What cherry blossom is to Japan and peach blossom to China, almond blossom is to Kashmir. For generations the fruit and its flowers have impressed and inspired Kashmiris. Almonds exhibit an intrinsic relation with art and culture of Kashmir, which no fruit comes even close to.
Last week when Badamwari was opened for public, 50,000 people flocked the garden. Such was the rush that people had to park their vehicles kilometres away and walk to the garden.
The long lost era of badamwari festival seems to have revived albeit at a minor scale. “Badamwari festival used to be a grand affair. It was as if whole Kashmir would converge in Srinagar to bask in the glory of these beautiful flowers in the foothills of Hari Parbat,” said renowned poet and writer Ghlam Nabi Khayal who used to live adjacent to vast almond orchards in Hawal. “It would be miles of pink flowers treating our eyes.”
According to Khayal right from Sangeen Darwaza, the almond trees would blossom and one could see people picnicking around. “The Badamwari would extend from Western side of Hari Parbat all the way to eastern side of Waris Khan Chah,” said Khayal.
According to some records there were 25 almond gardens interconnected to form major badamwari spread over thousands of Kanals of land. “It was the only secular festival Kashmir would ever celebrate. Here Hindus, Muslims and people of other religions would celebrate without inhibitions. All other festivals and Urs had religious undertone but not Badamwari,” said Khayal.
Navreh would also see huge rush of pandits in the Badamwari, which according to Khayal had dozens of one room open temples occupied by ever busy priests.
Badamwari was a symbol of hope and inspiration of better future for Kashmiris. After tiring six months of brutal winter, the almond blossom were one of the first flowers assuring people everything is fine and summer is not far away.
W R Lawrence in his book Valley of Kashmir has remarked: “It is not mere love of beauty of colour that impels them, but a spirit of thanks-giving that the winter with its miseries of cold and its dreary monotony of white snow has passed, and that the earth has come to life again with all her bright flowers and promise of kindly fruits”.
A famous Kashmiri saying would complement the environment.
Wande chali sheen galli bayi yi bahar
If winter comes, can spring be far-behind
Hindus and Muslims would sit side by side, taking tea or Kehwa from steaming hot samovars and relishing the chest nuts. A halwai in the garden would supply stream of Nader Monjas (lotus stem fritters) and parathas (deep-fried flatbread) to complete the picnic spot ambience.
The occasion which peaked in April was also accompanied by musical programmes. “Master Tibetbakal along with his party would sing for hours at Darbagh and mesmerise the audience,” said Khayal.
Columnist Z G Mohammed while recalling the glory of Badamwri writes, “ During Bakhshi regime, Jashan-e-Kashmir – a mega cultural extravaganza was celebrated. Every year in spring Badamwari provided a beautiful venue where various cultural programs were held to provide entertainment to the people.
Great singers, Abdul Gaffar Lojar, legendry Ghulam Ahmad Sofi, Ramzan Joo, Mohammad. Abdullah Tibatbaqal and other less renowned singers enthralled the audience with the popular songs. While A.Gaffar Lojar and Ghulam Ahmad Sofi held the youth spellbound with romantic songs, Ramzan Joo and Tibatbaqal’s classic songs ( Sufiyana mosyaqi) had mystical overtones and appealed to the elderly people.”
From villages people would board tongas or bicycle to Badamwari. Nishat, Shalimar was off limits for them due to its distance.
Badamwari festivity was cleverly used by former Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad for political engineering going on that time.
From 1953 to 1963, he took the badamwari festival to an altogether new level of popularity by supplementing it with musical programmes, poetry recitation and other additions.
Apart from hosting a scene of festivity, almond is much more than a fruit to Kashmir as the small seed remains entrenched in the culture of Kashmir. “You can see scores of poets using the metaphor of Badaam Chashm (Almond shaped eye) for describing the beauty,” said Khayal. “In handicrafts too, Almond share and Chinar leave are two most famous motifs. They represent Kashmir.”
According to some art historians, it is Kashmiri artisans who introduced tear drop motif of Almond to world. The clever motif describes both beauty and pain, depending on usage.
The painters too have not remained far behind when capturing the badamwari into their canvas. A famous 1952 painting ‘Kashmiri’s enjoying almond blossoms at Badam Wari’ by artist Dina Nath Wali beautifully depicts families dressed in the traditional pheran, enjoying the day out.
But the good days couldn’t sustain as the time progressed.
According to Khayal the Badamwari was lost to ill planning, illegal encroachments, lack of interest by government and lack of movement by people to save it. The political indifference led Khayal to protest in his poetry.
Sadiq Aav to go’d vay purvun nalle mar
Shekhan dop assi kath chi bakaar ven badamwaer
( Sadiq came, filled up the nallah mar
Sheikh said why do we need Badamwari.)
When Sheikh Abdullah came to power, he settled people of various communities in the area. Soon people too started encroachments and ultimately entire western side of Badamwari was finished off for good. Several plots were auctioned and more area was used for other infrastructure without giving an iota of concern to heritage.
Now only eastern side also called Waris Khan Chah is what has remained of the old grandeur.
However before everything could have been lost, JK Bank under former chairman Haseeb Drabu stepped onto the scene in an effort to revive what was left of Kashmir’s heritage.
In 2008 in a public-private partnership the bank undertook the restoration of 300 kanal Waris Khan Chah portion of Badamwari. The garden was paved with red sandstone walkways, new almond trees were laid and old one looked after, arched gates and chabutras were in built in tune with old Kashmiri architecture. Eminent artist Masood Hussain was commissioned to instal an sculpture and the garden was also fitted with open air auditorium.
With more than a lakh visitors already having visited Badamwari this year, the pink flowers continue to give hope that heritage when presented in a new altar can be equally relevant even today.