Once famous for its Himalayan landscapes, elegant handicrafts and syncretic culture, today Kashmir is synonymous with the violent civil conflict that has racked the region since 2002. Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir and flashpoint of the conflict, is burdened with a heavy Indian military presence, socio-economic stagnation and a deep sorrow. Despite this, I wanted to visit Kashmir to experience its Sufi culture, and so one evening in early September I made the tortuous 18-hour road trip from Leh to Srinagar.
Sufism is the inner, mystical dimension of Islam that embraces the arts as a spiritual medium and teaches peace, love and tolerance. Beginning in the 10th century, Sufi missionaries from Persia and Central Asia brought Islam to the region, and over time Sufism became an integral part of Kashmir’s religious fabric. Of the three major Sufi shrines that I visited in Srinagar, Dastgeer Sahib was the most intense and I returned several times. Located in the heart of the old city, this 250-year-old shrine is an architectural gem and cultural landmark. A large building made of elaborately carved wood, its interior walls and columns are covered with papier-mâché patterns in saturated colors and grand chandeliers hang over the main prayer room. The relics of several Sufi saints are housed inside.
The entrance door of Dastgeer Sahib is marked by a hanging brass disk engraved with writings from the Quran. As people pass through the door they touch the disk and lightly rub their hands over their faces and bodies with its power and blessings. As people leave, they walk backwards out the door and repeat the ritual, often touching, kissing and licking the floors, doors and walls as they go. It’s absolutely mesmerizing to watch. Inside the shrine people pray, talk, cry and wail openly. In a society traumatized and scarred by years of violence, Dastgeer Sahib felt like a pulsating broken heart of the people, and a repository of collective emotion, memory, suffering and loss.
At first I was hesitant to photograph inside the shrine, but I kept my heart open, smiled, said “Salaam aleikum” quietly to people and was warmly welcomed. One man holding his son appeared in front of me wanting me to take his photo, an act that was later repeated countless times in India. Some older women vigorously shook and kissed my hand, and when I vigorously reciprocated the gesture they gave me big bear hugs and touched their hands to their hearts. Their kindness and generosity for allowing me into this space touched me deeply.
Tragically, Dastgeer Sahib was later damaged by a major fire. The suspects are radicalized Muslims who want to eradicate Sufism from Kashmir. The loss of this sacred cultural heritage site was deeply mourned by the community. The shrine is currently being restored.
The day before leaving Srinagar, my houseboat owner, a gem of a man, took me to meet highly respected Sufi healer and advisor, who is a descendant of a major Sufi saint and totally blind. On a beautiful, golden fall afternoon we drove along a windy country road to the Sufi’s house on the outskirts of Srinagar, stopping at a fruit stand to buy oranges as a gift. Arriving at his modest house, we entered his room on the second story where he sat on the floor with a small group of men. After an extended greeting, the Sufi and I were introduced and I was asked to sit next to him. He took my hand and held it while his conversation with the men continued. After some time, quite suddenly, the Sufi became wildly happy and started laughing, hugging me and telling the men things about me. Then he turned his full attention to me and began a ritual reading of my hand, one finger at a time. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds coming from outside, which grew intensely clear and lyrically timed — bicycles rolling over dry leaves, women greeting each other on the street, dogs barking, birds chirping and silence. As I listened, my body felt as if it completely dissolved and I was left with pure consciousness and the life and energies surrounding us at that moment. The feeling was sublime and I stayed with it for as long as possible.
Some time later, the Sufi took my head in his hands and began touching my third eye. As his fingers moved across my brow they seemed to find openings, like slivers of light, and he blew on them strongly, like he was blowing the dust off my brain! The feeling was powerful even though he was touching me lightly. Then, quite abruptly, our time was over. He put three small rock candies in my mouth, asked me to return soon, and said he will be holding me in his heart until then. (I have not returned yet but will someday.) On the drive back I understood that my heart was the heart of this journey, and it still had much to learn.
Dal Lake was my respite in Srinagar. I stayed on a lovely houseboat and took several shikara rides to see the floating markets and explore the old canals. The lake echoes the sadness of the city and has seen much better days, but traces of its fabled charm remain. In the end I was grateful for my experiences in Srinagar and grateful to leave.