When Cholera-hit Kashmir was forced to hang ‘mantar’ on doors

File photo of Kashmiri writer and poet, Zareef Ahmad Zareef (Picture sourced from social media)

Srinagar: Prominent Kashmiri author and poet Zareef Ahmad Zareef recently read out on his social media handle an essay from his 2014 book ‘Kath Cha Taeti’.

The essay portrays the time when an epidemic in the valley tested the faith of Muslim subjects ruled by a Hindu king.

With the author’s permission, The Kashmir Monitor’s Nisar Dharma has attempted to translate the essay titled ‘Parhaez gaar Maulvi ti Halal Khor Khalqat (A pious Imam and devout disciples).

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Throughout the reign of Dogra King Maharaja Pratap Singh, from 1885 to 1925, Kashmir encountered a lot of calamities in the form of floods, droughts, earthquakes, fires, and epidemics.

When one such catastrophe hit the valley in the form of Cholera in early 20th century, the Maharaja, fearing for his life, fled from Kashmir to Jammu, where he ordered Hindu priests and monks to organise a havan to get rid of the pandemic.

The senior-most priest of the Raghunath temple said to him: “Maharaj, the disease has engulfed Kashmir, organising a havan here won’t help.”

The Maharaja had already escaped Kashmir. What could he do?

Finding him helpless and perturbed, the senior priest, chanting “Maharaja Bahadur ki jai ho (Hail the gallant King)”, said: “Sarkaar! Don’t be anxious, we will find a way to deal with it. We will create an apt mantar (a spell) which shall be officially printed and distributed in Kashmir. A government decree should make it mandatory for everyone to hang the mantar in their homes. If done so, the deities wouldn’t let the evil epidemic enter any hearth”.

The government officials carrying the decree reached Kashmir, where, however, the Muslims refused to obey.

The unsparing officials pasted the copies of the spell on doors of all the houses and even forced every Kashmiri Muslim to pay four annas as its printing charge.

A huge protest against this callousness erupted in the valley.

Such was the state of poverty then that most people didn’t even have four annas they were bullied to pay. The government officials, those oppressors, used to snatch the household items and auction the same in the market to collect the money.

The anger against the Maharaja grew.

The aged ruler sent a message to Mirwaiz Maulvi Ahmadullah Sahib, whom Kashmiris, out of love addressed as Maulvi Amme Saeb.

He was told to inform the people if they do not want to keep the spell in their homes, they should be ready for mass vaccination (trombun) to contain the epidemic.

The order, the King’s message said, needs to be acted upon immediately to stop the wave of the disease. Also, the vaccinating teams should not be resisted.

Announced across Kashmir, the new decree vexed people, as the entire exercise of getting these shots was a painful one: a deep scratchy prick using a metallic three-needle injection on the part of the arm just below the shoulder.

The pain and discomfort out of it was to be endured for a long time.

A person vaccinated felt feverish, dizzy, and ill. The area around the arm developed abscess and inflammation. It was painful and itchy. The discomfort and illness lasted for 40 days, or so it was said. I, too, had to endure it in 1955.

Dreaded, the people refused to get vaccinated.

They went to Mirwaiz Maulvi Ahmadullah for guidance and help.

In response, the Mirwaiz asked the Maharaja for a three-day deferment.

Within three days was the sacred occasion of Milad-un-Nabi (PBUH), and the Mirwaiz thought he and the people would ask for God’s forgiveness.

The people intended to offer prayers and seek divine help at Dargah Hazratbal during the night leading to the blessed day.

They believed that after beseeching their Lord, the calamity would wane.

The Maharaja agreed to postpone the vaccination.

Hearing the good news, people of all ages, urban and rural, headed for Dargah Hazratbal to pray on the eve of Milad.

Among them was my uncle Ghulam Nabi Shah Maldaar as well.

He told me that after Khuftan, the last mandatory prayer of the day, the Imam cried and sought forgiveness of Allah and with all his heart, praised and recited Durood in the name of the beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

In the middle of the night, the Maulvi rose onto the pulpit and asked all the people to stand up and recite Durood and salaams upon the beloved Prophet (PBUH)

Assalatu wassalaam alaika ya Rasoolallah, wassalam alaika ya Habeeballah. Roobaroo chuv Rasool-e-Akram (PBUH).”

The Mirwaiz hinted that he had vision of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

Hearing this, the people started praising the Prophet (PBUH) in unison. Everyone was mesmerised. The whole ambience of Dargah Hazratbal was immersed in an aroma of heavenly gracefulness realised by this gesture of true love for the Prophet (PBUH). All captivated, the devotees kept on praying till dawn, when Maulvi Amme Saeb made a dua:

Oh Allah, forgive our sins, the ones we committed alone and as a people. Oh Lord, save us from all the evils on the earth and in the sky, the weight of which our frail shoulders can’t bear. Rescue us from this epidemic.

Oh Allah, with all our faith in you, we have managed to buy a few days from our non-Muslim ruler. Save us from embarrassment.”

My uncle told me the devotees, all teary eyed, responded to the prayers with Aameen so loudly that people living in the city heard it in their homes as well.

After the morning prayers and the display of the Moi-e-Muqaddas (sacred hair of Prophet [PBUH]), the people left for their homes.

The uncle said that as the Maulvi sahib and his followers left, they met an adorably-clad elderly villager at close to the shrine at Sadrabal.

After initial greetings, he said something to the Maulvi in his ear.

 The elderly had an attractive chaader (blanket) on his shoulders. The Maulvi asked him if he intended to sell it.

That is why I had travelled to the city, I am in need,” the elderly told the Maulvi who asked for the price.

In the market, I will sell it for Rs 10, but I can give it to you for seven,” the villager said.

Maulvi sahib asked the person if he could accompany him to his home in Razey Kadal (Rajouri Kadal).

He agreed.

At home, Maulvi sahib gestured his domestic help to lift one end of the straw mat (wagu) and see if there was enough money to pay for the blanket. (The money was bestowment to Mirwaiz by devotees.)

The helper counted the change. (Then 64 paise made a rupee. 1 paisa was called ‘dabbal ponse, two paise was ‘takke ‘, four paise ‘pound’, eight paise ‘doannin’, 16 paise were termed ‘tchonin’) So that is how much change the helper counted and arranged on the mat to be given to the elderly.

Then Maulvi Ammi saeb asked the villager: “Is this blanket unsoiled? Is it clean enough for me to wear? You see I sit on the pulpit the beloved prophet (PBUH) used to preach from. That is why I’m asking.”

To it the elderly peasant replied: “Maulvi sahib. It is all clean and pure. I have reared and sheared my own sheep. My wife knitted the wool, and I made the blanket. It can be worn by you.”

However, Maulvi sahib,” the elderly said, “I have a request?”

What?” Maulvi asked.

This money of yours, is it worth (clean) enough to be spent by me?”

Helpless, Maulvi sahib replied: “That I am not aware of.”

To which the elderly replied: “If you are not sure whether the money is halal or haram, how can I sell the blanket to you?”

The elderly peasant than picked up his blanket and left to sell it in the market.

From the next day, Kashmir did not witness even a single case of Cholera. The prayers were heeded. Kashmir needed neither the vaccination nor the mantar.

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NOTE: Both the author and The Kashmir Monitor do not suggest in any way that people must gather at any place, be it even a religious gathering, to ask for Almighty’s forgiveness. People must adhere to the guidelines given by the doctors and authorities to prevent the spread of Covid-19. (The podcast of the original essay was posted on the author’s page www.fb.com/zareefahmadzareef and presented by his grandson Owais Zareef.)

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About the Author

A journalist by chance with over five years of experience in reporting, editing, and bucketing local, national and international content for my current organization. I have covered education, health, politics, and human rights. I like working for a daily, though I occasionally try my pen in long-form to connect personal narratives with history.

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