Distinguished by their ability to imagine the unimaginable and assign meaning to meaningless, human beings have always been meaning-seekers, and therefore myth-makers. Mythology could be about the incomprehensible part of the physical world or even about what we call the spiritual realm, but the epistemes of myths fuse together the spiritual and the mundane. The content of myths may occur within the bounds of time and space in some distant past, however, their retelling is a perpetual recurrence in collective memory. It is an eternal event that occurs in continuum. Myth is not merely an occurrence in chronological history, but also an ahistorical truth: “A myth was an event which in some sense, had happened once, but which happened all the time.”1
The history of Kashmir is rich with mythology. Wherever there are significant geographical points, such as lakes (Wullar, Manasbal, Dal, Tarsar Marsar), or mountains (Harmukh, Mahadev, Takht-e Sulaiman, Koh-e Maran), there are corresponding myths. In fact, the creation myths abound about the emergence of the valley of Kashmir itself. All these myths have gone into the making of the collective psyche of the Kashmiris.The narration and construction of these myths in Kashmir are diverse. The myths in Kashmir can be classified in three categories: First, there are myths which sound like myths found in other areas around the world. Such myths include the shraz which is a typically Kashmiri mythological bird. In the myth, the bird is in love with the moon and attempts to hug it. In its pursuit of the moon, the bird goes atop a height and, guessing the moon to be closer, jumps off the height to grab the moon. It falls down to death and from its ashes rises another shraz. The myth reads like an indigenous version of the mythical Greek phoenix.
Secondly, there are myths exclusive to Kashmir. Such myths include those of the origin and emergence of the bowl-shaped valley. In the Hindu story of the valley’s origin, the myth tells that the valley was submerged under water and was salvaged after the holy intervention of Kashyap Rishi, a Hindu saint, who exorcised demons from the valley and it became habitable. The Muslim version states that the Prophet Solomon once during his flight passed over this valley which was steeped in water. He landed on the top of a mount which is referred to as Takht-e-Sulaiman (the Throne of Solomon) at Dalgate area in Srinagar city. He ordered one of the jinn under him, Kashu, to drain the water from the valley. Kashu promised to do so if he was granted Miran, a fairy whom he had been courting for a long time. The Prophet Solomon agreed to grant him his wish, so Kashu went to Baramulla town in the extreme north of the Kashmir valley and struck the mountain range, wherefrom all the water drained out and this beautiful valley came into existence. Based on the two lovers, the valley was called Kashu-Miran, which later evolved into present Kashmir. While there are biblical allusions in this myth, the role of the Prophet Solomon as the one who identified the valley is restricted to Kashmir alone. Ironically, the Bible has never been a classic reference in Kashmir. And, the ethnic Kashmiris refer to Kashmir as simply Kasheer.
Aka Nandun is another exclusively Kashmiri myth which features the most versified mythical character of a young lad who is slaughtered to teach his parents the lessons of detachment and selflessness. The story is about a childless couple whom a saint agrees to bless with a son on the condition that they would return the child to him after twelve years. The couple agrees, thinking that by the time the child turns twelve, the saint would have passed away in view of his old age. However, after twelve years, the saint reappears and asks for the son. The parents beg him for their child but to no avail. Once they agree to keep their promise after beseeching in vain, the saint slaughters the boy and asks the mother to cook his flesh. Once the cooking is done, she is asked to serve the cooked human meat to all family members including the dead boy and the saint. The mother, as advised by the saint, calls for her slaughtered child who appears on the scene while the saint disappears. The story is about self-denial and asceticism. It is narrated to teach the lessons of sacrifice, selflessness and detachment to this world.
Some historical characters have assumed mythical proportions by their popularity among Kashmiris. They have become the cultural icons of the identity of Kashmiris and symbolize their social and cultural ethos. Such characters include Lalla Ded, a symbol of purity and filial love, Nund Reosh, a symbol of devotion, spirituality and faith, Budshah, a symbol of justice and philanthropy, Rasul Mir, a symbol of passionate love, and especially Habba Khatoon, a symbol of sacrifice and commitment. Though a historical figure, Habba Khatoon has assumed mythical dimensions. Many stories reflecting her predicament have crept into the Kashmiri mythology, including Zohra Khatoon, Shah Sayyar, Laila and Majnoon, Ghul-e Sanobar, Shirin Farhad, and Yusuf Zulaikha. Though the characters and the plots of these epic stories are Persian, these mythical stories were liberally adopted by Kashmiri poets.
Given its location at the confluence of major cultures, religions and civilizations, Kashmir could never have remained immune to cultural, religious, political and other influences that shaped its history. Ideologically, Kashmir converges three religious strains, Islam from the west, Hinduism from the south, Bhuddism from the east. Geographically, it was closely connected to the ancient silk route which was once a great corridor of trans-continental trade and dialogue of cultures and civilizations. Despite the diverse and distinct strains having been a part of its history, Kashmir has evolved an indigenous art of its own to negotiate the ruptures in its historical evolution and to adopt their influences in a creative manner. The same spirit gets reflected in its social and literary ethos. The resultant folk literature is now a common legacy of all the Kashmiris, irrespective of their religious or political stances.
Three illustrations are quoted below from its mythical history to substantiate the point. Irrespective of the historical transitions and the change in the dominant religions in the valley, the myth of Aka Nandun is a foundational myth in Kashmiri society. The myth is found in Buddhist period, Hindu period and Muslim period of the Kashmir history. This myth has been versified by various poets including Bahadur Ganai, Prakash Bhat Kurighami, Ramzan Bhat, Samad Mir, Abdul Ahad Zargar, and Muhammad Khar. From Shaivite Hinduism to Islamic Philosophy, all have contributed to the evolution of this mythical story to its contemporary shape.
Similarly, the myth of Heemal and Nagray is typically a Hindu myth which, by the plot and the kind of pantheistic philosophy involved, should have been popular with Hindus only but is equally popular among Muslims and constitutes warp and woof of their cultural education.
Another case of the victory of populist sentiments over indoctrinated belief is the character of Lalla Ded, who is referred to as Lalleshwari by Orthodox Hindus and as Lalla Arifa by Persianised Muslims. At popular level, however, most Kashmiris refer to her simply as Lalla Ded. There are many marriage songs in Kashmir which converge diverse faiths to produce a common symphony and shared myths.
Kashmiri myths have been most prompt to react to changing sociopolitical realities. That’s why we see a lot of myths of Mughal, Pathan, Sikh and Dogra history of Kashmir having a strong element of supernatural intervention, indicating to the frustration of Kashmiris over their plight during those hard times. Many historical anecdotes have become part of the Kashmiri mythological lore, despite their historical veracity. Similarly, the change in the socio-cultural milieu would unnoticeably change the mythical characters without changing their role. For example, after the arrival of Islam, Khwajah Khazr, helping the lost people find their way, replaced “Sodhe Brore te Bodhe Brore”. “Seemurgh” replaced “Wuche Prangh”. Though the characters change their names, their role remains the same. These myths pervade the gamut of Kashmiri literature, enriching it significantly. Some literature is woven around certain mythical characters alone. Kashmiri poetry is, for example, profusely informed by myth and folklore. Similarly, most writers in Kashmiri language have resorted to myth and other forms of folklore as a scaffold on which to develop their contemporary plots and characters.
1. Armstrong, Karen. Myth. New Delhi: Penguin. 2005.
Abid Ahmed works as Editor at the Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages. He is also pursuing his PhD degree on “Ethnicity in Literature: A Study of the Short Fiction of Ireland and Kashmir” from the Department of English, Kashmir University, Srinagar.