Hindus reclaim 5,000 years of history

By restoring temples in the Muslim region of Kashmir, the Pandit community is also preserving its past. Andrew Buncombe reports

At a Hindu temple in the centre of Srinagar, Sanjay Tickoo scattered petals, lit a candle and quietly voiced the words of a prayer. He then stepped backwards, slid shut a metal grille and carefully locked-up the premises with a sturdy padlock.

Twenty five years ago, Mr Tickoo's actions would have been unremarkable. Though the Kashmir valley has for centuries had a Muslim majority, its Hindu population – commonly known as Pandits – were always an integral part of the community. Some Hindus claim their history here dates back thousands of years.

When a separatist militancy gathered pace two decades ago, up to 400,000 Hindus either fled or were driven out. Many people were killed and most of their properties and temples were sold, destroyed or taken over by the security forces who had been sent in to counter the militants.

But over the last couple of years, something special has been happening in Kashmir. Mr Tickoo and other members of the small Hindu population that remained have set about restoring the temples, shrines and other sacred places. He claims several dozen such places have been repaired or reactivated.

"After the mass exodus of the Pandits, around 98 per cent of the temples were not attended. Only 23 temples have remained in constant use," said 42-year-old Mr Tickoo, president of the Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti, an NGO.

"We are doing it to improve Kashmiri society. But when we say we have a 5,000-year history in Kashmir ... the history belongs to me only because of my presence in the valley. My identity is directly linked to the temples. If they disappear I cannot claim we have a 5,000-year history in the valley."

The plight of Kashmir's Hindus is one of the overlooked tragedies of south Asia. While Kashmir's Muslim population has attracted international attention for its long and often violent struggle for autonomy, which has resulted in the Indian authorities dispatching hundreds of thousands of troops and paramilitaries, the Pandits are often forgotten, even in their own country. Today, it is estimated there are fewer than 4,000 still here in the valley.

The state and federal authorities insist they are doing what they can to help those Hindus who want to return and some job schemes and housing projects are under way. But after 20 years away from the valley, many are anxious about such a move – concerned about security, finding a livelihood and how their children might get on. In cities such as Delhi and Jammu, Pandit communities struggle to keep their customs and traditions alive.

Some have sought to portray the pre-militancy relationship between the Hindus and Muslims as one of gentle harmony. Others say that friendships and interactions were more likely at an individual level than between groups and that the situation was sometimes tense.

"Tension had always existed between the two communities. Pandits were used as the administrative class and were better educated," said Dr Siddiq Wahid, an activist and former vice-chancellor of Kashmir's Islamic University of Science & Technology.

Many senior figures within the Muslim community now say they regret the forced exodus of the Hindus. Mr Tickoo said his project to restore the temples involved working with Muslims who lived in the neighbourhoods where the buildings were located.

For instance, the temple in Srinagar where he performed the ritual prayer, which is next to a Hindu school and was reopened in January 2010, has an elderly Muslim guard who helped put out a fire that raged in 1994. "We hope the temple's glory slowly comes back," said 75-year-old Mohammad Bhatt, who still keeps watch over the building.

In some cases, Mr Tickoo and his supporters have resorted to hit-and-run techniques. Last year, they entered a Hindu complex in the city's Soura neighbourhood, which had been empty for a long time and was partly flooded, and lit a ritual fire to "reactivate" the temple. "Some people came in here and lit a fire, but the temple has not been reopened," a local man, Imtiaz Mohammed, said as evening fell across the city.

The challenge Mr Tickoo and others face is underscored by the fact that the 23 temples which have been active since 1989, when the militancy broke out, have units of armed paramilitaries living inside, behind barbed wire, to protect the buildings.

Security forces have been at the 200-year-old Ganesha temple in the Ganpatyar neighbourhood for more than 20 years. "There is no limit to the importance of this temple," said Kuldeep Ambardar, a government official who left Srinagar 20 years ago for Jammu, and who was visiting with his family.

CL Bhat, who heads another Hindu organisation in the city, said relations between the two communities had improved – "the government has put the troops in the temples – not us".

Yet he says the future of the valley's Hindu population remained parlous. Despite efforts to encourage people to return, numbers continued to fall. "We are trying to stop the decline of the population. But the children who are educated want jobs and they are leaving for Delhi or other places. The numbers are going down," he added.

Those involved in the project to restore the temples say they have no alternative but to continue their efforts. One of the most impressive reconstructions is at the Kathleshwar temple, alongside the Jhelum river that cuts through the city.

On a recent morning, visitors were welcomed with warm milk and almonds by Sudershan Das, a shaven-headed priest of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Mr Das grew up in the traditionally Hindu neighbourhood then travelled for 20 years before returning to Kashmir to rebuild the temple in 2007. Today it sits amid elegantly carved three-storey wooden houses, vacated by their Hindu owners and now occupied by the ubiquitous security forces.

"When I came here, the place was a shambles. We have rebuilt it," said Mr Das. Sitting on a rush mat, looking out over a view which ended in snow-capped mountains, he detailed a story of how, when the area was abandoned, the temple was taken over by hooligans who tried to smash the stone lingam, which represents the Hindu god Shiva. "They used an axe but it broke the axe. Five days later that person died," he said emphatically.

As The Independent was leaving the temple, Archana Ganjoo was making her way in, navigating past the empty wooden houses. Ms Ganjoo said she had lived in the neighbourhood when she was a girl but that her family had left for Jammu in 1989, like so many others. This was her first time back.

As she looked up at the quiet houses, she reeled off the names of the families who had once occupied them and pointed to the location of a primary school she had attended. "It feels like I am back. I feel good," she said.

Then she made her way towards Mr Das and his temple and stepped inside to pray.

A disputed region

* Most of the Hindus, or Kashmiri Pandits, who fled the Kashmir valley, left in a matter of months between the end of 1989 and 1990 when an armed militancy by elements of the Muslim community demanding autonomy gathered pace.

* Many took the decision to leave after certain mosques broadcast demands for them to quit and newspapers printed similar messages.

* Gradually, the leadership of the Muslim community has accepted its responsibility for the exodus.

* Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, leader of a coalition of separatist organisations, the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said: "We cannot deny that they had to leave the valley in very difficult circumstances at a time when there was a lot of chaos."

* Farooq Abdullah, a former chief minister of the state and currently a federal minister in Delhi, said earlier this year: "It is our fault [that] the Kashmiri Hindus have been made homeless and forced to live outside."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Offshore Operations & Interfaces

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Offshore Engineering Design Manager

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Offshore Wind Grid Connection Specialist

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

SEN Science Teacher

£21804 - £31868 per annum + SEN allowance: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are ...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices