It sounded like folk tales, folklores of yore – whenever we heard stories about great famines that had often visited our birth burg in the past. Despite being a tale of the past fear of starvation, flood and epidemics continued to haunt our grandparents. It tormented them more ferociously than the looting sprees of desperadoes from distant lands that had ravaged our nation in the past. One would often hear vivid stories from a grandmother about the famines that had frequently visited our nation – most of the stories she narrated to us had been passed on to her from generation to generation. These stories had a unique blending of fact and fiction; some had been woven in the cradle songs. Some anecdotes of those horrifying days had crept in the children songs like ‘hukus- bakus.’ Hair-raising stories about famines had survived in the memory of generations ahead of us.
One would shudder down the spine on hearing stories from a grandmother about rulers like Wazir Punn- known for their harshness and cruelty. She remembered many stories about the despotic rule, like textbook lessons and narrated how soldiers searched people’s houses for seed grains; people ate turnips in place of rice. With tears welling up in her eyes, she often repeated stories about boatloads of hungry people drowned in the Wular Lake- perhaps the reference was about an incident in ‘early spring of 1879- when rumours about the drowning of drowning paupers in the Wular Lake were rife in Srinagar. The rumour was believed to have been ‘set afloat’ by Pandit Hargopal Koul, a news writer at Srinagar and his brother Saligram working for the state government. Some historians believed it had been done at the behest of Mr Henvey a British Officer on duty with Maharaja. How true, the story of drowning was for historians to research, but it had travelled to my grandmother perhaps from her mother or grandmother, and she believed it as a truth.
True, the word famine, for us born after the end of feudal rule had only lexicon relevance but its fear loomed large in our childhood also. Heavy rains always scared people- the concerns of 1877-78 famines when ‘nearly two thirds’ of the population had perished had not waned from memory of grandmas and grandpas. It did not want of showers that caused drought in Kashmir, but it was plenty of showers that destroyed crops and caused famines. I don’t know if there is the specific god of rain in the pantheon of Kashmiri- Hindu gods and goddesses as that of Zeus in Greek mythology or Indira- the sky god that slashes the clouds with his thunderbolt to release the rain in Hindu mythology that they prayed on this occasion. I do not remember having seen taking Kashmir Pandits taking out a procession for rain or sunshine.
In my childhood, I do remember both heavy rains and dry spells worried people a lot. People offered Salat Al Istisqah in mosques or in open spaces with supplications for preventing torrential downpour took out a procession. So did they whenever a dry spell hit Kashmir crops.
I remember people gathered in the mosque and moved in processions from various hospices and shrines in the city towards Iddgah for saying special prayers. Some relics from hospices like Alam of Mir Syed Ali Hamadani or a Holy Book scribed by some great saint would be carried in front of the procession. The processions would resonate with hymns and recitation of verses from the Holy Book. Many processions would be led by an Imam of a mosque in a palanquin (palki) – incense sticks would be burnt in front of the palanquin to cascade the air with perfume, some people would spray rose water from ornate copper sprayers on the procession. The imams in the palanquin would be immaculately dressed – the majority of Imams would wear pherans, huge white turbans and a shawl or a sheet of white cloth would sling from their shoulders. Sometimes, people clashed in their bid to vie over each other for reaching earlier to the Iddgah, resulting in ugly quarrels. One often-heard story about one or other Imam falling from the palanquin in the Mar Canal. Like other people, I also believed that the Imam paid penance for atoning the sins of others. Stories were also galore that the palanquin of Imam was deliberately tilted to let him fall into the canal to increase the number of his devotees. The truth about these stories still baffles me.
On reaching Iddgah, the two Raka Salat were offered at a specific place under the shade of Chinar trees in Iddgah- these Chinar trees continue to be remembered as Nafl-e-Bony. After offering prayers in congregations, I remember we would involuntarily cry full throat Ye Sheikh Sana Abur Gow Fana; this slogan would rent the air and echo even in lanes and by-lanes after reaching our home. And whenever dark clouds appeared on Sky during summers and autumns- the slogan would resonate in the streets. Other than a big procession, small procession for rains or sunshine- whatever the situation demanded would be taken from different localities, and they would end up at various shrines.
What attracted me more were the small procession of people from villages and other parts of the city that passed through our streets on the way to the shrine of Makdoom Sahib. It used to be an outstanding pageant, men, women and children many barefooted with pitchers of water on their heads chanting hymns in praise of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and various saints of Kashmir passing through our streets. Ahead of some procession, there used to very well dressed band playing on their clarinets and drums. Traditional bands would accompany some processions from Wathora. I have seen big gongs in front of the march being hit repeatedly by a wooden hammer. The parades coming from all directions would first converge at Mir Syed Ali Hamadani’s shrine to fill up pitchers with water from Jhelum. The walking through the streets of Srinagar, people emptied their pitchers in the tank at the shrine of Makdoom Sahib.
The procession from Maisuma for its colourfulness would attract me more than any other procession, and I often joined it to the shrine of Makdoom Sahib. I don’t know how old this tradition had been. Still, it died after mid-seventies of the twentieth century without a whimpher. Nonetheless, some believed that the tradition for taking a procession for rains is rooted in the land’s ancient history. Some others believe it has come from Arabia, where people used to take massive parades to seek Allah’s blessings.
Z.G.Muhammad is a noted writer and columnist