Some pictures make your eyebrows twitch winsomely, and amazingly bring back scenes of yesteryears with all their thrill and excitement like dream sequences in old-time black and white films of Ranjan and Mahipal. One such picture is a magnificent photograph by legendary French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson clicked in 1948 in Srinagar. In more than one way, Bresson’s picture, like many other pictures and paintings of Western travellers is an essay on culture and heritage of our land.
These pictures in their own right are anthropological studies. The picture showing four women; three clad in koshur burqa, one draped in pheran touching her ankles, a long droopy white muslin scarf covering her entire back fastened with a safety pin to kasaba, traditional headgear, with arms extended towards the Hazratbal shrine seeking blessings from Allah atop the Kastoor- Pandh, on the hillock Koh-i-Maran, startles me.
It startles my memories, breathes life in forgotten past like spring rain, stirs the dull roots and breeds lilacs out of the dead land. It reminds me of my grandmother, with all her simplicity and piety, her fleshless arms jingling with silver bracelet, her straw prayer mat and her trunk containing her only treasure the wardan. This picture reminds me about her friends, Saja appa, Khaja appa, Aasha ded and Mukhata mass equally embodiments of simplicity and piety.
Much before sun brightened the golden spires of the minarets of hospice and the grand mosque of our locality on every Thursday; they gathered in our compound for walking up to the shrine of Hazrat Sultan Sheikh Hamaza, popularly known as Makdoom Sahib. All devotes to the shrine as matter of routine visited Kastoor-Pandh, overlooking Dal and Nageen lakes and facing Hazratbal shrine paid salutations to Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
Why this small plateau of the barren storny hillock, woven in the mosaic of the mythology of the land was named as an abode of kastoors (thrushes) always surprised me. I never saw any of the thrushes-the Tickell’s Thrush, Streaked Laugh Thrush or Blue Whistling Thrush, whose melodious songs made me stand still before the bird sellers shop in our mohalla perching on bushes around the plateau. I had only seen occasionally some Eurasian Collared Doves perching on the only chinar tree in the middle; now chopped down in the name of development by heritage-desperados’.
It was belief of my grandmother, her friends, and belief of all children, my siblings and peers that the saint buried atop the legendary hillock was spiritually the governor of Kashmir. This was largely a pluralistic belief that cut across age, gender and faiths. My teacher, Kashi Nath Raina, often paid his obeisance at the first step of stairs leading to the shrine.
Those were the days of faith, simplicity, righteousness and sincerity. Grandmother’s most precious possession was her prayer mat; an indigenous prayer mat dexterously woven from pech, a swamp plant.For austere prayer mat, long hours on it engaged in incantations of names of Allah and Durood, I also believed that Allah always granted her prayers. She was highly possessive about it and was not ready to replace it with gaudy cotton or woollen prayer mats. Those were the times when many carpet sellers from UP hawked cheaper Mirzapur woollen carpets through the streets of Srinagar; salaried class people were attracted towards the cheap stuff and these started replacing traditional wagu.
I loved watching my grandmother rolling and unrolling her prayer mat. What attracted me and equally surprised me most were her saying prayers. She sat long hours on her prayer mat and went into sajada, countless times…
Every day at noon, during summers and falls, three septuagenarian women, Saja Apa, Khaja Apa and Rehat Ded would arrive at our home. Like my grandmother, they were pious and highly devout woman. They would not only say the obligatory five times prayers but would spend almost half of the day in obeisance to the Almighty Allah. After performing abdast as vazú was those days popularly called, they would walk to Jamia Masjid to say Peshin (zohar) prayers and stay there up to Deghar (Asar). The Masjid was hardly at a distance of five hundred yards from our house. I would often accompany my grandmother to the Masjid.
The architecture splendour, the majestic and gigantic Chinars, the chiselled limestone lucent ta ‘laav with regal fountain in the middle, the cascading of water from the ta laav, flocks of pigeons flying over the minarets and soaring higher and higher over the Chinars and sipping water from the waterway bisecting the mosque lawns that lent a celestial aura to the magnificent Masjid always excited me. Many times, to the annoyance of my grandmother and her friends, I chased away the pigeons sipping water at the ‘ta’laav’.
Most of the times, they walked straight to the Northern side of the Masjid, opening towards the historical Muslim Park, which had been a mute witness to many historical events since 1931. Silence reigned supreme on this side of the Masjid, I loved it for it echoing even the fall of footsteps on its bare floor. Sometimes,I cried Allah Akbar at highest pitch of my voice to hear its resounding echoes. The naked brick floor covered with torn mats (waguwas) at places had a tale to tell– a tale of neglect and political vendetta towards the place of worship after 1947. It was also a sordid commentary on persecution that prayer goers to the Masjid had to suffer for over six years. In a corner of this side of the mosque there was a five-step naked wooden Mimbar-known locally as pe’er. No waiz, after exile of Mirwaiz Molvi Mohammad Yusuf Shah to Pakistan had delivered a sermon from this Mimbar.
Surprisingly, my grandmother, her friends after saying their prayers, with questions in their soaked eyes squatted around this Mimbar. I do remember for some elder women this Mimbar had become el-Mabka-and they wailed as some women did those days in various Astanas. Truly, this Mimbar had become a station of catharsis for them. One day with moist eyes, grandmother pointing towards the podium told me that Yusuf Sahib used to deliver his sermon from here after prayers on Fridays and all-important religious Occasions.
What baffled my young mind, why should remembering him wet eyes of grandmother and bring tears to the eyes of her old friends? Before I would pose this question to her, she narrated a whole story. She talked about his piety, scholarship and simplicity and how he was exiled by a man he had patronized. Latching of doors of the Mirwaiz Manzil by the powers that be had anguished her. I have vivid impression, with extended hands, she and her friends sobbingly prayed for his return from the exile. One day, on hearing the news that Yusuf Saib had arrived in Punjab freshness had returned to her and her friends shrivelled faces. This joy was Short lived, as rumours spread that Bakshhi Rashid at the behest of some vested interests had got his return to Srinagar scotched.
Hope, never died in my grandmother, till her death in August 1963, she believed Yusuf Saib will return to Kashmir and deliver Sermons from the Mimbar at Jamia Masjid.
Z.G.Muhammad is a noted writer and columnist