Life in exile is one of the most painful human experiences — more so if the land you were forced to leave is hailed as the paradise on earth.
Twenty years after they fled the Valley after being brutally targeted by militants, they are not only coping with the loss of home, but also fighting to preserve their identity.
The one-lakh-strong community in Delhi and NCR has been creating little Kashmirs in the city to preserve its memories of home — and its ethnic identity.
In Delhi, the community has built replicas of two ancient shrines in Kashmir: Kheer Bhawani in IP Extension, East Delhi, and Hari Parbat in Faridabad.
Kheer Bhawani, the marble temple built in the midst of a holy spring, with the idol of the goddess in pheran, the traditional Kashmiri attire, is a replica of the ancient Kheer Bhawani temple in Tulmul Villages in Kashmir — the second most important pilgrim centre in Kashmir after holy Amarnath.
“The Kheer Bhawani temple was made possible by mahant Ramsharan Giri of Siddheshwar Temple Complex in IP Extension, who donated his land to us and performed the necessary rituals,” says Kuldeep Dhar, a government servant who built the temple.
“The idea behind the temple was not just to create a place of worship but also a place where the community could come together and keep in touch.”
The community has also built a replica of Sharika Devi temple situated on Hari Parbat in Srinagar. Like the original, the replica of the Hari Parbat is also situated on a hillock in the Aravallis in Anangpur village in Faridabad.
The Anangpur village sees great festivity every year as thousands of Kashmiris celebrate Navreh ( Kashmiri new year) and renew their social bonds.
“By creating replicas of the shrines, the community wants to preserve the memories of Kashmir, its religious traditions and rituals,” says Prof C.L. Sapru, a prominent Kashmiri author, who migrated to Delhi in 1990.
These temples not just serve as the symbols of the community’s identity in exile, but also give it a sense of belonging.
Festivals are an occasion for renewing social bonds, and underlining cultural identity.
Earlier this month, the community organised a gala extravaganza in the city on the occasion of Maha Shivratri that had on display their social, cultural and religious heritage.
The Kashmiri language, the community believes, has been the biggest casualty of their life in exile.
“Our children hardly know what it means to be a Kashmiri; most of them cannot speak the Kashmiri language,” says AN Kaul, the editor of Naad , a community magazine brought out by All India Kashmiri Samaj.
“The slow death of our language poses the biggest threat to our identity as a community. We need to keep our language and other symbols of our cultural alive so that our children do not feel rootless.”
Kaul organises a Kashmiri language competition for children every year. “I plan to start Kashmiri classes in community centres across the city....”
Besides, the Kashmir Education, Culture and Science Society (KECSS) in Pamposh Enclave also promotes Kashmiri arts, culture and education. The society boasts of a library with about 10,000 books on Kashmir. “We regularly organise lectures and seminars on how to preserve our language and culture,” says Prof B.B Dhar, President, KECSS.
Several charitable organisations in the city provide educational scholarships to students.
Many believe eroding Kashmiri culture and identity has to do with the fact that a growing number of Kashmiri youngsters are marrying outside their caste and community — once a taboo in the Valley.
“There is resentment among the older generation... they believe this will eventually lead to the erosion of the community's cultural identity,” says Prof Sapru.
The community is known for its quaint rituals during occasions such as birthdays and marriages, but many of them are now dying. “In the absence of enough Kashmiri priests, rituals have to be conducted by playing devotional music CDs,” says A.N. Kaul.
Flavours of Kashmir
The community is trying to save its identity through its cuisine too. Delhi is dotted with restaurants and take-away outlets that serve Kashmiri food. From time to time, the city sees 'Kashmir Pandit food festivals in various restaurants across the city, the last one was held in December last in Chor Bizarre, a restaurant in Noida.
Besides, there is whole Kashmir market near INA, selling Kashmiri spices and pickles.
“Koshur ( Kashmiri) food has its own flavour created by typical Kashmiri spices. We sell Anise Powder ( a spice), Moonzi ( a pickle), etc. Most of my customers are Kashmiri Pandits," says Sanjay Langer, who owns a spice shop in the INA market.
The city also has several Kashmiri bakeries that make typical Kashmiri breads such as Lavas and Bagirkhani.
Far away from where they lived, these flavours go a long way in helping the community feel at home in the capital.