Kashmir has a long history of around 2000 years, and carries a rich eclectic cultural heritage. This heritage, born of the convergence of multiple faiths, is in the form of tangible as well as intangible cultural heritage. Both these forms of heritage have suffered substantially due to an overarching focus on the armed conflict. The discourse on the genesis and resolution of the armed conflict has saturated all pores and aspects of the social and cultural life of Kashmir. This has created a criminal but understandable silence and negligence towards the centuries old intangible cultural heritage. No doubt, with the aid of the local government, there is some effort underway towards the protection of the tangible cultural heritage. However, the intangible cultural heritage is dying a slow but sure death.
The United Nations Security Council Resolution 2347 has emphasized the protection of cultural heritage. It has stressed on the member states to document, preserve and safeguard the cultural heritage. The Resolution and the Report also encourage all Member States that have not yet done so to consider ratifying the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its Protocols, as well as the UNESCO 1970 Convention against illicit trafficking of cultural property and other relevant international conventions. It envisions the cultural heritage as a means of fostering peace and dialogue, and bringing about cohesion amongst different communities in the armed conflict. It is important to utilize the contemporary directive/advice of the UN Resolution and the role of the UNESCO in using intangible cultural heritage as an instrument for fostering dialogue and encouraging stable and peaceful communities. Thankfully, there are efforts already underway for its preservation.
Ghulam Nabi Atash, a veteran folklorist and a prolific writer, has compiled a book under the title Intangible Cultural Heritage of Kashmir. The book published by Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages covers different aspects and forms of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Kashmir. There are rituals, customs and deep rooted practices of different religious believers of Kashmir which have become part of the folk memory. This is an important collection given the fact that very few people are aware about the intangible component of culture. For each Mughal Garden there are several aspects of culture about which there is insignificant information like Zail Vaenkeh, Yendraz or the Boag. While almost everyone knows about the concrete tourist spots which are indelibly registered on our collective consciousness, very few know about the Kukyeaar, one of my favourites from the collection in this book. Kukyeaar, in popular memory, is linked with a story of its own, in which a woman helps a farmer and then the latter identifies the secret of her power. According to folk belief Kukyeaar is either an imaginary invisible mountain or a blue pine tree. This legend, as the author says, is especially in vogue in South Kashmir. Kukyeaar seems to be an archetype of the agreement, which according to Nilmatpurana, took place between Naas, Pisacas, and men, after the elapse of four aeons. The detailed story can be found in the text.
We have either heard about these myths, stories and legends or use them in our day to day conversation. Some of them have also fallen out of use and may eventually go away altogether from our mindspace. That is why this effort of Mr. Atash is remarkable. We have heard about Bram Bram Chok but do not know about its origin and the background of this phrase. It is said that it is a mysterious creature who has eyes on his head which sends out flames and the onlooker loses his consciousness and the way, especially during winter. The traveler is sometimes led astray and loses his way and dies in desperation. No one has seen it and some mystic poets have used this character in their poetry.
Similarly, in the popular memory there are characters like the Raantas and the Yech. Raantas is another supernatural creature produced out of the imagination of people living close to the forests. During long winter when snowfall covered the valley, people living close to the forests developed a fear-psychosis and Raantas was probably born. This is again a supernatural character which has enormous powers. She has huge breasts which hang backward on her back. She appears during winter months, changes forms and is tyrannical in nature. She has very long hair and the secret of her power is in the comb. If anyone succeeds in taking her comb she is left without any power and becomes a servant of that person if the comb is hidden. There is a description of other characters like the Shuteil Buid, Moaj Devath, Yech. Yaksha is called Yech in Kashmir. Yaksha means dangerous or tyrannical. These are believed to be ancient people of Kashmir and were cannibals, and could change their form at will. This character has also entered the folk memory as one who is mighty and powerful. He can become as tall as the poplar or as small as the cat.
The book of 122 pages and costing Rs. 100 is a rich source of information about the customs, rituals of Hindus and Muslims, which date back to the most ancient period of Kashmir. The different rituals which are observed from a long time in the past are recorded in the book. However, the book could have become richer with the addition of Sikhs and other smaller minorities as well, and also a fuller inclusion of other parts of Kashmir. Without that and a few other minor errors, the book is a pioneering effort in the realm of intangible cultural heritage and a beautiful elementary textbook for future scholars.