Kheer Bhawani Temple: The Sacred Pearl of Kashmir
Nestled amidst the unforgettable natural beauty of the Kashmir valley 14 miles (approx. 27 kilometers) east of Srinagar city is a spring, deemed by Kashmir’s sizable Hindu (mostly Pandit) population as a sacred space for their faith. Here stands a white marble temple dedicated to Rajni Devi (literally meaning ‘the Empress’) which has, over the past decades, become one of the most important centers of Hindu pilgrimage all over India. Affectionately referred to as the Kheer Bhawani temple, this spiritual center presides over the Kashmiri Hindu religious consciousness and is the center for annual festivities that transcend all barriers to provide the Mother Goddess’ blessings to all who attend.
Legendary and Historical Tales
The tales surrounding the sacred temple of Kheer Bhawani and the deity herself are so stunning and awe-inspiring that the line between history and legend sometimes gets blurred. The beginning of our tale is, however, quite definitely grounded in myth. The demon-king Ravana is said to have pleased the Great Goddess through his unflinching devotion. Implored by Ravana, the Goddess agreed to come with him and be worshipped in his kingdom Lanka. In the island-state of Lanka, she became known as Shayama. Once established in Lanka, however, goddess Shayama was disappointed by Ravana’s brutal and ruthless ways. Once Lady Sita (the daughter of Earth and the holy consort of Lord Rama) was kidnapped by Ravana and Lord Rama arrived to rescue her, however, he is said to have realized that Ravana cannot be defeated until he is protected by the Great Goddess. He, therefore, worshipped her and bequeathed her to move away from Lanka. Shayama agreed and she was transferred by Lord Hanuman to Shadilpora and then to the present location of the temple, near Tulmul village of the Ganderbal district. According to another version of the legend, goddess Shayama herself asked Lord Hanuman to move her to Shadilpora. The night when the Goddess was transferred from Lanka is popularly celebrated as Ragniya Ratri. The goddess was supposedly transferred to her present site when she appeared in the dream of a local Brahmin named Rugnath Gadroo. In Kashmir, she became known in many names, as Rajni (the Empress), Maharajni (The Great Empress), Tripurasundari. Ragnya Devi, Maharagya Devi, Ragnya Bhagwati, Bhawani etc. She is considered a vaishnavite Rupa (incarnation) of the Goddess Durga. She is also a sattavie form of the Goddess which embodies bliss and tranquility.
According to another popular legend, in 4041 Samvat, a great flood submerged the holy site of the Goddess Rajni and vast tracts of land surrounding the area. During this crisis, Rajni Devi appeared in the dreams of Yogi Krishna Pandit and directed him that she would lead him in the form of a snake to her holy place and he should demarcate the place with staffs. He followed her instructions obediently and when the floodwaters cleared, her holy site was rediscovered there.
A famous grahastha (householder) sage Pandit Prasad Joo Parimoo lived in the Sekidafer area os Srinagar in Kashmir and was often compared to Jada Bharata (a legendary saint of the Puranic times) by his contemporaries for his sacred aura. Having been childless for a long time, Parimoo finally decided to adopt a son named Madhav Joo. Rajni Devi is said to have appeared in his dream and reprimanded him for hastily deciding to adopt a child while she herself had decided to be born to his household as his daughter. She, however, blessed her with the boon anyway and soon a daughter named Haar Maal was born to him in and around 1870-80 AD. She was married to Narayan Joo in 1898 AD and their son Gopinath Bhan became renowned across the valley and beyond as Bhagwan Gopinath for his spirituality.
The first historical text that describes the site of Kheer Bhawani temple is Kalhana’s 12th-century text Rajtarangiri . It describes the sacred spring associated with Kheer Bhawani as ‘Maharagini Kund’ and claims that it is extremely sacred. The text also claims that the Brahmins living in that region have immense spiritual prowess.
The sacred spring finds mention in Abu’l Fazl’s 16th-century text Ain-i-Akbari as well. Fazl states that the sacred site of Kheer Bhawani is located over an area of around a hundred bighas (units of land) and is submerged in marshland in the months of summer. Although popular legends state that the main spring was surrounded by around 360 other springs, it seems from documentary evidence that these springs had given way to marshlands as early as the sixteenth century.
The present author has encountered two English traveler-authors who have described the spring associated with Kheer Bhawani. One was the painter William Carpenter Junior. Travelling through India, he arrived in the Kashmir valley in 1854 AD and returned to London n 1857 AD to display his paintings of the sceneries of India in the Royal Academy. Among the wonders he painted was the sacred spring of Kheer Bhawani. He had apparently painted the spring during a festival where people were performing ritually purifying baths in its ice cold water. That it was during the time of a festival seems more likely due to the presence of a number of tents in the background, indicating that a lot of people were gathered for whatever occasion it was. Another perhaps more well-known visitor was the Walter Lawrence, well-known for his travelogue The Valley of Kashmir. He seems to have visited the site of the spring in 1886 AD and has described how the Hindu Brahmins of the valley consider the spring as one of their most sacred spaces and has also mentioned the inhabitants’ belief that the water of the spring changes color which, in turn, depicts the future. During his visit, the color of the water of the spring was supposedly a tinge of violet.
By the 19th century, therefore, the locals already revered the site as one of their most holy places and the manifestation of Rajni Devi. They offered milk, kheer (a kind of rice pudding popularly consumed in Indian households) and flowers to the spring (thereby, the Goddess) and hence the Goddess gained the popular name ‘Kheer Bhawani.’ So much kheer was offered over the years that a solid layer is said to have formed at the bottom of the spring. Once this was cleared, the ruins of an old temple was discovered with carvings of images. In 1912 (disputedly, in 1920), the third Dogra dynast of Jammu and Kashmir, Maharaja Pratap Singh, completed the building of the present Kheer Bhawani temple atop an island in the middle of the holy spring. His successor, Maharaja Hari Singh, renovated the temple.
Kheer Bhawani Temple and its Annual Festival
Made of white marble, the present structure of Kheer Bhawani temple shines exquisitely like ‘a pearl on a shell.’ The temple is located on the holy spring and the area around it comprises of surprisingly smooth stone and old-grown chinar trees. The nearby Tulmul village (also spelled Tula Mula in other sources) seems to have received its name from the erstwhile existence of a mulberry tree (locally known as tulmul) on the site where the temple now stands. The splendid temple is managed by the Dharmarth Trust. Anyone wishing to visit the temple has to refrain from consuming non-vegetarian food like meat and fish for a week before visiting it. The sacred idols of Rajni Devi and a shivalinga are placed in a high shrine located In the middle of the spring. These sacred idols are said to have been raised from the spring itself and such a pairing of a vaishnavite form of Durga with a shivalinga is unique throughout the country. The devotees exhibit their love for the Goddess by pouring milk, kheer and flowers as offerings in the spring water surrounding the idols. The temple itself is a festival of white and red and is graceful and gorgeous to behold. The Kashmiri Pandits have come to consider Kheer Bhawani as their patron deity.
Every year, on the auspicious occasion of Jesth Ashtami, devotees, both Hindu and non-Hindu, from across the valley and from areas far beyond, gather at the Kheer Bhawani temple to seek the blessings of Rajni Devi and purify themselves. Some devotees take sacred baths in the nearby springs while others pour kheer in the spring surrounding their deity as offerings to their beloved Mother. According to belief, the Goddess changes the color of the spring as her own manifestation. If the spring water turns to shades of black, that is considered to be a sign of impending disaster.
Over the years, this occasion has become a sort of homecoming for the Kashmiri Pandits both within and outside the Union Territory who come here from across the country to pay their respects to the Mother and meet their loved ones. Many local Muslims from the Tulmul area open up stalls nearby to supply the visitors with essential commodities. They welcome the Kashmiri Pandits, socialize with them and provide them with goods and services at a time deemed most sacred for them in the year. Thus, the Kheer Bhawani Mela becomes a space for Hindu-Muslim cooperation and brotherhood.
The picturesque temple of Kheer Bhawani shines over a sacred spring and in the hearts and minds of all Kashmiris. Rich with history and even richer with legends, the temple is a symbol of the spiritual journey of the Kashmiri Pandit community that continues to this day. There are a number of temples dedicated to Rajni Devi across Jammu and Kashmir and even outside the UT, but the one at Tulmul spellbinds the visitor all year through its peace and tranquility and fills them with shared sacred love and devotion during the annual festival. Glowing like a pearl on a shell, the temple represents home for Kashmiri Pandits scattered across the Union Territory and beyond. This home, or at least the area surrounding it, is dominated by Kashmiri Muslims who await the devotees to welcome them, mingle with them and assist them in enjoying their stay during their most sacred days of the year. The Kheer Bhawani temple, therefore, emerges as not only the sacred abode for the Kashmiri Pandits, but a safe social space and symbol for amity and brotherhood among Kashmiri Muslims, Sikhs, Dogras and Pashtuns.