The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said on Wednesday that around 18,000 Kashmiri Pandits and other devotees visited the Kheer Bhavani temple in Kashmir Valley’s Ganderbal district on Jyeshtha Ashtami.
The statement comes in the wake of a string of targeted attacks against Kashmiri Pandits and members of the Hindu community in the Valley since October 2021. Many Pandits have left the Valley in the past few days citing threat to life. The festival couldn’t be held in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19.
The MHA said that over the years, the Kheer Bhavani congregation has become a symbol of communal harmony and brotherhood in Kashmir.
“Elaborate security arrangements were made and the event was monitored by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha,” the statement said.
Around 2,500 Kashmiri Pandit devotees participated in the evening aarti, the Ministry said. The religious sanctity of the Mata Kheer Bhavani temple, built atop a holy spring, has a special spiritual significance among Kashmir Pandit devotees across the world.
The MHA said that a free bus service was run from Srinagar Airport, Tourist Reception Centre, Dal Lake Side Nehru Park, Shankaracharya Temple, Shivpora, Bibi Cantt, Indira Nagar, etc., in areas where Hindu communities live in large numbers.
“Full attention was given to ensure that devotees do not face any kind of problem. Parking facility was provided for vehicles near the temple premises. Mobile urinals have also been made available at all suitable places,” the MHA said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet, “Happy Jyestha Ashtami to all, especially Kashmiri Pandit sisters and brothers. We pray to Mata Kheer Bhavani for everyone’s well-being and prosperity.”
Mr. Shah tweeted too: “On this holy festival, I extend warm greetings to all Kashmiri Pandit brothers and sisters and pray for the progress and prosperity of the country by bowing at the feet of Maa Kheer Bhavani.”
But the recent killings of members of the minority community in Kashmir appear to have had their impact. Anita, a Kashmiri Pandit who has been visiting the Kheer Bhawani temple since 1994, said the rush of devotees had “significantly come down” this year.
“I have been paying obeisance at the temple since 1994, when I was in Class 4. This year is marked by the difference in the presence of devotees at the temple premises. We would not get space to walk [before] but one could roam freely this year,” Ms. Anita, who was accompanied by two other Pandit families, said.
Ms. Anita said she prayed for the return of communal harmony between all communities. “The wall of communalism is getting bigger with each passing day. I prayed for its end as soon as possible. Otherwise, the coming generations will have to pay a cost for it,” she said.
Raj Kumar, a Kashmiri Pandit who travelled from Amritsar for the festival, said he was surprised to see the fewer number of Pandits this year. “Not many had turned up this year. I could not resist as Mata wished for my presence here,” he said.
Nine persons were killed in targeted killings in the past two months in Kashmir, including four members of the minority community.
The killings result in a grim situation for the Pandits, many of whom have already migrated outside the Valley. However, devotees said they were hopeful the situation would improve. “The colour of the water of the holy spring within the temple premises is white. It’s a good omen,” Rajni Dhar, another devotee said.
In the 1990s, Pandits said the water in the pond had turned black and the community witnessed a mass migration in the face of raging militancy.
Besides Kashmir Pandits, scores of tourists also visited the temple during the festival.
R.R Bhatnagar, Advisor to the J&K Lieutenant-Governor, and Chief Secretary Arun Kumar Mehta, also attended the annual Kheer Bhawani mela.
Scores of Muslims had set up stalls to sell puja paraphernalia, including incense sticks, diyas and flowers.
In 2015, the highest number of 40,000 Kashmiri Pandits had converged on the temple from different parts of the country to attend the annual festival.