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A Different Doda
By Yoginder Sikand

Killing of innocent civilians, rape of village women, towns under curfew—this is all that we hear about Doda these days. No one seems sure of who exactly is responsible for the seemingly endless spell of violence and blood-letting that has now become a way of life for the five hundred thousand denizens of Doda. The militants blame the army, who blame the Pakistanis, who blame ‘Hindu fanatics’, who, in turn, blame ‘Islamic terrorists’…..and so on, while hardly a month passes without news of a major massacre somewhere up in the mountains of Doda, as its people continue to reel under unmitigated terror, hapless victims of the grand real estate dispute that is the Kashmir controversy. Doda was once a happy land, isolated for much of the year from the rest of the world by treacherous mountain passes. I first visited Doda some fifteen years ago, shortly before the eruption of militancy in the Kashmir Valley. A friend of mine had invited me to spend a month with him and his family in Udrana, a little village on the outskirts of the township of Bhaderwah, located in a narrow valley sandwiched between the towering, snow-capped peaks of the Kailash Himalayas, on one side, and the thickly-forested mountains below, on the other.

The rickety government bus took almost fifteen hours to cover the 200-km-odd stretch from Jammu to Udrana. The road was narrow and strewn with boulders that had come rolling down in a recent avalanche. A hundred metres below a river thundered, hurriedly making its way down to the plains. On either side stood awesome, stern-looking mountains, draped in an endless carpet of pine forests. Past the hill-station of Patnitop, and then Batote, where we stopped for lunch, we lunged ahead, passing by little hamlets set in the midst of terraced rice fields and patches of apple and nut trees.

We got to Udrana just as the muezzin’s cry from the mosque floated through the valley, calling the faithful for the evening prayer. Across the street from the mosque, the temple of the snake-god, was abuzz with activity. It was the eve of the first day of the three-day Patt Mela, the annual fair of Vasuki Nag, patron deity of the Naga-worshipping Hindus of Bhaderwah.Bhaderwah, as I remember it from that first visit, seemed to be a haven of peace and tranquility. Hindus and Muslims lived there in roughly equal numbers. While in the surrounding villages they lived together in common settlements, in the ‘bazar’, as the villagers referred to the town, Hindu and Muslim quarters were neatly defined. Boards announced ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ tea-stalls and eateries that catered to a clientele defined by religion, for, as I was to discover, stern rules of social distance in matters of food were strictly observed between Hindus and Muslims. I was to face the wrath of my Brahmin hosts for trespassing their norms of propriety for gorging on two plates of meat pilau at a Muslim roadside stall after two weeks of bland daal and vegetables got too much for me to bear.Yet, it seemed, Hindus and Muslims lived in reasonable peace, each respecting the other’s space, sometime indifference giving way to close friendships. My own host had several close Muslim friends, and his uncle ran a shop along with one of the richest Muslim merchants in town. Hindus and Muslims were invited to each other’s marriages, but even here the rules of separation would be meticulously observed. Hindu cooks would be specially employed to prepare food for Hindu guests, while at Hindu weddings, Muslims seemed oblivious to any such scruples. Festivals were an occasion for Hindus and Muslims to mingle together, providing a welcome change from the drab and harsh daily regimen that living in these remote parts entails. I was fortunate to be in Bhaderwah in time for the town’s unique festival, the Patt Mela. A large crowd of people had gathered outside the temple of Vasuki Nag, the snake god, when I arrived there, my back stiff from the steep climb up the narrow cobbled path from Udrana. Musicians, playing on reed pipes and metal drums, kept up an incessant low drone, while young men rushed barefoot through a pit of burning coals in the hope of moving the fierce king of the snakes to grant them their wishes. A procession wound its way through the streets towards the temple, carrying richly embroidered and brightly coloured umbrellas and flags. A group of Muslim Gujjar cattle grazers, with their tell-tale hennaed beards and tightly-wound turbans, had set up stalls, selling fresh milk and doing brisk business. Kashmiri Muslim men, easily distinguishable by their finely chiselled features, stood along with their Hindu friends watching the spectacle.The origins of the Patt Mela are shrouded in myth. According to local legend, many centuries ago the Rajput ruler of Bhaderwah, who had been childless for several years, was blessed by Vasuki Nag, the king of the snakes, with a son. Nag Pal, the son, succeeded his father to the throne of Bhaderwah, as a fiercely proud Rajput warrior. Once, so the story goes, the Mughal Emperor Akbar invited all his feudatories to a darbar at Delhi. Since Bhaderwah, like the rest of Kashmir, had come under Akbar’s authority, Nag Pal was forced to attend the darbar. While the other feudatories of Akbar bowed and scraped in front of the Emperor, Nag Pal alone refused to. Akbar is said to have been so impressed with Nag Pal’s boldness that he gave him several costly gifts, including gold and silver umbrellas, drums and ornaments as a token of his pleasure. On returning to Bhaderwah, Nag Pal presented these gifts to the temple of Vasuki Nag. It is in memory of their king and his bravery that for almost four hundred years the Patt Mela has been held every summer at Bhaderwah.The last time I was in Bhaderwah for the Patt Mela—three years ago—Muslims were conspicuous by their absence at the festivities. There had been clashes in the town recently between Hindu and Muslim youths. The tension up in the ‘bazar’ was palpable. Grim-looking, stern-faced Army personnel patrolled the streets, and bunkers had been set up where food and vegetable stalls once stood. Saffron flags fluttered over Hindu-owned shops, while slogans denouncing army atrocities were faintly visible on walls in Muslim localities, having survived frantic efforts by municipal workers to scrub them away.

Strict curfew operated now, and no one dared step out of their homes after sunset. My hosts, now used to my unconventional ways, murmured in disgust when they learned that I had stopped at a Muslim tea-stall for a cup of Kashmiri kahwa. Ismail, the amiable owner of the grubby stall, complained about the frequent bandhs and hartals, and stories of excesses by militants and the army. ‘Hindus and Muslims are at each other’s throats today’, he said, despairingly. ‘The Patt Mela celebrates the friendship between a Muslim and a Hindu king, but who cares about that these days?’, he winced, as he puffed away on his ancient clay hukkah, sending out clouds of sweet-smelling smoke.

Hindu attendance at Muslim shrines in Doda, too, has come to an almost complete halt. Where once often Hindus outnumbered Muslims, today few, if any, Hindus visit the many Sufi dargahs that are found in almost every village of the sprawling district. Doda’s most famous Sufi shrine is located at Kishtwar, a ten-hour drive from Bhaderwah through high mountain passes on a treacherously narrow road. Hundreds of people, Muslims as well as Hindus, have lost their lives in the Kishtwar area in the last decade in the on-going conflict, and the situation here is probably much more acute than in Bhaderwah, where it is already acute enough.

Kishtwar, when I first visited it, was a major place of pilgrimage for Hindus and Muslims alike, its graceful, pagoda-like dargah of the seventeenth century Muslim Sufi, Hazrat Baba Fariduddin Baghdadi, attracting scores of the devout transcending barriers of caste and creed. The Baba, as his name suggests, hailed from far-away Baghdad, and travelled all the way to Doda on foot at a time when crossing the mountain passes often meant instant death. Impressed by the Baba’s teachings and simplicity, the Rajput king of Kishtwar converted to Islam, and many of his subjects followed suit. Even those who chose not to change their faith held him in great regard. The story is told of how one of the Baba’s sons miraculously brought a Hindu friend of his back to life so that they could finish a game that they were playing when he suddenly died—polo I think it was, if my memory serves me right! When I first visited the Baba’s dargah, a slender minaret attached to its sloping roof was being repaired, arranged and financed, I was told, by a local Hindu devotee.

Kishtwar, so I hear, is today a ghost-town. Shops close by five and the streets are deserted an hour later. The massive Chopan, the flat grassy plain at the far end of the town that stretches as far as the eye can see, has not seen a cricket match for months. Militants— both Hindu as well as Muslim—now have a strong presence in the town. Cries for blood threaten to drown out the soul-stirring strains of the music from the shrine of the Sufi who is probably turning in his grave at the way the world is heading.

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