ARTICLE : Kashmiri Brahmins and their Distictive Culture

Reproduced from Koshur Samachar
April 1996

Kashmiri Brahmins and their Distinctive Culture
by S. L. Pandit

   In the varied and colorful patterns that through
   centuries have evolved to form the rich mosaic of
Indian society, the Brahmins comprised the accepted
highest category of the ancient Vedic caste hierarchy.
Further, it is understood that through our several
millennia of history and legend they have played
vital roles as scholars, scientists, teachers and
occasionally as military experts and political advisers
of rulers and empire builders, while denying to
themselves opportunities of amassing wealth and
other material benefits that are now widely associated
all over the world with the rat race for political
power. Even so, with their wide patterns of regional
characteristics, the Brahmin communities had
acquired distinctive social and ritual traditions varying
from region to region. But largely they had held
together as a unifying force through their acceptance
of Sanskrit as the principal medium of culture, religion
and higher levels of research. As we know, while all
the North Indian languages have been derived from
the Aryan Sanskrit, even in the South, with its
distinctive Dravidian languages as hoary as Sanskrit,
the supremacy of Vedic Sanskrit had been accepted
as the principal medium of inter-regional commerce
of the highest level from Kashmir to Cape Camorin,
till the time when following the consolidation of
Muslim rule over the sub-continent, Persian was
imposed as a dominant official language till English
took its place following the establishment of British
rule over the sub-continent.

   In short, the point is that while it is this hierarchy
of Sanskritic culture that held together the Brahmin
community all over India, at the same time the
Brahmin communities of various regions, in due
course, evolved their special characteristics governing
their social life and religious practices and affinities.
Among these the Brahmin community of Kashmir,
in spite of their limited numbers and partial
geographical isolation from the rest of the
subcontinent, built up through centuries some special
features of social and religious behaviour which
enabled them not only to hold together as an influential
minority community in Kashmir, but that later a
smaller migrant group of this community, mainly
urban based in North India and Rajputana, came to
leave their distinctive impress on the cultural and
political developments taking shape in the country
during the past two centuries. It is, however, a fact
that even these talented migrants continued to draw
their inspiration in various ways from their past
heritage in Kashmir, which continued to be their
principal regional base till the last decade of the
present century. So it might be of interest to us as
representatives of that past heritage to know and
understand the principal distinctive features of that
heritage, especially in the context of general religious
practices and social behaviour.

   First, a brief mention of the origins, historical and
legendary, of the Kashmiri Brahmin community.
According to accepted traditions in the rest of the
country, Kashmiri Brahmins are believed to be a
branch of the Saraswat Brahmins who were so called
because they were believed to have settled along the
course of a semi-mythical river of North India called
Saraswati, and named after the Vedic goddess of
learning, soon after the Vedic Aryans settled firmly
over this region of India. Then there follows a legend
that when this river dried up, these Brahmins got
scattered. There is a tradition that quite a large
section of this uprooted community settled in the
Western Konkan coast of the present state of
Maharashtra, where they still hold together socially
and call themselves "Saraswat Brahmins". Others
moved further North into the Valley of Kashmir and,
as the story goes, settled there after securing the
permission of the Naga tribes who then ruled over
this region. So, in the course of centuries, while
holding fast to their traditional Aryan Vedic moorings,
they sought to work out certain patterns of religious
and social behaviour which distinguish them
marginally from the Brahmanic traditions of the rest
of India.

   This in short is how legendary tradition places the
settlement and evolution of this Brahmin community
in Kashmir. Some discerning Western scholars have
tried, in view of the distinctive physical features of
this community, to class them as probably the still
continuing purest possible stock of Vedic Aryans
who, in some still not positively located past age,
came to settle in the Indian subcontinent. There is no
doubt that the members of this small Brahmin
cormnunity continue even upto now to hark back to
their Vedic past. But it is obvious that, in their
comparatively isolated mountain girt habitat, they
tried to recreate for themselves in the Valley parallel
important traditional places of pilgrimage so dear to
Hindus in the rest of India. For example, they had
marked a spot in the North of the Valley where a
mountain stream flows into a lake as Harmukat
Ganga and would till very recent times consign the
ashes of their departed ones in its waters when they
could not easily reach the traditional river Ganga
venerated by all Hindus through countless ages.
Similarly, about twelve miles below Srinagar at
Shadipur, they treated the confluence of the Jhelum
(Vitasta as named in our ancient Sanskrit texts) and
a mountain stream still named Sind in Kashmir, as of
equal status in sanctity to Prayag (now Allahabad)
where, the waters of the holiest rivers of the Hindu
faith, Ganga and Yarnuna along with the legendary
Saraswati, mingle their streams before they move
onwards to empty their waters in the Bay of Bengal.
Similarly, many other leading places of pilgrimage
in India are duplicated in the valley. In fact, as
several foreign travellers to Kashmir have observed
during the past three to four centuries, the whole
valley of Kashmir is dotted with Hindu pilgrim
centres located at lakes and springs and on mountain
tops. In this pattern also fall the holy springs named
usually as Nagas, obviously harking back to an
unrecorded pre-Aryan phase of Kashmir chronicles.

   To these distinctive features of Hindu tradition in
the Valley, may be added the unique and still preserved
texts of works that, like Nilamat Purana and
Kathasaritasagara, are a product of ancient wisdom
expressed in the latter work of imaginatively
conceived tales like the famed Panchatantra tales
about beasts and birds. As in the rest of India. the
emergence of the Buddhist movement was meant to
question the sanctity of the caste system and the
Vedic ritualistic worship. With the later complications
of Buddha's simple creed, as has happened to most
other religious movements in the world, there
followed in India a revival of what may be described
as Brahmanic Hinduism, paving the way for the
imposition of a sort of absurdly rigid caste system
and untouchability. While the impact of this counter-
revolution led to unprecedented and almost inhuman
rigidity in certain regions, there was no revival of the
caste system in Kashmir. For one, the Brahmin
community of Kashmir appears to have cooperated
with the spread of the Buddhist faith, for many
Kashmiri Brahmins travelled to China and the Far
East as missionaries of this movement without
rejecting altogether their Brahminic past. Then came
Islam to the valley, first through missionaries of this
new aggressive foreign faith and later in the form of
rulers in the fourteenth century A.D. The proselytizing
zeal of Sultan Sikander, in fact, led to a crusade of
total suppression of the Hindu religion and destruction
of its places of worship. With this onslaught, while
the lower Hindu castes altogether disappeared from
the scene, only a small section of the Brahmin caste
refused to submit to this holocaust, preferring death
or voluntary exile from their homeland. But human
history is dotted with numerous surprising
developments. In the history of Kashmir, a new
movement was marked by the benign era of
Sikander's son and successor, Zain ul-Abidin,
popularly still remembered as Badshah or the Great
King, who ruled over Kashmir for half a century and
most zealously pursued a policy of reclaiming and
rehabilitating the Brahmin community as a value-
based section of the population. So, in the absence of
any lower Hindu castes for several centuries, the
Brahmins of Kashmir have traditionally remained
immune from the worst absurdities of the Hindu
caste system.

  Apart from the tolerant phase of Muslim rule first
firmly inaugurated by Zain ul-Abidin and later
zealously revived by Akbar, the history of Kashmir
was marked during this era by the emergence of other
harmonizing factors among both the Muslims and
Brahmins of the Valley. While some scholarly and
saintly Brahmins evolved a new universal aspect of
Hindu ethos in the form of Shaivism, the Muslims
were deeply involved in a tolerant aspect of Islamic
Sufism marked by the rise of what is called the Rishi
cult in Kashmir. These new developments came to
be personified in the careers and utterances in native
Kashmiri of Lal Ded (a Hindu wandering woman
saint) and Saint Nur-ud-Din Noorani whose tomb is
still venerated both by Muslims and Hindus as a seat
of pilgrimage at Chrar, a hillside village, west of
Srinagar, and recently vandalized by non-Kashmiri

   It is true that the Kashmiri Brahmins belong
basically to the main stream of the centuries-old
Indian Brahminhood. Nevertheless, because of their
comparative geographical isolationism the Northern
Indian plains and the disappearance of the lower
castes under the impact of Buddhism and later of
Islam, they evolved a distinct pattern of social
behaviour. For one, they were not obsessed by a
"touch-me-not" policy, so characteristic till recent
times of the Brahmins in some other region of India;
and, in fact, they were willing to accept uncooked
eatables even from Muslims. Moreover, in their
cuisine, they had no hesitation in taking to flesh
foods like lamb and fish, while they rigidly avoided
till recent times consuming poultry products, both
flesh and eggs. Following the consolidation of Muslim
rule, while they retained their attachment to Vedic
Sanskrit as the medium of their religious scriptures,
they easily took to learning Persian when it got
confirmed as the principal official language for
transacting official business and later even for their
private correspondence.

   In the context of what has been already observed,
with the evolution of Shaivism as a distinct religious
philosophy, the Shiva worship assumed special
importance along with the continuing veneration of
other gods of the Hindu pantheon and the various
aspects of the worship of the Goddess as the Supreme
Divine Mother. It is thus not surprising that, with the
ascendancy of Shiva worship, the observance of
Maha Shivratri Festival in the first dark fortnight of
the month of Phalgun (corresponding to February in
the international Christian calendar) came to be
observed as the principal religious festival in the
annual calendar of Kashmiri Brahmins. In the
traditional Hindu pantheon, Shiva is represented in
various forms, as the Destroyer in the Hindu trinity
comprising in addition Brahma (the Creator) and
Vishnu (the Preserver). But later Shiva is represented
also as the Nataraja or the Supreme representative
and inspirer of dance and music. Moreover, in
Kashmir Shaivism, Shiva is projected as the abiding
revelation of cosmos and of all life, both visible and
invisible. This amounts to a projection of some
modification of the ancient Upanishidic presentation
of all the universe, as we see it or perceive it
intellectually, as Maya, an illusion or play show as
projected by the Eternal Divine Creator of time and
space. Traditionally, among Kashmiri Brahmins the
festival of Shivratri was spread over the major part of
a fortnight, with special distinct religious and social
rituals marking each day of the period and culminating
obviously in thc night-long worship followcd by
feasting on the night of the thirteenth of the dark
fortnight of Phalgun. Incidentally, in the Valley of
Kashmir this festival period was also expected to
prepare the people for the oncoming of the spring
season marking a renewal of all life in the mountain
girt and snow-bound Valley. As an example, the
Festival of Durga Puja in Bengal has provided a
parallel in its religious and social dimensions to
Shivratri as celebrated in Kashmir through centuries
past. With the recent dispersal of the terrorised
minority Brahmins of Kashmir over the Indian
subcontinent and abroad in distant lands, obviously
in their vastly changed social and working
environments, our people have not now adequate
leisure and urge to observe this subnational festival
as elaborately as it used to be celebrated back in the
Valley of the gods. Even so, we should observe it all
over the world, may be in abridged versions, with as
much faith and fervour as our forbears celebrated
this festival over several centuries past.