am not an expert in religion and so I have no brief to comment upon the religious and spiritual significance of Heyrath (MahaShivratri). However, I would like to delve into the socio-cultural and celebratory aspects of the festival.

Bhattas (Kashmiri Hindus) have an emotive romance with Heyrath and the festival is therefore celebrated on the grandest scale. Every Bhatta irrespective of his financial status and social position has an overflow of awe and emotional devotion on this day. Heyrath is not only celebrated individually, rather it is a participative family and community festival. Its mirth creates scenarios for social interaction, irrespective of differences in beliefs. All members of Kashmiri society including Muslims participated and benefited on this occasion and would hence wait with eagerness for its recurrence. Though religiously orthodox, the liberal mindset and composite world view of Bhattas would accommodate their healthy participation. Hence, from the potter to milkman to butcher to flower vendor to fisherwoman to vegetable vendor to washer-man to street-musician and draper (mostly of Islamic faith), all had a role to play in making the arrangements. In return, all were greeted heartily and their greetings accepted on the day after Heyrath called the day of Salaam.

More than anything else Heyrath is a family festival in which Bhatta families participate with deep devotion and chaste reverence leading to spiritual ecstasy. It falls during the nippy cold winter of Kashmir, when water bodies are frozen and icicles hang from the frozen roofs of houses. I am charmed to recall how Gurtoos (a clan of Kashmiri Hindu families also known as Rainas and Razdans), to which I also belong, celebrate and solemnize this great day of the year.

Most Bhattas relish meat and mutton and would prefer the fat mutton of ram, trout fish of fresh water lakes, mirror-carp of running streams and delicious fowls which were hunted from the marshes of Kashmir by Muslim hunters. All these meats were converted into delicious dishes with the addition of aromatic spices and fragrant herbs as per highly guarded family recipes preserved by the ladies of the household and passed on from generation to generation. Yet, there were the Gurtoos who would morph into strict orthodox vegetarians for about ten days around Heyrath time. Use of any non-vegetarian foods was strictly prohibited during those days. Considered not to be best for the purest thoughts, even condiments and vegetables like onions, garlic, tomatoes, beans and spinach were a strict a no-no. Unlike other clans of Bhattas, who would indulge in sumptuous feasting of meats, mutton, fish and fowls, the Gurtoo clan would abstain ritualistically from such temporal indulgences. They would restrict feasting to chaste vegetarian dishes, done with special care, concern and patience.

Before the Gurtoos transformed into untainted and orthodox vegetarians for this festival, we had to ensure that our houses were fully mopped and plastered, even in the freezing cold of Kashmir. Bhatta ladies were in charge and they would get everyone involved in cleaning all rooms of the house, including unused attics. The cleaning was followed by a thin filming of plaster on all walls, which gave a spick and spank finish to the rooms made of stones, clay bricks and timber. It was not a simple task to effect this transformation of the house with temperatures usually below freezing point. These projects could take several days, depending on the size of the home, with most Bhattas in Kashmir living in multi-storied houses. It would be a sight to watch dripping pink noses and benumbed finger toes of our ladies as they would go about in special dresses made for this arduous house cleaning job.

Gurtoos also had to ensure a freshly cleaned family kitchen. All utensils of metal and alloy were to be rubbed sparkling with sand and ashes using bare hands, without any chemical aids. Utensils of clay like pots, jugs, woks, bowls and pitchers had to be discarded and replaced with new and fresh ones from the potter’s shop. Potters would stock them in advance for the festival and price these expensively but the Bhattas would gladly pay. Even spices, condiments and herbs for the kitchen like ginger, turmeric, fennel, chilly, cardimon, peppers, cinnamon, cumin would be procured fresh from renowned grocer shops because there could not be any compromise in the quality of food to be cooked for the Lord. It had to have all fresh and unused ingredients. These fresh spices and condiments had to be hand-cleaned, ground and powdered, even if there was sufficient stock already available in the kitchen. No Bhatta could afford to cook ordinarily for this Great Day of Shiv-Parvati. We as a community tended to suspend any feeling of disbelief by following rituals with an open heart and closed brains. We would rationalize our acts by attributing these to scriptural requirements. This believing was the greatest romance and charm of Heyrath, bringing vibrancy to the festival.

Along with the cleansing of the minds and homes, Bhattas had to clean their bodies too. We would bathe even in frozen cold rivers, streams, rivulets and springs which abound in the Valley. Heaters and geysers were not available and were not much in use in Kashmir. All people, young and old would take quick dips in the frozen waters to wash off their dirt and wrongful thoughts and ready themselves for the Heyrath Puja. Bhattas would put on fresh clothes on the day of the festival. It would however depend on the financial position of the family, whether the members would go for new clothes or use the old ones, duly washed and cleaned for the special occasion. Children and newly wedded ladies would get special consideration for new clothes.

The festival was spread over a period of fifteen days, which is now usually restricted to six days by the Gurtoos for practicing their self regulated vegetarianism. Three days prior to the D Day and three days after it, we continue to perform a number of interesting rituals and fascinating rites to worship and propitiate Lord Shiva and Mata Parvati. Of all the days, the actual Heyrath Day is the most solemn and austere, when we surrender ourselves to the will of Shivji and invoke his blessings and benevolence. We do Puja, which comes after ascetic fasting, usually by the head of the family. And after the Puja involving incantations and recital of Puranas and Vedas with the burning of Dhoop, camphor and pure Ghee, we offer samples of all dishes and delicacies to the Lord, his Consort and other guests who are believed to be accompanying the Lord. After it was assumed that the Lord had partaken the dishes thus offered to Him with reverence, it would be the turn of the family to partake the special dinner of Heyrath. These dishes and recipes which were prepared with much pains and still more so, absolute love and devotion can not be commented upon cursorily. They require to be tasted and commented upon simultaneously. The head of the family would break the fast first, but all members of the family would share the sumptuous food together in a family meal. It needs to be said here that Bhattas cannot and do not touch any food without cleaning hands with clean water and this legacy of their culture is well entrenched into their psyche. Our family was so fastidious about the great day of Heyrath that we would make preparations for the day months in advance, as other Gurtoos would do too.

We were tutored from our childhood itself that Heyrath is the greatest of all festivals, perhaps because of the fact that all Bhattas are by conviction Shaivites. I remember it as if it was yesterday how my lovely mother on this great day used to tell me amazing stories of miracles and surprises; As to how we were ordained by our ancestors to abstain from non-vegetarian thoughts and foods during these days of the festival. She also revealed to me how we would invite the wrath and anger of the Lord if we defaulted or transgressed the cultural limits prescribed by our ancestors.

She once told me that a cute damsel belonging to non-vegetarian parents was married to a Gurtoo family boy in the town of Srinagar.When Heyrath approached, the mother of the damsel felt bad that her daughter married into a vegetarian family could not partake of the non-vegetarian delicacies cooked at her parent’s house. So she thought of a plan. She visited her daughter and sent her word to meet her outside her home. She had hidden some pieces of fried trout fish under the sleeve of her Ferron.When her daughter came to meet her outside her house she embraced her and whispered in her ear that she had brought some fish for her to taste. Being temporal, the damsel fell for the bait offered by her mother and ate some pieces and hid the rest in the tucks of the sleeve of her Pashmina Ferron (Pashmina is made of fine wool of alpine goat which are reared in the Chanthang area of cold, arid Ladakh). So she did because she wanted to relish them later and also share with her hubby. Late in the cold night of Heyrath, when Puja of Vatak Raza (the benign celestial sovereign) was started in the Puja room, a bizarre phenomenon occurred. All the pots and pitchers of Vatak Raza started bleeding from their mouths. There was commotion and a sacrilege was suspected; the Puja had been defiled and the Lord was annoyed with the family. It was feared that this would bring curses and miseries for the entire family. It was a desperate situation with no easy solution.

The family had to be got out of this curse and mess anyhow. So the eldest lady of the house (those days Bhattas would live in large, extended families) who smelt some infidelity ordered all members of the family to subject themselves to a search, to ascertain if anyone had transgressed any norm of the day. A thorough search of all members was conducted and when it was the turn of the damsel, down tumbled a few pieces of brown fried fish from the tucked sleeve of her Ferron, which too were bleeding. The damsel was immediately taken to task by the family for defiling the puja on the great day and all previous exercises of cleaning and mopping of the house were redone on an emergency basis. New cooking and new Puja were done to propitiate the Lord and request condoning of the act of sacrilege. The damsel felt shabby and greatly disgraced and was kept away from Heyrath Puja forever.

This story had such a deep impression on my psyche that while walking in the market during the days of Heyrath, I would persistently try to look away from the blocks of mutton which were kept dangling on solid iron hooks by butchers to attract customers. To avoid the curse of the Lord who I believed would become aware of any of my profane musings, I would do my best to keep thoughts of food away. Sometimes I would falter and look briefly and would then admonish myself greatly. It may sound a silly situation now but it had such an impact on me then.

All those impressions of celebrating Gurtoo Heyrath are still fresh in my heart; part of the mosaic of my lifetime in Kashmir.

*P.N.Ganjoo was born in a modest Kashmiri family about 7 decades ago, lost his father early and was raised by his honest, hardworking mother. With her efforts he received his education in Srinagar and went on to serve in various Government Departments before retiring as a senior grade KAS officer.

Presently he is working on his varied interests besides being a consulting Director of a software services company.

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A timely and wonderful write-up on the Gurtoo tradition about Heyrath.The two traditions are related to the KADI VIDYA and HADI VIDYA of the Shaiva tradition. Regards Dr Chaman Lal Raina,Fellow CSS, FIU,USA
Added By Chaman Lal Raina