While growing up in Indian-administered Kashmir, my mother used to take me to Sufi shrines to pray that all my wishes and desires would come true. Visiting these shrines became a habit. It was not only my mother who used to visit, but my whole family would book a town car that would ferry us to these shrines.
The entrance to these shrines would be lined with shops selling sweets, prayer books, incense, and fodder for all the pigeons that live on the rooftop and stairs of these shrines. A throng of people flooded the four walls of the shrines—wailing, crying, laughing. The sheer display of these emotions perplexed me. I wanted to know why these shrines leveraged such a tremendous power and influence over people.
The yearning to visit the shrines grew over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. I wanted to see and document how these shrines were bringing people together and offering some solace in this tumultuous time. And so I chose this topic for my Pulitzer Center project.
Over the years, conflict in Indian-administered Kashmir has worsened, leading to a record number of civilian deaths. According to Doctors without Borders, nearly 45 percent of Kashmiri population experience mental distress. I also grapple with severe anxiety, but whenever I feel hopeless and deserted, I imagine myself sitting in one of these shrines and listening to the hymns that are played in the shrines.
On the fateful day of August 5, 2019, I was studying in Qatar when the Indian state imposed a communication blackout on my home and severed all links that connected me to my loved ones and these shrines. For two years I could not go back home. Yet, in the summer of 2021, I returned to the shrines to complete my project. I am eternally grateful to all my interoculators who placed their utmost trust in me and shared their stories with me.