Muslim caretaker for a Pandit cremation ground

A Kashmiri Muslim family has been taking care of a cremation ground for Pandits for over a century in the interiors of Dal Lake



For over a century a Kashmiri Muslim family in Jala Mohalla in the interiors of Dal Lake on the Rainawari side has been taking care of a cremation ground for Kashmiri Pandits even after their migration post 1990. Spread over six kanals on the banks of the Dal the island-like cremation ground, locally known as Aawran, wears a deserted look today. Not a single Pandit has been cremated here since 1990.
Ghulam Rasool Bhat, 65, took over the responsibility of being the caretaker of the cremation ground after his father passed away in 1996. “My father took care of the cremation ground till his death,” says Bhat who recalls regularly participating in the last rites of Pandits along with his father as he was growing up.  He says the site was demarcated as a cremation ground for Pandits when his father was very young. He remembers his father telling him that there was a crematorium near the house of wealthy Pandits called Kilams. “They were irked by the smell emanating from the burning of bodies and then they donated the land for this purpose,” says Bhat.
Surrounded by mighty Chinar trees, the cremation site in the ground in the interiors of Dal is covered with tin sheets that somewhat covers it from rain. Neglected by the government authorities over the years, the cremation ground remains unfenced. But Bhat, not wishing to be photographed, continues to take care of this site. Sometimes boys from neighborhood assemble here to play cricket on the open ground. When he comes out of his home near the cremation ground, he asks them to play elsewhere. They respect him.
A tailor by profession, Bhat does not get paid for taking care of the cremation ground. He has not taken a penny over the years for being the caretaker of this cremation site. As a caretaker he has always been on guard against any encroachment and possibility of any damage to the cremation ground. In the past twenty years, even as Kashmiri Pandits left Kashmir and didn’t turn up to perform the last rites of their dead in the ground, Bhat continued to protect the sanctity of this cremation site.
However, being the protector of this cremation ground and maintaining the sanctity of this site hasn’t been easy for Bhat.  In 1996 some men in uniform tried to cut down the trees in the ground. Bhat resisted their attempts and wrote a letter to the then Asthapan President Dr. Karan Singh. The trees were saved. He has himself planted some of the trees in the ground. In the past he has also resisted attempts by some unidentified persons who tried to take away the tin sheets covering the cremation site.
Bhat remembers how in the past Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits would spend time and chat together for hours on this ground. Muslims, he says, would even pray on this ground and traders would display Kashmir arts to the tourists under the shade of Chinars. Bhat’s wife remembers participating in the last rites of many Pandit women cremated in this ground till 1990. “We used to perform their last rites and stand by them whenever they would come here to cremate their dead,” she says. “They were attached to us when they were living here.”
In the 90s, on some days she remembers seeing some army men cutting the trees surrounding the cremation ground. “I told them I will give you dried wood from my home but don’t cut these trees,” she recalls. “They would take the wood which was gathered there for the cremation.” At times she says they would buy the deodar wood from their own money which was then used to burn the pyres.
Bhat used to grow vegetables on an open patch of the ground in the presence of Pandits who were aware of it. But when they left the valley post 1990, he did not deem it right to continue growing vegetables in their absence. “I thought it was not right and I stopped it since they didn’t come here anymore,” says Bhat.
Till 1990 Bhat says Pandits would come to this ground for cremation from Rainawari, Badamwari, Habak and other adjoining areas of the city to perform the last rites of their near and dear ones. “Till 1990, five to eight bodies would be brought here every month to perform their last rites here,” he recalls. “Large number of Muslims living around this area would also come and take part in their last rites.”
Father of two sons and two daughters, Bhat recalls happier and peaceful times in the past when Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits would grow up together and share each other’s joys and sorrows.  “We would together celebrate each other’s festivals like Eid and Herat,” he says. “We would attend and work in each other’s marriage ceremonies.”   He wishes those times return and Kashmiri Pandits come back to where they belong so that they can live together again.
Bhat wants Kashmiri Pandits to return and live with the people and not in ghettos surrounded by government forces. He likes to compare Kashmir to a beautiful garden where he says presence of many kinds of flowers adds to the glory and beauty of the garden. He wants all the flowers to bloom together, like in the past, and make this garden beautiful. “If only one kind of flower is there, that garden is not that rich and beautiful,” he says. “We need all kinds of flowers to bloom in our garden.”
Earlier, he says, it would take centuries to change the history of a place. “But these days history changes in only some years,” he says. “Twenty years is enough to change a place and its history.”
Ghulam Qadir Bhat, a local resident, remembers roving to his school in Rainawari on a small boat when he was a kid. On the way he would see Pandits being cremated on this cremation ground. Whenever Kashmiri Pandits who are living outside visit Dal Lake, he says they always talk about returning home. These days he says a Kashmiri Pandit, who is an engineer in Dubia, is living on a houseboat in Dal Lake. “He told me that he had come here only for two days, but it’s already been 6 days and he doesn’t want to go back to Dubai,” says Bhat. “He says he was born in heaven but he has to live in hell.”
Bhat says no one asked him to take care of the cremation ground even when the Pandits left and stopped coming to the ground to cremate their dead. He does it voluntarily. “I do it because my father used to take care of this cremation ground till his death, he says, and I have to do it as it is my duty to take care of this site in the absence of my father. “It gives me contentment that I am doing something for my Pandit brothers,” he says, “and I hope one day they will return.”
Bhat’s endeavor to be the caretaker all these years is a living example of age-old communal harmony in Kashmir which stood testing times in 90s when Pandits migrated outside Kashmir.
How long will he take care of this cremation ground and protect it?
“I will take care of it and protect it till I am alive,” Bhat says with a smile. “Yutoet taem be zinde chus” 
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Lastupdate on : Sat, 11 May 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 11 May 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 12 May 2013 00:00:00 IST

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