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VITASTA ANNUAL NUMBER: Volume XXXV (2001-2002)

Hariparbat and the Hindu Pantheon
(A Parikrima back in Time)
Dr. K. L. Chowdhury, Jammu

The vale of Kashmir is famous for its beauty, its exquisite scenic places and sacred pilgrim centers. Name a hamlet in Kashmir where you do not have an abode of God in the lap of a spring, on the bank of a stream, near a river ghat, on the ridge of a hill, inside a cave, in the hallow of a Chinar trunk, on a snowy mountain slope or a verdured plateau. God is truly omnipresent in Kashmir. But nowehere can you find nearly the whole pantheon of Hindu deities, domiciled close to each other as around the hillock of Hariparbat. The denizens of the city of Srinagar are truly blessed to be able to undertake a sequence of pilgrimages that lie within their daily reach on a five kilometer trail around Hariparbat along a track hallowed by tradition and time.

Nearly 5 decades back, when I was in my teens, thousands of pilgrims made that daily near 2-hour circumambulation, paying obeisance to their Gods and Goddesses as they strolled from one temple to another, going round in clockwise direction, chanting, singing, praying. The number of devotees dwindled over the years and shrank to a few hundred as people moved away from the downtown to the suburbs. They shrank further as religious intolerance caught Kashmir in its dragnet and the devotees shied away from that exhilirating morning constitutional cum devotional enterprise. In 1989-90 Islamic terrorism opened its fangs on the Hindus, driving them into exile and forcibly separating them from their beloved pantheon. All that remains of that daily festive scene of a stream of pilgrims going around Hariparbat is the abandoned and forlorn gods seeking their devotees who can now only afford a mental journey of that Parikrima made during those halcyon days.

Hariparbat (Mt. Hari) is a hillock in the heart of the old walled city of Srinagar about 7 kilometers from Amirakadal (the first bridge across river Vitasta). It takes its name from the goddess who changed into a myna (Hari) and picked a stone in her beak and threw it where it transformed into the hillock nearly 400 feet high, adorning the city like a shining jewel. Thus sanctified, this hillock became the abode of numerous deities worshiped by their admiring devotees down the ages. During their reign, the Moghul kings built a fort on the hillock and King Akbar, in order to provide a livelihood to his hungry subjects, ordered the construction of a high wall around the hill and adjoining large swaths of land. A number of gates puncture the wall in different directions. The wall called Kalai stands dilapidated but still functional in large stretches to provide a walkway. Two north bound streams of pilgrims starting much before dawn, men women and children, some barefooted, others poorly clad, most carrying rice to be given away as alms and flowers to be offered to the gods, from Rainawari and from the main city of seven bridges merge at Sangeen Darwaza (the stone gate). A large line of beggars, on either side of nearly 200-meter stretch of the road here provides a sorry spectacle. The devotees, as they move along towards the first stop at the temple of Ganesha, toss a handful of rice and a few pennies onto a small piece of cloth spread in front of each beggar.

The Ganesha temple is rightly the first in the pantheon here since Hindus undertake all tasks, religious or secular, by invoking the blessings of the lord. Ganesha is represented by a massive vermilion-smeared bossy, bumpy rock formation, symbolizing the elephantine head of the venerated god. A mere touch sends divine vibrations from the lord of wisdom up your arm to the very center of the head. In the rock are sculptured Siva, Parvati and Ganesh figurines. A Siva Lingum of granite is installed on the right side of the rock formation. Some pilgrims pray from outside the temple, standing in front of the grilled windows while most enter inside. Here they sit, anoint their foreheads with saffron and vermilion, and pray and sing hymns in praise of the lord, washing the lord with milk, ringing bells, lighting oil and ghee lamps, burning incense, offering flowers. On the right of the temple, almost flanking it, is the long flight of stairs leading to the Dargah of Mukdoom Sahib, a saint revered by both Hindus and Muslims. Milk, oil lamps, candy cones and flowers and the herb, vena is available for offerings from Muslim vendors near the temple entrance. Begels, hot from the oven, are available from nearby bakers, to be fed, as another alms giving act by the faithful, to the mongrels loitering around the place. Wagging tails, they jump on their hind legs as they follow the crumbs tossed by the moving pilgrims and deftly catch them in their mouths.

The track from the temple of Ganesha leads through a meandering footpath along the hill and through strewn stones and sparse bushes to a small rectangular flat piece of land nearly 450 meters away and marked by a few Chinars and seven large granite stones that represent the seven sages (Sapt Rishi). The pilgrims walk around the Sapt Rishi in a Parikrama to pay obeisance and stop near a bigger boulder athwart the footpath with a scalloped top strewn with pebbles. This is the rock of fortune. Here they pick a handful of pebbles and count them. An odd count presages good luck while an even number evens out all the difficulties. Students often try their luck on this fortune stone after having taken their annual tests.

Nearby, in the foothills, the devotees walk to the temple of the black goddess, the demon-slayer, Kali, who grants protection from evil forces. From there you wade through sprawling fields, the almond grooves (Badam vari). The almond orchards slope down from the foothills to the wall (Kalai). They are most fabulous in spring in their pink-white blossoms, an invitation to the denizens of the city to say good bye to winter and come out with their mats, samovars and picnic paraphernalia, to sip cupfuls of steaming tea and to feast on chestnuts roasted on burning grass. All you have to do is to look for a couple of stones, a flat one on which to place the chestnut and a round one to beat it with so that the kernel is separated from the shell. You never tire savoring this delicacy till your hands are bruised with the effort and the mouths are black with soot. The girls thread the petals of almond blossoms into garlands. The boys break a few blossom studded twigs off the trees and flaunt them to each other and to the girls.

Some climb the hill to fly kites from the heights in the spring breeze while others try their hand at a game of cards. It is a festive crowd, all communities, and all age groups. There are the usual shopping delights and fun games and the merry-go-rounds, the balloon-sellers and the snake charmers, the magicians and the kaleidoscopists vending a peep into bollywood. The most frequented are the stalls of the confectioners dishing out the delectable nadir munjas (flour-dipped lotus stalk fried out of boiling oil) and luchas (loaves of fine flour fried out of boiling ghee).

From the Kali temple the pilgrim progresses to an archway that leads up a flight of 108 stairs to the Chakreshwari temple. Near the archway is a small Siva temple, which also houses some antique sculptures of deities. The old and infirm who find the ascent difficult face towards the Chakreshwari and invoke her blessings from here. Others climb the stairs and pass through an alley to enter a small courtyard. Here they ring the large bell hanging near the parapet on the retaining wall to announce their arrival in the august presence of goddess Chakreshwari and enjoy the breathtaking aerial view of the town in the distance and the mountain ranges far away that gird the valley.

The presiding deity faces you directly as you ascend another short flight of stairs and step on to a small stone-paved amphitheater. She stands there in hard rock pasted with vermilion, formless and flat with a wide base and the sides rising up to a relatively round top, striking instant admiration and wonder. While trying to capture the image of the deity seeking a head, a torso and even the limbs where there are none you soon realize that she is beyond ordinary imagination and that is why she is symbolized in this sacred rock so you could sculpt the goddess of your own imagination. Yes, she is Chakreshwari, so named and famed because of the emblem of Chakra engraved in the rock. In Tantra the geometrical configuration of Chakra with its triangles, rectangles and circles emanating from a central point relates to life and the cosmic forces. The philosophic and theological interpretation apart, Chakreshwari is the incarnation of Sharika, the 18-armed goddess, the benevolent deity, drawing devotees to herself, granting them boons and fulfilling their wishes when they come in pure faith. She comes down from her abode on the hill, on her mount, the lion, for a night stroll in the lawns below, the familiar Devi Angan (the compound of the deity). It is here that pilgrims sit cross-legged in meditation for hours. It is here that she is said to have revealed herself to Pandit Madhav Dhar, one of her ardent devotees who never missed paying his obeisance to her every night while going round the hill in a parikrama.

`I am glad with your devotion, Madhav Ram. Name a boon and it shall be granted', the deity commanded. `Your visitation is all I craved for and I desire no more boon except to be in your favour, my liege', he replied as he fell at her feet in ecstasy and wonder. When she insisted Madhav Dhar desired her to be born as his daughter and she was born to his wife 9 months later as Rupa Bhavani, the sage-poetess much revered by Pandits.

A large dome on four large pillars was erected in the sixties to cover part of the amphitheater in front of the deity to secure devotees from sun and rain. A small patch of land cultivated on her crown makes a delectable sight in flowers and green. A flight of stairs landing on this green flanks both sides of the vermilion-painted rock to enable the pilgrims her parikrima.

It is to Chakreshwar that the Pandits flock regularly and in large numbers on festive occasions. But the crowning moment is her birthday on 9th day of the moonlit (bright) fortnight of Ashada. They light lamps, burn incense, ring bells and sound conchs, chant mantras and sing devotional songs in praise of the deity. Some of them cook the deity's favorite dish of Taher (salted turmeric-spiced, fried rice) and Charvan (cooked liver). After prayers, oblations and offerings to the deity they themselves partake of the yellow rice and liver and top it up with Sheerchai (salted tea). Some devotees make a sacrificial offering of the lungs and heart of lamb or goat. Tradition demands that both the lungs as well as the hearts be torn into pieces by bare hands and flung to the circling kites high above. It is a veritable treat to watch the kites swoop down to catch the morsels in their claws and fly away to a nearby tree or a boulder to savour it and return to catch more. The sky turns into a play field for these birds, circling, swooping down on the food missiles, and furiously overtaking each other.

It is at Chakreshwar that the Pandit choir sang devotional Kashmiri songs on Saturday nights. In the sixties they started beaming devotional film music on loud speakers to set in process a race between the temple and the mosque in the abuse of loud speakers for religious practices. Along the ridge of the hill, a furlong away to the left is a cluster of big rocks, again painted with vermilion, representing goddess Hari who picked the stone in her beak to transform it into Hariparbat. But if you cross the ridge and climb up the hill to the right, it leads through a huge gate, fortified with iron spikes, up a long and winding flight of stone stairs to a terraced fortress on the top of the hill. There is a water tank, a bathing place, and a temple of Durga with her dark figure standing in the middle of the sanctum.

The fort is thrown open to public only on Navreh, the New Year of the Pandits, and for nine days following. Alas! nothing has been done to preserve and renovate this place from total ruin either by the department of archeology, Govt. of India, the custodian of this fort, or the Pandit community that holds this place very sacred.

From the fortress you can descend back towards Chakreshwari and trudge along the left and around the hill or take a shorter route along the back of the hill to reach the temple of Rama built by Pt. Amar Chand. The temple houses the idols of lord Rama, his consort Sita and his legendary and loyal brother Lakshmana. A small Siva Lingam stands on a pedestal in the compound of the temple. The view of the fort from here is beautiful and another almond orchard slopes down towards the kalai from here.

Just opposite the Ram temple, in the alcove of the hill, up a narrow flight of about thirty stairs is the temple of Sedalakhshmi, the incarnation that assures fulfillment and success in all your endeavors. She stands rock-like in rock in her rocky benevolence, as all other deities of the pantheon on and around Hariparbat.

From the Ram temple the pilgrims go along a long trail of about a kilometer where it forks left towards Pokhribal, a few furlongs away. Pokhri means spring and Bal place, meaning the place of spring. This is a small square shaped clear-water spring with a Siva temple. Besides the Lingum there are other figurines of many deities in the temple. The water from the spring flows out into a small lake where devotees have a bath before they go in for audience with the deities. The lake joins the back waters of the Nigeen and Dal lakes and many people, while on a boat ride to the famous Mughal gardens of Nishat and Shalimar, rove on to this place and dock for a dharshan of Pokhribal.

Most devotees bypass Pokhribal and continue along the return trail to the exit gate in the kalai, the Kathidarwaza (the wooden gate which later seems to have been rebuilt in stone). Just before the exit is the Hanuman temple dedicated to that staunch devotee of Rama who fought his wars in exile and helped him vanquish the demon king Ravna and rescue Sita from his clutches. A statue of Hanuman, the god of strength, adorns this place.

At the Kathidarwaza the pilgrims pause and rest awhile on seats fashioned out of stone and exchange pleasantries before they fork into different directions to their homes, fully rejuvenated and blessed.

Just outside Kathidarwaza is the famous Gurdwara, Chattipadshai, sacred to the Sikhs where many pilgrims stop to pay respects and, on Sundays, partake of the prasad of wheat pudding.

Notes

1) Present status of the Parikrima :

Hariparbat epitomized the religious-cultural synthesis of Kashmir where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs flocked every morning in huge numbers in a festive atmosphere not only to pray at their respective shrines but also to pay obeisance at each other's temples of faith.

Nowhere in Srinagar did we have a confluence of three religious and philosophical streams as here. The pilgrims, in a short span of about 2 hours and a distance of a few kilometers went through an elevating, physical, psychical and spiritual experience.

Alas! there is a very little of the parikrima left now. The Ganesha temple is locked most of the time. The whole land inside the kalai has been usurped partly by the Tibetan Muslim refugee and partly by the locals in connivance with the revenue officials.

Most temples are in a state of ruin and their property has been encroached upon. Fortunately Chakreshwari and Pokhribal shrines have been well maintained by the security forces, the BSF, who welcome the occasional pilgrim and even serve him with the traditional prasad.

There is no trace of the almond grooves and no Badam Vari. In its place we find tin-roofed concrete houses.

Very little is left of that dizzying trail as you find the large stretch between Ganesha's and Chakreshwar claimed by horse chestnut trees planted by the social forestry department.

Devi Angan has been leased to VSNL, which has installed a huge dish where once devotees sat in meditation.

The fort is out of bounds and dangerous to visit because it is tumbling down. Hardly anyone visits the temple of Durga there.

The premises of Pokhribal have been taken over for lift irrigation.

2) Seeking Indulgence. I seek the indulgence of the reader for any missing links, inaccuracies or explanations deviant from the accepted lore.

3) Acknowledgement : This Parikrima has been possible only with the help of my revered mother. Grounded in tradition and replete with detail, she has an amazing memory for peoples, places and the pantheon. I bow my head to her sagacity, devotion and love.

4) A thought : How do we restore Hariparbat and the Hindu Pantheon that it holds in its pristine glory?



The author is a renowned physician, writer, poet and a leader of Panun Kashmir movement.

Mailing Address : Chowdhury Lane, Roop Nagar, Jammu.
 
 
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