Hallowed Groves of Kashmir Repositories of Ecological Heritage

Upender Ambardar
The grooves are natural undisturbed forest lands and green patches of varying sizes, which may include dales, gardens, orchards and water bodies. They are known by the ancient names of Upvan, Nandan Van, Vatika, Phulwari, Kunj, Vraksha Vatika and Uddyan. They are usually found on the outskirts of human settlements, both in the rural and urban belts.
They form an integral part of the sacred geography of Kashmir as they are richly laced with religious, spiritual, puranic overtones and folk belief connotations. They are dedicated to Gods, Goddesses, area specific governing deities and super natural beings. They are usually found in tradition bound ethnic societies, where social customs, religious restrictions and indigenous belief systems operate. Their aim is to incorporate ecological sensitivity and respect for nature. The water bodies of various types comprising holy springs, lakes, rivers, and rivulets form an integral part of the sacred ecological heritage. The Kashmiri Pandits being the indigenous natives of Kashmir enjoy an age old emotional bonding with all the elements of nature as it is a celebration of divinity for them.
According to vedic thought, Mother Earth is the Bhu Devi, Vanaspati is the overlord of forests, Naag is the reigning deity of the spring, ponds and lakes, Shakambari is the goddess of vegetation, Krishnapingla is the diety of harvest and Annapurna is the Goddess of food and nourishment .The same concept regards trees as a blissful and sacramental lord of the forests. The sacred texts of Hindus make forests divisible into three types. They are Tapovan or forests of austerities, Mahavana or majestic forests and Shrivana or venerated forests. Tapovan is the most revered and sanctified forest type as it is used for religious austerities and meditating engagements mostly by Rishis. Mahavana is the most luxuriant woodland supporting a rich forest wealth including all kinds of valuable undergrowths. In contrast to it, Srivana is usually found in the vicinity of a human settlement or a shrine. It meets the requirements of the surrounding inhabitants in the form of forest products, fodder, timber etc.
The Manasbal lake situated in Sumbal village is also a sacred lake due to its Puranic association with Mansa Devi, the snake Queen Goddess, who happens to be the divine sibling of Vasuki Nag, the Serpent King. The world- famous Dal Lake of Srinagar, having the pre- historic name of Mahasaritsar is also a venerated lake due to its folkloric and Puranic association with the native Goddess Sureshwari and the river Ganga Mata. As per a native oral tradition, its sanctimonious ambience is also enhanced due to abundantly growing of the sacred water plant Lotus with its leaves, stem Nadru and the fruit Pambach having their association with the Tantric tradition. Interestingly enough, the Vedic name of Lotus is Shripushpa and is associated with Goddess Lakshmi who as per mythology, sits on this divine flower and is hence also known as Padma Lakshmi. Another Puranic belief regards Lord Brahma to have arisen from the navel of Lord Vishnu being seated on the holy Lotus.
The presiding deity of Dal knows as Dal Raza is invoked by many Kashmiri Pandit families of Rainawari, Srinagar to be divinely present during their Shivratri puja. Likewise, the fresh water Wular Lake known by the antiquated name of Mahapadamsaras, is as per an oral lore, the abode of one of the Serpent kings -Neelnaag. One more verbal tradition ascribes its holy standing to the luxuriant presence of water chestnuts in it, which also have underpinnings of Tantric connection. Its presiding deity is known as Wular Raaz. Interestingly, the Wular Raaz is also invoked to be present as a divine witness during the Doon Mawas ritual of Shivratri puja by many Kashmiri Pandit households. Puranic narratives also confer godly status to the river Jhelum known by the Vedic name of Vitasta as she is said to be the manifestation of the Goddess Parvati. Even the associated tributaries of the Vitasta like Liddar, Dudhganga, Shaliganga, Sukhnag stream, Brengi and Vishavalso enjoy the holy status due to their association with the different deities.
The Brari Nambal lagoon located in downtown Srinagar, known by the reverential name of Braeri Maej is also a venerated island grove. It is laid with many chinar trees and houses the shrine of the Mongleshwar Bhairav, one of the Ashta Bhairavas of Srinagar city. The quest for ecological concern seems to have driven our ancestors to link the various meadows, mountain gorges and pastures etc with the multi-layered matrix of Puranic narratives. Accordingly, many of them are named after many Godheads. It is evocated by the names of Gauri Marg, now famously known as Gulmarg, Nandi Marg, Gopadhari hillock, Neelkanth pass, Kamla Van, Madh Van, Sharda Van, Bhadra Van and Indra Keel. The supplication of various water bodies with the holy names of the deities have also ensured their protection and conservation. The springs of Tulamulla, Pokhribal, Vicharnaag, Durga Naag, Takshak Naag, Pap Haran Nag, Mattan Nag, Aneek Naag, Gautam Naag, Devibal Naag, Veri Naag and Karkote Naag come under this category.
The Gang Khai, Gang Noar and Gupta Ganga also become sacred due to their association with the river Goddess Ganga.
The Chinar tree laden Harischander Raza temple of Bijbehara, Shailaputri shrine of Baramulla, Narain Bagh of Ganderbal and Mangla Devi shrine of Srinagar downtown have also escaped their denuding and defilement due to the same religious conviction. However, the most venerated Chinar trees of the Saptarishi spot on the circumambulatory trek of Hari Parbat today stands robbed of its holy standing due to its encroachment post exodus. Another oral folklore bespeaks of now non-existent Sapt Rishi holy grove of south Kashmir where Sapt Rishis are said to have assembled and prayed after its submerged land emerged out after the drainage of Satisar lake. The belief appropriation of the Elm tree with the deity of Lord Ganesh has likewise ensured the preservation of the sacred shrine of Ganesh ashtapan at Hanand Chawalgam, Kulgam. In accordance with an aged legend, centuries back, a sacred grove existed along the Mahadev mountain range extending from the Harwan hamlet to the present day Dachigam National Park. The sacred Gupt ganga shrine, Shalimar
Vatika and the most hallowed Shankar Pal formed a part of it. Gopi tirth situated in this holy tract is the only shrine in north India, where according to an oral folk belief, Lord Shiva is supposed to have assumed Mohini form. The holy groove supported a unique and diverse ecosystem possessing rich floral wealth, scrub growth, wildlife and feathered species amidst its dense coniferous and alpine plantations. According to a popular verbatim lore, the world famous Shaivites namely Abhinav Gupt, Utpaldev, Vasugupta and Somananda etc are said to have stayed here and scripted many Shaivite inscriptions. A connecting fable even locates a holy spot where Acharya Abhinav Gupt is said to have done his Sadhana during his stay in the said grove.
One more legend says that Shalimar owes its etymological origin to a Sanskrit word meaning an abode of enchantment and endearment. It is associated with the building up of a shack for the sage Sukrama Swami by his sadak monarch of the time. Shalimar of the yore was a famous Vatika due to its aesthetic ambience. As per another legend, centuries back, a sacred grove existed around the Devi Angan of the Hari Parbat hill. Most of the socio- cultural festivities of the Kashmiri Pandits used to be hosted here in the ancient times; the foremost amongst them being Navreh, the Kashmiri new year festival.
Presently, the Zethyar shrine of Srinagar is the foremost sacred grove of Kashmir, while the Shivalya temple situated in Chotta Bazaar area of Srinagar is a known temple garden. The pre- exodus Baba Dharam daas Mandir at the upper Sathu Srinagar housing plentiful of chinar trees and ornamental flowers was also a famous temple garden of yesteryears. Post exodus, a reversal has happened as most of its landed property stands encroached upon and sold out. A few histographical accounts also make a passing reference to the Bagh Jogilankar, Rainawari. It seems to have been a famed Mandir Vatika for the wandering Sadhus for taking shelter. Likewise, the present day Mandir Bagh locality of Srinagar, is said to have been an acclaimed temple garden in earlier times. It presently survives only in our folk memory merely as a name as it is now a densely populated habitation. The two prominent cremation grounds of Srinagar situated at Karan Nagar and Noorbagh, having a multitude of chinar trees are also bracketed under the category of sacred sites. An array of indigenous frightening legends woven around them have ensured their preservation and protection.
Unquestionably, ancient Kashmir had the privilege of having an ecologically friendly and environment sensitive civilisation. A warm and holistic camaraderie existed between the inhabitants and nature as Prakriti for them was a revered aspect of Mother Earth. Water for them was the sustainer of life and all the fauna enjoyed divine status as they are the holy mounts of different deities and godheads. Even today, the ponds in some temples are sacred as fish or Matsaya as per a puranic thought symbolises Lord Vishnu’s Matsaya incarnation.
In antiquity, every village and residential locality of Kashmir had a venerated tree known as Sathal Vriksha. In consonance with the timeless opinion, God is present in every aspect of nature which in turn gives a super natural dimension to ecological co-existence and environmental conservation. Pollution of any kind including any sort of ecological disturbance and denuding of forest wealth was therefore regarded as an impious act.