On 13 March (Phalgun Amavasya), we bid farewell to Shiva, Parvati and their retinues who were home for four days on the occasion of Shivaratri or Hararatri – colloquially called Herath by the Pandits of Kashmir.
Shiva and Parvati, as Bhairav and Bhairavi, visit every Kashmiri home on Herath which falls on Phalgun Krishna Paksha Triyodashi (as per Kashmiri Hindu calendar). We hold on to our unique festivals and rituals in exile which has prolonged for more than three decades now.
An Existential Quest
Many a time, the state of homelessness surfaces in one form or other, marked with longing for home, loss of the way of life, broken language, candid conversations at marriage functions as well as cremation grounds, and above all, countless deaths of the old and young.
American writer Wallace Earle Stegner captures the predicament aptly – “Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.”
The state of no permanent home spurs the existential questions of identity, roots, and survival. Such existential questions keep striking me in unknown and peculiar ways.
On a broader level, what would be life without the idea of search? Be it search for meaning of life and death, or truth and knowledge, or idea of home, or semblance of home far away from home. The search is eternal and integral to one’s living.
The festivals, and related rituals, remind us of homes in Kashmir – each festival having a specific meaning linked to particular geography as well as season. Notably, there are numerous such rituals which used to be observed back in Kashmir.
While I am not always upbeat on rituals, my mother keeps observing them at our house in Jammu. She asserts that these rituals have been followed since time immemorial and form part of our Kashmiri identity – leaving me with no choice but to agree, and many a time be part of the ritualistic practices.
Sonth & Its Ensuing Scenery
Our calendar is marked with several festivals and rituals which are celebrated and observed throughout the year. Barring major Hindu festivals, there are many rituals which are followed only by Hindus of Kashmir.
Each festival or ritual bring alive the memories of the good old times in Kashmir. As winter season is almost over in Kashmir, we mark the advent of spring through Sonth. This year, it falls on 14th March – the day marks the entry of the Sun in Pisces sign, previously from Aquarius sign; also called Meen Sankranti.
My mother tells me that the grandfather would place the fresh paddy plant, taken out from our farmland in my village Akura in South Kashmir, at the entrance of the house which implied auspiciousness – may this house always have food to eat and offer it to others as well.
My mother, like several other Kashmiri Pandit women, continues to believe in such customs which is an amalgamation of faith, identity and culture.
The custom of Sonth would entail preparing a plate in the preceding night – containing rice, cooked rice, bread, yoghurt, milk, nuts, flower, pen, currency, picture of a god or goddess, current Kashmiri Hindu almanac, sugar and salt.
On Sonth morning, as soon as one wakes up, this plate should be seen first before proceeding to any other activity.
Reviving Traditions in Exile
In Kashmir, kids would take this plate to each member of the house early in the morning before dawn – wake them up from their sleep so that they see adorned plate first. Each member would give some token money and put it in the plate which would later be distributed equally among the kids of the house.
The kids would wear new clothes and go to gardens excitedly, especially the almond gardens. The flowers blooming on almond trees marks the onset of spring. It would be a day of recreation and fun for the kids.
In Srinagar, people would go to Badamwari, the historic almond garden situated on the foothills of Hari Parbat, to see the beautiful blossoms.
When Will Spring Come for Kashmiri Pandits?
Even after our displacement from Kashmir, we have followed this tradition in exile in Jammu. I remember waking up my grandparents and parents in my childhood. It was not a difficult custom to follow and one would earn some currency easily which would be divided between my brother and myself.
The desire of money overshadowed the petulance of getting up early in morning. Tehar, the rice cooked with turmeric, mustard oil and salt, would be partaken of on this day.
I tried to relive what I would have lived on the day of Sonth, had I been in Kashmir. On social media, Kashmiri Pandits post pictures of their decorated plates and wish each other on this day. This reflected the nostalgia and memory of what Pandits have been doing over the years in an attempt to preserve old practices and customs while being in exile. Symbols are important for one’s identity – Sonth being one of them.
Sonth is a harbinger of new blossoms, beginnings, and freshness in life while bidding adieu to harshness of winter. Sonth signifies hope and exuberance by putting an end to the spell of darkness.
It is about revitalisation of thoughts and deeds. When will spring come for the exiled Kashmiri Pandits which will infuse freshness in their lives and end their despair so that they are able to celebrate Sonth in their native homes?
( Varad Sharma is a writer and political commentator. He is the co-editor of book on Kashmir’s ethnic minority community titled A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits. He tweets @VaradSharma. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)