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Kashmir: Where Religion is Killing Culture

Updated on October 28, 2015

Kashmir’s Culture is Unique!

The Kashmir Valley is world renowned for its natural beauty: snow covered mountain peaks, lush green pastures and meadows, orchards of almonds and apples, Chinar trees, magnificent lakes and springs, Mughal gardens, handicrafts and Pashmina shawls – all ideal attractions for tourists.

However, what is less commonly known is that Kashmir’s native people proudly call their land, the ‘Pir Vaer’ – the alcove of Sufis and Saints. This has been the distinguishing feature of Kashmiri culture that gives Kashmiri people their unique identity. This is what they proudly call “Kashmiriyat” similar to what makes people of France French.

Although around 60% Kashmiris practice Islam – the rest 40% are largely Hindus and Buddhists in roughly 2:1 ratio – but Islam is not the identity of Kashmir. Although this is precisely what some regional vested interests have been trying to do for last several decades – connect Kashmir with Islam for political mileage.

Let me give a simile: the majority of French nationals follow Christianity, but it would be wrong to say that Christianity is what makes them French. If we followed this logic, all European countries would have exactly one and the same identity – Christianity. But we know, it’s wrong and deceptive to say so. If we want to understand France, we will have to look at what makes its people “French”. Exactly in the same way, we will have to find out what makes people of Kashmir, “Kashmiri”.

In order to understand why cultural identity overshadowed religious identities in Kashmir, we will have to explore how its beautiful culture evolved since ancient times.

Religion becomes a problem when it becomes a tool of hate and violence?

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Historical Evolution of Kashmiri Culture

Since the ancient Vedic period, being situated in the Himalayan ranges, Kashmir has also been the abode of spiritual seekers who had renounced the worldly life to experience self-realization and liberation from all human suffering (Moksha or Nirvana in Sanskrit). Attaining Moksha has been the spiritual goal of every Hindu’s life since ancient times.

These saintly people lived in isolated areas and led ascetic life fully devoted to spiritual practices. These sages were called Rishis (in Sanskrit) because they explored the Rit or Nature of existence – which is collectively called Dharma. They can be clearly seen as the dedicated spiritual scientists who studied all facets of human existence and its interconnections with everything in the Nature.

Various yogic practices and meditation techniques evolved as a result of their efforts. Mastery over the mind was an integral part of their life, which they used both as an instrument and as an analyst. The knowledge was put in the Vedas and other texts. Vedas are called so because they came from personal experience, not imagined concepts or logical inferences.

In this timeless chain of spiritual scientists, the Buddha is a famous example who lived 500 years before the Christ. All these enlightened saints taught how to live a life according to “Dharma” – which is all about right conduct that comes from doing the right thing in thoughts, words and deeds – to enjoy peace and harmony. These are all universal ethics and for the whole humanity. Different philosophies of that time were seen as different paths leading to the same ultimate truth – this collectively evolved to be what is called “Hinduism” today. It is a collection of plurality and is entirely different from the monolithic ‘religions’ or ‘faiths’ that later evolved in the West.

Thus, Kashmir has been a land of Rishis – ascetics, recluses and sages of different spiritual traditions.

For tourists, Kashmir is the Switzerland of India
For tourists, Kashmir is the Switzerland of India

Arrival of Sufi Islam in Kashmir

Perhaps the earliest known (and recorded) Sufi saint in Kashmir was an Islamic saint from Turkistan, Syed Sharif-ud-Din Abdur Rehman who arrived towards the end of 13th century. He later became popular as Bulbul Shah. He was followed by many Sufi saints from Turkistan who arrived in the 14th century looking for safe refuge to avoid persecution in their home Islamic societies. Kashmir offered them an ideal environment as it was a land of profound spiritual traditions – long nurtured by sages and rishis. People of Kashmir accepted them as practitioners of just another tradition because their demeanours resembled the traditional saintly persons whom they held in very high esteem.

What distinguished the Sufis from their other co-religions was their absolute focus on the “essence” of Islam which is spiritual. Unlike others, they did not preach words of Islam, but actually ‘lived’ the “spirit” of Islam. They communicated through their conduct. Keeping away from all worldly pleasures, they also devoted fully to prayers or meditation, like ancient saints of the soil. Their extremely simple, humble and compassionate demeanours always reminded people of the ancient rishis.

Since Sufis practiced pure spirituality, the “spirit” of the prophet’s teachings, it couldn’t be different from the Indian “Dharma” – the universal laws of ethics and morality – lived and taught by countless sages since ages. Their deep commitment to the Islamic philosophy of Divine Unity (wahdat-ul-wajud) mirrored the Hindu philosophy of non duality (Advaita). Thus, even if these Sufi saints used Arabic phrases their message of love, peace and ‘oneness of humanity’ easily transcended the divides of languages, faiths, beliefs and religions.

Thus, the Sufis from Central Asia can be seen to have actually revived the spirituality of the ancient Vedic period of ascetic Rishis. Looking from another perspective, one may say that the Sufi Islam culture amalgamated with ‘dharmic’ knowledge of ancient India to produce a unique society where Hindu and Muslim labels got subordinated to human identity. Kashmiris use the Hindu epithets Rishi or Baba to describe these Sufi saints.

The Sufi – Rishi Culture of Kashmir

Nund Rishi – Founder of the Rishi Tradition

Sheikh Nur ud-Din Noorani (1377-1440), more popular as Nund Rishi, is often seen as the pioneer of the Sufi Rishi tradition in Kashmir. People saw him as an ‘enlightened’ saint for whom Islam was a universal message of love, tolerance and service, and at the same time a crusaded against social injustice and useless rituals. Serving humanity was a cornerstone of this tradition and helping the poor and suffering people was seen superior to rituals of worshipping God. A lot of people who abhorred the Brahmin and their dry ritualism were automatically attracted towards the simple and welcoming Rishi culture.

Even in those days, their message of universal goodness was often taken as a threat both by the “bookish” Islamic priests associated with the rulers of Kashmir as well as the Brahminical establishment. Their message of “one God for the whole humanity” was particularly threatening to the traditional Islamic preachers for whom the distinction between believers and non-believers was final and “un-erasable.”

Once, sensing tension between Hindus and Muslims, Nund Rishi advised:

"We belong to the same parents. Then why this conflict?
Let Hindus and Muslims (together) Worship God alone.
We came to this world like partners. We should share our joys and sorrows together."

Nund Rishi also holds importance in the Valley’s history because he broke away from the tradition of writing in Sanskrit or in Persian and started writing in the local Kashmiri language. He was highly venerated and he became a spiritual legend even beyond Kashmir border. Almost 400 years later during 1821-23, the Afghan governor, Ata Muhammad Khan, minted coins bearing his name.

His tomb is located in Chrar-e-Sharif, about 20 miles from Srinagar. People of all faiths visit his shrine to take solace in the serene and sublime environment. The annual Urs celebrations attract people not just from Kashmir but from other Indian states and abroad too.

It is this secular culture of Kashmir that Kashmiris proudly call their “Kashmiriyat”; it doesn’t recognize the narrow confinements of faiths and beliefs. It is a melodious synthesis of universal “Dharma” and “spiritual essence” of Prophet’s teachings. A noted scholar has described it in this peculiar way: “a Kashmiri expression of Islam'' and an “Islamic expression of the Kashmiri rishi tradition.'' It is only in Kashmir where Muslims have Hindu surnames such as 'pandit' and 'bhat'!

But sadly, this sublime spiritual culture is under severe attack, predictably by the politically radical Islam. It worries all intelligent and far sighted Kashmiris and people of India.

Islamic Terror in Kashmir

The Sufi-Rishi Culture comes under Attack

The relationship between the broad-minded Sufis and stereotype ulema has never been cordial in most Muslim societies. The latter wielding power in most Muslim societies always tried to marginalize the Sufis. But in Kashmir the situation was just the reverse. It can also be seen as triumph of spiritual Islam over Political Islam. However, the Sufi-Rishi culture, that Kashmiris consider their identity, is under severe assault since 1989.

But, why would anyone attack such a peaceful and humane culture? The answer lies in the regional politics of Indo-Pak rivalry and Islamic radicalization. Let’s first get a quick update of the so-called Kashmir dispute that that started with the partition of British India to create a Muslim Pakistan in 1947.

Kashmir dispute in brief

When the British India was partitioned in 1947 to carve out an Islamic Pakistan to pacify a few Muslim leaders, about 560 tiny princely states had the option of joining either side or stay sovereign. The ruler of Kashmir harboured the ambition of sovereignty and did not make any move. But Pakistan was expecting it to ‘naturally’ come its way on religious lines (about 65% muslim population), so in impatience it invaded Kashmir. The ruler fought back but soon realized the vulnerability. So he sought Indian military help to drive away the aggressors. Delhi agreed but demanded accession to India first. Thus, the ruler signed the treaty of accession and Indian military arrived in Kashmir. When the conflict ended, India held two-third of Kashmir and the rest was under Pakistan control. This became the line of control (LOC) that still holds today despite two wars since then. Leaving aside the nitti-gritty of Indo-Pak arguments and counter arguments, Pakistan wants Kashmir in the name of Islam.

Import of Fundamentalism and Militancy in Kashmir

The year 1989 gave an ugly twist to the dispute with the infiltration of Islamic extremists from across the border. It followed the Soviet withdrawal ending their 10 year occupation of Afghanistan as a result of heavy losses at the hands of Afghan Islamic extremists, who were trained by the Pakistan and armed by the US. After the Russians were gone, the ‘army’ of trained Jehadis went out of job, so they were sent to Kashmir Valley to fuel Islamic militancy.

Thus, the decade of 1990s produced the magnitude of violence Kashmiris had never seen before. And, all in the name of religion by foreign mercenaries whose culture of communal hate is diametrically opposite to what Kashmir had nurtured for centuries – the sufi-rishi tradition of peaceful coexistence and mutual trust between Hindu and Muslim communities.

Minority non-muslims became the first victims; they were targeted and driven out of the Valley. Next, violence was directed towards the Sufi shrines because they symbolize peace and unity among people of all faith or religions. Most notably, in 1993, militants seized the Hazratbal shrine which houses a hair strand of the Prophet. But somehow they vacated the shrine without harming it.

Two years later, extremists seized Nund rishi’s shrine in Chrar-e-Sharif. They burned it down after a 2 month seize and standoff with Indian army. It provoked deep anguish across Kashmir. The shrine was however rebuilt later. But the fundamentalists continued their tirade against all sufi symbols of peace and love. In 2012, several shrines, including the Dastageer Sahib in Srinagar, were destroyed in “mysterious fires”. The miscreants proudly declared, on social media sites, these acts as “the divine acts of God.”

Simultaneously, radical Islamic preachers arrived in the Kashmir valley to teach the intolerant interpretations of Islam. Unemployed youths were initially attracted towards the ideas of radicalism but soon realized that they are being brainwashed into hating non-Muslims and their very own sufi-rishi philosophy. Many of these young Kashmiris then started helping the army to eliminate the miscreant extremist. After all, Kashmiris can’t tolerate the devious designs of converting their “Pir Vaer” (garden of saints) into “Devil Vaer” (garden of devil).


Kashmir’s identity comes from Sufi-Rishi culture, not Islam. It transcends all divides of faiths and beliefs. Thus, any attempt to see Kashmiri people as 60% Muslim, 25% Hindus and 15% Buddhists, is going to be misleading. Saying that Kashmir is Islamic is as faulty as saying that all Muslims are fundamentalists.

The remote controlled Islamic militancy in Kashmir is clearly aimed at New Delhi, but it is destroying the precious and unique home-grown Sufi-Rishi culture. Its message of universal love and harmony is a threat to those who must use Islam as a political weapon of dominance through violence. Ironically, the sufi shrines across the border in Pakistan have also been targeted and destroyed by the same lot of trained religious fanatics.

Looking from the larger perspective, it is the same old intoxication of faith that is killing humanity. How unfortunate is human life when faith is turned into a weapon of hate and violence.


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