Herath or Shivratri in Jammu and Kashmir : Old festivals and Traditions Offer New Hope For Harmony

A first hand account offers interesting insights that could open up new possibilities for building enduring bridges of understanding between communities tragically taken hostage by circumstances…

herath-or-shivratri-in-jammIt was a Saturday evening, and there was a delightful environment at the house of Sanjay Tickoo, a well known Kashmiri Pandit leader and the President of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation which pursues the issues of the minority community inJammu and Kashmir. The Tickoo’s had assembled at their residence in Srinagar’s Barbarshah area, a Muslim dominated locality, to celebrate  “Herath”, a religious event commonly called “Shivratri” by Hindus across India. The celebrations in a Muslim dominated area strengthened my belief that smashed relations can endure turbulence of any kind if families like the Tickoo’s are one with the rest of the people of the Valley even if external forces try to pull us apart.
I remember the day when I visited the Tickoo’s and saw every member of the Tickoo family was cheerful. Sanjay greeted me warmly with typical Kashmiri passion. Herath or Shivratri is the ‘crown’ of all festivals celebrated by the Hindus across the length and breadth of India. While the festival is celebrated for one full day and night in other parts of India, Kashmiri Pandits celebrate Herath or Shivratri for several days. In fact, in Kashmir the rituals continue for 23 days. During the first seven days, Pandits clean their houses and lawns. Objects to be used during the Puja (prayers and worship ) like earthen pots are also cleaned and placed in the beautifully decorated Puja ghar (worship room). Flowers and pots filled with walnuts are kept ready for the celebration of this sacred festival.
Kashmiri Pandits are ardent followers of Shaivism, and celebrate Shivaratri or Herath differently from the rest of India. For elders it is a day of prayers. For youngters, it is a day of fun and frolic. Some elders observe Upvaas (fast) on the thirteenth day (thrathshi) of the waning moon in the month of Phagun (which usually falls in February or March).  “We celebrate the 13th day of the Phalgun month as the most important day of the festival. For us the Mahashivratri means the wedding of Lord Shiva and Goddess Uma Parvathi. On the day of the festival the worship begins with special prayers to Lord Ganesha.” Sanjay told Chauthi Duniya.
What makes the celebration of Shivratri different and highly charged with enthusiasm and fervour in Kashmir or for Kashmiri Pundits residing outside the state is “Vatuk Puja”. Vatuk is a Kashmiri word meaning ‘collection or an assemblage of different objects’. Since the main puja on Shivratri day involves the collection of a large number of articles it is called ‘Vatuk’. Kashmiri Pandits also worship Vatuk Bhairav (Batuk Bhairon), supposed to be Lord Shiva’s most trusted dwarpal (gate-keeper).
For me, it was a most beautiful scene. At the time of the special Puja, the Tickoo’s assembled at a particular and place which was the most decorated in the house. Several objects are used during the Puja. Two pottery pots, one big and one small,  symbolise Lord Shiv and Goddess Uma Parvati. “For us the earthen pots are more than pottery. They symbolise the faces of Shiva and Uma Parvati.” Sanjay said with devotion in his voice.  “The other four pots at the Puja place indicating Baraatis (those accompanying a wedding) of Lord Shiva,” he added. The walnuts too have an important role in the “Vatuk Puja”. Pandits immerse the walnuts in a big utensil for several days and hymns are recited over these walnuts. Once the walnuts absorb enough water, they are distributed among relatives and friends as Prasad (holy food).
Sanjay explained that, “We do the Puja  of walnuts because the fruit is in the shape of a globe and a walnut’s 4-part kernel indicates the four directions and the four Vedas.”

There are only 705 Kashmiri Pandit families residing in Kashmir Valley who have not migrated. For these families, nothing seems to change. The same fervour, the same enthusiasm and the same pomp nd pageantry can be seen in their celebrations, especially of Shivratri. These Pandits have kept traditions alive even after marginalisation.

It took the family members more than a couple of hours to perform the Vatuk  Puja. And then it was time for fun and eating. It was all very mesmerising. In Kashmir Valley, Herath or Shivratri   is a delightful and joyful celebration and observed with religious fervour.  There was a time when Kashmiri Pandits lived peacefully in mainland Kashmir. Unfortunately, a majority of the Pandits had to leave their homeland after militancy erupted in Kashmir in 1989. It is believed that 90 per cent Pandits migrated from Kashmir. However a few of them stayed back and the Tickoo family is among the one who choose to live in the Valley despite odds.
There are only 705 Kashmiri Pandit families residing in Kashmir Valley who have not migrated. For these families, nothing seems to change. The same fervour, the same enthusiasm and the same pomp nd pageantry can be seen in their celebrations, especially of Shivratri. These Pandits have kept traditions alive even after marginalisation.
Elsewhere in India, despite being away from their roots, many of the Pandit families are still trying to follow the traditional way of celebrating Herath or Shivratri.  Rajesh Raina, a journalist and the News   Coordinator at ETV Network, lives in Hyderabad but manages to celebrate the religious festival the way he used to do in Kashmir.  “We performed the Vatuk Puja here. We have been celebrating Herath the same way since we migrated from the Valley.” Raina told Chauthi Duniya.
On the day of the festival Rajesh appeared on his Facebook page and expressed his feelings on that auspicious  day and shared the relevant information about the historical background of the Herath. Rajesh updated : “Herath (Shivratri in Kashmir) mubarak to all. Miss my land, my people and all my friends today.” This was an emotional update by Rajesh Raina.  Regardless of distance from Kashmir, he celebrated Herath as he used to when he was quite young. While giving the historical background of the Herath Rajesh Raina wrote: “Herath in Kashmiri language means ‘utter surprise’.  The term, Hayrath, was coined during the Pathan rule in Kashmir. As the story goes, the Pathan Governor of Kashmir, Jabaar Khan prohibited Kashmiri Pandits from celebrating Shivratri during the winter. Instead, he forced them to celebrate it in the hottest month of the year — July. Jabbar Khan knew that snowfall always marked the great event. The helpless people obeyed and celebrated Shivratri in summer. With utter surprise it snowed that year in July.  The miracle startled everyone, the Pathan ruler, in particular, who expressed utter surprise and uttered words like Hairat. Hence, the new name for Shivratri celebrations became popular.  The people cried out in despair: ‘Wuchton Yi Jabbaar Jandah, Haaras Ti Kurun Wandah’  (Look at this wretched Jabaar in rags; he turned summer into winter).”
Before militancy, Herath used to be a great symbol of Hindu Muslim harmony in the Valley as Muslims used to visit Pandit neighbors to express gratitude and to pass on  good-wishes on the eve of the festival. The gesture was not one sided. The Pandits in return used to invite Muslim friends and neighbours for a sumptuous dinner. But now since the majority of Pandits have migrated the old kind of bond is hardly seen nowadays. However, some Kashmiris still try keeping the tradition alive. Take the example of Tariq Ali Mir, a well known Kashmiri journalist who traveled to Jammu on the day of Herath to pay a visit to his Pandit friends. This shows all hasn’t gone sour or stale, something’s still tastes good.  “I made it a point to go to Jammu to join Herath celebrations. I traveled to Jammu in order to greet my Hindu friends,”Mir proudly told Chauthi Duniya.
On the day of Shivratri or Herath, the most lively part of the State is Jammu and the city is also called the city of temples. All the Shiv temples in the city are beautifully decorated for the special prayers. Thousands of devotees throng to these temples to have Darshan of Lord Shiv and Maa Parvati. Special prayers are offered at  Ranbeshwar Temple, Pir Kho Temple, Panj BakhtarTemple and Aap Shamboo Temple. A ‘shoba yatra’ is taken out in Jammu. The three day popular Shiv Khori of Shiv Koli Mela was inaugurated this year by Minister for Housing, Horticulture and Culture, Mr Raman Bhalla with massive prayers and religious festivity at Ransoo, the base camp of  the holy cave shrine of Shiv Khori about 130 kms from Jammu. On the occasion, a colorful procession was also taken out in the town in honour of Lord Shiv followed by a large numbers of religious cultural troupes of Reasi District. There was a lot of cultural festivity.
The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) deployed in Udhampore also celebrated Shivratri with religious fervour. A function was organised in the premises of CRPF SRTC Complex where obeisance was paid before  Lord Shiv and prayers were held for lasting peace and prosperity in Jammu & Kashmir.  In Akhnore town, the historical Kameshwar Temple was a centre of attraction where thousands of devotees from various parts of Jammu and Akhnoor thronged to pay obeisance.
On the day of the festival, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and the Governor N N Vohra greeted the people (especially the Hindu community), wishing them happiness and well-being. Omar Abdullah expressed the hope that the pluralistic heritage of the State and the bonds of love between various sections of the society would get further strengthened. The Governor in his felicitation massage said, “This festival symbolises the values of piety, devotion, brotherhood and harmony, which are the hallmark of our glorious pluralistic ethos.”


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