“Herath” is the festival of Shivaratri celebrated in Kashmir and an excellent occasion for families to get together and observe this holy festival. Kashmiri Hindus are a community in exile, and the golden days of Kashmir do not exist in the lives of Kashmiri Hindus anymore.
However, the traditions are eternal, and all Kashmiris celebrate this day with great pride and enthusiasm. Shivaratri, celebrated in Kashmir, is unique from the rest of India. A ritual typical of Kashmiri Hindus is setting up of वटुक पूजा, the symbol of Baba Bhairo Nath. The festivities last a (or used to last) fortnight and Herath is almost in the middle of this calendar. As the story goes, a perverted alien ruler, Jabaar by name, forced Kashmiri Pandits to celebrate the festival in the hottest month of Aashaadh (June-July) instead of Feb-March. He knew that heavy snowfall always marked the great event, as is evident from the following refrain of a song usually sung at Shivaratri time: Suna sheen volun daari daare: Maharaza raaza kumaar hai aav (Flakes of gold snowed slow and steady when prince Shiva arrived to marry princess Uma!). In addition, to the utter surprise of all, the snow did fall in July that year! The miracle startled the Pathans who expressed hairat that is surprising!!!.
Hence, the new name for Shivaratri celebrations. However, untimely snowfall resulted in crop failure and famine. The valley faced untold misery. The forced alteration in the festival’s timing brought innumerable curses upon the ruler. The people cried out: Wuchton Yi Jabbaar Jan dah, Haaras Ti Kurun Wandah! (See this wretched Jabaar in rags; he has turned summer into winter!). Puja and its significance: Kashmiri Brahmins perform Shivaratri puja on the 13th (and not the 14th) day of the dark half of Phalguna. For them, it signifies Lord Shiva’s wedding with Uma, the beautiful daughter of the Himalayas.
In addition, in keeping with their hospitable nature, they offer various delicacies in puja on this day to entertain Bhairavas. The latter formed the major part of Shiva’s baaraat. Shivaratri puja is also called Vatuk Puja. Vatuk is a Kashmiri word meaning ‘collection or an assemblage of different objects. Since the main puja on Shivaratri day involves collecting a large number of articles, it is being called by the name Vatuk. The name could also be traced by the term Vatuk Dev, Lord Shiva’s celibate form. In the fitness of things, Kashmiris worship Shiva in this form before solemnising his union with Uma. They also worship Vatuk Bhairav, supposed to be Shiva’s most trusted dwarpal (gate-keeper), to seek his favour for an audience with the Lord. The divine marriage has a more profound, philosophic connotation.
Moreover, His union with Shakti (energy or activating power), represented by His’ consorts’, Uma, Parvati, Durga and Kali (variously named to signalise particular functions of the Divine Mother), make the infinite unfoldment in the cosmos possible. According to Kashmir Saivism, Shiva represents the eternal process of creation and destruction. His nature has primarily a two-fold aspect–immanent, which pervades the universe and the transcendental beyond the universal manifestation of time, space and form. Preliminary Preparations Year after year, the three-week celebrations begin on the first day of the dark fortnight of Phalguna (known in popular parlance as hur ukdoh) and end on the eighth day of the bright half of Phalguna. Hur in Kashmiri stands for both singing and whitewashing, and the word is used as a prefix for the first nine days of the festivities.
The first six days (hur ukdoh to hur shiyam) are normally reserved for cleaning the entire house to give it a festival look and for collecting the necessary articles like walnuts, utensils and vatuk samagri for the main puja on Shivaratri day. In olden times, the houses used to be whitewashed with clay and fresh cow dung. The subsequent three days–hur sattam, hur atham and hur navam (the birthday of goddess Shari ka), were devoted to congregational nightlong prayers. On the 12th, a day before the main puja, a new earthenware, freshly baked and specially prepared by the potter for the occasion (nowadays a pot of steel), is ceremoniously brought to the house and placed on a small circular seat (aasan) made of grass in the room traditionally reserved for daily worship (thokur kuth).
Called Wagur, the pot represents the priest. According to one prevalent belief, he acted as Shiva’s messenger to the Himalayas to seek his daughter’s hand. He performed the auspicious ceremony of Shiva with Parvati. Ritual Worship Before the start of puja on the main day, Trayodashi, several pots representing various deities, including the two larger vessels signifying Shiva and Parvati, are embellished with flowers, garlands tied around their mouths and dried walnuts deposited in them nearly to the brim. The smaller vessels, representing other deities, are similarly readied for formal worship. A couple more vessels are also kept ready for lesser deities like the Bhairavas.
The ritual worship begins with a traditional invocation of Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, followed by the sanctification of the various vessels representing different deities. One of the main attractions is Abhishek of the cone-shaped clay model called Saniputul. Being empty from the inside, Saniputul represents the supreme Godhead that encompasses all the elements in the universe, from Prithvi tatwa (earth) to shunya tatwa (space). Saniputul appears to be the corrupt form of shunya putul (pot/idol).
The ritual worship continues till late into the night. It concludes with aarti and singing of devotional hymns in praise of Lord Shiva. Dunya Mavas Ritualistic Puja of the sanctified vessels reaches its climax on the 15th day called Dunya Mavis (walnut amavas). On this day, all the flower-decked vessels are taken to a stream or river for final ritual immersion, just as the images of Durga and Ganesha are immersed at the close of Durga Puja and Ganapati festivals. Before immersion, the vessels are emptied of the soaked walnuts and brought back home after symbolic puja at the river bank. On reaching home, the ladies would shut the house’s main entrance and not allow the head of the family to enter till he promised certain blessings and boons for all family members. The conversation would run as follows after the head of the family knocks at the door:
Q: kus chuva? (Who is there?) ; A: Ram Bror (name of the person);
Q: kya heth? (What have you brought?) ; A: anna heth, dhana heth (food, wealth etc).
After the final puja on Dunya Mavas, the soaked walnuts and tumult chut (rice cakes) are distributed as the main prasad among the family members, friends and close relatives. The use of dried walnuts for worship and prasad is unique in the observance of Shivaratri by the people of Kashmir. Possibly, it has some symbolic purpose in as much as dried seeds, when soaked, pave the way for the renewal of life from objects that are supposed to be dead.
The prasad distribution process continues for a week until Teela Atham, the eighth day of the bright half of Phalguna, when Hayrath celebrations formally come to a close. In the good old days back home, a lighted earthen lamp would be placed on ari (seat made of grass) and allowed to float in the river (reminiscent of a similar scene in the evenings at Haridwar). The children had the last laugh on this day of glee and charm. They would burn unserviceable kangris (fire-pots) in the evenings, mostly on the riverbank. Known as jatun tuun in our native language, the festivity was symbolic of the end of severe winter in Kashmir. Social Aspect: Shivaratri provides a beautiful and meaningful get-together for all family members.
Every member of the household is generally in a festive mood. It is a day of prayer and meditation for the elders and fun and frolic for the youngsters, particularly children in their new colourful attires. During the entire period of the 3-week celebrations, all the family members, men, women and children, would play with cowries (seashells).
One and all enjoyed this fun-filled indoor sport. It is customary for the women-folk, the old and young alike, to visit their parental home and return to their in-laws with atagat (money in token of love) and kangri (fire-pot), considered to be a good omen on this occasion. The newly-wed girls usually return from their paternal homes on the eve of the main Shivaratri function, preferably on the 10th day (dhyara da ham), bringing with them, what in Kashmiri we call, hayrach bhog (Shivaratri shagun) in-kind and cash. History is the witness that we have been attacked every time for practising our faith. Jabbar Khan, the Afgan Governor, continuing the Islamic-proselytism and hegemony, banned the Kashmiri-Hindus from celebrating “Shivratri” on a typical day (normally Feb-March). Kashmiri Hindus believed that Rain and Snow would accompany “Hearath”. To break their faith in the myth accompanying “Hearath”, He ordered Shivratri to be celebrated instead in June-July. Distress, Hindus were forced to abide by the tyrannical dictum.