Friday, March 27, 2020

Post Pregnancy Kashmiri Ritual

October 2018

Notes on Shran-Sondar 

loussi ghass.

New mother gets Herb bath on 11th day.

A mixture of herbs, shrubs, leaves, wild fruits and roots together known in Kashmir as loussi ghass. The mix includes brie (red berries), shangar (herbs), ladrigand (haldi/turmeric root), shontgand (Ginger root) and many more of such. It used to be sold by Buhur...the grocer guys...named liked Shabu Buhur or among muslims by Khazir Woan. The bath ritual is still among Kashmiri Muslims, so the herb mix is still sold in Kashmir by certain old traditional grocers. My father brought it all the way from Srinagar.



Post Bath:

Rice balls are mixed with hend (supposed to be dried dandelion leaves, father misplaced the leaves, so we used paalak). Fish is cooked and kept with it in a plate. Fish is essential for the ritual. Beside it we can put yellow meat and some vegetable dish.

A kaajwot (pestle stone) is kept on the ground.  The child is placed on it and then brought into the house. Burza is burnt. (father had brought the bark from a Birch tree in Pahalgam around 10 years ago). A name is given to the child. And the oldest lady in the house sings a line "sokh-ti-pun-syun".

Burza/Birch bark

In Kerala, we found the practice of Ayurvedic bath post child birth quite a common culture. The are women who are employed for it. There are herb mix that are sold. Goes on for about 40 days. The new born is given special massage using oils although doctors recommend caution with the newborn and ask to rely only on good expert hands. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Lal Ded and the Seed of Life

Lal Ded
A KP woman on cover of a magazine. 1951

Yath Saras saer-phul na vai'tsay
Tath sare sakael poene chan;
Mrag shragal gaend zal-haes,
Zain na zain totey paen

It is a lake so tiny that in it a mustard seed finds no room.
Yet from that lake everyone drinks water.
And into it do gazelles, jackals, rhinoceroses, and sea-elephants
Keep falling, falling, almost before they have time to be born

The lines evoke a mystery, conjures up exotic images like rhinoceroses and sea-elephants, something that no Kashmiri would have possibly known. The lines conceal a deeper meaning and invites a reader to get to the root of it all. 
The answer to the riddle is: teats. Mother's teats, the seed of life. The point being that something complex as life actually some out of something that looks very simple. And that just being born is not the beginning, it is also the end. Creatures born and then returning to the source, the seed. 

I have been fascinated by these lines for few years now. So I tried to find if there is a seed to the thought, the idea. 

The simile of egg or seed occurs in grammarian Bhartrihari's Vakya-padiya.

This willing desire, called the word, 
has a nature similar to that of an egg; 
Its evolving starts gradually, 
when one part follows another, 
just as it happens 
when[one foot follows another during ordinary] 

[~From Early Vedanta to Kashmir Shaivism: Gaudapada, Bhartrhari, and Abhinavagupta By N. V. Isaeva]

It is meant to explain how some words conceal and hold higher meaning. A riddle is also essentially words, in sequence, that together hold a deeper meaning.

Harivrsabha, disciple of Bhartrihari mentions the egg being mentioned in those lines is a peacock's egg (mayura-anda). 

In Paratrimshika-karika, Abhinavagupt talks about seed of universe using banyan seed. 

Just as the great banyan tree 
is present in its seed 
only in the form of potency, 
So the whole of the universe, 
with its moving and immovable things, 
is present in the heart [of the higher Lord].

The form the words take here are in thought similar to what Lal Ded is saying.

In Chandogya Upanishad we find origin of the thought, the seed of faith (something akin to mustard seed of Christianity):

You are That
Uddälaka asked his son to fetch a banyan fruit.
'Here it is, Lord!' said Svetaketu.
'Break it,' said Uddalaka.
'I have broken it, Lord!'
'What do you see there?'
'Little seeds, Lord!'
'Break one of them, my son!'
'It is broken, Lord!'
'What do you see there?'
'Nothing Lord!' said Svetaketu.

Uddālaka said: My son! This great banyan tree 
has sprung up from seed so small
that you cannot see it.
Believe in what I say, my son!
That being is the seed; all else but His expression.
He is truth. He is Self.
Svetaketu! You are that.'

[~ Shree Purohit Swami and W.B. Yeats]

Lal Ded also talks about an impossibly small seed of life, a small lake, out of which all life is born. That she mentions as the source. And then in death, life returns to the source. 


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Lal Ded and the Soap

The real beauty of Lal Vakhs and the deeper meaning and vast social within them...a sample

Doeb yaeli chaev'nas doeb kani pae'they
Saz tai saaban metsh'nam ye'tsey
Sae'ts yeli fir'nam hani hani kae'tsey,
Ade Lalli mae prae'vem par'me gath

I came across these lines of Lal Ded recently and within these lines I noticed something odd that shone out like a buried piece of gold nugget.

First a translation:

when the washer man pounded me on his stone
when he applied soda ash and soap
every part the weaver cut, pricked and probed
then I Lala found final salvation

What stands out in the vakh at first is the word "Sabun"/Soap. Lal Ded is 14th century, so what is Sabun doing in 14th century Kashmir? The word Sabun itself is of Arabic origin. "Saz" is the naturally occurring salt of Natron, that humans know as the earliest form of natural soap.

It must be here remembered that what we know as Lal Vakh and attribute to Lal Ded, much of it actually is in fact of later origin. This Vakh also points out to that. However, there is something more happening in these lines. What exactly is being described? Commentators and writers have nothing to say. It is vaguely assumed the vakh refers to production of cotton cloth from cotton. Which of course can't be right. The sequence of events is the vakh is not right. What is the washerman pounding?

Even Sir Richard Carnac Temple in the first monumental work on Lal Ded in western world. "The Word of Lalla the Prophetess" (1924) mentions that his local informants (which would mean his actual source of translations) were not satisfactorily able to explain the lines.

So what is happening?

Here's my simple take based on the assumption that a lot of Lal Vakh is not just a glimpse of inner journey but description of the outer world. In these lines, Lal Ded, or the writer is employing the process of Felt (or Namda) making as metaphor for making of something beautiful, a violet transformational process.

The process of making Felt, a central Asia phenomena originally, and one of the oldest known method to man for making clothing involves pounding the fur and then use of soaps and detergents for fusion of fiber, needles and scissors arrive later for the patters and designs. 

It is the vast social distance between the commentators of vakh and the working class that has made something so obvious depicted in these lines oblivious to most.


Bonus: the process as followed in Rajasthan

video link

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Spanish Flu in Jammu and Kashmir, 1918

An account of destruction brought by Spanish Flu in Jammu and Kashmir in 1918. Based on State 1921 Census report. This was the pandemic that killed 25–39 million people around the world and decimated about 5% of Indian population back then with about 17 million people dead. Do keep in mind in World War 1 men from Jammu, Poonch went to take part. It was travel necessitated by a far off war that make this flu a fast moving pandemic.  

The heaviest toll of human lives was, however, exacted by the fell epidemic of Influenza, which wrought havoc among the population regardless of climate, . locality, profession, sex or age. The losses reported by the Chief Medical Officers give a. total of 44,514, but some of the reported figures are not quite reliable. The pest started from the city of Jammu, where there were, properly speaking, two attacks: The first which occurred in Au!ruSt 1918, was in a mild form and did not result in much loss of life. The severe and fatal form of the epidemic commenced from the middle of October and the first death in the Jammu city were recorded on 17th October. The transmission of infection by human agency from the city to the villages was, only a matter of days, and the disease soon penetrated into the remotest tracts and even the most isolated and outlying hamlets were unable, to escape the infection. It was a hard task to ascertain the exact number of deaths from Influenza in the city or to discriminate between deaths from War fever- as Influenza was popularly called-and malarial fever which was prevailing simultaneously but yielded to treatment with quinine. The total number of deaths attributed to influenza in the city with a population of over 31,000, in about two months times was 519, against a total death roll of 686. The number of deaths during the corresponding period in 1917 was 164. The highest daily rate of 38 was recorded with a fortnight of the outbreak.

The total mortality from Influenza in the Jammu Province (excluding the city) during the period of four months is reported to be 7,988, but these figures are undoubtedly unreliable, considering that the number of deaths in Kashmir where the epidemic was believed to be less virulent and fatal, amounted according to a rough calculation made by the Chief Medical Officer, to 15,000. This assumption receives further support from the fact that the total mortality from all causes in the Province (including the city) in 1918 stood at 49,800 against 25,817 and 2I,844 respectively in the two years immediately preceding and succeeding the year of Influenza. It is, therefore, obvious that the unprecedentedly heavy mortality of that year is attributable in a very large measure to the ravages of Influenza and the Police report of only 7,988 deaths is a very considerable underestimate of the actual mortality.

In Kashmir the epidemic first appeared in a mild form in August, but this visit only proved to be the forerunner of the disastrous visitation later on in October. Rapidly travelling as far as Kargil and Ladakh it was raging with full force in the Ladakh District by the end of November. Fortunately the mortality in Kashmir does not seem to have been very heavy. The total number of deaths according to the Chief Medical Officer's estimate comes to I5,000 against 7,007 reported by the Police. The unreliable nature of the Police reports has already been discussed, and as an illustration of the value of these reports it may mentioned that in Srinagar Municipality only 76 deaths from Influenza were registered by Police against the President's estimate of at least l,000.


In the decade the population growth was below normal but still positive at 5.1% (compared to pan India where it was down to just 1.2 percent). However the impact of Spanish flu on the population can be gauged from the fact that the population growth for the previous decade had been 8.69 percent. The decade overall saw more deaths than births across divisions. The reports goes on to say:

The main factor contributing to this result is the prevalence of Influenza epidemic in 1918, which carried away at least 44,514 souls according to the most cautious estimates drawn up by the Chief .Medical Officers. It is a pity that authentic figures of deaths from Influenza are not obtainable, as the reporting agency could not distinguish Influenza from common fever, and as the column for recording the cause of death in the Death register, is not usually filled in. At the same time, the reporting agency both in cities. and the mufassil was thoroughly paralysed by the sudden and widespead nature of the epidemic, and could not be expected to properly discharge their dutees. In these circumstances the Chief Medical Officers had to base their estimates of mortality from Influenza on their general enquiries, assisted by a comparison of the total mortality during the year with the average death rate. Unfortunately the vital statistic of the present decade are as worthless and unreliable as those of the previous decennium.

Bulk of increase in population is explained as "immigration"
In addition, in Mirpur it was estimated 1.6% population of 1911 was dead due to influenza. In Skardu 6.8 %. The population of Punch town which is the capital of Punch Ilaqa decreased from 7,564 in 1911 to 7,026 in 1921. Pattan town (back then freshly coming along Jhelum cart road) lost 10% of population. In the valley it was also noticed that the population of darweshes or fakirs increased by 40% and the report links it to destitution cause by Flu. 


Scale of Spanish flu deaths in rest of India. The Indian census report notes:

The influenza epidemic of 1918 invaded the continent of India in two distinct waves. The first infection apparently radiated from Bombay and progressed eastward from their, but its origin and foci are uncertain. It may have been introduced from shipping in Bombay district, Delhi, and Meerut in the spring; but the existence of the diseases in epidemic form cannot be established without doubt before June. The diseases became general in India in both the military and civil population during August and infection spread rapidly from place to place by rail, road and water.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

People's history of Kashmiri Hanji

People's history of Kashmiri Boat People
by Vinayak Razdan

A brief look at the history of people who made the water bodies of Kashmir alive. Some unknown facts and lesser known stories. Take a dive.

Haji Family inside a Doonga

In Nilamata purana, the origin of Kashmir valley is told using the Matsya Avatar story. A great deluge, a divine boat of feminine power ferrying all life on the eternal waters of deathless eternal Shiva and this boat being rowed by Narayan in the form of a fish. The story conforms to the strain of Kashmir Shaivism in which female power Shakti brings about the experienced world to life through her interaction with Shiva. In this story half-human, half-fish Narayan is the rower. The doer. The action. The story is told in context of Naubandhana tirath, a mountain site near Kramasaras which we now know as Kausar nag located in the Pir Panjal Range in the Kulgam District's Noorabad. The site where the divine boat was moored. The story is eerily similar to Abrahamic tale of Noah’s Arc and Jonah. Kashmir was born out of water. Myths as well geology tells us that much. The higher reaches of Kashmir mountains in fact have many sites where boulders have been carved by glacial action over millenniums to arrive at a shape in which a hole appears, a hole as if to tie a boat. 

Where there are humans, where there is water, there exist boats, there exist stories.

Matsya Avatar of Vishnu, ca 1870. Uttar Pradesh, India.

I heard the story of Kausarnag’s Naubandana many years ago from a Haenz, the tribe of people in Kashmir often called the descendants of Noah. While the ancient texts from Kashmir take pride in water origins of Kashmir, the people who actually made life possible in water filled land were not evoked much.

In Kalhana’s 12th century chronicle of Kashmir, Rajatarangini, we read about Nishadas, read about old trees along ancient canals, their aging trunks worn smooth by ropes meant for mooring boats. This is the only written testament to Boatmen’s existence in this ancient Kashmir. While history may have forgotten to mention Hanjis. The Hanjis didn’t forget History. For centuries they have been carrying with them oral history of changing geography of Kashmir, stories of cities being born and withering away, routes appearing and dissolving, water rising and falling, they have witnessed all that happened near and far from water bodies. It is thus not an accident that one of the of Rajatarangini’s authenticity as a historical work was provided by a boatman. In the 8th century, King Jayapida, grandson of Lalitaditya, called upon the engineers from Sri Lanka (in Rajatarangini, in typical Kashmiri manner, called "Rakshasas") to build water reservoirs in Kashmir. Jayapida's planned to build a water fort called Dvaravati (named after Krishna's Dwarika). Alexander Cunningham, the 19th century British archaeologist identified Andarkut near Sumbal as Dvaravati. He was wrong and had only discovered half-a-city as the city was supposed to be built in two rings. A few years later George Buhler while looking for Sanskrit Manuscripts in Kashmir was rightly lead by a boatman to a nearby place called Bahirkut which he was able to identify due to its geography as Dvaravati. In this case it appears Brahmins had no immediate recollection of the place, but boatmen did. Sumbal was for centuries the major junction in water highway of Kashmir, it is natural boatmen knew the place more intimately. Interestingly, it is in an 8th century sculpture found in Devsar that we see the earliest model of a Kashmiri boat. The sculpture depicts five Matrikas, the protective mother goddesses being carried on a boat along with musicians. It is a boat procession, probably a representation of idol immersion scene, something still done in Bengal. Historical texts are bit descriptive about the type of boats in Kashmir and how they came into existence. Pravarasena II, late 6th century, can be considered the builder of Srinagar as the place of canals, bridges and water bodies, the way it is even seen now. He is also the builder of first boat-bridge in Srinagar, somewhere near the present Zaina Kadal. If the bridge was of boats, we can assume it was work of boatmen. Kalhana mentions many a boat journeys, however in his text not much is written about the people who made these journeys possible. There is a modern divisive theory popular in Kashmir that Hanjis were “imported” from Sri Lanka in Kashmir by an ancient King. Multiple books and experts mention it, often mentioning the name of the king as Parbat Sen and place named as Sangaldip. Writer G.M. Rabbani mentions that the King as Pravarasena II and the place as Singapore! Here lies the story of how colonial era writings shaped our modern understanding of Kashmir and how lack of further quality research and societal bias often made weapons out of them. The origin of this theory is a casual mention by Walter Roper Lawrence’s encyclopaedic work for future administrators of Kashmir, The Valley of Kashmir (1895). This work is still used as the primary source for what we now commonly know about Hanji. Lawrence’s primary (uncredited) source was 'Tarikh-i- Hasan' of Moulvi Ghulam Hasan Shah (1832-1898) written based on a lost work in Persian (complied out of older Sanskrit works) by Mula Ahmed, court poet of Zain-ul-abdin (1422-1474). The work (original ironically lost in a boating accident) is highly prone to mistakes as it seems a lot of meaning of original texts is lost in translation. The work even provides an alternate history of Dal Lake. King Pravarasena built a dam on Vitasta river at a place called Nawahpurah and made the river flow into his newly built city around Hari Parbat area. Then many decades later during the era of a King named Duralab Darun, there was a huge flood that lead to the creation of a lake which just kept getting bigger over the centuries. If we treat this work to be a source, we have to accept, Dal Lake is a man-made Lake and boatmen were again part of the endeavour. Still around Dal there are spots under water where you can see submerged temples, remnants of an older city, a place probably an experienced boatman of Dal can still take you to.

Many historical works point to the role played by Hanjis in shaping the ecology of the water-bodies, giving them the recognizable face we see today. The deep big lakes of Kashmir were unsafe for navigation for a very long time. Winds could build deadly waves in the lake. In ancient Kashmir, to make the lakes navigable, to break big waves from forming, islands were built in the lake, often these islands would also mark a temple. Sona Lank and Rop Lank of Dal Lake were for navigation of Dal. Most fascinating is the story of creation of Zaina Lank in Wular Lake, once the most feared lake of Kashmir. To build the Island, boatmen were employed by Zain-ul-abdin and they chose a site where there was a submerged temple, they knew this to be the perfect site. Baharistan-i-Shahi (1614) mentions Zaina got an architect named Duroodgiri from Gujarat to build him a boat shaped like ship with sails. The boat was used to build the Island that made Wular lake accessible to humans. It was boatmen who were hired to do it. This was also the boat that the famous King used for sailing on Kausar Nag listening to ancient works while visiting Naubandhana site. Knowing how deft the boatmen of Kashmir are in the art of storytelling, one can imagine boatmen regaling the King with miraculous tales about Naubandhana during the ride. Any tourist who has visited Kashmir would know this experience. Boatmen are surely the first guides of Kashmir. In this story we also see the appearance of a new technology in Kashmir, the sail boat. The makers of boat were over the centuries going to be an intimate part of this industrious tribe. In “Ain-e-Akbari” (16th-century) we read about the emperor wanting to build a houseboat: a boat modeled on the design of Zamindar house of Bengal, a two storied structure with many beautifully carved windows. For this he had many boats destroyed and then got an architect from Bengal to design his dream boat. It is said that thousands of such boats were made. These are the boats we see floating in lake bodies of Kashmir in Mughal paintings. Abu'l Fazl writes about Akbar's visit, "this country there were more than 30,000 boats but none fit for the world's lord, able artificers soon prepared river-palaces (Takht-i-Rawans), and made flower gardens on the surface of water."

 Hanjis were living in the simple doonga boats for centuries, calling it home. Yet, the term “Houseboat”, as we now understand in relation to tourism, can be assigned to this boat built on order of Akbar. We are still centuries away from the story of “Houseboats” as we see them today. In between we read about Aurangzeb’s attempt in around 1655 to build ships to compete with Europeans. Italians were sent to build the ship in waters of Kashmir. Two such ships were made but the experiment failed because the boatmen in Kashmir failed to get the hang of these foreign warships. Kashmiri boatmen in fact were essential part of Mughal Imperial Nawara Fleet or River Boat fleet. They were said to have played an important part in Akbar’s conquest of Bengal. In the last days of Mughal empire we read that Mughal river fleet comprised of mostly Kashmiri boatmen who would use their own language for calling out to each other and for navigating. Perhaps not so surprisingly boatmen also figure in King Lalitaditya’s conquest of Bengal in the 8th century.

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