The annual Kashmiri Pandits’ festival Zyestha Ashtami or Mela Kheer Bhawani on Wednesday witnessed a subdued participation from the community in the wake of recent killings of members of the minority community in Kashmir.
Anita, a Kashmiri Pandit, who has been visiting the Kheer Bhawani temple since 1994, said the number of devotees has “significantly come down” this year.
“I have been coming to the temple since I was in Class 4 in 1994. This year is marked by the difference in the presence of devotees at the temple premises. Earlier, we would not get space to walk but one could roam freely this year,” Ms. Anita, who was accompanied by two other Pandit families, said.
She said she made special prayers for the return of harmony between the communities, including Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, in the country. “The wall of communalism is getting bigger with each passing day. I prayed for its end as soon as possible. Otherwise, the coming generations will have to pay a cost for it,” she said.
Raj Kumar, another Kashmiri Pandit who travelled from Amritsar for the festival, said he was surprised to see lesser number of Pandits this year. “Not many had turned up this year. I could not resist as Mata wished for my presence here,” he said.
Around nine persons were killed in the targeted killing in the past two months in Kashmir, including four members of the minority community.
The killings resulted in a grim situation for the Pandits, many of whom have already migrated outside the Valley. However, the devotees said they were hopeful the situation would improve. “The colour of the water of the holy spring within the temple premises is white. It’s a good omen,” said Rajni Dhar, another devotee.
In the 1990s, the Pandits said the water in the pond turned black and the community witnessed mass migration in the face of raging militancy.
Besides the Kashmiri Pandits, scores of tourists also visit the temple during the festival. The shrine is one of the holiest shrines for the local Kashmiri Pandit community.
R.R. Bhatnagar, Advisor to J&K Lieutenant Governor, and Chief Secretary Arun Kumar Mehta also attended the mela.
Scores of Muslims had set up stalls to sell puja paraphernalia, including incense sticks, diyas and flowers.
In 2015, the highest number – 40,000 Kashmiri Pandits – arrived from different parts of the country to attend the annual festival.