In a short film by Naveen Pandita on Wandhama village in north Kashmir, an elderly Kashmiri Muslim man is pointing out the empty, crumbling houses and listing the names of the people who used to live there. He mentions Mohan Lal, and recalls how he would greet his family with Salaam/mubarak on Herath (Kashmiri for Shivratri), and partake of the gaad (fish) they had prepared and the soaked walnuts.

Herath is the biggest festival of Kashmiri Pandits, marked by a night of praying followed by a day of feasting. Some say “herath" means the night of Shiva, others say the word comes from the Persian word hairat, which means to be surprised.

Deepa Kaul’s vegetarian fare on Herath. Photo courtesy: Deepa Kaul
Deepa Kaul’s vegetarian fare on Herath. Photo courtesy: Deepa Kaul

In Kashmir, which the Pandits were forced to flee three decades ago, the preparations would start a fortnight earlier in the lunar month of Phalguna and usually marked the end of intense winter, called chilai kalan. The first week was devoted to washing, dusting and cleaning the house, like the intense flurry of activity leading up to Diwali. All the windows in the house would be flung open, as if to dislodge the winter from its cosy corners. Every rug and carpet would be dusted, slicing the sharp, cold winter air with a whack sound. In traditional houses, the earthen floors and stairs would be swept with a fresh coat of earth.

Next, the paraphernalia required for the puja, called vatuk puja, would be collected. A vital element of this is the earthen/metal pots, which are filled with dry walnuts, flowers and water. The big pot denotes Shiva, the other one Parvati. These are surrounded by an assortment of vessels, also filled with water and walnuts. These pots and vessels are draped in marigold flowers, bael (wood apple) leaves and red thread.

On the ninth day, married women visit their parents’ home. They return the next day with auspicious items like a new kangri (fire pot), salt, haarae (cowries)—for playing, a Herath tradition—and a token amount of money.

Unlike most other parts of the country where Shivratri is celebrated on the 14th day (on 21 February this year), Kashmiris offer puja on the 13 night of Phalguna. The gods are offered the rich feast prepared during the day. In most cases, this used to be a non-vegetarian affair, with a plethora of fish and meat dishes—from roganjosh and yakhni to maetsch—supported by an equally impressive variety of vegetarian dishes like damaloo, chaman (cottage cheese), palak-nadur and nadur yakhni (nadur being lotus stem, which, like the potato, pairs well with vegetables as well as meat and fish).

Post-1990, some people started making vegetarian food on Herath, largely owing to the financial constraints in the initial years and also because of the scorn or shock that their non-Kashmiri friends and neighbours would express at meat being cooked for puja.

The 14th day is Salaam, a Persian word which means “hello". It is the day to socialize, greet your relatives and neighbours. Young people are given money, Herath kharach (similar to the Eidi given to children on Eid). In Kashmir, it was also a day when your Muslim friends and neighbours would come over and greet you with Salaam mubarak and a handful of mishri (crystallized sugar), cardamom and almonds. One would say salamath in return.

Delhi-based Roxy Raina, who is a senior manager at an agro-chemical company, says you could feel the festival approaching in Kashmir. “There used to be a fragrance in the air," she says,

Raina says that growing up in Srinagar, their Kashmiri Muslim friends would come over for lunch on Salaam, bringing boxes of confectionery and sweets as gifts. She recalls that some years ago in Delhi, a Kashmiri Muslim friend of her father’s happened to visit them on Shivratri, and, in keeping with the tradition, he gave her Herath kharach.

Mumbai-based Ashish Seli, a media marketing consultant, says that as a young boy in Kashmir, he used to get Herath kharach from three Kashmiri Muslim friends of his grandfather. He recalls neighbourhood children dropping in their house to receive money and dry fruits from his grandfather.

Seli says their former Kashmiri Muslim neighbours—mostly those from his late father’s generation—in Srinagar’s Rainawari still call him up on Herath. It is not the same outside Kashmir, says Seli. “In most cases, our rituals and beliefs are very different from other Hindus, our next-door neighbours." Many of the festive elements have now become a formality, he adds.

Both Seli and Raina, however, say that they follow the rituals with the same intensity, except that they play the puja on a laptop. While Raina’s family cooks non-vegetarian food on Herath, Seli’s cooks vegetarian fare, followed by a non-vegetarian feast on Salaam.

“The flavour of Shivratri has changed ever since leaving Kashmir but the essence remains the same," says London-based Deepa Kaul, who works for a diplomatic mission. She says she tries to clean at least one kitchen cabinet and a spice box, takes the day off on Herath, cooks vegetarian food and plays the puja on her laptop. Instead of marigolds, she ties the vatuk (the pot denoting Shiva) with red roses, which she keeps on a big table.

She says Salaam is now restricted to Herath kharach. She wishes family and close friends on phone and FaceTime—a couple of Kashmiri Muslim friends send greetings on Facebook Messenger. She mentions though that on Diwali, her Pakistani dry cleaner and Bangladeshi grocer greet her family with a box of sweets.

In Kashmir, she remembers they had a ritualistic menu on certain days, and they would play with cowries. The day the clay vatuk was purchased, the women would welcome it with a pot of water (alath).

For Delhi-born, Pune-based lawyer Arunima Raina, the festival is not as exciting as Diwali as she can’t share the fervour with anyone apart from her family. Her family are Gurits, who cook only vegetarian food for the entire duration of Shivratri and do not consume any outside food. She says their food during this time is limited to nadru cooked in various forms (fried, made like hash brown, cooked with moong dal or fresh fenugreek)—and this becomes monotonous after a point. She can’t even go over to the home of her maternal grandparents, who cook non-vegetarian food.

Not everybody holds an elaborate vatuk puja, which can last for 2-3 hours, or even longer. The volume of food cooked has also come down. Now, only people of a certain generation have memories of Salaam in Kashmir.

Arunima says she has heard that Salaam meant your Muslim friends greeting you, but for her, it’s the day you get Herath kharach.

Seli says his two daughters also don’t identify with the concept of Salaam as one where Kashmiri Muslims were part of the festivities. For them, it is the day they receive money and enjoy good food.

Roxy Raina says that 30 years ago the two biggest festivals on the calendar in Kashmir were Herath and Eid. Now, things have changed. “Had we been there (in Kashmir), this culture would not have been erased."

In Pandita’s film on Wandhama, where 23 Kashmiri Pandits were massacred on 25 January 1998, the elderly man pauses in front of an abandoned house. He’s struggling to recall the name of the person who lived there—it has been 30 years. He then breaks into a smile and says, “Sodarshan. We used to call him Saddae battae (a Kashmiri Hindu)."

Forgetting is easy, and remembering difficult. And while one expects it to snow on Shivratri, there is also hope that the weather will turn and the walnut trees will start blossoming soon. As Kaul says, “Three things keep our culture alive: age-old traditions, food and language."

As for the walnuts, they are had with rice flour rotis on the 15th day—a simple and earthy end to the feasting.

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