Shivratri—is celebrated across the country as Shiva’s night! But, in the Kashmir Valley it is `herath’ meaning `utter surprise’!
There is a story behind `hairath’ or `herath’ or `hearth’ or even `hayrath’ – the last three being the corrupted forms of a Persian word `hairat’ which means `surprise’ in an extreme form. Hayrath is a commonly used word in Kashmiri.
The story behind it is as follows: The Pathan governor of Kashmir, Jabaar Khan, prohibited Kashmiri Pandits from celebrating Shivaratri festival in winter in the lunar month of Phalgun (Feb-March). It is said that the Governor relished the Kashmiri Hindu non-vegetarian cuisine comprising fish and many varieties of mutton, and suggested that the festival should be celebrated during Aashaad (June – July).
Jabbar Khan knew that heavy snowfall always marked the great event as is evident from the following refrain of a song usually sung during Shivaratri: “Suna sheen volun daari daare: Maharaza raaza kumaar hai aav ‘’(Flakes of gold snowed slow and steady when prince Shiva arrived to marry!).
The people obeyed, but it snowed in July that year! The miracle startled everyone, the Pathan ruler, in particular, who expressed utter surprise, hairat. Hence the new name for Shivaratri celebrations.
Since the untimely snowfall resulted in crop failure and resultant famine, the people of the Valley faced untold misery. The forced alteration in the timing of the festival, therefore, brought innumerable curses upon the ruler. The people cried out in despair: Wuchhyon Yi Jabbaar Jandah, Haaras Ti Kurun Wandah! (Look at this wretched Jabaar in rags; he turned summer into winter!).
Shivratri is a longish affair for Kashmiri Pandits and barring a few, most families made non-vegetarian food on this day which was offered to Shiva during prayers. But, many things have changed after migration. A majority of the families have turned vegetarian and do not offer non-vegetarian food to `Vatuk’ which is, perhaps, `Batuk Bairav’ form of Shiva. Walnuts are offered as Prasad, probably, in old times nothing much was available during winters.
Herath begins with spring cleaning that sounds irrelevant now. Cleaning huge houses after a severe winter was a massive task then. This was followed by shopping and families would come together for puja and feasting. `Vatuk’ – a line up of specific earthen pots was done in which were put walnuts. The pots were decorated with spring flowers and prayers were offered in the night. Earthen pots have now given way to steel and other metals and puja is now based on audio tapes instead of `family pandits’ who are now extinct clan.
Salaam, the day after the Shivratri puja is the most important day which in Persian means greetings. The day is for greetings and feasting. The visitors usually were non Kashmiri Pandit families, friends, and neighbours who would stay behind for sumptuous meals. For years now, salaam is confined to greeting calls from friends from Kashmir. No more visitors and no more days of cooking for women in the family. Not only is the cuisine dying, even traditional `Vatuk Puja’ is now a mere ritual than a meaningful, rich religious exercise.
The elders would also give money to children for celebrations and `herath kharach’ was the most attractive part of the festivities for children. This was mostly cash and in addition to the new clothes children would get to wear.
The celebrations conclude with `doonya maavas’ when walnuts kept in water on the night of the puja, are eaten with rotis (chotzchi vor) made of rice flour, after a small offering to Shiva. Walnuts never taste so good!!!