For Kashmiri pundits, Kashmir has essentially been a Shaivite land for centuries. Several verses of Lalleshwari or Lal Ded (1320-92), the most famous spiritual and literary figure of Kashmir, testify to the predominance of Shiva in the Valley. Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Shaivism scholars like H. H. Zafar say that Shiva has held a higher position in the pantheon of Kashmiri Pandit traditions for many generations. Ram did not arrive as a deity in the land of chinars until the reign of Dogra in the middle of the 19th century.
“Here you will find 3,500-year-old Shiva temples,” says Sanjay Tickoo, president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti.
Emphasizing that the pandits are worshipers of Shiva and Shakti, Tickoo says the worship of Ram began after the Dogra rulers (1846-1947) erected temples dedicated to Ram in the valley, including the Berber Shah Temple.
With the temples came festivals like Ram Navami and Dussehra. “Besides the Dogra rulers, the Hindus who came from Lahore before and after partition also established Ram temples in the valley,” he says.
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Author Bansi Pandit offers another perspective. Since the 10th century AD, the dominant faith of pundits has been Kashmiri Shaivism, with Shiva considered the “ultimate reality”, he says. “As an unmanifested reality, Shiva is pure consciousness, the source of all matter (or energy) in the universe. All other deities worshiped by Hindus are different forms of Shiva. Ram was not worshiped as a special deity, but as a form of Shiva,” he says. The practice changed when the Dogras became the rulers.
“The Dogra rulers are said to be descendants of the Suryavashi dynasty, to which Lord Ram belonged. They worshiped Lord Ram as their chosen deity. So, Raghunath and Ram temples were built in the valley to take inspiration from his brave and considerate deeds,” he says.
“As is the king, such are his subjects. So the Kashmiris started worshiping Ram, who gave birth to Rama Kavya in Kashmir. Seven Ramayanas, in addition to various nature songs, have been written since then,” he says.
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It marked the second major accent of Hindu deities in Kashmir over the past centuries. At first, as Zafar points out, Lal breathed new life into the Shaivist spiritual tradition of Kashmir and demystified Shaivism by articulating its principles in the language of the people. In the second phase, made possible by royal support, Ram gained space in the Shaivite country.
The Ramayana that has become most popular is Ramavatar Charita by Prakash Ram (1819-85), the first Ramayana written in the Kashmiri language. Ramavatar Charita broadcast the streams of Bhakthi (divine love) in Kashmir, just as Ramcharitamanas of Tulsidas did in northern India, about 400 years earlier, says Bansi Pandit.
Shiva continues to be the main deity of the Valley Hindus. Shiv Ratri is still their biggest festival, even Janmashtami being considered more important than Ram Navami.
In his book, Hindu rulers, Muslim subjects: Islam, rights and the history of Kashmir, Mridu Rai argues that the Dogra ruler Ranbir Singh began to “integrate aspects of Rama worship into the valley in order to bring Jammu and Kashmir together into a common worship framework”. She writes: “One of the ways the Dogras achieved this was by erecting temples dedicated to the Vaishnavite, especially to Ram, the cult on the soil of Kashmir.
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Poet and author Ranjit Hoskote agrees. “I have the impression that the worship of Sri Ram in Kashmir is rather recent; indeed, no older than the Dogra rule. The pundits are largely Shaiva in orientation; the Dogra rulers, on their accession to the Valley, demanded from the Pandits a certain obedience to their Vaishnava predilections (the Dogras).
It marked a major addition to the theistic tradition in Kashmir. Before the arrival of Ram, all the deities of the Hindu pantheon were worshiped as manifestations of Shiva and Shakti.
However, while Ram came to Kashmir, Shiva continues to be the main deity of Kashmiri Hindus. Shivratri is still their biggest festival with even Janmashtami being considered more important than Ram Navami. Hence, there are more Shiva temples across the valley than Ram temples, as the religious philosophy of Kashmiri Pandits continues to be rooted in Kashmiri Shaivism.
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There are also differing points of view. Professor Ashok Koul, a resident of Bandipora district in North Kashmir who now teaches anthropology at Banaras Hindu University, says: “In my opinion, the Ramayana in Kashmir is as old as the Kashmiri Shaiva tradition, because it has been passed down from generation to generation. Ram represents your deeds. We consider Iqbal as a Kashmiri poet, and he considered Ram as Imam-e-Hind,” Koul says.
Koul refers to Iqbal’s poem Ram, where the latter called the deity Imam-e-Hind, of which all India is proud.
Hai Ram ke vajud pe Hindostan ko naaz
ahl-e-nazar samajhte hain est ko Imam-e-Hind
(India is proud of the existence of Ram
Spirituals consider him their prelate)
“Formally, we might be Shaivites, but we live in a syncretic tradition, and Ram looms large in our lives. If Kashmiris are left to fend for themselves, we will live in a society where Islamic traditions are respected as much as Shaivite and non-Shaivite traditions,” he says.
(This appeared in the print edition as “The Coming of Ram in the Valley”)
Naseer Ganai in Srinagar