Monday, December 22, 2008

KASHMIR: my spiritual homeland

In the summer of 2006, I spent a month in Srinagar, Kashmir, the part of Kashmir that is now part of India. The Himalayas have been calling me since I was a child...I used to dream that I was a young boy living in a small tribe up in the mountains, which I later identified with images of Tibet. Kashmir's capital Srinagar, which lays in a valley at the foot of the Himalayas used to be the most precious pearl of the Mughal Empire, during which time they named it "Paradise on Earth" because of its breath-taking beauty and lovely climate. It took me two years to revisit my journey there. Kashmir changed my life in ways I could only understand later...the experiences I had there are still hard to verbalize but I am ready to share some of the glimpses of this magical land and the beauty of its people.

my favorite, the AMBASSADOR, now used as cabs and governmental vehicles that provide a royal bulletproof ride around the city ::: the of the most hazardous vehicles ever to hit the roads of a metropolis (Delhi, India). My arrival midnight at the Delhi airport was one of the biggest tests of my courage as a lone traveler. My first sight as my cab pulled out of the airport was an accident involving a motorbike rider on an unlit two-lane one was stopping for the man whose severed leg was lying 5 feet away from him...that sight haunted me for weeks.

In the late 90s and then in 2002, there were serious threats of nuclear warfare between India and Pakistan over the territory of Kashmir. As a result, "peace" has been tenuous and is heavily guarded by the military (to learn more, read an interview with Chomsky here). I was in Delhi ready to get on the plane to Kashmir when my local Kashmiri host called me to say that I shouldn't get on the plane, since the violence has escalated and there are regular grenade-attacks targeting the military but taking mostly civilian victims. I had my ticket and I wasn't about to turn around after having traveled more than 18 hrs to get there..."Well, I guess we'll just have to protect you a little more carefully." said my host family, to whom I owe so much for their hospitality.

"Paradise on Earth" is now Paradise Lost. The military presence in the city is overwhelming..imagine spotting from the corners of your eyes at least two AK47 per block sticking out from unexpected places. Most of the violence that summer was targeting soldiers who were ordered by the government to protect the peace in the region. Since the military was everywhere, it meant that the threat of being blown away by a random grenade that someone has thrown at them was very high. During the month I was there, there were several deadly incidents that sadly affected women and children passing by, including at the house of the Sufi healer I planned to visit that week.

::: the sanctuary:::
My journey that eventually brought me to Kashmir began several years ago with a book called The Man of Light by Henry Corbin who introduced me to Najm al-din Kubra. Kubra was a sage from Khwarazm (now in Uzbekistan) who developed a spiritual practice based on a color theory of light that seemed to have integrated Sufi tradition with tantric Buddhist meditation techniques and other Central Asian spiritual teachings.
the shrine of Shah Hamadan, the 14th century Sufi traveler, who brought the teachings of Kubra to the Kashmiri valley.

The local architecture reflects Kashmir's position as a meeting point of cultures: many of the mosques had features similar to those of Buddhist stupas you found in neighboring Ladakh and Tibet.

On the night of my arrival, I had a chance to meet the father of Kashmir's world-renowned contemporary poet Agha Shahid Ali (who used to live in the US and passed away in 2001), whose book, "Country Without A Post-office" earned him the title "the ambassador of Kashmir's pain." One of the most wonderful people I've encountered on my travels, he treated me and my hosts with the most incredible 10 course dinner sampling dishes from Kashmiri Hindu and Muslim culinary traditions. I copied this into my journal from his son, Shahid Ali's book of poetry that he showed me... "Srinagar haunches like a wild cat: lonely sentries, wretched in bunkers at the city's bridges, far from their homes in the plains, licensed to kill...while the Jhelum flows under them, sometimes with a dismembered body. On Zero Bridge the jeeps rush by. The candles go out as travelers unable to light up the velvet Void."

::: street life :::

::: the people :::
generations of mothers :::: the beautiful women I met in Delhi at the Nizamuddin Chishti shrine. the lady on the right reminded me of my grandmother.

the Gujar "gypsies", a nomadic tribe that set up their tents behind the house I was staying at. I would come regularly and try to make a connection with them. Part of me that is still connected with my nomadic heritage was really drawn to these folks.

The people of Kashmir have faced decades of civil war, intense economic hardships, and the daily threats of violence remain to this day. The sustained presence of fear has left unimaginable scars 0n people's soul. Their beauty and resilience amidst the harshest living conditions remain my continued source of inspiration and serve as a reminder of the fragility of human life and that we as people are one at the core.

Lake Dal of Srinagar with its famed boat-houses, surrounded by the Himalayas. The only place where I felt the presence of peace. I took these shots from my boat as I was taken to the place where lotuses bloom.


Most importantly, I give thanks to the man who has served the peoples of Kashmir with his healing power for several decades. He opened his doors to me and treated me like a granddaughter. Meeting him has changed my life at the core. I pray that he is safe and is in good health and that he can continue to mediate love from the purest source. In'shallah I'll make it back there in this life time.


Berquist said...

Very lovely photographs, and I loved reading about Agha Shahid Ali's father. He was truly one of the best writers of our time.

Kid Alkemist X said...


Heavenly Glory said...

breathtaking! i see what love and energy carries you through life and your art. thank you for sharing.