Kashmir: A Tradition Threatened


The mystic Syed Gulzar Qalandar. His disciples say he has slept only on a few rare occasions in the last 20 years. He is popular for his spiritual powers of healing. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


An old Sufi believer, who has spent decades at the shrine praying for peace and tranquility, offers water to the devotees. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


A frail old man at the back of the shrine spending time in quiet contemplation. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


A new Salafi mosque in Srinagar; the glass and concrete mosque, rich in wood carving and columns, is an architectural oddity in a place where mosques and shrines have reflected the local influences of Kashmir’s pre-Islamic past. The mosque is among the nearly 700 that Salafis have built with funding from Saudi Arabia. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


Salafi believers breaking their fast during the holy month of Ramadan at a gathering in Srinagar. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


Women praying at the tomb of Kashmir’s most famous saint, Sheikh Noor-u-din Noorani, popularly called Alamdar-e-Kashmir (flag bearer of Kashmir), at Chrar-e-Sharif. The nearly 600-year-old shrine was burned during an incident between the Indian Army and Pakistan-trained guerrilla fighters who had taken refuge in the shrine in the mid-90s. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


A woman praying outside the vaulted tomb of a saint below a wooden screen that gives a glimpse of the tomb. Women, as per custom, gather on one side of the shrine while men sit at the other side. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


The Salafi preacher Abdul Lateef Al-Kindi, one of the graduates of the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia, is at the vanguard of the Salafi drive to train young Kashmiri men in the Salafi theology at a madrassah in Srinagar. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


The 47-year-old Abdul Gaffar has been a permanent fixture at the tomb of Sheikh Noor-u-din Noorani for the last five years. He was declared so ill with throat cancer that doctors told him that chemotherapy would do nothing. Five years later he is a fit and healthy man. He believes his turnaround was caused by the blessings of the saint. Every week he travels from his remote village to spend one night at the tomb. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


This woman traveled many miles to visit the tomb of Alamdar-e-Kashmir. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


A caretaker at the tomb ties a string of cloth to a copper smokestack-like object with a plate at the base. The caretaker keeps adding the strings to the tangle on behalf of devotees who hope to make a wish come true. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2012.


Young Kashmiri men studying Salafi theology at a madrassah in Srinagar; the men, who get free board and lodging, usually come from low-income families. These young Salafi students mostly read literature from Saudi Arabia. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


Young Sufi believers at a gathering of Sufis in Srinagar where they listen to the sermon of a mystic. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.


A man points to the holes in a sheet of corrugated metal outside the back door of a Salafi mosque in Srinagar. The holes were made by shrapnel from a bomb that killed the Salfi leader Maulana Showkat Shah in April last year. Shah was killed by his estranged followers within the puritanical group. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2012.


A front view of the Salafi mosque in Srinagar, where their leader was killed in a bomb explosion at the back of the mosque last year. Several of the slain leader’s former followers are in police custody for plotting his murder. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2012.

salafi one.JPG

Abid Hussain Bhat, a 25-year-old science graduate, is among hundreds of Kashmiri men who have turned to the Salafi faith in Kashmir in recent years. Image by Tariq Mir. Kashmir, 2011.

Syed Gulzar Qalandar is a mystic who, his disciples say, has slept only on a few rare occasions in the last 20 years of his self-absorbed meditation and prayer. A small and slender man, with a long shiny beard and serene looking face, Qalandar appears all the more otherworldly with his head covered in a white scarf held in place by a striking blue headband. Sleepy-eyed, he speaks with a soft voice so low one has to strain to hear his words. The mystic mumbled his reverence for the Creator and His love for the people who do good deeds and help ease the suffering of the poor and needy.

The mystic, who renounced the affairs of life at a very young age to spend his time in contemplation, is the antithesis of an aggressive, priggish, and iconoclastic Salafi adherents whose bruising mockery of the mysticism Qalandar espouses—a tradition going back to nearly seven hundred years when Islam in Kashmir was preached by saints and mystics from Central Asia—was encouraging young and well-read students to come out in the open and defend a respected tradition. On a sunny morning last fall, in a clearing surrounded by the freshly harvested walnut trees in a far-off suburb of Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, a crowd of young and old men sat under a tent chanting responses to the mystic’s devotional songs. Among the crowd were almost a dozen young men wearing long black hair that fell to their shoulders under knitted skullcaps, a new breed of young, resurgent believers in Sufi Islam eager to spread the message of the mystic.

One of them was Sameer Purra, 22, studying to be a doctor. Purra, a mild-mannered man who, unlike his friends, wore short hair under a knitted skullcap, grew up in an old part of Srinagar. At a young age, he came under the influence of a firebrand Salafi preacher at the local mosque. For a time, Purra was fascinated by the priest’s discourse about Islamic history and the need for taking Islam back to its pure past. But he grew irritated each time the priest spoke disrespectfully about the local custom of belief in mystics and their spiritual powers to heal ailing and psychologically troubled people. Purra could no longer tolerate the tirade against the sanctity of local customs and traditions and decided it was time to cut off ties with the priest.

Looking back on his days spent with the Salafi priest, he came to a conclusion that it was “a dogma with no spirituality.” He was apprehensive about the rise of what he described as foreign ideologies, which were spewing sectarian hatred and intolerance in the society. He felt the need for going back to the teaching of saints to maintain harmony.

“To retain our identity we have to ground our political movement in our cultural traditions and customs. It is all the more important now for us to stand united as a people to struggle for our political rights. All these ideological forces wanting to fight on our behalf have no role in this and we should not encourage them,” he said, reflecting a belief completely antithetical to Salafi followers, who believed identifying Islam with local cultural practices had portrayed an image of Islam that was weak and pacifistic.

The resurgent Sufi faith was an answer to the fast growing popularity of the hard faith of Salafi Islam in Kashmir. The Saudi Arabian-trained Salafi preachers were telling people in their sermons across the length and breadth of Kashmir that venerating tombs and shrines of mystics, an old cultural practice of Kashmir, was a heresy for which the Creator would punish them in the hereafter. This view, previously unheard of in Kashmir, was not just reviving the Sufi believers to defend their beliefs, but also pitting the two against one another.

This past summer, at least half a dozen shrines and other places of worship were either partially or completely burned. The burning of the 200-year-old Dastageer Sahib shrine in Srinagar was the biggest shock. Early one morning, worshipers spotted smoke rising from the rooftop of the shrine and before the fire tenders could put out the flames, the entire shrine had been destroyed. Men and women were seen beating their chests and crying in pain at the loss. At first, the fire was blamed on faulty wiring in the shrine, but when it became clear that the electricity in the area at the time was cut off, suspicion began to emerge that it might be sabotage. The Sufi believers openly blamed Salafi followers for creating an atmosphere of hate against the practice of shrine-going in Kashmir. Some of the Salafi adherents openly gloated on social networking sites that the shrine was a place where the shrine-goers indulged in “un-Islamic practices” and its burning was a divine act of putting the wrong thing right.

So far, police investigations have found no direct link to any sectarian group that might have torched the shrine. Probes into fires at other places of worship have yielded no conclusive answer to what caused those fires. But the burnings of the places of worship this past summer were seen as the beginnings of new sectarian strife in Kashmir.

Word document: 
Microsoft Office document icon third blog for pulitzer.doc30.5 KB