Faithful knots of Kashmir’s distressed birth-givers

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[FPK Photo/Zainab.]

On a misty March morning, dirges are competing with the fluttering of pigeons in a courtyard where the martyrs of 1931 are resting. The sky over their weathered tombstones has withered due to the stripped-green Chinar. In this state of lifelessness punctured by paupers’ pleading, the feeling of forlorn runs rampant. But the Central Asian-style sanctum in the backdrop keeps the thread of faith intact.

As an expression of this faith, sobs and shrieks are growing in pitch and pathos. They’re coming from inside the shrine of Khawaja Naqeshband Sahab—where a young woman is engaged in a morning monologue-cum-mourning. “There came a homemaker once, left heartbroken by a local blacksmith who refused to fix her Pashmina needle,” says Siraj, a shrine caretaker. “She was feeding her family with a spinning wheel, but her impaired needle was threatening to starve her kids. She cursed her destiny while decrying the denial.”

That night, a legend has it, flames erupted from the blacksmith’s house. He lost everything in that baffling blaze. “That’s how it works for the faithful here,” the caretaker continues. “Not that people come here to inflict pain on others, but their plight does serve them justice. Allah has bestowed His blessings upon this place where one of his beloved is resting. This is where he prayed his heart out during his lifetime. You can feel that influence and connection here.”

The caretaker falls silent as the young woman’s pleadings scale up in scream and sentiment: “My in-laws are calling me barren! This is killing me every day, Pira! For how long I’m going to live with these taunts…”

The monologue continues, so does the mourning. When the woman finally comes out with teary eyes and wasted face, she feeds pigeons and paupers before tying a votive thread at the corner of the shrine. The caretaker throws light on this holistic practice as soon as the woman walks away.

“I’ve been witnessing these scenes since my childhood here,” Siraj says. “Women grappling with the motherhood crisis come here, pour their hearts out, and bind votive threads to get their matters solved. This poor soul is no exception.”

This early morning meditative episode itself is a reflection on the life and times of the Old City—struggling to retain its medieval charm due to mushrooming of trendy stores and structures. But the spirited place is still surrounded by shrines and sanctums. And this is where people come to seek spiritual healing when science turns apathetic toward their agonies. This faithful connection is conveyed through a thread that women tie at these places. The practice is seen as a hope in despair for the community dented with discord, dis-ease and disturbance.

In Old City’s Zaina Kadal, Farhana sits to recall a miraculous episode of her life. Her captive chronicle and avid gestures make her a downtowner in letter and spirit. “There’s a reason why Old City is a different place altogether,” Farhana, a banker in her late twenties, says. “We still follow a deep cultural and faithful practices otherwise being discarded as a sign of ignorance these days. That’s how people have sadly come to define the epicentre of Islam in Kashmir now. But there’s more to it than what meets an eye.”

Five years ago, Farhana married her cousin with great family festivities. The couple supported each other, but sentiments soured when their parenthood got delayed. Three years of excruciating wait and woes later, Farhana couldn’t withstand meds and medical reports—both failing to uplift her gloom. She then decided to do it like her friend’s sister—binding a votive thread at the hill sanctum of Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom aka Makhdoom Sahab.

“My husband doesn’t believe in shrines and sanctums,” Farhana continues. “He dismisses the whole practice as a grave worship. But when all reason and resources failed to end our agony, he decided to tread the traditional path that still defines life in the Old City.”

It was raining when the couple ascended the arduous stairways to reach the saint’s abode. Crying over their helplessness, they took turns to console each other in a crowd-filled corridor. They finally tied the votive thread and came out light-hearted. “And then the impossible happened,” the banker recounts. “In my fourth year of marriage, I went for a random medical check one day and came back home with tears of joy.”

She again took her husband to the hill shrine. “I didn’t tell him anything, as I wanted to change his perception about faith. I untied the votive thread in his presence, and told him that he’s finally becoming a father. I remember how both of us broke down like babies in each other’s arms. The old faith resurrected that day and we headed home with the happiest news of our lives.”

[FPK Photo/Zainab.]

Thread and knot is a big sentiment in Old City — the fabled place around seven bridges taking a great pride in housing myriad needle artisans whose handicrafts grace top showrooms of the world. This sentiment sans spirituality is incomplete.

In his Old City clinic frequented by ailing lots, Dr. Saleem Ali tries to simplify this complex.

In his 40-odd years of community medicine practice, he has treated countless childless couples. “Where medicine fails, miracles take place,” Ali, a thoughtful sexagenarian, said.

“I’ve had the pleasure to work with some big doctors all these years. But even the biggest of them fail to bring happiness to these unfortunate lots. But faith makes mountains move. I know how couples become parents after a decadal wait. Most of them seek divine intervention through the faithful threads. It’s uncanny because it has no scientific explanation, no reasoning at all. Some of us might denounce it as a heretic practice, but the spirit of shrines is indeed very strong in this part of the world.”

Some blocks away from Ali’s clinic, Hakeem Javaid is attending some distressed lots in his brightly-lit room. His snow-white beard, wizened forehead and rosary-running languid fingers make him a striking faith-healer. Among his regulars are hopeless lovers, jobless youth, unhappy homemakers and childless couples.

Javaid recites Quranic verses and blows air on these anxious souls. He gives them sanctified salt, mud, sweet meatballs and neck threads as talismans. But for the childless couple, the faith-healer prescribes a mandatory visit to Dastgeer Sahab, Khanyar, and an obligatory thread

“Islam is a complete way of life and the Old City embraced it when Shah-e-Hamdan made masses Muslims here,” the faith healer said over a sip of salt tea. “But unfortunately, we’re now raising generations who blindly question our faith and tradition without delving deeper into details…”

At this point in time, a muezzin’s call made him quiet. In silence, he kept sipping his tea before resuming his talk at the end of the clarion call.

“…All I’m trying to say is that, we as a community need spiritual healing as much as we need medical treatment. For such healing only, these shrines and sanctums had come up in the Old City…”

“But how are threads and knots providing that healing?”

The question spreads a warm smile on the faith-healer’s glowering face. “I know where you are coming from,” he snapped back. “I know how these platonic practices are seen as an act of blasphemy now. But let me tell you this, this practice is a token of faith. And what’s Muslim without faith? This particular act by an agonised person at a resting place of Allah’s pious soul where He promises His blessings forms a strong spiritual connection. This engagement fills one’s heart with relief and hope. So, once a childless couple does it, they only seek divine intervention at a place where faith has been bringing solace to people from centuries itself.”

Mushtaq Khan who runs a big store near Dastgeer Sahab Shrine upholds Javaid’s take on the thread. He watches people engaging in this practice throughout the day. “This shrine engagement works like a placebo effect for masses craving for some succour,” Khan, a retired teacher turned trader, says. “The distressed lots treat these faith centers as sites of blessings, and that’s what brings them here when every other door closes for them. And this practice makes sense too.”

Khan takes one back to the recent Covid years when shut shrines and sanctums suffocated people within home and hospital walls.

“Most of the people visit shrines to unburden their hearts. But in the Covid pandemic when science surrendered before an invisible enemy, the need for these solace centers was greatly felt. Forget about these threads, these revered places are the reason that people of this place haven’t lost their sanity despite facing disturbances and distress all these years.”

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