By Deepika Bhan
The past thirty years in Kashmir has seen a lot of bloodshed due to Pakistan backed terrorism. Kashmir is now synonymous with strife and violence because Pakistan wants to make it an Islamic state. But long ago, this was not the case in valley. Kashmir has a certain history which unfortunately is being deliberately suppressed and changed to suite the agenda set by separatist and Islamist forces.
Kashmir is regarded as land of Shakti. Several ancient scriptures reveal this fact and the presence of hundreds of temples dedicated to the various forms of Mother Goddess continue to exist in the valley even today.
There is an ancient story which goes as: Kashyapa Rishi had drained off the water from Satisar, but a deep water body remained in a part of Kashmir. A demon by the name of Jalodbhava had taken shelter in the lake. He unleashed a reign of terror on the lives of the inhabitants. Desperate people incessantly prayed to Goddess Durga for salvation until the day when Mother Goddess heard their prayers. According to one of the ancient scriptures of Kashmir, the Rajtarangni, Mother Durga took the form of a bird (Maina). She carried a pebble in beak and dropped it over the lake. The pebble grew in size and transformed into a hill, thereby crushing the evil. The hill thus got the name of Hari Parbat or Sharika Parvat and with this Kashmir came into being. Located on this hill is the abode of Mother Goddess which exists even today. She is also known as Chakreshwari or Sharika Bhagwati.
There is another ancient story. As per legend, the story began over 4000 years ago when Goddess Mother decided to move from Sri Lanka and found a new abode in Tulmulla, Kashmir. As per the legend, a pious Kashmiri Krishna Pandit had a dream about the holy place. And when he set out to locate the place, a serpent helped him to reach the spot. There have been several references by historians who described the holy place. Rajtarangni and Abul Fazal has accounted for the shrine. Swami Vivekananda visited the temple and he mentioned the existence of Goddess Mother at the spot.
These are just two examples of the legends about holy places, some of which continue to exist today also. Kashmir has had hundreds of such miracle spots where Goddess Mother existed in one or the other form. Over the centuries conquests, loot and plunder by Muslim rulers wrought havoc. With the advent of Islam in Kashmir, hundreds of temples were destroyed and forcible conversions happened. The culture of Kashmiri Pandits was attacked. Their rituals and religious practices were curbed and challenged. Despite the all out attack against the Hindus in Kashmir, many shrines have stood the test of time which proves that Shakti worship runs deep in the valley.
Chakreshwari Mandir on the Hari Parvat hill and Kheer Bhawani temple in Tulmulla are not the only two holy seats of Shakti worship, there are hundreds of equally important temples which exist today also. Kashmir is often referred to as Maej (mother) Kashmir in local parlance. Perhaps, the reason why the Shakti worship in the valley among the Kashmiri Pandits used to be of the highest order.
When Adi Shankaracharya visited the valley in 9th century AD, he and his disciples stayed outside the Srinagar city and were in a miserable condition. One day a small girl visited them and asked reasons of their unhappiness. Shankaracharya told her they did not know how to light fire and so could not cook food. The little girl was astonished and asked him that he was a great person and why was he unable to produce fire. The little girl took us a few sticks, chanted some mantras and soon the sticks were on fire. This was the first interface of Adi Shankaracharya himself with the power of Shakti worship in the valley. Later he entered into a religious discourse with a Kashmiri Pandit woman which ran for 17 days and finally Shankaracharya understood the power of Shakti. He was so moved by the Shakti movement in the valley that he wrote the ‘Soundarya Lahiri’ in praise of Shakti in Kashmir.
Shiva and Shakti pujan has been intrinsic to the very core of the belief system followed by the Kashmiri Pandits in the valley. They worship Shakti as Ragnya Bhagwati (Tulmula), Sharika Bhagwati ( Hari Pravat) , Jawala Bhagwati (Khrew), Zeshta Bhagwati (Zeithyar), Tripra Bhagwati, Kali Bhagwati (ZainaKadal), Uma Bhagwati, Gauri Bhagwati, Saraswati, Lakhshmi and others. Rajatarangini mentions the presence of 22 Shakti Peeths in Kashmir. This was also written by Lawrence and Abu Fazal in their books. All these 22 places were dedicated to Goddess Durga.
Kashmir is considered as the eternally pure seat of Sharda. All its lakes rivers and springs are said to have divine origins connected to Shiva and Shakti. Hundreds of centuries ago Kashmir had Sharda Peeth. Kashmir was once known as Sharda Desh because it was the center of learning of Vedic works, scriptures and commentaries. The Peeth attracted scholars from distant lands. Kashmiri Pandits worship Sharda and pay salutations by saying “Namestey Sharada Devi Kashmir Pur Vasini Tvam Ham Prartheye Nityam Vidya Danam Che De he mey” (salutations to you, O Sharada, O Goddess, the one who resides in Kashmir. I pray to you daily, please give me the charity of knowledge). It was because of the reverence of Sharda Devi that Adi Shankaracharya named one of the Mutts at Shringeri in Karanataka as Sharda Desh. This great centre of learning had to bear the brunt of raiders and invaders. This ancient ruin is now in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and out of bounds for the Kashmiri Pandit community. Although the community has been campaigning for visitation rights but nothing concrete has happened so far.
One among the famous tourist places in the valley is Verinag. It is a beautiful spring with a Shiva temple there. Even Verinag has a legend attached to it. And so do scores of other temples dedicated to Goddess Durga. In Srinagar, there is Suresvari (Ishbar) temple, DurgaNag temple on the foothills of Shankracharya Hills, Vaikhari Mandir on the bank of the Jhelum River in Kharyar, Bhawanishori mandir near Harwan. Over 1000 year old Devibal temple is in Baramulla. In fact all the cities, towns and villages in Kashmir had temples dedicated to Mother Goddess. These places of worship are referred to by several historians over the past centuries. There are some great holy shrines which have now completely seized to exist. Nilamat Purana mentions the existence of Bhimadevi temple built by Raja Sandhiman in first century BC. But it is no longer to be found, not even the traces are there.
One of the greatest holy places of Shakti not only in Kashmir but also the whole country is the Amarnath Cave. It is said that this was the place where Mata Sati’s body part fell. This is one among the 51 Shakti Peeths in the country.
The ancient history of Kashmir clearly shows that people in Kashmir were the believer and follower of Shakti. One of the oldest recorded history accounts, the Rajatarangini is full references to various forms of mother Goddess. In the more recent centuries, great spiritual women were born in the Valley. Mata Lalleshwari or Laleded, Mata Roopa Bhawani and Mathura Devi are regarded as Shakti incarnate.
Kashmir has also given specific and unique philosophies of Shivaism and Shaktism. According to the Nilamata Purana translated by Dr Ved Kumari (first edition in 1968), ‘the land of Kashmir is the material manifestation of Goddess Uma….Uma has taken the form of Kashmir’s most famous river Vitasta (Jhelum)’. A verse as mentioned in Nilamat Purana, says, ‘O goddess, daughter of the sea, devoid of dust, holy, abode of auspiciousness, it is you who are Kashmira…’
That is how Kashmir and Shakti worship is connected. Over the centuries, and with newer philosophies and religious practices taking over in the valley, many changes have occurred. Even the Kashmiri Pandits, particularly after forced exodus from their native land, have been forced to accept and adapt to newer realities. And the Shakti worship continues but in new forms, in consonance with the new lands and practices in the plains. But in Kashmir, the Shakti remains in its original form as Hari Parbat, Tulmul, Jaethyar, Amarnath and so many.