Thousands of devotees on Tuesday thronged the temple of Ragnya Devi, a revered goddess of Kashmiri Pandits, to celebrate the annual festival of Kheer Bhawani.

Nestled in the shade of mammoth Chinar trees in this village in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, the temple witnessed massive crowds of devotees, most of them Kashmiri Pandits, who made the journey from across the country.

Walking barefoot, the devotees carried rose petals and offered tribute to the goddess as men took a dip in the stream close to the shrine.

“I am so happy that I came here. I prayed for peace and harmony. I was glad to see young boys, both Muslims and Hindus, making arrangements for the festival of the Mata,” said Santosh Kaw, a Kashmiri Pandit who is visiting the temple after 27 years.

Kaw, who lived in Chanapora locality of Srinagar, left the Valley for New Delhi in 1990 at the peak of militancy.

“This is a festival of Hindus but what I saw here is an example of brotherhood between Hindus and Muslims,” said Raj Kumar, another Kashmiri Pandit, who was born in Srinagar’s Karan Nagar locality but moved to Jammu.

As devotees jostled with each other to move closer to the main temple complex, the chants of hymns echoed through the temple compound.

With the improvement in the security situation in Kashmir at the turn of this century, the confidence of the Kashmiri Pandits saw a boost with more members of the community paying occasional visits to the Valley.

This is evident from the rising number of Kashmiri Pandit devotees attending the Kheer Bhawani festival every year, with more than one lakh attending the festival last year alone.

Omar vouches of Pandits’ return

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah on Tuesday said that a sense of security and economic safeguards were the basic elements which will help in return of Kashmiri Pandits to their native land.

“Before bringing back Kashmiri Pandits, we have to instill a sense of security in them. We are making all our efforts in this direction,” Omar told reporters after visiting the Kheer Bhawani temple here.

He said economic package in the shape of employment to the youth of the Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley is an important step to help return of these families.

While the atmosphere of peace and security is gaining ground gradually and the state government has implemented half of the employment package for Kashmiri Pandits, the situation is becoming more and more palatable for their return, he added.

The Chief Minister said the state government is taking up the issue of enhancing financial support to Kashmiri Pandits to enable them construct their residential houses in the Valley.

He said the remarkable increase registered in the number of Kashmiri Pandits visiting Kheer Bhawani during last few years is an encouraging phenomenon.

“Government would continue to work to improve the facilities for the large number of devotees visiting Kheer Bhawani,” he added.

The Chief Minister said Kashmiri Pandits are integral part of the culture and ethos of Kashmir and Kashmiriyat.

He said that their return to the Valley is the cherished goal and desire of the government and the civil society.

Mr. Omar said the gradual improvement in the security situation and generation of economic avenues for this community would give required boost to the endeavours of the government to achieve this goal.