Herath in Kashmir: ‘Will celebrate the way my parents do’

"Our community has shrunken so much. The festival is not the same any more, there have been so many changes. But we still observe it dutifully because we must."

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“This is our grandest festival, about a week long event,” says 46-year-old Maharaj Krishna Bhat, sitting smug in the extended kitchen room of their rather quiet home across Habba Kadal in old Srinagar city.

His new janev (the sacred thread donned by Brahmin men) peeks from under the collar of his pheran. “We cannot buy a good janev here but I know how to make one,” he says, with a smile.

“It will certainly either rain or snow on Herath. Yesterday it rained,” Mr. Bhat asserts, adding that “once an emperor wanted to celebrate this festival in July, and even then it snowed!”

It is the second day of Herath and Mrs. Bhat is occupied in the separated kitchen space in the room overlooking Jehlum, arranging the order of festivities for the day. The room scented with the flavourful aroma of cooked fish: “That is a favourite. Kashmiris love fish!” she says, “But we don’t offer it to the gods.”

Commonly celebrated as Shiv Ratri in mainland India, “Har-ratri” which has come to be known as Herath in Kashmir is the elaborate ritualistic celebration of the wedding of lord Shiva with Parvati, mythically believed to be the daughter of the mountains and the Hindu goddess of fertility, love, marriage, children, and devotion.

After the customary spring cleaning of one’s abode that begins a week before the conclusion of the festivities, the main puja is a three-day event. Symbolising the wedding of (the daughter) Parvati, the head of the family in a household observes fast the first day as is done in the event of kanyadaan (the ritual of giving away) at a daughter’s wedding.

The first day of worship begins in the evening and is a long and elaborate process. The worship space in the Bhat’s home is arranged with nine lotas that represent the barati—this is a symbolic arrangement of the received wedding guests. These small vessels necessarily contain walnut, which will be given out as prasaad. The four sections of walnut symbolise the four Vedas, the sacred Hindu texts. The fragrant Kashmiri bel patra, coconut, mishri, nuts, fruits, and rotis made of rice flour are some of the other offerings made to the deities.

The second day of worship continues and is marked by exchange of greetings and social engagements. “Today we let women relax and socialise, and we do the chores,” says Mr. Bhat, adding that “children get pocket money from relatives too!”

“Our community has shrunken so much. The festival is not the same any more, there have been so many changes. But we still observe it dutifully because we must.”

The third day of Herath is the day of visarjan, the flowers and garlands offered to the deities are let out to the river and the day marks the conclusion of the occasion.

 “Back in the times when festivities were vibrant, there used to be traditional musicians performing at Hindu homes with shehnai and rabab on the second day. There were Muslim musicians too,” reminisces Mr. Bhat. “Our community has shrunken so much. The festival is not the same any more, there have been so many changes. But we still observe it dutifully because we must.”

The festival of Herath also bears a seasonal significance: following Herath, the occasion of Ashtami is observed to pay respect to the departed ancestors; this day marks the retreat of winters. Most of Mr. Bhat’s relatives, who migrated out of Kashmir can’t seem to relate with this any more. “Herath is like a day of picnic for them, and mostly they skip it,” he says in disappointment, acknowledging that lifestyle outside Kashmir is little compatible with the traditional ways of the valley.

For their 15-year-old daughter Megha, Herath is three days of endless frolicking. But this is a subdued Herath for the Bhat family—fewer relatives to meet, and much less pocket money for the children.

Mrs. Bhat grew up in a joint family in Srinagar and learnt the details of celebrating the festival by observing her elders and helping out with small chores. “There used to be about twenty-five people at a time. Even the men cooked and we children would wash small utensils and ferry things around. But children now cannot see and learn the way we did,” she recounts.

For their relatives who live in other, warmer, parts of the country, the concluding winters of Kashmir and the associated festivities hold little significance. “Those children have no means to learn their ways,” forlorn she says, “They hardly know their own language.”

But, irrespective of the situation, the circumstances, and the mood of the event in general, they continue to “celebrate the occasion.” “Even if there is a death in the family, we will not celebrate but we conduct the puja in its entirety,” says Mr. Bhat.

“So many things have changed. As children, our cousins would get together in our village in Baramulla and we used to play cards and with shells without caring about the world. Now, these children are looking into the phone all day.” Megha snaps: “What else is there to do?”

Mr. Bhat refuses to give in to the thought that Herath might be a fading culture of a community that is a microscopic minority in Kashmir. “Changes are inevitable but we will continue to do whatever we can to preserve this tradition and leave it for posterity. It means a lot,” he adds.

Megha agrees with him, “I will celebrate it the way my parents do.”

Kavya Dubey is a Reporting Fellow at The Kashmir Walla.

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