite philosophy. Shiva's abode is said to be in the mountain of Kailash. As such, the mountain that is made up of so many objects, the snow, running brooks, vegetation, flora and fauna, lightening, hurricane and snow storm - manifestations of Indira - is the most sacred of earthly objects. This gives river Ganges its sanctimony.

As Shaivites, ancient Kashmirian kept the linga, the symbol of Shiva in his home and worshipped it. One of the rituals is to pour water over the linga each morning when it is worshipped. The tradition says that the water poured on the lings was collected in a container and poured on the lings was collected in a container and poured over the roots of a sapling planted in the compound. This is how the ancient Kashmirian fraternised with nature and its objects.

The fierce and aggressive side of nature was not unknown to the ancient Kashmirian. He knew that once gods unleashed their wrath, immense devastation followed consuming humans, beasts and objects of nature alike. Thus an earthquake, a flood, a devastating fire or a massive avalanche were the manifestations of anger and wrath of the gods in heaven. When an earthquake occurred, the ancient Kashmirian poured a pitcher of water on the ground symbolising the concept of cooling down the anger of the bull on whose horns the earth rested.

It will be noticed that invariably, the temples and worshipping sites of ancient Kashmirians were situated close to the river bank, a spring, a running brook or a well. Water and fire have been the inseparable parts of his social life. Water is the very life-line on which the entire universe depends. That is why according to Hindu mythology life sprang from water. Fire is the greatest discovery man has made. Therefore fire (agni in Sanskrit, ignus in Latin, atar in Zend-Avesta) became the object of worship because it radically changed the life of man. It protected him against the ferocious animals, against cold and cooked his food. It entered into the veins of his ritualistic life. In ancient Iran, fire was distributed into three categories; the fire of royalty (azar gushnasp), the fire of soldiers (azar apadgan) and the fire of farmers (azar barzin). But the ancient Kashmirian did not make this distribution. Nevertheless, he went a step farther by declaring that none of his social functions, like the offerings to gods (havan), thread ceremony (yagnopavit), marriage, death rites, remembrances of the dead (shraadha), birthday celebrations (janam divas) etc. were complete without lighting fire and making offering to fire-god (agnidevta). Kashmir being a cold region with long and harsh winters of snow and blizzards, fire had special significance for its people. The saints and hermits, who generally renounced worldly life and lived in secluded places, always lit a big fire called (dhuni) raking the flames without interruption. Visitors sat round the dhuni listening to the discourse of the hermit. Thus the god of fire (agnidevta) came to be worshipped along with other gods. A few sites of hydrocarbon deposits that produce lignite were also known to ancient Kashmiris. They wondered that the god of fire manifested himself through leaping flames from the bossom of earth. It was given the name of soyam and soyambhava meaning the land with self-created flame. Thus the present corrupted form of the place name Bhumae (at a distance of about 6 kilometers from Sopor) has to be traced to soyambhava. There was a fire-worshipping shrine at Bhumae and people came to make offering.

Taking into considerations of the difficult and mountainous terrain of their land, a journey outside the confines of Kashmir to the plains was always considered a big ordeal. People avoided it as far as they could. Being part of the vast Hindu religious and mythological milieu, the ancient Kashmirian showed his ingenuity in creating all the important shrines (tirthas) of the Hindus within the confines of the Kashmir. Thus we have Gangbal or the Gangotri in the mountains of Baltal and Zoji La, Amarnath the prototype of Mount Kailash of Shiva's abode, Prayag at the confluence of Vitasta and Sindhu near Sumbal and the prototype of Prayagraja, Kotitirtha (a thousand tirthas) at Baramulla on the banks of Vitasta etc. These are the holiest of holy shrines, the great symbols of social geography and topography of Kashmir.

The ancient Kashmirian social life is perhaps the most amusing example of pleasant harmony between man and nature. To divest him of his association with nature is unimaginable. He reversed, loved, feared and worshipped nature. He sought refuge in nature from all calamities befalling him including natural calamity. Defiling the objects of nature like water, fire, vegetation, life, flora and fauna was among sins and asked for punishment.



The author is the former Director, Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University, Srinagar.

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