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When women were respected and love was celebrated in Kashmir

Rakesh Kaul’s 'The Last Queen of Kashmir' brings to life one of the greatest queens of the land.

 |  6-minute read |   20-04-2016
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What is faster than the mind is the very first question that challenges Princess Kota of Kashmir in The Last Queen of Kashmir during her university graduation exam?

The location was the famed Sharadapeeth University in the pristine Kishanganga Valley of Kashmir, the time period was around the early 14th century. Her examiners were the illustrious Kashmiri Pandit gurus tasked with teaching, training and graduating students from noble families, graduates who would run their known world.

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It was no easy matter to enter Sharadapeeth. The historian Al Beruni who accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni during his conquests of India had tried to gain entry into Kashmir to meet the gurus but was denied his request. 

Graduating into the real world, Kota quickly discovers the power of a woman in a culture which venerated and celebrated the feminine. Female teachers played a key role in propagating what is referred to as Kashmir Shaivism, a universal creed which because of its emphasis on non-duality rejects all discrimination.

In fact, the system is said to have originated from the mouth of the Yoginis, the lady ascetics and is more appropriately referred to as Shaktism. Sharada Devi, the tantric name for Saraswati, the Devi of learning, is the titular deity of Kashmir. The Valley was dotted with temples dedicated to the various representation of Shakti, the dynamic energy within one’s self of the divine. 

Kashmir was referred to as Stridesh, or the land of the women. This feminine bias was not restricted to mystical matters only. At a practical level it was reflected in even the smallest of activities. 

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Kashmir had a fairly intriguing pre-wedding custom. At the time that a girl and a boy would be introduced to each other, the girl would have the ritual right to ask her future mate as to whether he was potent and could impregnate her successfully.

The boy was supposed to reply that he had been feeding himself nutritional supplements which were designed to maximise his potency and virility and that he would guarantee stud performance. 

Children were named the putras or putris of their mother. In this milieu it is not surprising that woman could think big, assert themselves with confidence and that consequently Kashmir had many role model queens who were rulers in their own right. 

In Kota’s world love was in the air. Kashmiri men and women celebrated their love on Valentine’s Day in a joyful manner that was liberated, healthy and emancipated. It was also very contrary to the current puritanical notions that are imposed by moralists.

On Holi Kashmiris would celebrate Madan Trayadoshi, Valentine’s Day with gusto. Madan, meaning he who intoxicates with love and Trayadoshi, the 13th.  It was traditionally held on the 13th of the bright half of Chaitra, (March/April) and was both a private and public event.

On the night before, the husbands would place a pitcher of water with flowers and herbal essences before a picture of Kama painted on cloth. Alongside Kamadeva's picture would be placed his ornaments which are the conch and the lotus, both related to water, the symbol of fertility and creativity.

In the morning before sunrise, the husband would wash and scrub his wife with the fragrant water. Then he would worship her and also worship Kama. Both husband and wife would gaily decorate themselves and then the entire family would go to the gardens to celebrate and enjoy a picnic. 

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That night wives dressed themselves in delicate, enticing underclothes and transparent nightgowns to await their husbands and engage in love making. Madan Trayadoshi is one of 65 festivals that the Kashmiri Pandits celebrated, according to the Nilamat Purana, the oldest surviving writing in Kashmir.

Most curiously there is an interesting line in the Nilamat which says, "O twice born, this (13th day) should be necessarily celebrated; the rest may or may not be celebrated." 

Why? Because desire, Iccha Shakti, is considered to be the foremost among all of the Shaktis for a healthy existence. Beautiful Kota Rani who is desired by seven lovers over the course of her lifetime learns a lot about what love is and what is merely possessiveness, or far worse slavery? She opens up and reveals her deep insight to her very first love one night, when he rescues her from her enemy and captor. 

There were no taboos in Kota’s Kashmir, the body was a temple. Contrary to the misunderstandings and social conflicts today, revolving around contemporary notions of feminine purity, the Kashmirian way of life defines purity as living in the reality of consciousness.

The menstruating woman was granted the highest honours because she was believed to be at the height of her cyclical femininity. In religious gatherings she would be seated to the right of the guru.

The ascetics would willingly use menstrual blood to draw the three lines on their forehead signifying Shakti’s unfolding power and symbolising their Shaivite afflilations. While the layman today does not need to follow this ritual, he or she also does not need to follow misguided notions of ritual purity based on some strand of historical legitimacy. 

In Kota’s one-word answer to the first question, that it is desire, lay the seed of the Kashmirian pathway of life. Unlike the limited materialistic, dualist view of the world or spiritual frameworks that prescribe morality bordering on fanaticism, the middle way of the Kashmirian civilisation integrated the spiritual with the material. Follow your passion is a common refrain among the youth today. But passion comes from the Latin word passio which means suffering.

lqk_042016050115.jpg The Last Queen of Kashmir; HarperCollins; Rs 399

Kota reflects Kashmirian culture’s deep understanding when she expands on her answer that "Desire - which is rooted in lust, the immediate infatuation of the ten senses or ego or emotions or the gratification of the limited mind will be incinerated like Kamadeva, the divinity of passion. Desire, which is a genuine offering of one’s true nature to dharma, will prevail eternally, because will is then united with sustainability." 

The fundamental question of desire, Hum ko kya chahiye, had a very different answer that everyone had complete clarity upon in Kota’s time. 

The Last Queen of Kashmir is Kota’s life story. She ruled Kashmir at a historic inflection point in its history. It is a star-crossed love story in the midst of a historical saga of treachery, betrayal and murder; a clash of civilisations between universal inclusive values and one of supremacy and hegemony; of the feminine maej or mother Kashmir versus its challenger, militant patriarchy with its attendant misogyny; of a culture of joy and beauty versus killjoy and nihilism. 

In the telling it also reveals a model of feminine power and leadership which was unique to Kashmir and one which was looked up to by the rest of India.

Femininity in Kashmir was not just about equality, not just about complementarity but about dynamic, fearless symmetry. Kota has much to offer to the contemporary men and women of today. 

Now that she has risen again she offers herself as a measure of how much Kashmir generally and Kashmiri women specifically have lost since her time. In the rebirth she also emerges as one of the greatest queens of the land.  

Kota Rani is described as ever captivating but never captive. Now it is time to meet the girl who will make you kiss your heart goodbye. Kota says, Soham I am.

When you welcome the Rani you will experience her battle cry, We were we will be. She will center you, she will empower you, she will liberate you and she will fulfill you. 

Writer

Rakesh K Kaul Rakesh K Kaul @rkkaulsr

The author, whose family hails from Kashmir, migrated to the US in 1972. Rakesh was a founding contributor to the first chair of India Studies at University of California, Berkeley.

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